A few years ago, I was asked for an interview for a narrative non-fiction book, The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35. I recently realized that I hadn’t yet shared it here, so the unedited transcript is below. The interview is part of my commitment to making understandings about Africa more accessible to those outside academia. Everyone should have an opportunity to increase their knowledge about a complex region so vital to our understanding of history, economics, and world politics.
The Impact of Oil – Niger Delta, Nigeria
THE IMPACT OF OIL
Niger Delta, Nigeria
An interview with Laine Strutton, interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Law & Society at New York University
OFF TO THE DELTA: I first arrived in Nigeria with nothing more than an out-of-date guidebook and my backpack. I was halfway through my PhD when I began to focus on this country, and I decided to write my dissertation on the Niger Delta oil conflict. During several months of my own field research there, I waded through toxic rivers and shared a canoe with crocodile.
EFFECTS ON THE ENVIRONMENT: Since oil was first commercially drilled in the delta in 1958, there has been virtually no oversight of its environmental impact by oil companies or the government, and spills are an immense problem. After the BP and Deep Water Horizon accident of 2010, I heard several claims that the same quantity of oil released into the Gulf of Mexico in just that one spill has slowly been released dozens of times in the Niger Delta. Unfortunately, most people don’t pay as much attention to the spills in Nigeria because they occur slowly over time, due to eroding pipelines and tampering, as opposed to the singular, dramatic, large-scale accidents that you hear about in the media. While offshore spills from oil rigs are certainly concerning for the local communities of this region, onshore leaking and exploding pipelines are just as problematic because they poison the rivers from which community members fish and the land that they farm. If you wade in the many rivers in the Niger Delta you can see the oil floating on the top of the water and dead fish washed up on the riverbanks. There are few sources of clean water in the Delta, so thousands of women end up using polluted river water to cook for their families, wash dishes, and bathe their children. Communities are also breathing in toxic gas flares that have been burning for years.
HEALTH: It is extremely difficult to study the health impacts of environmental damage. Logistically, the Niger Delta has few roads and most rural community members travel by canoe, which would be challenging for a team of health researchers with equipment. Such researchers would rarely have access to electricity and would need to bring along most of their own food and water. Secondly, it is not an easy region for outsiders, particularly foreigners, because there are serious problems with robbery, kidnappings for ransom, and more. Even if these challenges were overcome, so many other factors there would make it problematic to identify environmental damage as the sole cause of certain health problems. For example, the Niger Delta has an extremely high infant mortality rate. Although that could be due to, for example, babies and pregnant women consuming oil-polluted water, the water could also be harmful in other ways—a lack of indoor plumbing in homes or waste seepage into shared water. On further speculation, the infant mortality rate could result from nutrition issues, lack of prenatal and postnatal care, unidentified genetic birth defects, or anything else. So, any study certainly could yield a correlation between oil spills and health problems, but proving causality would be complicated because there would be so many other variables to take into consideration.
DIVIDED RESPONSIBILITY: I would say that the average Niger Deltan community member would identify the foreign oil companies, the largest one being Shell, as the main culprit of conflict and pollution. They see the oil company vehicles on the roads, they may have passed the guarded compounds where companies house their employees, and they see the logos on oil equipment. The companies are clearly outsiders, so an “us versus them” mentality easily arises. However, in my longer discussions with both individuals and groups, the issue of government accountability also came up. For example, one could argue whether the nature of capitalism does not require companies to be morally accountable in the same way that democracy requires governments to be morally accountable. The primary function of corporations is to make profit, but the primary function of governments is, simply put, to stop bad things from happening to their citizens. But, Niger Deltans know that the federal government, in conjunction with foreign oil companies, is enjoying immense oil profits—yet the people themselves live without electricity, clean water, reliable roads, access to hospitals, and funded schools. They wonder among themselves, “Where is all the money from oil going?” People are frustrated and angry that government representatives, or others who they call “Big Men,” are not engaged in economic development at the local level. They feel that such development is particularly important because of how oil activities have negatively impacted their traditional forms of livelihood. There is a sense that the government and oil companies together should offer some type of compensation for the environmental destruction that now hinders local economies.
