Written by Sarah Osei-Bonsu
You know what’s crazy? Dying from poverty while surrounded by wealth. The Niger Delta is known for its wealth; it is literally coated in it. The Delta is Nigeria and Africa’s biggest oil producing region, generating Nigeria an approximated $10 billion per year. The ludicrousness is that this wealth pools at the feet of the poorest, taints their skin, and poisons their food. The wealth that is at the fingertips of those who need it the most is killing them instead. The coveted wetland has been tormented by the treasure it sits on for over 40 years.
Major oil corporations such as Shell, Agip, and ExxonMobil have stakes in the Niger Delta with catastrophic impacts. Protected by the government, these corporations act as invincible invaders exploiting and destabilizing the region and very rarely facing accountability. This makes the Niger Delta a paradigmatic case of environmental racism. The environmental and human rights violations are often left unresolved because the outcries of the local black populations hold less value than the black gold provoking the outcries. In trying to take power back, the inhabitants of the Delta have resorted to large-scale illegal harvesting, refining, and selling of the same oil that foreign corporations let leak into their communities, turning the government against its own people. This has turned the Niger Delta into a dark backdrop for a mad battle royale of local militias, large corporations, military raids, and embittered locals.
Once boasting a rich vegetation, the Niger Delta now looks like a post-apocalyptic Mad Max-esque landscape. Petroleum coats virtually everything; the soil, trees, even water are all highly flammable. The traditional livelihoods of the local communities such as fishing and farming have almost entirely been destroyed. Scarred and abused, the environment has turned against the people. Regrettably, the ones responsible are not there to face the consequences. This is a common phenomenon; environmental devastation is often visited on impoverished rural communities – in the African context, by foreign corporations. Environmental impact is usually not objective, the populations affected are not only impoverished, but there are often racial factors at play as well. These racialized approximations of value create environmental segregation with disastrous consequences for communities.
The Niger Delta has a tragic history with the oil industry, which includes decades of regular oil spills and oil-well fires. Oil contamination has severely damaged the environment; the high rainfall rate and riverland location mean that spilled oil is continually being washed outward and spread. In this way farmland, rivers, and potable water are corrupted. The oil has penetrated the earth so deeply that agriculture has almost reached a standstill. Ecologists argue that damage can persist in the soil and plants forty years after an oil spill has occurred and been cleaned up. At this rate, the Delta doesn’t stand a chance at recovery. Petroleum so corrupts the groundwater reserves supplying the local communities, that one UN report observed a layer of refined oil as thick as 8 centimeters in a community well. Many oil spills occur from the facilities of these multi-billion dollar corporations, often without appropriate action being taken. For instance, in 2008 and 2009 Shell was responsible for a series of oil spills in the fishing town of Bodo, but Shell did not take action for weeks, and finally only offered the affected community a paltry compensation of $4000. The Niger Delta is a world where even culpability has become a commodity.
The rapid increase in artisanal refining, where crude oil is refined illegally in makeshift facilities, is creating even more pockets of devastation. Impact areas are on the rise, but the level of damage cannot even be assessed because these enterprises are clandestine. The Nigerian government has taken steps to destroy this black market, going as far as out-right warfare. In the ongoing Niger Delta crisis, the Nigerian army has launched several offenses against rebel groups which have lead to many casualties, including alleged civilian deaths. The military has also made the local population its target, with regular spontaneous raids on villages, where they confiscate and dump any petroleum found. These are communities that have lost almost all other revenue due to petroleum pollution, resorting to trading in what is left: oil. These wanton raids by the Nigerian military are making an already vulnerable environment even more critical; a layer of petroleum left in the African sun is highly flammable and sometimes fires rage uninterrupted for weeks in the Delta.
While the people of the Niger Delta deal with these environmental and armed threats, oil multinationals and the Nigerian government continue to make billions from the region. The stark disparity between the living standards at the frontlines of oil production and the revenue of the industry abroad is a case of environmental discrimination. This chasm is indicative of a divide which neglects one group of people while enriching the other. The black sediment beneath the earth is more important than black lives. The Niger Delta in terms of resources is one of the wealthiest regions in Africa, and yet its inhabitants live in the most deplorable situations, tormented by the misfortune of having been born on rich soil. The bloody origins of oil are rarely questioned as it fuels global economies. The Niger Delta is literally being kept in the dark. When the temporary spotlight is shone on the Delta, it has been fleeting and ineffective.
In an attempt to bring some sanity to this chaos, the Nigerian government launched the Niger Delta Amnesty Programme (NDAP) in 2009. This programme was at its core built on the human capital theory. This theory views an educated population as the most productive investment for society or for a state. And as such the NDAP sought to quell the mounting violence in the Delta by engaging with militants offering them an alternative path. State aid was awarded to militants, and amnesty granted if they dropped their weapons and agreed to enter vocational training that could re-integrate them into society. The premise was simple: forgive the boys, rehabilitate them, save the Niger Delta. Easy.
And yet the programme derailed. It became a channel for corruption. Many allegations have been made that Nigerian politicians were making money bringing in multitudes of people for ‘rehabilitation’ who were not even militants. This meant that a lot of the people who needed this opportunity were neglected.
What should have been a simple solution for these helpless people, ended up being another mockery with which the elite filled their pockets. Militant activity in the Niger Delta only returned with fuller force after the NDAP debacle. More militant groups arose in the Niger Delta with a vengeance. For instance the suitably named Niger Delta Avengers (NDA), whose contribution to the crime and violence cut Nigerian oil production in 2017 to its lowest level in over 20 years. With this, the illegal oil market has again become central to the livelihoods of the Niger Delta’s rural communities. If the NDAP had really lived up to its promise, the people of these communities would not have needed to return to this black market, because there should have been sufficient infrastructures in place to offer them a better way of life. It remains that oil is their only means of survival. Again, facing military raids has become routine.
The retaliation which inspires the Niger Delta Avengers is understandable. The Avengers claim to be more than just a rebel group, and have actual political aspirations. For them, vandalizing pipelines and terrorizing foreign corporations means bleeding out the oil industry in the region. It’s the logic of reprisal: I supply you, you get rich, and yet you keep me in poverty? No, there has to be a reckoning. But what follows in effect is retaliation from the government for being retaliated upon. What is often forgotten in this vindictive cycle is that the environment feels every blow from all sides.
As long as there is oil in the Niger Delta, the global economy will continue to get a hold of as much of it as possible, irrespective of the struggles on the ground. And the actors at the heart of the conflict will continue to play their parts too, because of a dismal thing called greed. How far are we willing to let the environment and human state deteriorate for material gain? The Niger Delta almost resembles a fantasy world and in this twisted drama the cast is driven to madness: all parties distrust each other, fear the combustible land and are driven to desperate points of survival. The fruits of madness are used to fuel a dysfunctional multi-billion dollar industry that the people of the Niger Delta do not benefit from. In this drama ,a kingdom crippled by greed is about to go up in flames.