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The Curse of Oil

ISSUE:  Winter 2007

She had one of those scrubbed-up, warbling voices from the Northern Plains, full of flattened vowels and Scandinavian resolve, and it made me think of Fargo. The vast backdrop of Peterbilt trucks and speedboat auctions, the envelope of fresh November snow. The family restaurants feeding the great American stomach a steady diet of hometown pride and manky coleslaw. A postcard from the Great White North.

I couldn’t remember the last time I bought airline tickets over the phone, and the whole thing felt a little odd, and profoundly inefficient—like something my parents might do. But I was flying to Nigeria, and if you want to fly to Nigeria, you have to buy your ticket the old-fashioned way. Even if you found the fare online, you have to book your seat over the phone and then go down to the airport to pay for it.

“So what is it that’s taking you over there, anyway?” the operator asked while we were waiting for one of her screens to come up. “Business or pleasure?”

“Business, I suppose,” I said. “I’m doing some research.”

“Oh yeah? What about?”

“Well, about oil. Oil in Africa.”

“They got oil in Africa?”

“Oh, yes, there’s quite a lot of it, and we’re starting to get more and more of our oil from over there.” I was just getting warmed up. “In fact, Nigeria has been—”

“Good!” she said, with a burst of indignation. “We have to get it from somewhere.”

“Well, sure, but of course it’s not always that simple,” I said, trying, in what felt like a bizarre reversal of roles, to keep things friendly and relaxed. But it turned out to be the wrong thing to say. A sheet of early evening ice made its way quietly across Fargo.

“Window or aisle?”

*  *  *  *  

The Niger Delta is made up of nine states, 185 local government areas, and a population of 27 million. It has 40 ethnic groups speaking 250 dialects spread across 5,000 to 6,000 communities and covers an area of 27,000 square miles. This makes for one the highest population densities in the world, with annual population growth estimated at 3 percent. About 1,500 of those communities play host to oil company operations of one kind or another. Thousands of miles of pipelines crisscross the mangrove creeks of the Delta, broken up by occasional gas flares that send roaring orange flames into the already hot, humid air. Modern, air-conditioned facilities sit cheek-by-jowl with primitive fishing villages made of mud and straw, surrounded with razor wire and armed guards trained to be on the lookout for local troublemakers. It is, and always has been, a recipe for disaster.

The problem, in a nutshell, is that for fifty years, foreign oil companies have conducted some of the world’s most sophisticated exploration and production operations, using millions of dollars’ worth of imported ultramodern equipment, against a backdrop of Stone Age squalor. They have extracted hundreds of millions of barrels of oil, which have sold on the international market for hundreds of billions of dollars, but the people of the Niger Delta have seen virtually none of the benefits. While successive military regimes have used oil proceeds to buy mansions in Mayfair or build castles in the sand in the faraway capital of Abuja, many in the Delta live as their ancestors would have done hundreds, even thousands of years ago—in hand-built huts of mud and straw. And though the Delta produces 100 percent of the nation’s oil and gas, its people survive with no electricity or clean running water. Seeing a doctor can mean traveling for hours by boat through the creeks.

Occasionally, oil has been spilled into those creeks, and fishing communities disrupted, dislocated, or plunged into violent conflict with one another over compensation payments. When the people of the Delta have tried to protest, they have been bought off, set against one another, or shot at. The rampant criminality, lawlessness, and youth unrest that have plagued the Delta as a result are perhaps technically troubles rather than active warfare, of the kind that makes the evening news and furrows brows at dinner parties. But to those who eke out a meager living in the sweltering, isolated fishing villages in the swamps and estuaries of the Delta, trapped among the security forces hired by international oil companies to guard their multi-million-dollar networks of pipelines and flow stations, to the roving bands of angry, ethnic militias determined to disrupt their operations, and to the soldiers and special police units of the Nigerian state—all sides armed to the teeth—the distinction is a largely academic one. On a good day, they will push off into the morning mist in their hollowed-out wooden pirogues and return in the evening with a few sickly-looking croaker and catfish that they will dry in the sun for another day. On a bad day, they might not come back at all.

The tragedy of the Niger Delta story is that it could be told through the eyes of any one of the many Delta minorities affected by oil production. Urhobo, Ijaw, Etche, Itsekiri, Ogoni, Edo, Efik—all have some version of the sorry tale to tell. When I visited Nigeria in January 2005, however, the Ijaw community of Kula was in the news. A few weeks earlier, angry that Shell’s and Chevron’s promises of development projects had not been fulfilled, thousands of Kula villagers had occupied the companies’ flowstations in the area, shutting off 120,000 barrels of oil a day. The protestors had refused to leave until a new Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed, with clear guarantees of compensation and infrastructure projects for the community.

Over the years, MoUs have become standard operating procedure for international oil companies and local communities, they know that dealing with each other directly is infinitely preferable to leaving things to the Nigerian government. Unfortunately, MoUs are by their nature informal documents, outlining generally agreed upon principles, and rarely amount to much more than a handful of promises—such as financing the construction of boreholes or clinics—made by an oil company in exchange for a peaceful operating environment. Routinely, when communities feel promises are not being met, they take over flowstations or otherwise sabotage operations in an attempt to draw attention to the problem.

After several weeks of shut-down production in Kula in December 2004, the dispute had been resolved thanks to some heavy-handed intervention by the Rivers State governor (and probably some money thrown at the village chief), but tensions were still running high. Kula elders were threatening to make life hell for Shell and Chevron, and no one doubted the potential for violence. And so it only made sense to pay a visit to Kula, but Kula, like much of Ijaw country, is not reachable by road. A people whose destiny has been tied to tidal fishing for centuries, the Ijaw live on top of steamy, spongelike mangrove swamps that rarely climb to more than three or four feet above sea level. They live precariously at the best of times, in huts that seem to hover over the water. A patch of rough weather at sea can wash away a village in a matter of hours.

