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The International Writers Magazine
Oil in Africa

Where the Well-Oiled Wheel Still Squawked
Michael Bober

Out on a creek in the Niger Delta, Agu sat waiting. Around his little boat he watched the fish circle about, few as they were. His luck had not yet served him that day. The heat swirled around him, but he felt comfortable—snug in the warmth. He was in no hurry, he thought to himself. He leaned back, letting the fish bide their time. He patted the water with his foot, basking in an innocent reverie.

A little while had passed before Agu remembered his mother’s instructions. He paddled a little farther out, pushing into the water. It did him no good; he thought the fish to be very peculiar. He watched them intently. So close he was, he could reach out and scoop up a handful of the flitting silver…. Agu sat up and looked out over the stream. Around him was his land, Nigeria.

The troubles hadn’t meant much to little Agu, but they meant a great deal to his countrymen. It affected him more than he knew, yet one must remember his oblivion was no fault of his own. After all, he had only lived a few short years.

It occurred to Agu to put away his pole and cast a net. He flung it out over the edge of his dugout, and watched it first hover on top of the water, then slowly sink into the depths. Too slow, he told himself. He pulled the net back in, the droplets streaking onto his skin. He sat, perplexed.

Agu would not have known it, but the waters that run into the Niger Delta were once brimming with life, fish aplenty. Before the oil companies had entered the region, the land was pure, untouched. The people had made a living by way of fishing and farming, but the presence of foreign companies would eventually serve to destroy what little there was to subsist on.

The first major discoveries of Nigerian oil in 1958 quickly marked the country as an important source of petroleum; by the time Nigeria gained independence two years later, over 170,000 barrels of oil were being produced and exported daily. In addition to the abundance, the Nigerian variety of oil was a special type, deemed "sweet" due to its low sulphur content—meaning it required little refining. It was no surprise, then, when several international corporations sought licensure to operate in the country. Today, Nigeria exports 2.5 million barrels of oil per day, being the fifth-largest source of US oil and Africa’s overall largest oil producer, ranking sixth in world exports.

By the 1990s, oil exports constituted a full quarter of Nigeria’s GDP; by 2000, this figure was 40%. Despite all of the wealth being pumped through the economy, little of it is ever seen by the inhabitants of the region. There is no question whether or not such measures are in place as to ensure the people benefit from their nation’s natural resources: by law, about 50% of national oil revenues must be distributed to state and local governments, with an additional 13% for the nine states of the Niger Delta. In 2006, approximately $6 billion was designated for those nine states—yet upon arrival at the state offices the money simply vanished. From top to bottom, government corruption has long been a major issue. From 1960 onward, an estimated $300-400 billion of oil revenue has either been stolen or misspent by Nigerian officials.

And so for all of the riches that Nigeria holds, to the people it means little, a sad truth across much of Africa. To little Agu, all this was not to his concern. The present was what he born into, and for him that was all there was. Such is the logic of a boy.

And so in the passing of time Agu had managed to catch himself a few small fish. He collected them into a small pail of water, and sat back in his dugout and watched them scurry back and forth between the walls of the bucket. Their short attention spans were being taxed by the confinement of their new abode. Back and forth, back and forth they paced, ignorant of the larger issue at hand, namely, their fate. Agu was peering with pride when he began to hear the call of his mother. The sun was looming low, she said. He took out his paddle and began rowing towards her.

Ashore, his mother was not well pleased with his catch, but she took it in stride. She felt one of the fish between her fingers, distressed by its greasy skin. She knew of the oily grime that was no doubt coating it, and there was no doubt she was aware of the toxicants coursing through its body. Like the river they drank from, this fish was not safe for consumption, but what other option had they?

Indeed, oil drilling in the area had wreaked havoc on the environment for decades. Between 1986 and 1996, two and a half million barrels of crude oil were spilled into the Niger Delta region. Oil pollution has drastically reduced local fish stock, contaminated water used for drinking purposes, and leached into the very ground used for farming. As Michael Renner points out in his book, The Anatomy of Resource Wars, "Poor industry practices, such as constant flaring of natural gas, along with frequent oil spills from antiquated pipelines and leaks from toxic waste pits, have exacted a heavy toll on soil, vegetation, water, air, and human health."

The shift towards oil exports was characterized by a marked decrease in agriculture. In the 1960s, when oil production was still in its infancy, Nigeria was a leading exporter of cocoa, as well as palm oil, rubber, cotton, and a number of other products. Agriculture was not only a major part of Nigeria’s GDP (60% in 1960), but it was also an important source of employment for many Nigerians. As oil exports slowly displaced agricultural exports, the number of those employed dwindled. Combined with the ever increasing pollution, this only meant widespread poverty for the 30 million people living in the Niger Delta region.

It is not that there are no laws in place to protect the environment from such damage; rather, it is that the government willingly looks in the other direction as oil companies destroy the ecosystem. Michael Renner: "Aided by weak enforcement policies and oppressive government, the oil companies have flaunted Nigeria’s environmental laws and have largely evaded paying compensation for damages to Delta communities."

In short, the very things the residents of the Niger Delta depend on have been snatched away in the interests of oil.

And so it was with Agu and his family. As he and his mother were walking through the forest to their home, Agu heard the chainsaw sound of a speedboat passing. He turned to look, watching militant rebels pass by, masked in black. His father was on that boat, probably. He would be home later, perhaps very late.
Agu had little knowledge of what his father actually did for a living. Like many others in the Delta region, Agu’s father had a degree in petroleum engineering, but it did little to help him find employment with one of the oil companies. Pressed to find a way to support his family, Agu’s father turned to one of the many militias that populated the region.

