Up against the oil

Feb 3, 1999 at 12:00 am


At first, the other boat was nothing more than a gray hump on the wide, green horizon. But as it drew closer, we could see that the men aboard were carrying automatic rifles.

Oboko Bello leaned toward the ear of the man piloting our boat and whispered something beneath the roar of the outboard engines. Our boat was fast, perhaps fast enough to outrun the other. But this was not Bello’s plan. We turned toward the soldiers.

Bello pocketed the little bottle of rum he had been sipping since dawn, and squinted into the sunlight. His men exchanged nervous glances.

A man shouted from the other boat. Bello shouted back, and grinned. We laughed with relief. These were soldiers loyal to the Federated Niger Delta Ijo Communities, a rebel front that since October has choked off nearly a third of Nigeria’s $10 billion-a-year flow of crude oil. Bello is their political leader.

"You see, we have effective possession of the terrain," said Bello, a tall, serious man who travels everywhere with an armful of paperwork stuffed in a plastic bag. "No one moves on this part of the Niger Delta unless we allow it." He pressed his finger into my chest and repeated: "No one."

Our bright yellow speedboat continued on its way, slicing through the turquoise tidewater. The Ijo youth continued patrolling the wide river, challenging whomever they found.

Bello and the other leaders of this quixotic uprising are challenging the world’s largest oil companies to a showdown. Ashland, Chevron, Gulf, Mobil, Shell and Texaco all draw oil from Nigeria, the world’s 10th-greatest oil exporter. Roughly 40 percent of Nigerian crude flows to the eastern United States, where it is sold as heating fuel.

Bello and his fellow rebel leaders have thrown oil workers out of Ijo territory, and told them not to come back until they are willing to provide electricity, clean drinking water, employment and education for the Ijo people.

In doing so, the Ijo rebels have also challenged Nigeria’s historically brutal military regime. In retaliation against similar oil-related protests, the late Gen. Sani Abacha’s military police burned at least 27 villages of the nearby Ogoni people, slaughtered more than 1,800 people and hanged internationally renowned playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa along with eight other Ogoni activists. By 1995, these practices transformed Nigeria into the international pariah it remains today.

Gen. Absalami Abubakar, who took charge after Abacha’s unexpected death last June, is reluctant to mount an Abacha-style crackdown. Abubakar has pledged to restore democracy to Africa’s most populous nation. Encouraged by promises of trade relations and military hardware from President Clinton and other Western leaders, Abubakar has restrained the notorious "kill-and-go" death squads, released hundreds of political prisoners, welcomed the return of outspoken exiles, and scheduled national elections for February 27.

The Federal Republic of Nigeria relies on crude sales to supply 95 percent of its revenue. Whatever else it does, the new government will have to get the oil wells flowing in order to survive. Dozens of Ijo warriors have already died in skirmishes with military police. Hundreds more have died in government-encouraged ethnic fighting. A large-scale conflict in the jungles of the Niger Delta could drag this uneasy nation of 250 ethnic groups into a protracted civil war much larger than the one currently ravaging the Congo.

"Our survival is at stake," Bello said. "If you bring a gun to the delta, that gun will wind up in the hands of an Ijo boy. And he may use it against you."


Our little yellow boat rolled in its wake as we approached the quay at Batan, a village of thatch huts surrounded by hundreds of handmade wooden canoes. There is no running water, no electricity, no phone, no road.

Next door to the village stands the Ajuju-Batan flow station, a high steel platform loaded with pipes, tanks and gauges. Also part of the station are a radio tower, a helipad and a few houseboats.

Batan was among the first Ijo villages to join the uprising. On Oct. 4, a gang of men from the village made good on a threat issued a week earlier by Bello and the other leaders. Armed with nothing but wooden sticks and superior numbers, they watched as oil workers hastily shut down the station and fled. Similar gangs seized boats, helicopters, drilling rigs, and more than 20 other flow stations across the Niger Delta.

Until the uprising, Royal Dutch Shell had been withdrawing an average of 40,000 barrels of crude oil a day at Batan. Since 1963, Shell had drawn an estimated 500 million barrels of oil through these old pipes. And this isn’t even one of Shell’s top flow stations. The nearby Jones Creek flow station, one of the most productive in West Africa, was pumping an average of 150,000 barrels a day prior to the Ijo shutdown.