And, like much of Ijaw country, Kula is considered unsafe territory for a white man traveling alone, thanks to increased militant activity and widespread anger at foreign oil companies. Even if you managed to negotiate a reasonable rate for boat hire, the warning goes, you would have a hard time convincing village youth that you were not an oil company worker and should not be taken hostage. Only a few weeks before my visit, a foreign journalist using an inexperienced guide had been kidnapped and held in the creeks for several hours. I was painfully aware, therefore, that I would need a guide I could count on. Someone with some real star power, who knew the creeks like the back of his hand. Someone who spoke the local tongue, who knew how to sweet-talk an armed militia, and who wouldn’t lose his cool in a sticky situation. It took a few phone calls to pin him down to a meeting, but with a little persistence, I was soon face-to-face with just such a man—the one and only Felix Tuodolo.

In the late 1990s, Tuodolo had founded the Ijaw Youth Council, a vanguard of radicalized youth that he had tried to channel into a constructive, coordinated advocacy network. It had made him one of the most respected and credible voices for change among the Ijaw. Now in his midtwenties and studying for a PhD in conflict studies at Liverpool University, Tuodolo was back in Port Harcourt on winter break. He would, he assured me, make all the necessary arrangements.

*  *  *  *  

The road from Port Harcourt leads south, inevitably, toward the sprawling mouth of the Niger Delta. And as it insinuates its way through thick forests of coconut palms, it passes the usual heaps of acrid garbage smoldering in all their tear-jerking glory. But here, going south from Port Harcourt, the road also takes on several forms of punctuation unique to the Delta.

First, there are the fences and barriers of the international oil companies, each painted in the companies’ signature colors and accompanied by rusted but still-menacing signs that warn against unauthorized entry. Then there are the small wooden shacks staffed by young men selling glass bottles of black-market fuel, under the noses of the oil companies. And everywhere, everywhere, are the election posters for Rivers State governor Peter Odili, considered by many one of the world’s most corrupt politicians. Sporting a broad-brimmed white trilby hat and walking stick, Odili beams out over the misery like a grinning T. J. Eckleburg, framed by the captions the portrait of a performer.

After about an hour, the road peters out in a place called Abonema, at which point only watercraft can continue the journey. Felix had me wait in the car while he negotiated the boat hire. “If they see a white man,” he said, “they will double the price, and you won’t get them to budge.”

The “speedboat” we ended up with was a simple fiberglass hull with a sputtering outboard motor strapped to its stern, but it hugged every curve as if on a racetrack, as we whizzed through channels of water at a good thirty to forty knots, slowing down only to avoid capsizing the delicate wooden pirogues paddled by fishermen, or when Felix and the driver disagreed about the best route to take. Listening to these detailed arguments, I was faintly embarrassed that the only visual aide-memoire I found at all meaningful were the occasional pipelines and flowstations and pressure valves belonging to the oil companies. My own vernacular.

After an hour and a half, I noticed a village of mud huts, skirted by a black, grimy beach that appeared to be blanketed with several inches of garbage. As our boat drew near, a constellation of small faces looked up and paused. Faint shouts of excitement could be heard, and a crowd of young men quickly gathered along the wooden landing pier, staring with apprehension at the white man approaching in the speedboat.

The driver tied up the boat, and a dozen children ran down to see if we had any luggage they could carry. A sign on the pier welcomed us to the kula kingdom. Felix introduced himself and a ripple of recognition fanned across the crowd. The chief of the kingdom was away in Port Harcourt, so we were welcomed by Nye Morine, who described himself as “coordinator of Ekulama Houses” and allowed us entry into the village after a little ceremonial negotiation with Felix, but not before letting it be known in his loudest English, “We are still suffering. Shell, Chevron have done nothing. Nothing!”

We were led up the dark staircase of a roofless, disintegrated concrete building, where we sat in a ring of plastic chairs as the men gathered round to have their say. Victor Solomon, an articulate thirty-two-year-old who described himself as a “youth leader,” did most of the talking while others nodded and prodded and whispered in his ear. It was not the first time the men of Kula had entertained the press.

“We are still suffering, look how we are suffering” was their refrain, and I was going to hear it several dozen more times during the course of the conversation. I asked about the flowstation they had taken over. “The government has persuaded us in different ways to open the station,” they said. “Finally, they persuaded us with the military to open it. They told us, if we don’t open it, they will open it for us.” There was no need to explain what that meant.

A well-rehearsed list of grievances followed:

“Forty-three years, what do you see? People dying of starvation, hunger, illness. The CLOs [Community Liaison Officers sent by the oil companies] and the managers connive to steal our compensation. When there is a spill they give us 35 Naira [about 25 cents] per net.”

“There is not one Kula person working for Shell. There are people in Kula with masters degrees, PhDs—we even have some who have gone abroad. There is not one Kula person working for Shell. Not one.”

“We are suffering,” mumbled the Greek chorus. “Look how we are suffering.”

“The minute you go near a facility, they come out with guns. So you don’t even have a right to demand anything from them.” In 1997, Victor claimed, he was shot in the leg by the Nigerian Navy on orders from Shell, after he tried to protest an oil spill.

“We have no local government.”

“When I was a child you could see fish.”

“See how we are suffering.”

