Saturday, April 27, 2013

Letters from the Exploited World: Death and the Niger Delta


Introduction
The dynamics of the 54 year-old tragedy in the Niger Delta are remarkably complex, but that should not confuse the bottom line:  bad business and worse government steal enormous profits from the region’s resources while laying waste to that region in the process. The Niger Delta, one of the most biologically and ethnically diverse regions in the world, has generated $600 billion in oil revenue as of 2008. In 2006, a team of experts estimated “as many as 546 million gallons of oil spilled into the Niger Delta” in 50 years, "or nearly 11 million gallons a year (Adam Nossiter, “Far From Gulf, a Spill Scourge 5 Decades Old”).” The oil industry’s rapacious tactics, with the government’s complicity, threaten the Delta’s natural and cultural wealth.
In this essay, I explore the human toll of tragedy in the Niger Delta. Helon Habila’s novel, Oil on Water, is the fount of my exploration. Habila’s work of fiction closely reflects the true story, which I support with non-fiction reports from film documentaries, newspapers and Human Rights organizations. Two key theories inform my literary analysis. Dr. George B.N. Ayittey develops these theories in his 1998 volume, Africa in Chaos. The first is the source of problems in Africa, which Ayittey categorizes as internal and external. The second is Africa’s ongoing identity crisis between its modern and traditional sectors.
According to Ayittey, “external factors” at the source of problems in Africa are most often but not limited to “Western colonialism and imperialism…exploitation by avaricious multinational corporations, an unjust international economic system…and deteriorating terms of trade (37-38).” Ayittey believes these factors have been overemphasized for too long. He does not, nor could anyone, claim external factors do not exist. Instead Ayittey stresses “Africa’s condition has been made immeasurably worse by internal factors: misguided leadership, systemic corruption, capital flight, economic mismanagement, senseless civil wars, political tyranny, flagrant violations of human rights, and military vandalism (44).”
The Niger Delta has endured the worst of internal and external factors for more than 5 decades. “Western colonialism and imperialism” began the search for oil and “exploitation by avaricious multinational corporations” is the vehicle of that imperialism (37-38). Internal factors make the situation “immeasurably worse.” The Nigerian government imposes “misguided leadership, systemic corruption, capital flight [and] economic mismanagement.” Cooperation by Western banks makes “capital flight” possible and the government suppresses civil resistance with “political tyranny, flagrant violations of human rights, and military vandalism.”
The experience in the Delta reflects the story in much of independent Africa. Ayittey summarizes:
There are two Africas that are constantly clashing. The first is traditional or indigenous Africa that historically has been castigated as backward and primitive. Yet it works—albeit at a low level of efficiency. Otherwise, it would not have been able to sustain its people throughout the centuries. Today it is struggling to survive. The second Africa is the modern one, which is lost. Most of Africa’s problems emanate from its modern sector. They spill over onto the traditional, causing disruptions and dislocations and claiming innocent victims. (14)
Ayittey’s general commentary on the continent’s experience outlines the story of oil in Nigeria. The world’s modern sector threatens the existence of the Niger Delta’s traditional sector. The oil industry’s ruthless tactics spill over onto traditional life, “causing disruptions and dislocations and claiming innocent victims.” The industry’s encroachment into the Delta disrupts traditional life by dislocating villagers from their homes - when companies discover oil deposits, they collaborate with the government to expropriate landowners by any means possible. Delta communities then become victims of the violence and pollution the oil economy causes. The Delta’s traditional sector is struggling to survive today. Unfortunately, many Delta citizens only worsen the violence and pollution with their attempts to adapt.
Section 1 of this essay looks at Habila’s portrayal of traditional life before oil’s influence. Habila then introduces to the two major threats to that life – oil-related violence and oil pollution. Literary analysis of Habila’s novel transitions to non-fiction reports of the Delta’s real life experience. Section 2 covers everyday Nigerians coping with the miseries of violence, pollution and extreme poverty. Some people in the Niger Delta adopt survival tactics like bunkering and militancy, which make the violence and pollution worse. Section 3[1] examines positive adaptations through the cases of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) and the Pan-Niger Delta Resistance (Chikoko) Movement. These two movements, more than many movements like them, pressured the government and companies to change their policies through well-organized protests, well-circulated publications and clear objectives.
Section 4 proposes initiatives for progress in the Delta led by Delta citizens. This is a big challenge for an area blighted by pollution, violence and neglect for decades, but Delta solutions must start in the Delta. Some of the best ideas have already come out of resistance movements like MOSOP and the Chikoko Movement; I base my proposals on their precedents and my professional experience in education and social projects. I propose forming legal associations based in education, which serve as platforms for social projects and initiatives. My idea is to form schools as community institutions, from which “home-grown solutions can be [adapted from] Africa’s own indigenous systems (Ayittey, 80).”

