Friday, 13 September 2013

Oil and its derivatives

Early last year, I spent a fortnight in Bodo in Rivers State, an hour’s drive from Port Harcourt. I had no particular reason for being there except to spend some time in the oil-producing Niger delta with a view to writing something. I ruled out nearby Bori, Ken Saro-Wiwa’s birthplace, as too obvious and only lighted on Bodo when the bus stopped outside a pleasant-looking guest house where I ended up staying.

It was on my second day that I noticed a crowd of people at the Catholic secondary school across the road although the students were just then on Easter break. A friend I quickly made explained that some lawyers from the UK were taking submissions from the local farmers and fisher folk in order to assess the damage from two huge offshore oil spills from Royal Dutch Shell pipelines in 2008, itself acknowledged by everybody – Shell included - as one of the worst ever in the country’s history, which is saying a great deal.
Like the good reporter I aspire to be, I ventured into the school compound and sought an audience with one of the lawyers. I was received cordially by a young woman who broke off from attending to the crowd around her in one of the classrooms. I explained who I was and asked if I might interview her at a more convenient time. Before she could respond a tall, muscular man approached us and cautioned her against saying anything. She smiled apologetically and returned to her work, whereupon her minder told me to get lost.
Later that evening, my friend explained that just the previous month a freelance photographer sent by Shell had been unmasked as he prowled around pretending to be who he was not. I gathered he had been lucky to escape a beating. Two or three days later again, he told me that he had received a number of calls from Port Harcourt asking about his white friend who had suddenly turned up claiming to have written about the shenanigans of the oil companies and their ‘native’ collaborators, including the extrajudicial execution of Saro-Wiwa, but it didn’t help my cause with the foreign lawyers. 
According to recent reports, Shell has admitted responsibility, although they could hardly have done otherwise. All that now remains is the amount of compensation the company is prepared to pay, which in turn depends on the numbers involved: ‘London-based law firm Leigh Day…says some 16,000 fisherman and 30,000 inhabitants were affected by the spills that leaked 500,000 barrels of oil. Shell says about 4,000 barrels were spilled and that the affected lagoon area did not sustain 16,000 fishermen.’ It’s difficult to know whose figures to believe. It wasn’t only my new-found friend who confirmed that the local people lied when they didn’t exaggerate but who can blame them? It was a miracle that anyone had come to ask them; as to why it had to be foreigners – and from the former colonial power - is another story but nevertheless part of the same story that is the tragedy of this non-country where we quibble over the price of a human life.
I saw for myself the usual signs of environmental degradation - the blasted, dying mangrove swamps, the oil slicks lapping at the water’s edge where children bathed, the statistics of which are all over the internet - but what remains with me above all is the humiliation of a conquered people. As I wrote in an earlier blog, it was in Bodo town centre that I saw a contingent of soldiers move swiftly on a scuffle between two okada riders and then proceed to whip the culprits into their jeep as ‘the people’ looked helplessly on. Later, crossing over to Bonny Island in a speed boat, we passed a military bunker with soldiers who required us to raise our arms at gun point as though we were the enemy. On the island itself, I watched an armoured personnel carrier patrol the main street twice a day, morning and evening.
At the guest house I caught snatches of conversation about oil bunkering, which was the only game in town and accounted for the considerable number of storey-buildings in the surrounding poverty, although the town itself was neat enough, clean and well-ordered. My friend told me that only the more daring boys went in for it. You could be killed by the soldiers, as happened to Saro-Wiwa for daring to suggest that the oil was already theirs in the first place, or roasted alive, as has happened to a great many Nigerians, and not only in the oil-producing Niger delta because the politics we play in this country ensures that the subjugated must attempt to steal their own resource.
As for Shell, the company will settle for as little as it can possibly get away with because, as one of the lawyers remarked, ‘It is entirely depressing that one of the largest companies in the world is acting like the playground bully, trying to batter local people whose lives have been devastated, into submission. We will be doing our damnedest to ensure that Shell pay out a fair amount for the damage they have caused and put the Bodo Creek back into its pre-spill state.’ In Nigeria, this must be measured as progress, whatever obtains elsewhere, for instance in the world both Shell and the lawyers come from, and where the insult would never have been tolerated in the first place. But then Shell can only get away with what it does because the representatives of ‘the people’ – the minister of petroleum resources, for instance - are themselves contemptuous of those same people they supposedly represent.
© Adewale Maja-Pearce

Adewale Maja-Pearce is the author of several books, including Loyalties
and Other Stories, In My Father's Country, How many miles to Babylon?, A
Mask Dancing, Who's Afraid of Wole Soyinka?, From Khaki to Agbada,
Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa and Other Essays, A Peculiar Tragedy,
Leftovers and Non-people and Counting the Cost, as well as the 1998
and 1999 annual reports on human rights violations in Nigeria. He also
edited The Heinemann Book of African Poetry in English, Wole Soyinka:
An Appraisal, Christopher Okigbo: Collected Poems, The New Gong Book
of New Nigerian Short Stories, and Dream Chasers


  1. Great resonant images. Thank you for writing this.