We walked round the village, a crowd of twenty young men holding uncomfortably close. When we walked, they walked. When we stopped, they stopped. I felt a bit like a stick of honey being waved back and forth among bees. Yellow and red oil drums painted with the Shell logo lay scattered about, some being used as work surfaces or storage containers by the women. A smiling, good-natured young man called James Sunday showed me the wood-and-straw house next door, where he lived. A cobra had recently made its way into the house and killed his brother. “We are fighting for our rights,” James said earnestly. “To get our human rights.” I later learned he meant fighting literally, as he had joined the forces of the Ijaw warlord Dokubo Asari a few months earlier, when Asari had declared war on the Nigerian state and sent the price of oil up by $2 a barrel on the international market. Ijaws believe the god Egbesu protects them from the firepower of the Nigerian military. James told me, “We wear charms and amulets that make us bulletproof.”

Another soft-spoken young man named Ajemina Daniel grabbed my arm and informed me that it had been decided that this was the year they would destroy the flowstation if their demands were not met. I asked if they were not worried about the Navy guards with their guns. Not at all, he said. “We will consult our gods.” He showed me his license to be a quartermaster, which he had obtained when he was twenty-one. He was now thirty and said he had never worked. He began to grow angry. “My grandmother died three years ago and she is still in the mortuary in Port Harcourt. I have no money to bury her. I am so angry. I wish you weren’t a journalist; we would have kidnapped you and held you here. I am so angry; I am ready to sacrifice my life. I don’t care if they kill me.”

As we prepared to leave, amid a farrago of grinning requests for money, I noticed that this tiny village kingdom had not one but three jetties, all right next to one another. It turned out that the one to which we had tied our boat had been built in 1982 by Shell; another had been started in 1989 by Ompadec (the military regime’s short-lived attempt at addressing the grievances of the Delta), but had never been finished; and the third had been erected in 2004 by Shell, but not officially put into commission. Like the clinic without a doctor, the schoolroom without teachers, and the women’s center that quickly lost its funding, these jetties were emblematic of the compulsive, reactive, band-aid approach to the Niger Delta’s problems. Every so often, a community would grow restless and noisy and someone from the government or the oil company would throw them a bone. And then, just as quickly, the villagers would be forgotten.

For years, the holding pattern worked, at least according to its own perverse logic. Conflict simmered throughout the Delta, but it followed a template that was easy to understand: suffering, frustration, protest, organized uprising, violent crackdown, memorandum of understanding, token development project, discreet cash handout, return to suffering. Year after year, the same tired set pieces were acted out, with only the cast of characters changing, a sort of rotating repertory of protests and pipelines and white men arriving in helicopters.

Then, in the late 1990s, people started getting creative.

*  *  *  *  

In 1993, seven cases of “pipeline vandalization” were officially recorded in the Niger Delta. A couple seemed politically motivated, a couple seemed attempts to elicit cleanup contracts from the resulting spills. The reasons for the others were unclear. In 1996, the number of pipelines vandalized was 33, and in 1998 the figure had risen to 57. Still, most cases were treated as outcomes of economic disputes or simple sabotage meant to score political points. In 1999, though, a whopping 497 instances of pipeline vandalism were recorded, and in the following year there were over 600. Suddenly, oil companies had to deal with a threat to their operations that was more complicated than a few kids getting carried away. The culprits were not just damaging company property—they were stealing crude oil and selling it on the black market. By 2004, Nigeria was losing as much as 200,000 barrels of crude oil a day—nearly 10 percent of its output.

The practice, known as “illegal bunkering” (in its legal form, bunkering is the act of loading fuel onto a large ship’s on-deck fuel bunker), involves tapping into a pipeline, filling plastic jerry cans with crude oil, and taking the oil away in speedboats to awaiting barges, which in turn sell the product to large oceangoing tankers, who then sell it to refineries in neighboring countries, such as Ivory Coast, at a considerable profit.

This is not a job for amateurs. Multinational oil companies tend not to invest in pipelines that can be sliced through with an ordinary hacksaw. Typically, bunkerers focus their efforts on “manifolds,” where multiple-feeder pipelines are joined by bolts and welding that can be compromised with a certain amount of patience and the right equipment. To make sure a bunkering operation is successful, the valves must be opened to allow for maximum pressure, manifolds must be pried apart and welded back together quickly and cleanly, and everyone has to know that they’re not going to be shot at by security guards in the process. From beginning to end, it’s a process lubricated by official complicity and petty bribery.

“No illegal bunkering would take place without the technical support of SPDC,” says Sofiri Joab-Peterside, a sociologist at Port Harcourt’s Centre for Advanced Social Studies, referring to Shell’s subsidiary in Nigeria. “Most of these are [indigenous] contract staff, with no benefits. They are paid so little, they are so disgruntled that they become very willing allies.”

In recent years, the federal government has made what appears to be a genuine effort to get illegal bunkering under control, but in doing so has only drawn attention to how entrenched the problem is at the highest echelons of the Nigerian political landscape. In late 2003, the MT African Pride, a Nigerian tanker vessel, was intercepted at sea near Shell’s Forcados oil export terminal, carrying some 11,000 barrels of unauthorized crude in its bunkers. Its thirteen Russian crew members were arrested and the ship seized by the Nigerian navy, but several months later, in August 2004, it emerged that the African Pride had somehow disappeared from custody. The Russians, for reasons unclear, had been allowed back on board mere days after their arrest, and the 11,000 barrels of crude had somehow been transferred to another ship and replaced in the African Pride’s bunkers with 11,000 barrels of seawater. Two of Nigeria’s highest-ranking rear admirals were subsequently court-martialed and sacked for their role in the ship’s disappearance. For many Nigerians high-profile cases such as this are proof that illegal bunkering has morphed from an activity enjoyed by frustrated youth looking for easy money into a professional industry managed by tightly organized, heavily armed syndicates of bunkering mafiosi.