1. “They Came with a Whole Army”
Before we examine the world’s modern sector spilling over onto traditional life in the Niger Delta, we first need a look at traditional life in the Delta. In his incisive third novel, Oil on Water, Helon Habila depicts the Delta ecosystem free of oil pollution before he shows the disaster of oil pollution. He shows traditional Delta life free from outside interference before he shows the fallout of interference. After portraying Delta life before the modern sector invaded its traditional sector, and after delineating the threats the modern sector poses, Habila shows the impact of those threats when the crew visits two abandoned villages. The villages suggest the utter destruction of traditional life, but amid that destruction Rufus notices evidence the struggle is not over.
Habila chooses Rufus, a young journalist, to narrate his tale. Rufus sees his work as simple: "My job [is] to observe, and to write about it later. To be a witness for posterity (60).” Based on his job description, Rufus is the perfect person to lead us through the complex threats facing the Niger Delta. Rufus’s experiences in the Delta make his role of “witness for posterity” extremely challenging. The violence and desperation he encounters make it a task to get out alive, never mind keeping the focus to write a clear account later. Rufus does excellent work, however, and Habila gives a comprehensive look at a complex issue while incorporating his “witness” into a compelling plot.     
The first image Habila gives of the Delta is its abundant ecosystem. This is the Delta as it was before intervention, and this is how a large part of it remains. Habila sets the structure for outrage when readers see the unspoiled ecosystem before they see the modern sector destroying it. On assignment in search of a "kidnapped British woman,” Rufus ventures into the Delta with his idol and fellow journalist, Zaq (5). Rufus and Zaq contract a local man and his son, Tamuno and Michael, as guides. The crew does not get far before Rufus is disoriented, and through his confusion readers see a lush Delta free of oil pollution: 
After a while the sky and the water and the dense foliage on the riverbanks all looked the same: blue and green and blue-green misty.  The whole landscape was now a mere trick of light, vaporous and shape-shifting, appearing and disappearing behind the fog. (4)
Rufus shows a gift for poetry in this passage. He imbues “the sky and the water and the dense foliage” into a dreamlike image that is “blue and green and blue-green misty.” Habila conveys something more than beauty here. At the same time Rufus is admiring one of the world’s most vital ecosystems, Habila is characterizing its fragility. Readers can marvel at the Delta’s beauty, and they can marvel at the written word as it carries that beauty, but Habila will not let readers forget the peril it faces. The “vaporous and shape-shifting” Delta feels eternal yet fleeting, which illustrates its condition. When Rufus describes the dense foliage “appearing and disappearing behind the fog,” readers get a sense of how easily it can vanish.
Habila then shows traditional life before intervention from the oil industry. When Rufus talks to a village chief, the chief portrays his community living on the traditional economy that supported them for centuries. Rufus paraphrases Chief Ibiram’s nostalgia:  “Once upon a time they lived in paradise. It was a small village close to Yellow Island. They lacked for nothing, fishing and hunting and farming and watching their children growing up before them, happy (42).” The key word Rufus uses is happy. This was a happy society enjoying the bounty of its habitat. Habila again sets the structure for outrage when he juxtaposes this idyllic portrait with the oil industry’s thuggish takeover. He introduces the threat of violence through Chief Ibiram’s story, in which oil companies take over the village by force. Habila shows the threat of oil pollution when Rufus and Zaq come face to face with its destructive consequences.
In Chief Ibiram’s account, companies[2] arrive uninvited taking soil samples in search of oil. When they suspect oil deposits, the companies make a generous offer to buy the village but Chief Malabo, the village chief at the time, refuses to sell. He refuses because “the land had been good to them, they never lacked for anything. What kind of custodians of the land would they be if they sold it off? (43).” The companies respond to Chief Malabo by taking the village by force. Chief Ibiram describes how “the oil companies and the politicians who worked for them” arrest Chief Malabo, who eventually dies in prison (44). Rufus retells how “the following week, even before Chief Malabo had been buried, the oil companies moved in:”
They came with a whole army, waving guns and looking like they meant business. They had a contract, they said, Chief Malabo had signed it in prison before he died, selling them all of his family land, and that was where they’d start drilling, and whoever wanted to join him and sell his land would be paid handsomely, but the longer the people held out, the more the value of their land would fall. (44-45)
