I return to the Niger Delta under a foreboding sky filled with rain clouds that shroud a burning hot sun. It has been seven years since I was last here. I have returned to work on a film about the village of Bodo, which experienced two major oil spills from a Shell pipeline in 2008 and 2009. The community was represented by a London law firm and received a £55 million settlement in 2015. This was a first for any community in the Niger Delta. We have come to tell this story and make a film that will help other communities facing incoming extractive industries to prepare themselves to protect and secure their environments and livelihoods. The frustrating part of this story, one that is all too familiar to me from my past experiences here, is that while the compensation has benefited some, it has also deepened fissures in the community and created tensions over who got what and why some individuals didn’t get more. The people of this region have been robbed of their patrimony and rights by the federal government for decades. The oil and gas that has been exploited from their ancestral lands has brought not wealth, profit or investment, let alone the most basic elements of civilized life; running water, electricity, roads, schools, hospitals, sewage or training institutes. The money that was supposed to help them rebuild has instead sown division and enmity. When companies like Shell fail to prevent these kinds of disasters, they create problems that run much deeper than financial compensation.
It is important to remember that outsiders have come to this region for over 300 years solely to extract resources. Slaves were the first to be taken in the 1600 and 1700s, then palm oil in the 1800s, then crude oil in the 1900s, and now, in the 21st century, natural gas is the latest resource that foreign companies are after. There have always been local middlemen who benefited from every kind of extraction, usually at the expense of the masses. Even when a photographer or filmmaker comes here, it is perceived that we are taking something that will make us rich, so the local middlemen feel entitled to get a piece of the action. Whether asking me and my local representatives for money or demanding payment for access, this is a constant issue in the Niger Delta. I never pay for access and it sometimes creates problems. This dynamic translates into an almost constant request for money to make a photo, record someone’s story and when it gets ugly, can develop into a violent or at the very least threatening situation for the journalist, in my case. This kind of corruption would be comical if it weren’t for the underlying current of simmering anger that so often erupts into violence. It can get dangerous very quickly when nearly everyone you meet believes you have some kind of ulterior motive. I’ve experienced this first-hand in the past, but was fortunate enough to avoid such pitfalls on this trip.
The Niger Delta is the third largest wetland in the world, covering the southern tip of Nigeria. It’s a mostly Christian region that is rich in oil and gas, making Nigeria one of the top ten producers of oil and gas in the world. Oil was first pumped out of the Niger Delta in 1958 and in the decades since it has made this region poorer while foreign companies have made billions. As time goes on the region is becoming more environmentally soiled, while its people grow increasingly embittered.
My past experiences here have been rich. The dynamism and strength of the people of Nigeria is stunning. They are entrepreneurial and smart. But they are also poor, angry and frustrated, especially in the Delta. The truly remarkable thing is that in the midst of all this, there is also joy. This is one of the the paradoxes of working in this region and it’s what creates such a unique mixture that invariably engulfs a visitor such as me. I can’t wait to leave, but I can’t wait to return. What is most deeply troubling to me is how paranoid and mistrustful everyone is, and how this mistrust is present in equal measure with both outsider and neighbor.
The Delta is filled with angry young men with no prospects for their futures. Unfortunately, I fail to see any other outcome other than this violence and distrust. It’s a travesty that in the 60 year history of oil in the Niger Delta, there has been no attempt to build a robust network of technical and training facilities to nurture local talent in any significant way, and build a substantial middle class. Most people in the Niger Delta live without running water, electricity, paved roads, decent schools or medical facilities. It’s a disgrace that this has been allowed to happen, while hundreds of billions of dollars has been created by the natural resources of this vast region. Yes there are engineering programs in local universities, but it boggles my mind to think that the government and oil companies have not invested in the futures of the local people by finding ways for them to work in and become invested in the dominant industry of the region. It is little wonder that many of the local young men grow up angry. They were born into a region whose populace have no other choice but to watch as their ancestral lands are gutted and their livelihoods destroyed.
From my vantage point, this issue of indignant young men with no hope for a better future is a problem that impacts our world in more places than just Nigeria. The violence coming out of the Niger Delta is a prime example of what happens when a population’s hope is destroyed. Just this week a major attack took place on a pipeline in the delta. Here is a news report, which demonstrates why this problem will never be solved unless a more equitable solution is found.
The outrage and boiling frustration of the people here is unabated. While their lands have created hundreds of billions of dollars of wealth from oil and gas, their plight is worse than when before oil was discovered in 1957. Much of the Delta’s rich land is ruined and can no longer sustain agriculture, while the people’s ancestral fishing grounds are depleted like never before. What has happened here is simply appalling. More outrageous still is that it continues to prevail. The oil companies, in cahoots with the federal government of Nigeria, have created one of the most unfair economic situations in the world today. I am amazed that the people of the Niger Delta are not more outraged. Oil has truly been a curse to the people of Nigeria, corrupting the culture and community life of the Niger Delta.