Although ever-growing numbers of the Delta’s residents are in some way involved with a bunkering mafia, few are willing to speak with foreign journalists and even fewer to serve as guides to those wanting to watch bunkering activities up close. After all, the sudden approach of a speedboat, carrying a stranger with a notepad or a camera, toward a manifold being pried apart by a group of young men with AK-47s, surrounded by jerry cans filled with highly flammable liquid, is unlikely to end happily. However, in Port Harcourt, a quiet and sincere young Ijaw from Oluasiri, whom I will call Nelson, was willing to see what he could do for me.

We met over a 7-Up in the bar of my hotel, where he told me conventional crude oil bunkering was yesterday’s news. The mafiosi who controlled it kept the lion’s share of the profit and only used the disenchanted local youth for labor. “Not everyone could partake in it,” Nelson said. “It was exclusively a game for rich people.” In spring 2004, a more pervasive, and far more dangerous practice—which Nelson called “local bunkering”—had emerged.

In an effort to reclaim bunkering from the bunkerers, Nelson’s community had turned their attention away from the crude oil and toward a lower-hanging fruit: natural gas. Enterprising youth had discovered the Shell gas pipeline going through Oluasiri, laid deep at the bottom of a riverbed. They had hired teams of divers to drill holes at three different points along the gas pipeline and attach hoses to the boreholes. Where the hoses came up to the surface, valves had been attached to control the flow of gas coming from the pipeline. The product that comes out of those valves is not quite crude oil and not quite kerosene (which is what crude turns into when the gas has been distilled out of it), but something in between that still has a lot of gas associated with it. The bunkerers let it sit for two or three days until it turns into kerosene, which is then sold to villagers for use as a cooking fuel. This bootleg kerosene is not as pure as what is sold legally, and when people put it in their stoves it can explode and kill them. But it costs a fraction of what it otherwise would, and provides a handsome income for the unemployed youths of the area.

But the youths haven’t been content to dash a bit of kerosene to the womenfolk, or distribute it in nearby villages. They have begun selling the product to black-market petroleum marketers, who take it to the larger provincial towns in the Delta such as Mbiama and Yenagoa. Some bunkered kerosene from Oluasiri has made it as far as Warri or neighboring Cameroon. Many youths have also become involved in “trucking,” a practice whereby tanker trucks half-filled with refined fuel stop on their way to deliver to filling stations and top off their tankers with a little bunkered kerosene. The undiluted product is then sold to unsuspecting gas stations for the price of regular unleaded.

“Crude oil is no longer marketable,” said Nelson. “The federal government has done a lot to put a stop to that. So now we have this local bunkering. And unlike with crude oil, now everybody is involved. Shell staff, security guards, everyone.” A note of despair was audible in his voice as he told me how an organized-crime racket had become a game for women and children. “Almost everybody has become a petrol dealer now. People come night and day to fill up their cans.” Nelson was a civil servant, working part-time toward a masters degree in social studies. In his research, he was looking at the social dynamics behind why people in the Delta have turned to illegal bunkering. But as time went on and he watched his less educated friends get rich overnight, this budding academic was finding it harder to keep a bright line between student and subject. “My friends keep encouraging me to get involved, and I have been tempted,” he said, looking down into his 7-Up and clearly weighing how much more he wanted to say. “In fact,” he said finally, his face filling with shame, “I am now also making some arrangements to join in.”

Nelson agreed to meet me the next morning for another trip into the creeks. He promised nothing, but said we could probably pay a discreet visit to Ijaw-kiri, an illicit trading post for stolen crude and gas.

*  *  *  *  

Ijaw-kiri seemed the usual collection of a dozen straw and concrete huts, not unlike Kula. But in Kula, I had been greeted by proud village elders and curious children. Here, I landed to find a makeshift terrace with plastic tables and chairs, and something resembling a pinball machine, a rudimentary version of a contraption seen on The Price Is Right. I was told it was called “lucky game” and that people played it for money. Four fat, sweating teenage girls giggled and beckoned me from behind a corner, calling out “oyibo” (a Nigerian nickname for white man). They were there to service the local lads who worked in the bunkering business, helping them to unload their newfound cash as quickly as they had acquired it. Ijaw-kiri was the Oluasiri area’s very own Las Vegas—a little mud-and-wattle sin city buried deep in the jungle and owing its existence to the trade in stolen oil.

Nelson had me sit on the terrace while he went to negotiate on my behalf. Eventually, he returned with a thin, withered-looking man who, after a few words in Ijaw with Nelson, agreed to talk. He was thirty-six, and a timber dealer by trade. By local standards, he made good money, enough to keep his wife and seven children from starving. But he thought his timber-dealing days were probably behind him now. In the past three or four weeks, he had become involved in a far more lucrative trade.

“Three years ago, I started seeing people improving their lives,” he told me, speaking in Ijaw with Nelson interpreting. His lack of comfort in English, Nigeria’s official language, was a sign that he had not had more than a few years of primary school education. “I began to watch so I could learn the ins and outs.” He explained that he worked in a team of ten to fifteen people, who together netted between 80,000 and 100,000 Naira (around $600-$700) a day. On a good day, though, the figure could be ten times that—enough to give each member of the team as much money as a civil servant like Nelson would earn in a month. I asked the man what his wife thought of his new profession. He told me that when he had talked to her about it, she had simply said, “Anywhere there’s money.”