Shell first discovered oil in the Niger Delta in 1956, when Nigeria was still a British colony. And Shell had dominated the oil business here ever since. The company controls 60 percent of the nation’s vast oil reserves. Its low Nigerian operating costs — estimated at less than $2 a barrel — have helped make 10th-ranked Shell the most profitable oil company in the world.

But Batan and the hundreds of other Niger Delta villages that stand literally in the shadow of Shell’s flow stations have seen precious little of those profits. Though they are the fourth largest ethnic group in Nigeria, the Ijo are scattered across the lowlands of six Nigerian states and thus lack the political representation to win a share of the oil patronage. As a result, the government’s share of the oil revenue tends to get spent elsewhere. And Shell’s sporadic corporate charity programs have produced no lasting benefits.

What the villages have seen instead is pollution. Each flow station has a jet engine-sized flare that burns off the natural gas that bubbles up with the crude. Until these giant flares were extinguished last October, their high flames spread soot over everything and everyone nearby. These flares — there are more than a thousand of them across the delta — were like beacons that reminded the Ijo of their struggle to lead subsistence lifestyles in an increasingly polluted environment. Shell alone has admitted to burning off 1.1 billion cubic feet of natural gas each day, causing acid rain for the past 35 years. Shell has also spilled more than 56 million gallons of oil directly into the delta.

"This pollution drives so many fishes away from the village," said Batan community secretary Peter Nanaghan. "We have to travel five hours before we can find fish."


The water beneath our hull changes from green to black as we speed away from Batan. Deeper in the delta, each village seems poorer than the last. Men labor in tiny fields, bent at the waist for hours on end. Women and children stand naked in dugout canoes, skillfully casting fishing nets across the water.

The contrast between the lives of these Ijo villagers and those led by the oil workers grows more striking each time we pass another flow station. Before they fled, the oil workers lived aboard large, riverboat-style houseboats complete with fresh drinking water, electricity, air conditioning, modern kitchens, washing machines and satellite TV. Though few villagers have ever seen the TV shows, most can hum the tunes to popular syndicated television shows such as "Baywatch" or "Miami Vice" — because they heard these tunes drifting across the water each evening.

"We do not see them as friends. There is no reason to call an oil worker a friend," said King Samuel Evan, the soft-spoken leader of Operemor, a remote Ijo kingdom of 11 villages.

"They do a lot of damage to our culture," King Evan continued. "The men, they use their money to make the young women follow them. They lure young women to their houseboats. Girls at the age of 12 and 13 years old are already rowing out to see the oil workers. Many of them become pregnant."

At the urging of the oil workers — mostly college-educated Nigerian engineers from other ethnic groups — many of these teenage girls have abortions, villagers said. The only abortions available in remote Ijo villages are very crude. "Many of our girls die," King Evan said. "And few of those that survive are able to bear children."

Losing their sweethearts to oil workers further fuels the anger of Ijo boys. There are no paying jobs in these villages, and therefore no way for them to match the gifts of clothing or cheap jewelry provided by the relatively affluent oilmen.

"A lot of these boys are now educated. Yet they could not find jobs in the cities. So they come back to the villages, frustrated," King Evan said.

"Things that their fathers did not know, they now know. They know what the oil is worth. They know that Shell owes them some level of responsibility. They know about nonviolent struggle. When those actions did not produce any immediate results, they now result in violence."

The Ijo uprising began as a nonviolent protest. No oil workers have been killed, all hostages have been released, and little equipment has been damaged. Bello and the other Ijo leaders repeatedly stress the importance of a strictly nonviolent movement.

But a growing number of the poorest Ijo warriors have embraced the long-dormant cult of Egbesu. A mixture of animism and Christianity, Egbesu is believed to bestow upon its loyal followers special powers that will protect them from their enemies. Among other things, Egbesu men believe they are immune to bullets.

Defiant graffiti adorns the white steel walls of a Shell houseboat at the Egwa II flow station. In large black lettering, it reads: "WE ARE READY TO DIE."


By the time we approached the Chevron’s Abiteye flow station, the trees have grown so dense as to transform the delta’s winding creeks into twisted tunnels. Mangroves sprout from spiderlike tentacles in the tidewater; from the entangled branches overhead, a curtain of flowering vines falls back to the water.

