Energy Justice

Goodnight and Goodluck Jonathan: The Niger Delta Cries Out for EcoJustice

Sven Eberlein
Written by Sven Eberlein

So while last week’s peaceful transfer of power to Goodluck Jonathan to replace ailing President Umaru Yar’Adua (who has been in a hospital in Saudi Arabia since Nov. 23, leaving a huge power vacuum) came as welcome news to a country with a long history of political instability, repression and military coups, it is but a small tile in a fragile mosaic.

One thing, however, is certain: Oil has not been a blessing to the Delta and her people, and nowhere has this been documented more luminously than in photojournalist Ed Kashi’s book, Curse of the Black Gold.

If oil exploration and Nigeria were a relationship status on Facebook, it would have to be “It’s complicated.” Sure, things really “heated up” in the late 1950s when the British discovered oil in the Niger Delta, but that’s like saying your marital problems started when hubby ransacked the house after you filed for divorce. Like so many former arranged colonial marriages the roots of current conflicts run deep and may be impossible to disentangle completely.

So while last week’s peaceful transfer of power to Goodluck Jonathan to replace ailing President Umaru Yar’Adua (who has been in a hospital in Saudi Arabia since Nov. 23, leaving a huge power vacuum) came as welcome news to a country with a long history of political instability, repression and military coups, it is but a small tile in a fragile mosaic.

One thing, however, is certain: Oil has not been a blessing to the Delta and her people, and nowhere has this been documented more luminously than in photojournalist Ed Kashi’s book, Curse of the Black Gold.

Oil creates the illusion of a completely changed life, life without work, life for free…. The concept of oil expresses perfectly the eternal human dream of wealth achieved through lucky accident…. In this sense oil is a fairy tale and, like every fairy tale, a bit of a lie.

– Ryszard Kapuściński, Shah of Shahs

Scenes in Oloibiri Town, Niger Delta

Scenes in Oloibiri Town, Niger Delta

An oil spill from an abandoned Shell Petroleum Development Company well in Oloibiri, Niger Delta. Wellhead 14 was closed in 1977 but has been leaking for years, and in June of 2004 it finally released an oil spill of over 20,000 barrels of crude. Workers subcontracted by Shell Oil Company clean it up.
photo & caption by Ed Kashi

Pictures are worth a thousand words, they say, and it wasn’t until I first saw Ed’s stunning and heartbreaking photos that my ribcage exploded. We’ve all become numb in some ways to the plights of people and cultures around the world, and who could blame us? With tragedies competing daily for space on page 7 of our local newspapers, another attack on a pipeline gets quickly relegated to the “been there, read that” file in our brain.

What makes this different though and why it is so important to see and feel these images is that this is not some isolated quarrel between local tribes half way around the world. Exporting 948 million barrels per day to the United States, Nigeria was the third largest supplier of U.S. crude oil in 2009, right behind Canada and Mexico, and ahead of Saudi Arabia. So every time we get in our cars or look at the plethora of neatly packaged products in the aisles of our supermarkets it’s good to remember this parallel view from Okrika.

Community Life in Okrika

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Okrika is a troubled area near Port Harcourt that has oil, refineries, pipelines and violence. Factional fighting is common here. Fishing is struggling, like in most of the delta, but was once the main source of employment. Scenes of community life around the NNPC (Nigerian National Petroleum) pipelines that run directly through this community.
photo & caption by Ed Kashi

Michael Watts, Director of African Studies at UC Berkeley and editor of Curse of the Black Gold – 50 Years of Oil in the Niger Delta, writes in the introduction: “When the first helicopters landed in Oloibiri in 1956 near St. Michael’s Church to the astonishment of local residents, few could have predicted what was to follow.” By 1967 Shell-BP (now Shell Petroleum, the Nigeria-based subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell) had constructed 300 miles of pipelines and sunk one and a half million feet of wells across the entire Niger Delta, and by 1973 crude oil production had reached its present output of 2.4 million barrels per day. According to Watts, the oil and gas industry now accounts for over 80% of government income and virtually all of Nigeria’s export revenues, and the industry estimates that the Nigerian treasurer takes in over 1.5 billion in oil revenues each and every week.