This passage shows the world’s modern sector more than spilling over onto Africa’s traditional sector. The world’s modern sector is destroying the traditional sector in the Niger Delta. Patterson Ogon of the Niger Delta Development Commission[3] diagnoses the situation:  “The oil economy is killing almost every other sector that you find in the Niger Delta (Curse of the Black Gold Movie).”
If we compare Habila’s depictions with reality, the companies are being generous by offering to buy the village for “a lot of money (43).” Nigeria’s federal legislation claims the right to expropriate any landowner for the “overriding public interest (The Price of Oil).” Bronwen Manby of Human Rights Watch details how the current constitution claims all land for mining purposes through a succession of complex land acts[4]. While the government provides “’fair and adequate compensation for the disturbance of surface or other rights’…nothing is due for expropriation of the land itself (ibid.).” Companies owe no royalties to the land’s former owner and corrupt federal courts deem what compensation is “fair and adequate.” Taking villages by force is the opening act in the drama of violence in the Niger Delta - the government-corporate partnership disrupts and dislocates Delta communities, claiming innocent victims in the villagers who must flee. I will discuss the developments that follow in Section 3.
The second major threat to traditional life in the Niger Delta is oil pollution. A 2008 video estimates “5,000 major oil spills” have ravaged the Delta since 1958 (Dir. Lars Johansson, Poison Fire). Oil spills are destructive byproducts of oil extraction; the massive quantity of spills in the Niger Delta is the byproduct of pure negligence. Amnesty International illustrates this negligence in a report on the catastrophic 2008 Bodo spill[5]. The spill came from a Shell pipeline and the company admits responsibility.
Amnesty stresses Shell’s misconduct by highlighting how preventable the spill was. The Environmental Guidelines and Standards for the Petroleum Industry in Nigeria (EGASPIN) are “very specific about oil companies’ obligations. It requires them to inspect pipelines monthly to prevent equipment failure (33).” As in many areas of the Exploited World, oil companies in Nigeria show no intention of complying with their legal obligations. Ernest Azudialu, a pipeline sub-contractor, assessed the condition of pipelines in 2008. Azudialu commented on the condition of Delta pipelines when he told the US embassy “73 per cent of all pipelines there are more than a decade overdue for replacement. In many cases, pipelines with a technical life of 15 years are still in use thirty years after installation (Lagos cable, wikilieaks).” Azudialu comments reflect the state of pipelines regardless of the company owning them. This indicates the problem is industry-wide and not just one careless company. Under a functioning government, sanctions exist to prevent companies from acting unconscionably. This is the case in Nigeria, except EGASPIN fines are too small to influence company behavior. Even multimillion-dollar lawsuits are no deterrent in the context of hundreds of billions in profit.
Catastrophic pollution from the world’s modern sector completely destroys the “fishing and hunting and farming” economy that sustains the Delta’s traditional sector. Oil pollution kills diverse flora and fauna, making fishing and hunting impossible. Farming yields meager harvests on contaminated soil and clean drinking water is scarce or non-existent. If companies maintained their facilities as required by law, the damage would be exponentially less.
This very deadly, largely preventable contaminant threatens all life in the Niger Delta. Habila illustrates the threat of oil pollution when the crew comes face to face with a disastrous spill. As Rufus, Zaq, Tamuno and Michael venture through complex waterways, they encounter the pollution killing those waterways. The boat motors through “a dense mangrove swamp” when the waters turn “foul and sulfurous (9).” Suddenly the crew passes "dead birds draped over branches, their outstretched wings black and slick with oil; dead fish bobbed white-bellied between trees roots (10).” Oil spills of the proportion experienced in the Delta are harbingers of extinction. They first affect the water and plant life:  “dense mangrove[s]” clot with oil and die, fish and wildlife must flee or they too will die. Abandoned villages like those the crew visits demonstrate how humans must also flee.
Rufus, Zaq, Tamuno and Michael visit villages from which the villagers fled because violence and pollution threatened their lives. The villages tell the tale of two Africas clashing - problems emanate from the modern sector (Nigeria’s oil economy) and spill over onto the traditional sector (Delta communities). On the islands, the threats of oil-related violence and oil pollution represent the modern sector while the remains of village life represent the traditional sector. The first abandoned village portrays the threat of violence while its decaying remains represent threatened traditional life. The second village presents the threat of oil pollution while the “community of ghosts” Rufus perceives shows Delta life at risk.