The bunkered fuel was loaded onto “zeeps”—giant containers that hold anywhere from 700 to 3,000 liters of fuel—and brought back to Ijaw-kiri, where each liter fetched around nine Naira (or seven cents). From Ijaw-kiri, boys loaded the zeeps onto speedboats, and took them to Mbiama, Yenagoa, or Port Harcourt, where they could bring five times as much. Jerry cans were also sold in Ijaw-kiri for local consumption, a 25-liter jerry can going for a mere 500 Naira ($4). He paused halfway through this explanation and looked imploringly into my eyes. “You know, I have to take care of my family.”

When I visited Ijaw-kiri in mid-January, the pressure on the pipes was low, so people were out of work and idle. The place had a noticeably languid air to it. I thought the lull might make it possible to visit one of the three loading points (which had turned into five since Christmas), but it was made clear this was out of the question. Each would be manned by a gang of teenage boys with assault rifles who would not take kindly to having their exact whereabouts noted by a foreign journalist.

On the way back, we passed a dozen stray zeeps bobbing along the water’s edge. Some were white plastic, others rusted iron. Like floating tombstones, they were all that remained of boats that had been overladen only to capsize and sink. Disks of thick black oil oozed out of them and into the creeks. Nelson informed me that even our speedboat was running on bunkered kerosene.

Back in Port Harcourt, a senior government official reluctantly confirmed that local bunkering had reached epidemic proportions in Ijaw country. He told me that, just before Christmas, an explosion and fire had killed several bunkerers, and that he had approached some Ijaw youths the next day to see if this had given them any pause. “Quite the contrary,” he said.

Just before Christmas Shell had laid off a thousand local employees as part of a budget-cutting exercise, and they needed to go straight back to work to make ends meet. As Sofiri Joab-Peterside at the Centre for Advanced Social Studies pointed out, hundreds of technically skilled, disgruntled former Shell employees roaming the Delta with intimate knowledge of the company’s operations and an obvious need to replace their lost incomes was a “terrifying scenario.”

*  *  *  *  

If illegal bunkering was just illegal bunkering, a Robin Hood case could almost be made for looking the other way. Whether it’s the localized natural gas and kerosene trading engaged in by ordinary citizens, or the big-ticket organized crude-oil trade managed by a well-connected elite, it could be argued that stealing crude oil from large multinational oil companies and redistributing the profits to the people most affected by their operations is no worse a crime than the wholesale looting of “official” state and federal oil revenue by senior politicians that has been going on in Nigeria for decades. Unfortunately, nothing in the Niger Delta is ever as simple as it looks.

The really troubling thing about illegal bunkering is not so much that stolen oil is sold for profit, but how the profit is spent. If the giggling prostitutes of Ijaw-kiri absorbed the bulk of the bunkering cash floating round the Delta, there might be some hope for the region. However, in a trend that has escalated rapidly since the late 1990s, much of the money from stolen oil has been spent on AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers—rough-and-ready hardware for a violent ideology of ethnic separatism. Local boys with no jobs, no access to schools, and almost certainly no real future ahead of them have been rounded up and organized into gangs and militias that inevitably clash with authorities and with one another.

During election campaigns, many of these armed gangs have been hired by state and local politicians looking to intimidate communities into voting for them. Many expect the 2007 election season to see a return to the use of such armed militias by political campaigns. Leaving aside what it means for the future of a young democracy to have elections fought down the barrel of a gun, no one seems to have thought seriously about what the gangs would do after the elections were over. After the 2003 campaign, most Niger Delta militants felt their illegal activities—from bunkering to arms smuggling—had been given a veneer of legitimacy, not to mention impunity, by the powers that be. Many also felt that they had brought certain politicians to power, and that these people owed them something in return—something more than a little cash and a condescending off-you-go. When such rewards were not forthcoming, they grew more resentful.

Had it not been for a rather breathtaking series of events in September 2004, though, the world might never have seen just how serious the problem of armed gangs in the Niger Delta had become. A fairly obscure youth militia calling itself the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF) blasted its way into the international headlines that month when its leader, the charismatic mujahid Dokubo Asari, declared “all-out war” on the Nigerian state and threatened to shut down the country’s crude oil production. As part of what it called “Operation Locust Feast,” the NDPVF demanded that all oil companies evacuate their personnel from the Delta, or prepare to engage in full-fledged armed combat.

The irony, of course, was that Dokubo Asari and the NDPVF owed their existence to Rivers State governor Peter Odili. In 2001, threatened by the growing success and moral legitimacy of Felix Tuodolo’s Ijaw Youth Council, Odili had engineered a split in its leadership—pitting Asari against the original founders. Asari assumed control of the group and in the 2003 elections proved to be a loyal ally of Odili, helping him be reelected. But Odili soon dropped Asari, who returned to illegal bunkering as a way to pay for weapons for his boys.

By August 2004, the NDPVF had begun clashing with a rival gang, the Niger Delta Vigilante, led by Ateke Tom and hired by Odili to keep Asari in check. Dozens of people were killed and Port Harcourt paralyzed by the violence. In September, aware that he had been completely abandoned by his one-time patron in the State House, Asari told his boys the battle was on. In the space of a few weeks, a small youth militia that had started life as an illegal bunkering ring had transformed itself into a rebel movement claiming 2,000 fighters and bent on bringing oil production in the world’s seventh-largest producer to a standstill.