Scenes of the Oil Rig

The Impact of Oil in the Niger Delta

Scenes of the oil rig “Auntie Julie the Martyr”, run by the Nigerian company Conoil, off the coast of Sanghana town in the Niger Delta.
photo & caption by Ed Kashi

According to a June 30, 2009 report by Amnesty International, “Oil has generated an estimated 600 billion Dollars since the 1960s. Despite this, many people in the oil-producing areas have to drink, cook with and wash in polluted water, and eat fish contaminated with oil and other toxins.” It talks about how the effects of oil spills, waste dumping, and pollution have decimated fish stocks and seriously damaged agricultural land, destroying the natural environment that over 60 percent of people in the region depend on for their livelihood. When I look at photos like these I’m reminded of that old faithful fallback of capitalism, externalities.

Urohobos Bake Tapioca In The Heat Of A Shell Gas Flare Site

Urohobos Bake Tapioca In The Heat Of A Shell Gas Flare Site

In the oil town of Afiesere, in Warri North district of the Niger Delta, local Urohobo people bake “krokpo-garri”, or tapioca in the heat of a gas flare. Since 1961, when Shell Petroleum Development Company first opened this flow station, residents of the local community have worked in this way. Life span is short for these people, as pollutants from the flare cause serious health problems.
photo & caption by Ed Kashi

Sometimes I wonder whether Shell or the various Nigerian governments that over the last 52 years have leased most of the land to Shell ever considered that the Niger Delta is one of the world’s 10 most important wetland and coastal marine ecosystems and home to some 31 million people. I don’t mean this in a touchy feely sort of way — I’m not naive enough to project motives of respect and compassion for one’s fellow man onto corporations and dictatorships — but I just wonder whether it was ever considered in the corporate boardrooms and lavish government palaces that it wouldn’t be a good business strategy to ravage the land with impunity, thus leaving its people with nothing left to lose.

The scale of pollution and environmental damage has never been properly assessed. The figures that do exist vary considerably depending on sources, but hundreds of spills occur each year. According to the UNDP, more than 6,800 spills were recorded between 1976 and 2001. According to the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency some 2,000 sites require treatment because of oil-related pollution. The real total may be higher.

from Oil industry has brought poverty and pollution to Niger Delta, Amnesty International

Subcontractors

The Impact of Oil in the Niger Delta

Workers subcontracted by Shell Oil Company clean up an oil spill from an abandoned Shell Petroleum Development Company well in Oloibiri, Niger Delta. Wellhead 14 was closed in 1977 but has been leaking for years, and in June of 2004 it finally released an oil spill of over 20,000 barrels of crude oil.
photo & caption by Ed Kashi

It’s no wonder the people have fought back and made things “complicated.” From Isaac Adaka Boro‘s battles with Federal forces in the mid-1960s and Ken Saro Wiwa‘s nonviolent Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) against environmental degradation of the land and waters that ended in his 1995 execution, all the way to the current militant Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), when you’re deprived of the land you depend on to survive and you see your natural treasures disappear into corrupt government officials’ and foreign corporate coffers, you’re left with little choice but to push back. As Sasha Chavkin recently reported for The Nation in Shell Games in Nigeria, “Last summer MEND’s attacks on the oil industry crippled production and threatened to bring the Nigerian economy to its knees.”

Like a big dysfunctional family, the relationships are convoluted and clandestine, not only between Shell, the Nigerian government, oil workers and local communities, but between rebels and the outside world. As Ed Kashi, veteran of bloody Kurdish and Iraqi conflicts, writes about his work there:

The Niger Delta is one of the most difficult places I’ve ever worked. The people are hesitant and suspicious of outsiders, the terrain is tricky with remote areas reachable only by small boats and along every road and waterway danger lurks for the intruder.

It’s the curse of the black gold that seems to have sucked the soul out of everyone. Not surprisingly, the person who could make sense of it all and put the heart back into the story is a jester. I have not seen the Nigerian cast of characters better described than in Dan Hoyle’s comic and profound one man act Tings Dey Happen, the story of Nigeria’s oil madness based on his year there as a Fulbright Scholar:

There might yet be reason for hope, and not only because a man named Goodluck Jonathan has taken the reigns (though no surprise, his assembly vote is already being contested). Sasha Chafkin wrote that last August a shaken government launched an amnesty program for rebels and opened negotiations on the militants’ demands, including a greater share of oil proceeds for the Delta. The amnesty led to several breakthroughs: in October the government proposed to grant a 10 percent stake in oil revenues to Delta communities, MEND declared an indefinite cease-fire and Nigerian Defense Minister Godwin Abbe told reporters that more than 15,000 rebels had registered to demobilize and turned in their weapons.