As the crew sets foot on the first island, Tamuno tells how the villagers fled “because of too much fighting (8).” As a good journalist, Rufus digs up the apparent cause of fighting:  “OIL WELL NO. 2. 1999. 15,000 METERS (9).” Rufus then walks through the settlement, recording sad remnants of a healthy village. Evidence of domestic animals and communal living suggests the traditional lifestyle Chief Ibiram depicts. Sadly the abandoned village can only suggest healthy traditional life. Everything left of that life is long dead. Within the "chicken pen” Rufus notices are “ten chickens inside, all dead and decomposing, the maggots trafficking beneath the feathers (9)." The remains of this once healthy village come to convey just the opposite. The decaying village illustrates how traditional life cannot survive where it once did. That the villagers left the chickens to die in their cages indicates how hurriedly they must have fled. This hurried escape shows the urgent threat violence poses.
Habila places two poignant symbols among these remains. The symbols depict the ongoing threat the modern sector poses to the Delta’s traditional sector. The first is in the chicken pen, where there are “maggots trafficking beneath the feathers” of a once healthy chicken. If we consider the scene as metaphor, the dead chicken represent traditional life while the maggots represent the oil industry threatening that life. The chicken thrived while the traditional economy thrived; when villagers abandoned their community and the economy that supported them, the chicken perished with it. “The maggots trafficking beneath the feathers” signify a subversive and sinister presence. That presence draws close parallel to the oil industry destroying every aspect of traditional life in the Delta.
Habila employs another metaphor when Rufus notices how “cooking pots stood open and empty on cold hearths; next to them stood water pots filled with water on whose surface mosquito larvae thickly flourished (9).” As Rufus dutifully catalogues evidence of abandoned traditional structures, the “cold hearths” symbolize those abandoned structures. The hearth is the center of domestic life in traditional civilization. The hearth cooks the food that nourishes the family; the hearth is the source of warmth through the night. That these hearths are cold is a troubling sign of the times.
On the second deserted island, contamination is everywhere. Rufus notes “the same ripe and flagrant stench, the barrenness” of the first island (10). He goes for a drink at the “the communal well” but realizes that too is contaminated:  “I bent under the wet, mossy pivotal beam and peered in the well’s blackness, but a rank smell wafted from its hot depths and slapped my face (10).” This communal well strikes a contrast with the oil well on the first island. These two wells signify the traditional sector and the modern sector, respectively. The existence of the oil well threatens the existence of the communal well just as the modern sector threatens the traditional sector. The communal well is a place where villagers congregate to retrieve drinking water, but also a place where they share village gossip and news of loved ones. A well-functioning communal well is an indicator of healthy village. Similar to the cold hearths, the contamination of the communal well warns of the extermination of traditional life.
Among these remains, though, Rufus perceives traditional life still “struggling to survive (Ayittey, 14).” He senses an “indefinable sadness in the air, as if a community of ghosts were suspended above the punctured zinc roofs, unwilling to depart, yet powerless to return (Habila, 10).” This community of ghosts evokes the struggle of traditional Delta communities, in which they fight to protect the way of life that sustained them for centuries. Unlike the ghosts, Niger Deltans cannot stick around their old villages. Struggling to survive often means fleeing the deadly threats the modern sector poses. As Chief Ibiram points out, the oil economy makes traditional Niger Deltans “mere wanderers” on their own ancestral lands (42).
Despite the horrid conditions the oil economy causes for Delta communities, Rufus picks up on a sign traditional life is still struggling. In the boat ride between the two islands, Rufus is unnerved by “the stench of dead matter” in the oil pollution (9). He writes about the “dead birds draped over tree branches” but he also notices “hanging roots that grew out of the water like proboscises gasping for air (10, 9).” These “proboscises gasping for air” characterize the Delta’s traditional sector fighting for its life. The fact that all is not “dead matter” shows the fight is not over.