WOMEN AND MOBILIZATION: I became interested in women’s resistance to the Niger Delta oil industry because it seems to have emerged quite suddenly, although women’s protests in West Africa are certainly not new. After Nigeria’s transition to democracy there was a spat of female-led marches and sit- ins against oil companies in the Rivers and Delta State, starting in 2002. The biggest protest occurred at Chevron’s Escravos oil terminal for ten days that July. For the first time on such a massive scale, some 600 Itsekiri women of the Niger Delta staged an anti-oil occupation of the extraction site. They made claims against Chevron and the government, alleging illegal appropriation of property, broken economic- development contracts, and environmental damage caused by oil spills and gas flares. It received a lot of media coverage because during the occupation the women exposed their bare bodies to shame male officials with the “curse of nakedness.” Behind the curse, there is a belief that the breasts of a mother are sacred and that showing them to a man in protest is like saying, “Look, I gave you life from these breasts so you must listen to me.” In some places in West Africa they say that seeing the bare chest of a mother can make a man go crazy or blind. An employee who was there during the Escravos takeover also said that women had left symbolic branches and leaves on the oil equipment to curse the company. This occupation immediately inspired additional takeovers, which involved over a thousand women at six different sites. Away from the oil terminals, female vendors in the region responded to the call for anti-oil action by closing their market stalls and cutting off urban food supplies near extraction sites. Male workers joined in the occupations with their own labor stoppages and women forced out unionized workers who had refused to strike. It is significant to note that men sometimes liked to bring women into marches because soldiers and police are less likely to use force if women are involved. There is a strong cultural taboo against using public violence against women, especially older ones, so women may march in front of men to act as a buffer.
WHAT WOMEN WANT: These protesting women had communal and sometimes nonspecific demands. First and foremost, they wanted jobs for their husbands and sons. Aside from that, most told me that they wanted the companies or government to provide electricity, water, and roads, as well as build schools and hospitals. To a lesser extent, they also were asking for the company to clean up the environment so that they could continue fishing and farming (although by some scientific assessments the Niger Delta ecosystem may not fully recover in our lifetimes). The more ardent protesters, specifically the Ogonis who followed Saro-Wiwa, said that if companies can’t do these things then they should leave Nigeria altogether.
THE CHIEFS: There are chiefs of varying levels of power in the Niger Delta, from a low clan chief to the kingdom chief, and they are powerful enough that I could not enter a village without paying a visit to at least the local chief if not also those above him. In the first community I visited, a local taxi driver called ahead to tell the chief I was coming. I then had to show up with kai kai, or locally distilled liquor, as my offering. I sat in the chief’s living room as he and his men asked me questions about why I wanted to walk through his community and what my financial stake was there. After explaining that I just wanted to gather field data, he poured a capful of kai kai over the threshold of his front door and sang incantations to the spirit in the local language, Ogoni. This means he prayed to the ancestors for my safety during my time there. Then we drank the kai kai together, meaning that I had his permission to be there. He sent out word to community members that it was all right with him that they talk to me. I then had to repeat this kai kai ceremony at several other higher chief’s palaces until the king said that I didn’t need to see anyone higher than him. This was all very important to gaining access because as such a clear outsider, community members would have been very suspicious of me talking with them.
A COMPLEX REALITY: Something that’s interesting is that my conversations in the field about oil protests indicated that local chiefs had a heavy hand in instigating these demonstrations. In rural areas, the law of a chief is far more powerful than that of the government, and as my interviewees said, “Chief’s law goes.” In many instances the chief sent a town crier through the community announcing the day and location of the march. A protest may serve the chief’s interest as much as the community members’ because he may be rewarded by the company or the government for ending the demonstration and for keeping the peace. Also, if the company or the state offers concessions, such as funding for social amenities, those funds are going to be controlled by the chief. In this sense, whether the women or other protesters succeed or fail, the chief may benefit. Since these leaders hold so much power in daily life, it isn’t necessarily surprising that those same power dynamics would be reproduced in the social movement. So essentially, I went to Nigeria looking for a story of increased political and rights activity among the women, but what I found was far more complex.