I’ll leave the last word to Ed, who sent me two emails last week:

The main thing that seems to be happening in the Niger Delta these days is the stalling of the amnesty program for militants due to no follow through by government to teach skills and get jobs for the former militants, which means they’ll go right back to what they were doing, which in many cases was no more than criminality… And MEND renounced their ceasefire last week, so those kinds of attacks directed at the oil industry have been stepped up.

15 minutes later:

check out the latest news from Nigeria….Yardua finally transferred power and it’s to his vp, who is a Niger Deltan, Goodluck Jonathan!

The saga continues…

o~O~o~O~o~O~o~O~o~O~o~O~o~O~o~O~o~O~o~O~o~O~o~O~o~O~o~O~o~O

Many thanks to Ed Kashi for letting me use these images and for doing such courageous and important work. Please keep this kind of photojournalism alive by buying the truly stunning Curse of the Black Gold or any other of Ed’s countless masterpieces at edkashi.com.
Resources:
Curse of the Black Gold – 50 Years of Oil in the Niger Delta by Ed Kashi, edited by Michael Watts
Oil industry has brought poverty and pollution to Niger Delta, Amnesty International
Nigeria at a Tipping Point, by Michael Watts
Shell Games in Nigeria, by Sasha Chavkin
crossposted as part of the EcoJustice series on Daily Kos

About the author

Sven Eberlein

Sven Eberlein

7 Comments

  • This brought me to tears. What a piece of writing–all that info shared in a matter-of-fact manner that allows us to draw our own conclusions. But you’re right–the pictures do speak so loudly. I’m in a mood these days that makes me want to scream when I see pictures like these. I can’t fathom how this debasement of fellow humans is even possible. I feel like deleting my blog where I keep writing that God loves all of us. How could these people ever believe there is a God?

  • oh Pam, please don’t despair. As you know, if God only stood for the things that make us humans feel good, things would certainly look a lot differently. But God is in everything and everyone, even the things that hurt and suck. And just because God is in it doesn’t mean that it’s okay or good. In fact, it becomes even more important to try and change things, and a big part of that is to be kind. Not everyone can go to Nigeria and put out the flames, but we can show that even if we can’t directly change the situation, we care. Also, important not to diminish our own problems and struggles, there’s a lot we can do to heal ourselves and those close to us. Remember the enlightened warrior, ready to do as much as possible, but never lose your heart, your spirit, or your faith in humanity. Also, on a sidenote, it seems that Mr. Jonathan truly is a good human being, and so maybe there will after all be some meaningful change to the situation in Nigeria. We’re all in this together….always remember to love!

  • The opponents to US offshore drilling should read this. This is what importing the vast quantities of oil into the US uses means in countries where the regime is corrupt from top to bottom. Care of the precious Delta environment was and will always come last after profit.

    Listen up America. This is but one example of many in the world.

    Drill and produce your own oil, where you can control the risks and ensure that the highest standards apply. Yes there is a small risk of a spill, but that comes with the worlds and especially the US insatiable demand for oil. But look at the excellent record in the UK North Sea, where the high standards imposed by the regulators have reduced these occurrences to a few minor spills and this includs thiose fields in what you would call state waters.

    Remember the Nigerian Delta!

    Robin

    • Robin, this is certainly a valid point, I don’t think it’s fair that our prosperity happens on the backs of people like the ones in the Niger Delta. However, I think an even bigger effort must be put into conservation and alternative resources. One way or another, oil reserves will start to dwindle (some say they already are), so if we’re smart we’ll use the remaining cheap oil to build the kind of infrastructure and energy grids that will enable us to transition into a less fossil-fuel intensive economy and life. I think any offshore drilling should only happen with the clear understanding that it’s part of a transition toward more and better renewable energy. The bigger crisis we are facing we cannot drill ourselves out of, whether it’s in the Niger Delta or off the coast of California.

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