3. It Explodes
The situation in the Delta is graver than the traditional sector struggling to survive. Every day is a literal fight for survival for many Delta citizens. Delta communities have suffered the bane of extreme exploitation for decades; many people go hungry and lack basic necessities. Years of peaceful protest brought no economic improvements or changes in living standards for most of the Delta. The case of the Niger Delta proves people can struggle only so long before they adopt desperate measures to survive. And the longer they struggle, the more volatile those measures become.
Armed militancy and a black market scheme called bunkering are two such measures. Unfortunately, these measures only worsen the threats of pollution and violence. This section starts with an overview of the economic and social causes behind bunkering and militancy. I then give a brief explanation of bunkering and turn to Oil on Water to reveal its causes and consequences. After reflecting on the motivations behind bunkering, I examine the social and economic factors behind militancy. Analysis of Habila’s novel covers those factors as well as the ideology motivating militants. I intersperse my literary analysis with non-fiction reporting.
Both militancy and bunkering manifest from lack of opportunities in Nigeria’s miserable economy. Underneath the economic causes are deep-rooted tensions and resentments. These hostilities have two principle causes. The first is the oil industry’s exclusion of Delta communities from the oil economy. This exclusion leads many Niger Deltans to illegally integrate themselves into the oil economy through bunkering. The second cause of tension is the consistent dismissal and suppression of peaceful protest. This tactic, which is a government-corporate team effort[6], led many to form militant groups and use violent protest in the 21st century. Whatever the causes, bunkering and militancy worsen the situation. Their negative consequences show there needs to be a better way forward and the traditional sector can lead the way.
Judith Burdin Asuni details the dynamics of oil bunkering in her article “Blood Oil in the Niger Delta.” She explains how bunkering originally described the legal transaction “of filling a tanker with oil,” but the shortage of licenses led to illegal activity (2). There are three types of illegal oil bunkering. The first is filling a tanker with more oil than the licensed amount. The second type is large-scale oil theft, in which groups hack into pipelines and illegally export the stolen oil. The third type is small-scale theft for local sale.
Habila depicts small-scale bunkering through a short anecdote about Rufus’s father. “After moving to a succession of smaller houses,” Rufus’s father fights for the survival of his family by becoming a bunkering middleman (68). He tells Rufus the black market trade “is the only business booming in this town. I buy from little children. I buy cheap and I sell cheap to the cars that come here at night (69).” Rufus’s father demonstrates how bunkering results from lack of opportunities; he also demonstrates the harm bunkering can cause. His business ends in disaster when the drums of petrol he stores in a barn catch fire. Many people die in the fire and Rufus’s father goes to jail. The fire nearly kills Rufus’s sister, Boma, leaving a large scar on one side of her face.
Extreme poverty and lack of opportunities are not the only causes of bunkering. Deep-rooted contempt for the government and the oil companies also motivates illegal traders. In Section 2 I explained how Delta landowners receive no royalties for the oil revenue taken from their land. Apart from initial compensation for land expropriation, Delta communities are completely excluded from huge oil profits. The 1990 Ogoni Bill of Rights lists this exclusion as a principle grievance against Nigeria’s oil industry. Other civil resistance movements cite this same grievance in their respective charters[7]. The government-corporate partnership ignored Delta demand for a fair share in the revenue and/or employment opportunities. The oil comes from the Delta yet Delta communities are completely excluded from the business it generates. Bunkering’s rationale is that Delta citizens are only taking back the oil that is already theirs.
The sad part about bunkering is that it only worsens the violence and pollution threatening life in the Delta. Tampering with pipelines can cause firestorms and more oil spills and large-scale oil theft finances militant conflict. Bunkering is even rooted in the rise of militancy. When the military increased presence in the Delta to limit bunkering, militant groups formed to combat the military’s corrupt and brutal operations. Writing on the military’s 2003 “effort to combat oil bunkering,” Tomas Malina cites “reports of extortion, rape, and the general intimidation of the populace by the security forces[8] (“Militancy in the Niger Delta”).”
These abuses pushed many “alienated youths into the armed groups (ibid.).” Militant groups formed with the idea of fighting for the people, land and traditions of the Niger Delta but often ended up harming those they claimed to defend. A change in government-corporate policy in 2009 might suggest the ultimate success of violent protest but the negative consequences of military-militant conflict are too harsh to consider militancy a positive adaptation to life with oil.
At the height of militancy in 2008, Ed Kashi investigated the militancy movement through a series of interviews he published online as Curse of the Black Gold Movie[9]. Felix James Harry, a Niger Delta fisherman, describes the temptation militancy can be for a hungry, jobless and frustrated population:  “You go out looking for a job. No job. You go out for fishing. You don’t get fish. A Hungry man is an angry man. So any moment from now a dangerous thing can happen.” Oil on Water explores the economic and social circumstances at the root of militancy with the characters Michael, Tamuno’s son, and John, Boma’s husband. Habila examines the ideology driving Delta militants when Rufus talks to militants on two separate occasions.
Habila comments on the economic circumstances behind militancy when Tamuno begs Rufus and Zaq to take Michael with them to Port Harcourt. Tamuno can see nothing positive for Michael’s future in the Delta:
But see, wetin he go do here? Nothing. No fish for river, nothing. I fear say soon him go join the militants, and I no wan that. Na good boy. I swear, you go like am. Intelligent. Im fit learn trade, or driver. Anything. Na intelligent boy, im fit read and write already even though him school don close down. (40)
