ED KASHI
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May 15, 2009

Another University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, student Elise Aikman shares her insights in “Oil, Injustice, and Hope: You Can See it in Their Eyes”. Throughout her writing, Elise eloquently describes photographs that provide glimpses into the personal lives of several Nigerians – the complete essay is a must-read!

However, the heart, soul, and essence of Elise’s writing are best captured in her original poem:


“Page 213, Photograph of MEND militants: a poem by Elise Aikman”

The black mask
swaddles his head in its anonymous skin.
It hides his features (nose, forehead, the upper lip’s bow),
to inspire terror, to make you forget
you are looking at a human being.
The only feature of that malignant shadow clinging to his head,
is a wide mouth, and in its gullet are the hard whites of his eyes.

For some reason, when I looked at his eyes,
I thought of his mother, whoever she may be.

Did she live long enough
on the ashen face of that once-beaming land,
to see her son seated in a motorboat, as it churns the oil-thick river
to foamy phlegm—the kind that sticks in your throat and threatens to choke?
Did she see him gripping a machine gun with the same firm trust
with which he once
held her hand?

Elise, thank you for your provocative writing and compelling poetry!

PLEASE read Elise’s essay in its entirety by clicking below.

Elise Aikman
Modern Africa
Paper on Curse of the Black Gold
Due 7 April 2009

Oil, Injustice, and Hope: You Can See it in Their Eyes

Part I.
A young woman sits on the floor, looking directly up at the viewer. Much of her body is in shadow, but her face catches the light from an unseen window. Although there are brighter colors elsewhere in the photo (bright blue floor, her colorful skirt, a little boy’s red shorts), her eyes immediately focus the viewer’s attention. Her gentle face, which neither smiles nor frowns, communicates profound emotion that is impossible to adequately verbalize. Her expression and the directness of her gaze are arresting; they make a compelling invitation to the viewer, to briefly enter her world.

This photograph on pages 108-109 of Curse of the Black Gold is an intimate view inside what is probably a typical Nigerian home. A small child sprawls on the floor, asleep. His belly looks swollen, likely from undernourishment, and he wears no clothes except for a little pair of red shorts. There is simple wooden furniture, and no electricity. This is the world of Ebia Amakady.

This photograph’s intimacy and honesty, especially Ebia’s face, as she sits beside her sleeping child, create immediate empathy in the viewer. On the one hand, this causes the reader to move from a purely conceptual, academic interest in the articles of the book, to an interest in the life of an individual. It guides us from the political to the personal, by allowing a glimpse into the life of a real person, who is affected by the economic and political issues discussed in the articles. Alternatively, the photograph might work in the other direction, by captivating an uninterested or indifferent viewer’s attention, and inducing them to read the articles about the situation in Nigeria. Personally, when I look at that young woman who lives without electricity, has probably not received an education, is a year younger than I am, and already has a child, I want to help her. That is the simple yet profound achievement of this photograph.

This photograph gains even greater depth when compared with the two-page spread immediately preceding it. Like the photograph of Ebia and her son, this one also portrays a small boy and an adult. Unlike Ebia’s son however, this boy sprawls on a plush leather couch, while an older man (King Egi, according to the caption on page 105), looks on from an expensive-looking armchair. An additional contrast is the presence of electric lighting. This opulent room was furnished with oil revenue from the Total/Elf company.

The authors’ choice to put these photographs next to each other in the order of the book, highlights the inequality with which oil revenue is distributed in Nigeria. It also hints at the extractive economic system’s corruption and lack of transparency, since it is likely that some of the funds poured into King Egi’s abode were meant for community development instead, to help people like Ebia and her son. The contrast between these photographs illustrates the unfair sharing of revenue that Oronto Douglas points out as a major problem in Now is the Time. It also shows the complicity of local leaders in the extractive system, as long as they receive some of the profits from the major oil companies.

Part II.

Page 213, Photograph of MEND militants: a poem by Elise Aikman

The black mask
swaddles his head in its anonymous skin.
It hides his features (nose, forehead, the upper lip’s bow),
to inspire terror, to make you forget
you are looking at a human being.
The only feature of that malignant shadow clinging to his head,
is a wide mouth, and in its gullet are the hard whites of his eyes.

For some reason, when I looked at his eyes,
I thought of his mother, whoever she may be.

Did she live long enough
on the ashen face of that once-beaming land,
to see her son seated in a motorboat, as it churns the oil-thick river
to foamy phlegm—the kind that sticks in your throat and threatens to choke?
Did she see him gripping a machine gun with the same firm trust
with which he once
held her hand?

As Michael Watts related, members of MEND are “not communist, not capitalist, they are just bitter men.” The photograph that inspired this poem reveals one outcome of decades of prevalent local poverty and neglect. Their eyes show bitterness because they know that a select few gain enormous wealth from the resources that are extracted from their land, while they themselves and their villages have barely received any benefits in fifty years of oil exports. Their anger and frustration with Nigeria’s extractive economic system and corrupt government is at once very apparent and understandable. But it also is not difficult to see MEND becoming a part of the very cycle it rebels against.

We might conceptualize the cycle beginning with the corrupt government, which denies its citizens a voice in decision-making and ignores their needs, maintaining itself through oil revenue and military force in place of accountability to the Nigerian people. Eventually a group of armed militants like MEND might succeed in violently overthrowing the government, resulting in yet another military government whose source of authority is sheer force, and probably oil wealth. The cycle repeats itself, while the Nigerian people continue to be excluded from the control and benefits of their resources. Although MEND might serve a purpose by bringing international attention to the situation in Nigeria, it surely cannot bring about the type of direct resource control and transparent government that the Nigerian people desire. As Dimieari Von Kemedi concludes in Nero’s Folly, “there is no military solution to the crisis in the Delta” (191).

Von Kemedi’s conclusion is confirmed in an immediate way
by the photograph of Patrick Oghogho’s severely burned body (pages 206-207). According to the caption, this man suffered his injuries during a military attack on Port Harcourt, while he lay in his bed. These two pages of severely burned flesh create a visceral reaction of shock and horror in the viewer; it is almost physically painful to look at the raw yellow, black, and pinkish wounds erupting over most of his arms, hands, chest, and even his forehead. It is difficult to imagine the agony he has endured. This photograph offends the viewer’s sense of justice because the victim was completely innocent; his suffering is both horrific and senseless.

Aside from the injustice embodied by this photograph, there is the practical consideration that a nation in need of economic development should not cause the hospitalization of healthy 27-year-old men. Nigeria needs young men for its work force. As Oronto Douglas urges in Now is the Time, “government must provide employment opportunities” (143), so that the immense human capacity can be put to work productively. He also advocates sustainable development, governmental accountability and transparency, good resource management, corporate social responsibility, and fair sharing of revenue as aspects of a comprehensive non-military solution to Nigeria’s poverty and turbulence.

Perhaps the need for employment could be matched with the need for community development, if the government used some of the oil revenue to pay otherwise jobless young people to build infrastructure or sustainable drinking water systems in their villages. This might keep young people out of violent movements like MEND, by directing their energy toward productive community development instead. It is likely that institutions and policies will play a central role in Nigeria’s future. Bad institutions and policies have certainly contributed to the unfair revenue distribution, poverty, and turmoil that have been so prevalent in Nigeria’s recent history; it is not unreasonably to hope that better ones might be able to put Nigeria on the upswing.

Categories: Educational, Shout Outs

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