The reaction of the Nigerian government, the international oil companies, and the global petroleum markets was as predictable as it was swift. Shell immediately evacuated two hundred staff from Ijaw country. The price of oil spiked over $50 a barrel for the first time in world history. And the Nigerian government dispatched helicopter gunships to Port Harcourt to shell NDPVF positions in the outlying village of Tombia. President Obasanjo found himself under intense pressure from an oil-hungry United States to bring the matter to a quick resolution and, incredibly, invited Asari to the presidential palace at Aso Rock, just outside Abuja.

To have been a fly on the wall at the Aso Rock meeting would have been to take a front-row seat at the near total unraveling of Nigerian state and society. For here, behind closed doors, was a scene that made a mockery not only of the amour propre and sovereign self-regard of one of Africa’s most important nations, but also of the African tradition of deference to one’s elders and leaders. Here was Olusegun Obasanjo, sixty-nine years of age, three-time president of his country, active at the highest levels of Nigerian politics since the early 1970s, and a decorated Biafra War hero to boot, being lectured on history and politics by a Ijaw youth leader who days before had been crawling through the creeks with a leaf tied to his forehead to ward against evil spirits. “I could crush you,” the president is said to have shouted at Asari at one point during the negotiations. Between them—according to press reports—sat a stern-faced American official making sure no one got crushed and everyone knew the score.

And the score was Crazed Ethnic Militants 1, Federal Government of Nigeria 0. Obasanjo ordered Asari to sell the NDPVF’s weapons to the state and desist from armed struggle in exchange for blanket amnesty and a promise that Asari and the NDPVF would not be targeted by Nigerian troops, as well as an undisclosed sum of money believed to be worth several million dollars (notionally described as payment for surrendered weapons). After days of being chased through the creeks by Nigerian soldiers, Asari and his boys were suddenly told they were free to go, as long as they agreed to behave themselves and stop threatening the oil supply to the outside world. It was an extraordinary piece of capitulation on the part of an African head of state with the international stature of Obasanjo, and one that he was unlikely to forget in a hurry.

The oil companies returned to work and the price of crude returned to its previous level. Many Ijaw privately felt that Asari had betrayed their cause, that he had been bought off by Obasanjo and the Americans in Abuja, or that he was simply an opportunist and a fanatic. But in a sign of the profound deficit in true leadership among the peoples of the Delta, publicly at least, Asari quickly became a liberation hero for the Ijaw. Moreover, the NDPVF had simply handed over a few AK-47s to the federal government in exchange for money that would no doubt be spent on more AK-47s, and gone back into the creeks to prepare for round two. The episode had put the authorities in a poor light, and Ijaw nationalists felt only strengthened.

Obasanjo decided to bide his time, no doubt sure it would not be long before Asari returned to his mischief. Sure enough, in September 2005 in an interview with a local newspaper, Asari called for the dissolution of Nigeria as a unitary state. Asari was swiftly arrested by federal marshals and taken to Abuja, where he was arraigned on five counts of treason against the Nigerian nation. Asari turned up at the courthouse in a defiant mood, wearing a white T-shirt that read “Self-determination and resource control: any means necessary,” which he replaced, once in the courtroom, with a black NDPVF shirt.

When I caught up with Dokubo Asari in April 2005, it was during the lull in his battle against the federal government—just a few months after his Aso Rock meeting with Obasanjo and a few months before his arrest. He had come out of the creeks to take up residence in a palatial home in Port Harcourt, and was giving audiences to representatives of international media. Two conspicuously unarmed boys in a white air-conditioned van took me to Asari’s home.

On arrival I could see why so many Ijaw felt Asari had been bought off by Obasanjo. In the driveway of the compound sat two gleaming Lincoln Navigators, obviously kitted out with every available option and accessory. Two dozen boys sat in a circle in front of the SUVs while Asari lectured them in Ijaw. I was led inside, unnoticed by the warlord, and asked to wait in the frosty comfort of the house’s reception lounge. I quickly settled into one of the overstuffed leather sofas, and became absorbed in the Will Smith movie that was showing on a cinema-sized plasma-screen TV. Asari, the eldest son of a high court judge, often tells journalists that he is “proud to have been raised with a silver spoon in my mouth,” and insists that all his wealth is inherited rather than the result of any devil’s bargain with Obasanjo or the ill-gotten gains of illegal bunkering. Whatever the truth, it was hard to escape the conclusion that his Port Harcourt headquarters was more like one of Mobutu’s palaces than a combatant command bunker for the revolution.

Over the better part of an hour, various people drifted in and out of the lounge, ignoring both me and the Will Smith movie. Asari’s voice could be heard outside, growing occasionally tetchy and sanctimonious, occasionally quiet and sincere. Eventually, I walked into the adjoining NDPVF office to inquire as to when Asari might be ready to receive me. Apparently the warlord was not aware I was waiting for him, because when the young apparatchik went outside to check for me, I heard Asari respond petulantly, “Aww, why you have to fuck me up like this so late in the day?”

A few minutes later, Asari strode into the office wearing a bright orange Texas Longhorns jersey with a giant number four on it. It struck me as a slightly lazy choice of outfit for a committed anti-imperialist who claims Nelson Mandela and Che Guevara as heroes and has in the past praised Osama bin Laden for standing up to the “arrogance of the West.” To be fair to the commandante, I had turned up at his home unannounced, so I could hardly expect full combat fatigues or a traditional African dress.