It is clear from his words Tamuno loves Michael very much, yet the desperate situation they face prompts Tamuno to beg people he just met to take his young son away with them. Habila evokes deep pathos for all Delta families in Tamuno’s situation. Tamuno’s fears for his son’s future emphasize the lack of opportunities there are for Delta youths and the dangerous alternative militancy can be.
Militancy is much more than a substitute for employment, though. Militancy is in many ways a last ditch effort to make Nigeria’s modern sector heed the voice of the people. The Ijaw Youth Council (IYC) is a perfect example how dismissal of peaceful protest led to militancy’s violent protest. The IYC is a non-violent resistance movement defending the rights of the Niger Delta’s Ijaw ethnic group. Frustrated their struggle yielded no change in policy, the militant group Niger Delta Peoples Volunteer Force (NDPVF) broke away from the peaceful IYC. The companies and the government, after ignoring Nigeria’s people for years, had no choice but to listen when the people adopted militancy. Elias Courson of Our Niger Delta describes the government response:  “Niger Deltans have been talking for years, but when MEND carried its own weapons, the government is checking everywhere. So that means the government respects violence, not dialogue (Curse of the Black Gold Movie).” The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) is the largest and most active militant group in Nigeria; MEND itself is an umbrella group under which many autonomous affiliates operate.
In his essay, “MEND: Anatomy of a Peoples’ Militia,” Dr. Ike Okonta assesses the extent to which Delta communities shared the vision of Delta militants. Dr. Okonta describes MEND not as a formal organization, but “an idea, a general principle underlying the slew of communal, civic and youth movements that began to proliferate in the Niger Delta.” After speaking with militants and Delta civilians, Dr. Okonta concluded “there is no village in the Niger Delta where MEND sympathisers do not exist.” Ideologically, then, MEND is a popular peoples’ movement.
Habila explores the social circumstances pushing youths toward militancy with John, Boma’s husband who recently left her. After losing his job “as a mail sorter,” John becomes “very political, hanging out in backstreet barrooms with other unemployed youths to play cards and drink all day, always complaining about the government (95).” These are the kind of “unemployed youths” taking up arms in the 21st century. John’s unemployment leads him to search for community among other unemployed, discontented young people. Rufus describes the conversion to militancy and the kind of life that waits:
He had been full of anger before he left, the kind of anger that often pushed one to blaspheme, or to rob a bank, or to join the militants. I had seen that kind of anger before in many of my friends, people I went to school with; some of them were now in the forests with the fighters, some of them had made millions from ransom money, but a lot of them were dead. (95-96)
John does not convert to militancy, but his situation demonstrates the social realities behind militancy.
Habila examines the ideology motivating Delta militants on Rufus's second trip to the Delta. Rufus talks to Henshaw when they are both prisoners of a deranged military major; a militant leader known as “the Professor” later takes Rufus prisoner and grants him a special interview before letting him go. Henshaw fashions himself as part of a people’s movement fighting against the horrid conditions caused by Nigeria’s government-corporate partnership. He acts with the idea he is reclaiming the Niger Delta for the people, just as Dr. Okonta describes in his essay on MEND. Henshaw declares proudly, “We are the people, we are the Delta, we represent the very earth on which we stand (163).” People’s movements can be tricky, though. History is spotted with “people’s movements” turning to criminal activity or terrorism in the absence of clear ideology. Rufus’s conversation with Henshaw is short, so his brand of militancy remains vague.
Rufus gets more insight from the Professor. The Professor expresses the same desperate sentiments Chief Ibiram did when referring to his community as “mere wanderers (42).” The Professor claims to fight against this forced vagrancy, adding resistance mentality to Chief Ibiriam’s thought:  “We are hounded daily on our own land. Where do they want us to go, tell me, where? Tell them we are going nowhere. This land belongs to us (232).” The Professor styles himself as a righteous warrior fighting against “the flares you see at night, and the oil on the water,” yet the Professor refuses to acknowledge his contribution to the oil on that water (232). The Professor claims “this land belongs to us” and in the same breath speaks of a planned attack that will ruin that land. He boasts, “By this time tomorrow, one of the major oil depots will be burning (231).” The Professor’s ideology is twisted. He claims he is fighting for the people but his actions make life worse for those people.
These are the developments that follow the opening act of violence described in Section 2. The government violently suppresses peaceful protest and the brutal police militarize the region. When militant groups adopt reactionary violence, the government counter-attacks the militants. The result is all-out war. Company security dress and act like the Nigerian military, military units hunt down militants and militants attack oil riggings like the plan the Professor brags about. Amid all the chaos, the Professor is happy to escalate the war. He says, “The war is just starting. We will make it so hot for the government and the oil companies that they will be forced to pull out (231).” The only problem with this plan is the suffering it will cause for the people and environment he claims to defend. Before he accomplishes his goal of forcing companies to pull out, how many Nigerians will die, how many acres razed?
Just as sad in the tragedy of oil in Nigeria is the level of incoherence it has meant for the region and the nation. Delta communities fought against the pollution, the exclusion, the abuse and degradation for years. When oil interests ignored and suppressed peaceful protest in the 1980s and 90s, they silenced voices they should not have ignored. Alienated youths took up arms in the 21st century to force those interests to listen. The repression and explosion of the will of the people evokes Langston Hughes’s monumental poem, “Lenox Avenue Mural.” Commenting on the struggle for justice of the disenfranchised (mainly African-Americans) in the United States, Hughes asks:
What happens to a dream deferred?
    Does it dry up
    like a raisin in the sun? 

