Oil, sex, health, and politics in the Niger Delta

John Otim
John Otim: Editor of Nile Journal, Poet, Novelist, Critic.




If you took away the $101.7billion petro dollars that the Niger Delta brings yearly to the Nigerian economy the government would collapse. Nigeria in all probability would become a failed state. The oil revenue is a huge sum of money by any standards and makes up as much as 90% of the Country’s entire budget. The fierce completion for political power in Nigeria is about the control of oil money. The inevitable result is the corruption, bad governance and lack of freedom..

The huge chunk of territory to the south that they call the Niger Delta where River Niger and River Benue converge, and empty their contents into the Atlantic Ocean, was once one of the most pristine and most beautiful spots on the Globe.  

In the Niger Delta, the mangrove forests that cover the creeks were green and dense. Here the water was crystal clear and the fish plentiful. The energetic communities that live here once fished the waters and farmed the land. In the warm tropical climate with a minimum of exertion they could expect to enjoy the good life. No more. Today the life of the people of the Niger Delta is a nightmare. Their livelihood is gone, their health is impaired, and their poverty is acute.

Decades of oil mining in the Niger Delta wrought destruction upon the land and brought a curse upon its simple people. Much of the region is today wasteland; filled with stunted trees, burnt out forests, and useless rivers and creeks laden with crude oil and the wastes from the oil industry.

It is reported that on the average 240,000 barrels of crude oil are spilled into the Niger Delta every year. When the accident and the spillage occurred in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 there was huge cry. But that was nothing compared to the Niger Delta. Since production began in 1958 over 13 million barrels of crude oil or 1.5 million tons has leaked into this once pristine land. Walking through the former mangrove forest the evidence is everywhere. You see the scale of the damage and the destruction.. Here truly is the Garden of Eden in Decay.

For the people that live here and that depend on this land, oil production has brought nothing good. In a conversation in Port Harcourt, the oil capital of Nigeria, a man cried out: I wish to God we never had oil in our land! It is a course upon our people! The Niger Delta is a land blessed and cursed! In the midst of plenty the people endure a life of great poverty. Their rivers don’t yield fish any more. Their land bears poisoned fruits and deadly crops. Folks have acquired new ailments they did not suffer from before. Studies are beginning to show that rate of cancer is higher in the Niger Delta than anywhere else in Nigeria.  

Many of the young women must make a living by selling themselves to the international oil bosses who brought this woe to their land. In the unequal relationship the girls are virtual sex slaves in a lawless world; used, abused and discarded.  A new generation of fatherless kids, children of the oil bosses and their privileged workers have grown up in squalor and absolute poverty next door to the splendid quarters of their fathers. Today they make easy recruits for the burgeoning crime industry in the Niger Delta feed into the rampant armed robberies in the country.

Supper rich multinational oil companies like Shell who brought about the catastrophe, scoop billions of dollars daily out of the land and walk away. They will not provide support to the communities their activities have ruined. They will not clean up after the mess they have made. They blame the tragedy on saboteurs. The government that should hold them to account does not because it is corrupt. Government leaders and government agencies provide cover for the multinationals in return for a chunk of the oil loot.

Corruption created the situation in the Niger Delta and brought it to ahead: In the shape of the armed struggles wedged by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta or MEND. It was the late 1990s when the youths and leaders of the Niger Delta who for years patiently petitioned their government, traveled as a group to Abuja to present their case in the capital to the well heeled leaders of their country.

When they saw it they could not believe the opulence of the brand new city their own money had created. They marveled at the riches before their eyes and tore up their petition. They returned home to the Niger Delta and vowed to strike back. We will show them!

Soon they launched a bitter armed struggle against the government and the oil companies. It created greater awareness for their cause but it wasn’t a solution. The government hit back indiscriminately. The violence escalated, the spillage continued and the scale of the problem in the Niger Delta grew even worse. After years of fighting and kidnapping that all but crippled business and spilled over to other parts of the country, the government and the multinationals bought off the youths.

It brought respite but it was no solution either! The road to a just and long lasting solution lay instead in good governance, transparency and justice for all.  Although the violence subsided following the payoff, the oil spillage has continued. Conditions have grown worse for the people of the Niger Delta. The entire country is worse off for it. 

Boko Haram, a malevolent force and a byproduct of the bad governance and lack of social justice that created the problem of the Niger Delta, is on the rampage in northern Nigeria and threatens to swallow the entire country.

As Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania today embark on their own crude oil programs; they could do well to look at Nigeria and remember the Niger Delta. Uganda’s own new oil riches are located on the pristine shores of Lake Albert in the fabled Kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara. Will this be another Niger Delta?