He looked me up and down and I started to introduce myself. “You look like an Arab,” he interrupted. “Are you a Jew?” I explained that I was Iranian by background, and he seemed vaguely reassured. He began telling me about his two trips to Iran and how he was once on very friendly terms with the Iranian embassy in Nigeria. “But they have all capitulated now,” he said with a distant disappointment in his voice.

I was dying to press him on what he meant by this, but could sense that our time together was limited. Why, I asked, had he launched Operation Locust Feast in September? “We were forced into it by the State,” he replied curtly. Had the NDPVF really disarmed? “Yes, but getting arms back is very easy,” he said dismissively. “If circumstances call for it, if the government decides to fight us, then we will rearm.” This much, at least, was hard to argue with. Rumor had it the federal government had paid the NDPVF $1,000 for each AK-47 they had relinquished last year—though the weapon rarely costs more than $200 on the black market. It was practically an invitation to rearm.

Only when I put it to him that he had been bribed into quiescence by the Nigerian authorities did Asari come to life. “They bought me off?” he asked, leaning forward and locking eyes. “They bought me off? What moral right do you have? I am one of the most critical people of the government of Nigeria. People can go ahead and say whatever they like. They were not involved with me. We were doing the talking and doing the fighting.” He grabbed a framed photograph off his desk, and thrust it in my face. It showed him in the bush in full warlord pose—all lumpen grimace and low-slung AKs, complete with belts of ammunition crisscrossing his unbuttoned chest, Rambo-style. “Do you think it’s easy to walk around carrying arms like this for nine months?”

We were interrupted by a few of the boys from outside, who urgently wanted Asari to settle a dispute over money. Asari invited them in and lapsed into an Ijaw monologue, punctuated by operatic flourishes in English, presumably for my benefit. “With everything I have, I will fight the Nigerian state until they come to their senses” was one that seemed particularly calculated to chill. And then, a moment later, “Send a message up to Abuja that if they try to kill me and they fail, it will be mayhem. Oh, the mayhem! I will no longer fight them in the creeks. I will fight them in Lagos and Abuja and Port Harcourt!”

After forty-five minutes of this, I must have looked fidgety, because Asari abruptly shifted gears and started telling the boys an anecdote peppered with enough English that I could follow along. It had to do with Governor Peter Odili—Asari’s one-time patron now turned nemesis. During a recent drive through the Delta, the governor’s car had run low on fuel miles from the nearest legitimate filling station, forcing Odili’s driver to buy fuel from one of the boys alongside the road. But everywhere the car pulled over, the Governor was warned that he was about to buy what has become known in the Delta as “Asari fuel” and he had to drive sheepishly away to avoid the awkward publicity of being seen indirectly funding the activities of the NDPVF.

Asari rolled himself into a great ball of wheezing guffaws as he told this anecdote, slapping his fist on the table and letting his eyes fill with tears at every mention of “Asari fuel.” The assembled boys chuckled politely, but seemed far less amused by the story than the great mujahid.

*  *  *  *  

The anecdote might have been entirely apocryphal, and was not likely to be verified by anyone at the State House in Port Harcourt. But it seemed a little uncharitable for the boys not to be rolling on the floor with laughter along with their leader. After all, few would dispute the fact that in many parts of the Delta today anyone who runs out of fuel will be hard pressed to refill with anything other than illegally bunkered product. And when a state governor is forced to buy Asari fuel, you know the situation has reached a farcical extreme.

However, few of the Delta’s disgruntled youth see anything remotely comical about the epidemic proportions the illegal bunkering trade has taken on. Instead, most consider it a deadly serious game of chicken with the Nigerian state—a desperate cri de coeur from a lost generation that sees no other way to claim its hydrocarbon birthright. Everywhere you go in the Delta, you will hear the same story. Whether Ijaw or Itsekiri, Ogoni or Edo, lean and angry youth will look you straight in the eye if you ask them about illegal bunkering, and tell you “resource control begins here.” It is a slogan for a generation.

“Resource control” is a thorny issue for Nigeria, one that threatens the very unity of the country. In a nation where many people see themselves as Efik or Ibibio first and Nigerian second, it is very difficult to tell someone who is sitting on top of billions of dollars of petroleum wealth that his windfall must be shared with two hundred other ethnic groups—particularly when the immediate needs of his own community appear so pressing.

“The Niger Delta man, the Ogoni man, the Ijaw man, is as far from the Yoruba man or the Hausa man culturally, linguistically, and even physically, as Spain is from Norway, or as Portugal is from England.”

I was back in Lagos and had dropped in on a conference of social and environmental NGOs at the Lagos Airport Hotel, where I had had the good fortune to bump into Alfred Ilenre, an active and well-respected Edo elder and the head of EMIROAF, the Ethnic and Minority Rights Organization of Africa, and he was giving me his version of Nigeria 101. Dressed in a long, unadorned white agbada that swallowed up his sinewy features, Ilenre was doing his best to speak slowly and choose his words carefully, so that even a Western naif like me could understand.

“So you see,” he croaked magisterially, “the problem is that the only thing the federal government ever did was to give the oil companies a map of Nigeria and say, “go and find oil there.” In the local communities, they knew nothing of this. All they knew is that one day they see a white man come. They see him come with three black men, and start digging. And they ask them what they are doing, and the white man shows them a piece of paper from Abuja. This piece of paper means nothing to them, but the white man says it’s a piece of paper that says he is allowed to dig in the backyard of my house. It says nothing about whether this might be our ancestral home.