    Or fester like a sore-

    And then run? 

Does it stink like rotten meat? 

Or crust and sugar over-
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags 
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Militancy in the Niger Delta answers Yes, it definitely explodes. Movements like MEND are simply hostile reincarnations of movements like MOSOP – MEND is MOSOP’s dream deferred[10].   
For more than 3 years, militant groups orchestrated highly calculated attacks that brought the Niger Delta to its knees. Since the 1980s, Chevron, Shell and the NNPC met Delta protest with violence and indifference. It was only after militant operations caused high volatility in the world oil market (stopping 140,000 barrels of daily production at its peak) that companies considered dialogue as the proper way to move forward. The government did a wise thing in 2009 by capitulating to Delta demands and offering amnesty to militants. The deal specified communities would have more representation in Nigerian politics and unemployed youths would have the chance to participate in a more productive economy. Companies pitched in by training Delta youths in vocational trades. At the time of Oil on Water’s publication, the Niger Delta was headed in the right direction. One could argue militancy did accomplish its goal of forcing the world to listen; the only question is what it cost. The 2009 deal shows the best way forward is keeping that nightmare in the past.
When former militants returned to their communities, there was still no work to employ their new skills. The government needed to fully commit to transforming the Niger Delta by investing in Delta infrastructure. Public works like roads, water facilities and electric plants are just some of the projects that should put skilled hands to use. Companies should commit fully by investing in long overdue environmental cleanup, and training Delta citizens to do it. Since these investments did not occur, many former militants are still unemployed. Their disillusionment makes for unsteady ceasefire and some youths have returned to militancy. This turnabout will return the Delta to chaos and the companies, government and Delta communities MUST PREVENT IT. The oil companies and the government missed an opportunity when they failed to invest in the Delta. Now the pardoned militants are failing to live up to their end of the deal.
Large investments in public infrastructure can still prevent a return to chaos. Investments in the Delta need to spark to a healthy, more dynamic economy. For a turn-around to take root these large-scale works must spread to the private sector. I am not an economist and I cannot give a foolproof plan for recovery, but I don’t need to be an expert to see the potential in investing in the Delta and a foolproof plan does not exist. The road to a healthy Delta is one of trial and error driven by the effort and energy of its own people. This is a tall task for communities that have endured more than 50 years of horrid pollution, corporate gangsterism, political suppression and widespread violence. Community infrastructure like schools, hospitals, electricity and running water do not exist, neither do financial resources. Outside resources are thus necessary. They may come from the Nigerian government, oil companies and/or NGO-funded social projects.
Delta communities must at the same time be very careful when cooperating with outside entities. Ruling classes often embrace social revolutions in order to distort those revolutions to their likings. DELTA COMMUNITIES MUST LEAD THE WAY. As George Ayittey points out, “Home-grown solutions can be found in Africa’s own indigenous systems (80).” Village chiefs, community elders, community youths, local activists or any other aspect of community life should drive the search for and application of these solutions immediately.  