Beginning in the 1990s, organizations started forming to protest the government and the oil companies. Concerned about the lack of oil revenue ‘trickling down’ to the peoples of the Delta region, groups such as the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPFV), and the Niger Delta Vigilante (NDV) began to move against the oil companies. In addition, there are close to a hundred smaller militias, many of which name themselves after Western cultural symbols, such as "KKK" and "Vultures". These groups are often armed and ethically-based, often resulting in conflict between groups in addition to the violence between the militias and the government.

These groups, such as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, make various demands such as monetary compensation, environmental protection, medical services, and political emancipation. They back it up with kidnappings and attacks against oil installations. "Leave our land while you can or die in it", says a MEND spokesman, warning the foreign workers employed in the region. "Major General Tamuno", the leader of MEND: "We will take lives, we will destroy lives, we will crumble the economy".

And yet there are those who doubt the sincerity of these groups; some locals say that the injustice of the government and the oil companies are a mere pretext for the militants to steal oil.

Indeed, oil stealing, or "bunkering" as it is called, is a huge underground industry in the Niger Delta—up to 10% of all Nigerian exports are bunkered. In Nigeria, there are two ways to steal oil: One can either bribe employees into allowing it or, more commonly, one can tap the oil directly from the pipe. The second option is extremely dangerous and involved, but for the militants the rewards merit the risk. Oil can be pumped through an underwater pipe to fill a thousand-metric-ton barge within a few hours, and by "renting" soldiers from the Nigerian military the oil is moved to a transport ship. These bunkerers usually have advanced degrees in petroleum engineering, and as such, this was the current employment of Agu’s father.

As the evening had passed, Agu was seated in his family’s hut with his family, short of his father. They said a short prayer of thanks to God and ate in relative silence, broken by the intermittent laughter of Agu’s younger sisters and the gurgling of his baby brother, whom his mother was feeding. Agu ate his fish and bread quickly, feeling the food fill his belly. The bread was plain and the fish stringy, but Agu was not one to complain. This he had come to understand; that is, to take what is given.

After Agu had eaten his supper, he went into his corner and lay across his mat on the ground. He looked up at the thatched roof of his hut, thinking of the day’s events, of the fish they eaten, and of his absent father. He would wait for him until his return. Across the room he could hear his two sisters breathing heavily, asleep. He could hear the sickness in their lungs, forcing its way out coarse and rough against their throats. It reminded him of the rashes on his skin, which he scratched. As he lay in wait for his father, he began to drift asleep into the stillness of the night; only the passing of the stream was audible.

Agu’s father arrived home to find his wife and children sleeping in peace. He found himself some bread and a piece of leftover fish, warming it over the coals of the dead fire. He ate his meal, looking upon his family. He thought of the very same things that bothered Agu, but to him these issues were ever the more pressing a matter. His responsibility as a father ached in his heart, because though he tried to do the right thing he knew his work was killing them all.

He knew that bunkering did much to contribute to the pollution in the region. In particular, the operations of his own bunkering cartel were to blame in large part for the damage to their area; in his article, "Blood Oil", Sebastian Junger writes that"…much of the oil pollution in the creeks is from sloppy bunkering operations." Indeed, Agu’s father did his best when at work, but there were always mistakes. Always.

He looked at his two daughter, hearing them struggle to get eke quick, short breaths; he looked at his two sons, malnourished and undersize, their bodies wasting away. He watched them scratch the rashes on their skin, still sleeping. He hurt doubly, once for the pain of a father and twice for the pain of the guilty. The pollution, both by fault of the oil companies and the bunkerers, has had major health repercussions across the Delta. All that had ‘trickled down’ was only illness and disease. As Michael Renner reports, the communities of the nine Delta state were beset by "respiratory problems, skin rashes, tumors, gastrointestinal problems, and cancers," and Agu’s father was afraid his work was helping no one. As he ate the last of his bread, he turned aside in prayer, hoping for some guidance from above.

Agu had been watching his father, pretending to be asleep but watching from thie corner of one eye. He saw his father, head bowed, beginning to fall asleep, head dipping. Agu moved his mat to where his father sat, lying against his leg. This woke his father, who looked into his son’s eyes. They looked at each other. Agu’s father placed his hand on his son’s head, smiling weakly. Go to sleep, son, he said. Agu hugged his father’s leg, and returned to his corner.

Agu’s father went to where his wife lay and stretched beside her. He felt her warm breath against his face. He continued to think of his country’s troubles, and what he had ought to do. He thought of the money being withheld from the people, of the vast unemployment across the region, and of the violence stirred by injustice. The pollution was killing off the people, and the near complete lack of medical services in the region meant death for many. All of this he contemplated. After a while, he turned to an uneasy rest.

The presence of the oil companies has emaciated the natives and fattened the purses of the rich. The foreign entrance has wilted the environment, killing the fish and poisoning the ground from which the people grew their food. The people starve while the abundance of the profiteers was reaped from the people’s land. What should have been the bounty of the Delta residents is horded by the oil barons. As the government and the companies turn a blind eye to the plight of the people, the lack of roads, hospitals, and education mean the people have no future, leading to unrest and violence. The question begs to be asked, whether or not foreign presence in the Niger Delta warrants the poverty and injustice it causes. Is their anguish worth the benefit of the oil consumer? We must weigh these matters in our hearts, lest our consciences wilt as quickly as the people of the Niger Delta.

© Michael Bober - 8 March 2007>

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