“So of course, inevitably, the people get angry. Lagos and Abuja could be New York or London to these people. You have in the Niger Delta people who are illiterate, who have lived eighty years and never even been to Lagos. Some have never even been more than five miles from their village, or as far as Port Harcourt. And all they know is that you’re coming with technology, to distort their peace, their serenity, and their survival. And Shell says to them, ‘if you want compensation, go to Lagos, go to Abuja.’ But these people don’t know Lagos, they don’t know Abuja. So they hold you responsible. They say, ‘White man, we don’t know what is happening, but we hold you responsible.’”

Oil companies are quick to point out that they are in Nigeria to drill for oil, not to run charities or act as surrogates for failing government agencies. They are also quick to point out that they respect all relevant laws and regulations and act in accordance with their contractual obligations. These arguments, while not unreasonable, tend to obscure the fact that, for decade after decade, Nigeria was ruled by a succession of military regimes, each of which came to power by overthrowing its predecessor in a coup, and most of which treated the Nigerian state’s contracts with multinational oil companies as a license to print money for themselves and their families. Foreign oil companies operating in Nigeria went out of their way not to rock the boat, cozying up to corrupt dictators and asking for (and getting) brutal military protection every time they felt their facilities were threatened by protesters. For years, the closest thing they had to a long-term strategy of community relations was an unofficial policy of paying off communities to let them work in peace. But it was too easy, and too simplistic, to tick off the various crimes and misdemeanors of the international oil companies and point a sanctimonious finger at the big bad oil man.

In fact, during the time I was in Nigeria, it was possible to detect in several of the supermajors a growing willingness to say, Look, we know we’ve made a lot of mistakes, and we’ve been burnt; but, honestly, at this point we’re not quite sure what we can do to make this thing work. There was a certain bluntness, a modest attempt at transparency where once there had been only defensiveness and secrecy. Chevron, for example, had taken out two-page ads in Nigerian newspapers, acknowledging in rather unambiguous language the sins of the past and announcing a new approach to community relations—a so-called Global MoU to supersede all previous MoUs signed with host communities. The divisive concept of “host communities” was to be scrapped, in fact, and replaced by more formalized and geographically inclusive “Regional Development Councils.”

But it was hard to escape the conclusion that it might all be too little too late. There are people of genuine goodwill working for the oil companies, many of whom are determined to find a way to earn that elusive and much talked-about “SLO” (social license to operate) that makes it possible for their employers to work in peace in the Delta. But increasingly, alongside good intentions and innovative approaches to community and media relations, there is also a mood of resignation and gathering despair, a feeling that things may have gone too far, too deep, in a way that no amount of goodwill can turn around. “The Pope himself could not fix things now,” was the way one activist described the situation of the Delta to me. “He would just be corrupted or killed or co-opted by one group or another. Today, every little boy in Nigeria is talking about ‘big money,’ not hard work. People are assassinating one another to become local councillors. How can you turn something like that around?”

And indeed, throughout 2005 and 2006, the situation in the Niger Delta continued to deteriorate. After Dokubo Asari’s arrest in late 2005 the NDPVF appeared to lose momentum. But it was quickly replaced by another Ijaw group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), that demanded the immediate release of Dokubo as well as Governor Alamaseyeiegha (who by then had been impeached and rearrested by allies of Obasanjo). MEND appeared to incorporate many former NDPVF fighters and swore to be even more ruthless and uncompromising than its predecessors. In January 2006, MEND burst into the headlines when it kidnapped four Shell employees and held them for nineteen days before releasing them on “humanitarian grounds.” In February, nine oil workers were kidnapped in the Delta and a crude-oil pipeline owned and operated by Shell blown up. In May, eight more hostages, most of them American, British, and Canadian, were taken and quickly released, as were five South Koreans a few days later. By the middle of 2006, the number of oil workers taken hostage in the Delta stood at over sixty, a grim new record for the region.

Instance of pipeline vandalism also increased. In October 2005, a pipeline fire in Delta State killed about sixty people. In December, armed men in speedboats dynamited a Shell pipeline in the Opobo Channel. In January 2006, a pipeline attack from the Brass Creek fields to the Forcados terminal forced Shell to cancel its delivery commitments to the end of February. Additional attacks in February extended the force majeure indefinitely. Throughout most of 2006, some 800,000 barrels of oil a day—30 percent of Nigeria’s output—was shut in thanks to militant activity in the Delta.

And all this in a country that once had so much hope, a country that oil was going to make powerful and prosperous beyond its wildest dreams. The story was never supposed to end this way. But economists will tell you that what has happened in Nigeria is the result of an almost insurmountable confluence of structural changes that nearly always accompanies a resource boom in a Third World country. They will remind you that there is a name for this phenomenon. It is called the “curse of oil.”

That just about says it all, doesn’t it? That is, in many ways, not just the African but the American condition in the early years of the twenty-first century, and it’s very hard to argue with. The Arabs have let us down, the environmentalists won’t let us drill in Alaska, and even dear little Venezuela’s getting cocky. So what are we to do?

Outside that call center in Fargo, where I placed my ticket order what seems like a lifetime ago, there will be a parking lot. It will be a checkerboard of Buick LeSabres and Chevy Caprices and light trucks and, yes, even an SUV or two. None of the people strapped into cubicles and headsets all day will have another way of getting home after they’re done booking people on flights to Lagos. There is no bus they can hop on, as there would be almost anywhere else in the developed world. America just wasn’t built that way. We take our personal comfort seriously, and treat its instant realization as a sort of extreme sport. The corollary (and our collective Achilles’ heel as a nation, as we all know) is the amount of nonrenewable energy it takes to maintain that way of life and its undeniable effect on the developing world.

But Fargo was right. Until someone comes up with a better idea, we have to get it from somewhere.


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