Works Cited
Amnesty International. “The True ‘Tragedy:’ Delays and Failures in Tackling Oil Spills in the Niger Delta.” Amnesty International, 2011. Web. 9 Mar. 2012.
Asuni, Judith Burdin. “Blood Oil in the Niger Delta.” The United States Institute for Peace, August, 2009. Web. 21 June 2012.
Ayittey, George B.N. Africa in Chaos. New York:  St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999. Print.
Azudialu, Ernest. “Nigeria: Pipeline Expert Says 73 Percent Of Niger Delta Pipelines Need Replacement, Cause Spills.” Wikileaks, 25 Aug 2011. Web. 17 Nov. 2012.
Habila, Helon. Oil on Water. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010. Print.
Harry, Felix James. Interview in Curse of the Black Gold Movie. Photography and Audio by Ed Kashi. Talking Eyes Media and MediaStor, 2008. Film.
Hughes, Langston. “Lenox Avenue Mural.” Reprinted in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States: page 443. New York:  HarperCollins Publishers, 2003. Print.
Membere, Livingstone. Interview in Curse of the Black Gold Movie. Photography and Audio by Ed Kashi. Talking Eyes Media and MediaStorm. 2008. Film.
Malina, Thomas. “Militancy in the Niger Delta.” Matthew B.  Ridgway Center for International Security Studies. The University of Pittsburgh. n. pag. Web. 5 May 2012.
Manby, Bronwen. The Price of Oil:  Corporate Responsibility and Human Rights Violations in Nigeria’s Oil Producing Communities. Human Rights Watch, 1999: n. pag. Web. 17 Mar. 2012.  
Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP).  “Ogoni Bill of Rights” (presented August 1990, republished at www.mosop.org in 2009): n. pag. Web. 10 June 2012.
Nossiter, Adam. “Far From Gulf, a Spill Scourge 5 Decades Old.” The New York Times: June 16, 2010. Web. 10 Oct. 2011.
Okonta, Dr. Ike. “MEND: Anatomy of a Peoples’ Militia.” Pambazuka News, 11 Feb. 2006: n.pag. Web. 7 Aug. 2012
Ogon, Patterson. Interview in Curse of the Black Gold Movie. Photography and audio by
     Ed Kashi. Talking Eyes Media and MediaStorm. 2008. Film.
Poison Fire. Dir. Lars Johansson. Maweni Farm



[1] I have omitted sections 3 and 4. I have included my introduction of the omitted parts to give a better idea of the entire essay.
[2] Oil companies working in Nigeria include Shell, Chevron, Texaco, Mobile, Agip, Elf, Phillips and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). As the most active private company in Nigeria, Shell often comes to the forefront of scandal in this essay. They are not the only offenders, however.

When Habila lumps together all “oil companies and the politicians who worked for them,” it is because all of these companies and politicians consistently behave in the same unconscionable manner. I refer to these entities collectively as “the government-corporate partnership,” not to deprive them of nuance but because my primary concern is the human toll of the devastation they cause. There already exist extensive reports on the crimes of companies and politicians. See works cited for a short list.
[3] Ogon also founded the Ijaw Council for Human Rights (ICHR).
[4] These acts date back to the colonial era’s Oil Pipelines Act (1956). Politicians since independence complicate the original legislation with the 1969 Petroleum Act and the 1979 Land Use Act (The Price of Oil). The Land Use Act is the principle law maintaining federal privilege to expropriate landowners in Nigeria.
[5] The spill started on 28 August 2008 near the town of Bodo and leaked until 7 November 2008.  Shell cited a “’weld defect’” as the spill’s cause (“The True ‘Tragedy,’” 5).” The company claimed “1,640 barrels of oil were spilled in total,” but a team of experts “estimated as much as 4,000 barrels of
oil a day were leaking” for roughly 68 days (ibid.) Four years later, Shell has yet to effectively clean up the spill.
[6] The 1990 Umuechem massacre is just one example. A protest at Shell’s Umuechem facility “led to the police killing some eighty unarmed demonstrators and destroying or badly damaging 495 houses (The Price of Oil).” In the lead up to this peaceful protest, Shell solicited “protection” from Nigeria’s infamously brutal Mobile Police.
[7] In October 1992, the Movement for the Survival of the Izon (Ijaw) Ethnic Nationality in the Niger Delta (MOSIEND) borrowed a page from MOSOP when they wrote the “Izon People’s Charter.” In November 1992 the Ogbia, an Ijaw subgroup, formed the Movement for Reparation to Ogbia (Oloibiri) (MORETO), which created the Charter of Demands of the Ogbia People.

Like the Ogoni Bill of Rights, MOSIEND and MORETO’s charters listed exclusion from the oil economy as a grave injustice and source of frustration.

[8] Violent suppression of protests and protest movements dates back to the 1980s and continued through the 21st century. The arrest, kangaroo trial and execution of the Ogoni Nine is just one example. In 1995, nine MOSOP protesters - including influential playwright and leader Ken Saro-Wiwa - were among “hundreds…summarily over a period of several years (The Price of Oil).”
[9] The video is part of the website for the book, Curse of the Black Gold. The book takes a historic look at oil in Nigeria through Kashi’s photography and text by Michael Watts.
[10] MEND demanded the same things MOSOP did 15 years earlier. In 1990, MOSOP demanded “POLITICAL AUTONOMY… Political control of Ogoni affairs…[and] a fair proportion of OGONI economic resources for Ogoni development (Ogoni Bill of Rights).” The group also asserted their right to protest peacefully free from violent persecution. In late 2005, MEND reiterated these demands when they called for “increased political participation, a greater share of the profits derived from local oil and gas, socioeconomic development, and the reduced militarization of the region (Malani).” 

No comments:

Post a Comment