The Onshore Effect
“i bet you don’t dare touch the salad.”
It was my first week in Africa, and I must have looked every inch the amateur because I was being teased mercilessly.
“It’s fine, you know. It’s not going to make you sick. Not like the salads you get in London.”
I was at lunch with Adwoa Edun, a Ghanaian-born, half-British owner of a Lagos bookshop who also happens to be married to a senior politician in the Lagos State government. Between lashings of gentle mockery, she was giving me her perspective as an expatriate African who had made Nigeria an adopted homeland.
“Nigerians have a tolerance level that is beyond any I have ever seen,” she said. “You know, living in Nigeria, there are so many times when I have thought to myself, okay, this is it, Adwoa. We are going to have to pack our bags now. Where are we going to go? But then, every time, the country just somehow muddles through.”
Sooner or later, every expatriate conversation about Nigeria comes around to some version of this conclusion—that here is a country with an unparalleled knack for survival, an almost inspired ability to lurch from crisis to crisis, even to the point of what to outside eyes resembles anarchy, before retreating from the brink and sliding back into a low-intensity seethe.
Most such conversations then turn to the subject of oil, and the volatile politics of the Niger Delta. Ours was no exception. Adwoa had no special expertise on the matter, but I had declared my intention to visit the Delta, so she agreed to give me a little friendly advice. She took my pen and notepad, and drew three large dots about an inch apart, which she labeled “Benin City,” “Sapele,” and “Warri.” Bisecting Sapele, she drew a pair of faint wavy lines. On the Benin side of the wavy lines, she wrote peace. On the Warri side: trouble.
“Living in Lagos,” she said, “this is all we ever really know about the Delta. That if you head southeast, there is only so far you can go before you start to run into trouble.”
“Trouble,” in my limited experience, is a word people use when they are trying not to say “war.” Growing up, I heard the conflict in Northern Ireland described by successive British governments as “the Troubles,” before it was finally put to a peace process. It’s one of those words, like “inclement” or “unhygienic,” all middle-class and squeamish, that masks the true extent of the lurking horror. It’s the kind of word that stops a conversation before it starts to get awkward; that signals, with a flick of the eyebrow and the tapping of a pen, that no more questions will be entertained today, thank you very much. “There’s been some trouble,” to the foreign journalist in Africa, generally means the shit has hit the fan.
By anyone’s definition, the Niger Delta today is a place of troubles. Gangs of teenagers cruise the creeks and swamps in speedboats, bristling with automatic weapons. Oil is sucked out of pipelines under cover of night and sold on the black market to raise money for rival warlords. Foreign oil workers are routinely kidnapped and held for ransom. Flow stations and other oil installations are attacked and vandalized, and a general climate of impunity infects the most mundane of interactions.
Trying to untangle—much less convey—the complexities and contours of the troubles in the Niger Delta could easily become the work of a lifetime; but, as with most human conflict, its causes can be boiled down to money, land, and ethnic rivalry. The Niger Delta is made up of nine states, 185 local government areas, and a population of 27 million. It has forty 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 of 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 has been 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. Education is patchy, with one secondary school for every 14,000 people. There are few public services available in the Delta, and those that do exist are difficult to reach because there are no roads. 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, caught between the security forces hired by international oil companies to guard their multimillion-dollar networks of pipelines and flow stations, the roving bands of angry ethnic militias determined to disrupt their operations, and the soldiers and special police units of the Nigerian state—all sides armed to the teeth—the distinction is largely academic. 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.
Even the most conservative estimates of the death toll—perhaps a thousand people every year—...