Books & arts
Capturing poverty and exploitation: Niger Delta’s oil
Review of ‘Curse of the Black Gold’
2010-09-29, Issue 498
It seems appropriate to be writing this review on the eve of Nigeria’s 50th anniversary of independence. The country is on the verge of its fourth post-military election and has just survived, if we are to believe the rumours, at least one attempted military coup in the past six months. There have been 50 years of oil rents, but the oil-producing region has very little to show for it. The ‘brand Nigeria’ movement led by the government is heralding the 50 years as a ‘golden jubilee’ with estimates of N10 billion to be spent on celebrations.
This bears little relationship to reality of the Niger Delta. Oil has left a huge ugly stain on Nigeria’s social, political, economic and environmental landscape and as with most stains, it is not that easy to remove or in this case hide under the extravaganza of ‘independence celebrations’. Oil in Nigeria has stained the land, the rivers, wildlife, politicians, businessmen, militants and the people. For example, there have been 7,000 recorded oil spills between 1970 and 2000 and the latest figures from NOSDRA (National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency) estimate 3,203 spills in the past four years alone. In other words, oil spills are actually on the increase.
‘Curse of the Black Gold’ by photo journalist Ed Kashi brings to life the complexities of oil production where oil invades every aspect of people’s lives in the Niger Delta. In the introduction, Kasha describes the region aptly as:
‘[T]he pivotal point where all of Nigeria’s plagues of political gangsterism, corruption, and poverty seem to converge.’
This is a region where oil production is so ubiquitous that trekking through oil-soaked farms, fishing in oil-filled waters and drying cassava by the flames of gas flares have become the norm. In showing us everyday life in the region – farming, fishing, local festivals, oil workers, children playing, women dancing, chiefs holding court, and balaclava-clad, gun-waving militants – Kashi is able to capture both the ugliness of oil – the filth and destruction – as well as the beauty it hides, the people, their traditions and their struggles.
We also witness the harshness and chaos of a land which has seen minimal development over the past 50 years. There is no electricity, no water supplies and, in a rainforest region, no proper roads; with constant flooding, these all add to the challenges people face on a daily basis. Everyday becomes a struggle to live and a struggle against the physical challenges of literally drowning in oil.
But apart from the sight of militants waving their guns, the pictures seem to create a kind of passiveness, a despair and inevitability about the situation. The photographs leave you with no sense of resistance. For this you will need to read the supporting text, stories and short essays by women, environmentalists, youth workers and writers who provide historical and contemporary context and depth to the documentary which was produced at the height of the militant movement in 2008. The early days of oil exploration by Shell in Oloibiri in 1956 and Boma in 1958 were a time of rapid expansion, and one gets the feeling of a bulldozer at full speed ripping across the land and rivers with abandon.
‘Ten years of feverish activity saw the opening of the Bonny tanker terminal in April 1961, the extension of the pipeline system including the completion of the Trans-Niger Pipeline in 1965 connecting the oilfields in the western Delta near Ughelli to the Bonny export terminal, and the coming-on-stream of twelve giant oil fields, including the first offshore discovery at Okan near Escravos in 1964. Oil tankers lined the Cawthorne Channel like participants in a local regatta, plying the same waterways that, in the distant past, housed slave ships and palm oil hulks. By 1967, 300 miles of pipelines had been constructed, and one and half a million feet of wells sunk; output had ballooned to 275,000 barrels per day (b/d).’
Now all that is left in Oloibiri – the town where oil was first discovered – is a rusted sign marking the now capped ‘Well No 1’ with the words ‘Drilled June 1956. Depth: 12,000 feet (3,700 meters).’ There is nothing to show for the wealth Oloibiri gave to Nigeria. There is no electricity, no development, nothing.
One aspect that Kashi has not dealt with sufficiently is the huge presence of Nigerian security forces in the region, which can only be described as an ‘occupying force’. This pre-dates the militancy and goes as far back as the beginning of the 1990s. I understand this omission, as taking photographs of the military in action would have put his life in danger and most definitely it would have reduced his chances of returning to the country to continue his work. However, at least some narrative on militarisation could have been included to provide a more holistic account of what is taking place.
Although I know the region well, I never cease to be outraged by the violence unleashed upon our communities by oil companies and the Nigerian military forces. I last visited Port Harcourt and other villages in Rivers State in November last year. The most shocking thing for me is that year after year, nothing changes for the better. Despite the promises made by successive presidents and governors to invest in development, the various gangoes set up to distribute allocated oil monies and promises by oil companies to clean up the mess they have created – despite all of these – the towns and villages appear to be in an even worse state than in previous years. The explanation for this catastrophic failure can be found in the following paragraph:
‘From the vantage point of the Niger Delta—but no less in the barracks of the vast slum worlds of Kano, Port Harcourt, or Lagos—oil development is a pathetic and cruel joke. It is not simply that Nigeria is a sort of Potemkin economy—it is, of course—but the cruel fact that the country has become a perfect storm of waste, corruption, venality, and missed opportunity. To say that Nigeria suffers from corruption—‘organized brigandage’ is how Ken Saro-Wiwa once put it—does not really capture the nature of the beast. Money laundering and fraud on gargantuan scales, missing billions and inflated contracts in virtually every aspect of public life, area boys, touts, mobile police all taking their cuts and commissions on the most basic of everyday operations. Perhaps there is no better metaphor for this oil-fuelled venality than the stunning fact that huge quantities of oil are simply stolen every day. Over the last five years between 100,000 and 300,000 barrels of oil have been stolen daily (perhaps 10-15 percent of national output), organized by a syndicate of ‘bunkerers’ linking low-level youth operatives and thugs in the creeks to the highest levels of the Nigerian military and political classes and to the oil companies themselves.’
As vivid as the photographs and as explicit as the narratives are, the reality is far worse, far more devastating, far more unbelievable that such wealth can create such poverty.
BROUGHT TO YOU BY PAMBAZUKA NEWS
* Ed Kashi’s ‘Curse of the Black Gold’ (2008) is published by Power House Books.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.
 Nigeria’s 50th Birthday - Suspicious Budget Increase - http://bit.ly/crXFTm
 Oil Spills in Nigeria Common http://bit.ly/cUPe9x
The Nation's 3,203 Oil Spills in Four Years - http://bit.ly/9I9Top
Let your voice be heard. Comment on this article.