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Originally published Wednesday, May 21, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Lynne Varner / Times editorial columnist

Crude times in the Niger Delta

From Iraq to Guantánamo Bay, the United States has squandered its moral authority. If any remains, it ought to be targeted toward the crisis heating up in the oil-rich Niger Delta.

From Iraq to Guantánamo Bay, the United States has squandered its moral authority. If any remains, it ought to be targeted toward the crisis heating up in the oil-rich Niger Delta.

Kidnappings, vandalism of pipelines and heavily armed militant groups threaten the southern coast of Nigeria, the world's eighth-largest producer of crude oil. The region is Nigeria's cash cow, accounting for more than 75 percent of the country's export earnings. Billions in oil profits has gone into the pockets of Nigeria's leaders — indeed, it seems to have gone just about everywhere but back to the poverty-stricken Delta. Justifiable anger has turned into armed rage.

It would be tempting to roll our eyes at yet another conflict in Africa, but indifference has its moral and economical costs. Nigeria is the most-populous country in Africa, and after South Africa, home to sizable Western investments and investors. We owe something to the communities from whom we profit. That's the moral argument.

Now for the economical one. The U.S. is Nigeria's No. 2 oil customer, right behind Britain. For those monitoring the barrel price of oil, much the way mortgage interest rates were once followed, the 2 million barrels of oil pumped out daily from the Delta is a critical part of the equation. Seattle and other parts of the Northwest rely on oil from the Delta, a sweet crude, desirably absent the sulphur that must be extracted in an expensive, time-consuming process.

Pumping $60 worth of gas into my car over the weekend, I had no idea where the flowing gallons came from. It could've been from the Delta or some other top oil producer, such as Mexico, Venezuela or here in the U.S. Likely, it was a combination culled from various global sources.

Where it comes from isn't the point. When the oil market is tighter than Dick's headband — to borrow an idiom from my mother-in-law — every ripple counts. Every time thugs or the desperately poor tap into the Delta's vast network of aboveground pipes and tubes to siphon oil for sale on the black market, it shrinks supply and keeps oil prices in the stratosphere.

Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua wants to handle the crisis in-house, calling it a "Nigerian problem" that shouldn't be internationalized. Blessedly, he's too late.

The Nigerian government's failure to share its oil wealth with its people, and its failure to negotiate cease-fires with militant groups, most notably the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), has pushed the issue onto the world stage.

Third-party talks are the best bet to reach an accord that is fair and just for the people of the Niger Delta, one that holds oil companies, such as Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron, to the standards of corporate accountability. In the world of international diplomacy, the Niger Delta is low-hanging fruit.

Seattle-based filmmaker Sandy Cioffi hopes to tell the story President Yar'Adua wants kept secret. For her trouble, she and her camera crew were arrested and held for seven days. Any journalist will tell you, there is nothing more frightening than being arrested in a country where the rule of law has dissipated.

Cioffi visited The Seattle Times editorial board Monday. Listening to her recount her Kafkaesque experience in a Nigerian prison was hair-raising. I could feel the damp, murky fear Cioffi and her crew must have felt during the eight-and-a-half-hour drive to jail with heavily armed soldiers as their only company. I pondered whether being forced to go 24 hours without food and water, as the film crew was, would be my breaking point, or would it come at some other horror down the road.

Cioffi is a professor in Seattle Central Community College's film and video communications department. Her film, "Sweet Crude," is in postproduction. Cioffi is hobbled by the irreplaceable film confiscated by the Nigerian government, but she is unbowed. Additional footage to complete the film will come; hopefully, the world will see it in any number of film festivals local and abroad.

Until then, Cioffi wants us to know that the Niger Delta is being environmentally devastated by the world's thirst for oil. Cleanup of spilled oil polluting lakes and waterways is slow. Flaring natural gas is a common sight because much of the natural gas extracted from oil wells is immediately burned into the air.

No one is telling the oil companies to go away. They shouldn't, because they'd be immediately replaced by the Chinese investors so plentiful in Africa these days. It's much smarter for us is to help push Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron and the other oil companies into being financially and environmentally accountable to the people in the Delta. They have to cut them in on the profits or face continued unrest.

It sounds like blackmail but it's much simpler. The young boys and girls of the Delta would much rather work for a living than take up arms. It's up to us which choice they make.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is lvarner@seattletimes.com; for a podcast Q&A with the author, go to www.seattletimes.com/edcetera

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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