The village next door, called Kiangbene, was remarkably poor, even by Niger Delta standards. A man named Dogood Okirika met us at the water’s edge wearing nothing but a bath towel. Okirika led us through the village and into a small wooden lodge. There we waited for the chief to arrive. As soon as he did, the chief dispatched a boy to fetch some beer, then settled into a white plastic lawn chair at the center of the lodge. The rest of us took our seats in handmade chairs of bamboo and wood.

Nailed to the whitewashed wall behind the chief was a giant Union Jack. The frayed and faded cotton flag was as high as a man and twice as long. The boy returned quickly with several bottles of Guinness. Once the rusty caps were pried off and the guests were served, the chief nodded. Okirika stood, and turned to me.

"Now you are in Ijo man’s land," he said. "You see how we live. We have no clean water because our rivers have been polluted. We have not enough fish to feed our families. We have no hospital for our sick. We have no school for our children."

Okirika paused. The men huddled around him nodded and made gentle clicking noises with their tongues. The chief studied me as I took notes. When I stopped writing, he nodded again. Okirika continued. "You see this with your own eyes. And you see the flow station. You know that Chevron is taking our oil. You know what that oil is worth. Now I ask you: Is this what an oil-producing community should look like?"

The clicking grew louder. Fists were raised in the general direction of the Chevron flow station. A few men pounded their bottles of warm beer on the dirt floor.

"We are not going to accept this forever. If Chevron thinks they can kill everybody and make the oil theirs, let them come."

While Shell is still smarting from the international drubbing it took in the wake of Saro-Wiwa’s execution, U.S.-based Chevron has admitted collaborating with the remnants of the Abacha regime to suppress Niger Delta uprisings.

Last May, Chevron used its own helicopters to airlift a mobile police "kill-and-go" squad to attack a group of people from a delta village called Ilajeland who had occupied Chevron’s Parabe Platform. Two of the protesting youths were shot dead and several others injured. And as recently as January 4th, Chevron reportedly airlifted soldiers to raid two villages known as Opia and Ikiyan. At least 10 people were reported killed.

"Let them come and kill us," Okirika concluded. "We are not running anywhere. This is Ijo man’s land. We have no other place to run to."


As the sleek yellow speedboat arced back into one of the delta’s major tributaries, Bello reached into the pocket of his oversized blue shirt and once again produced his little bottle of rum. At 40 years of age, Bello is among the oldest leaders of the current uprising. As a former elected official, he is also among the most high-profile targets in any future crackdown.

The tropical sun dropped quickly. Bello worried about the time. While the Ijo controlled the rivers, the government still commanded the cities. Martial law had been declared in Warri. A dusk-to-dawn curfew was being enforced. If we didn’t get back to the Warri waterfront at least 15 minutes before nightfall, we would all be at risk of detention.

The military had been reinforcing its troops in Ijo areas ever since March 1997, when the government of the Warri North community moved from an Ijo town called Ogbe-boh to a distant town of the Itsikiri, a rival ethnic group. The Ijo leaders believe this was part of the Nigerian government’s long-standing tradition of stirring up ethnic hatreds wherever it needed an excuse for the military to step in. In 1993, for example, the Abacha government portrayed its crackdown on Ogoniland as part of an effort to quell ethnic violence.

Unfortunately, the ploy works. After the government moved, Ijo mobs attacked Itsikiri communities, and the Itsikiri retaliated. This sideshow has made it easier for the oil companies to portray the Ijo uprising as nothing more than ethnic violence.

Bello sighed as the sprawling slums of Warri came into view. His movements ashore are threatened by the curfew. And the looming election threatens his uprising. But he is not alone.

"Every community is acting individually, but toward the same goal," King Evan had observed. "There are many youth leaders. Their demands are the same. So even if the government can arrest one, it cannot stop what is going on."

Divided & conquered

A nation cobbled together by business, named by a mercenery's wife.


The red, blue and green Christmas lights that trim the patio bar at the elegant Port Harcourt Polo Club would have seemed shockingly bright in any of the electricityless villages of the Niger Delta. But the little bulbs paled in the angry red light of the gas flares atop a refinery at the edge of Nigeria’s second largest city. The flares sounded like giant jet engines. Their flames leaped two stories high. They’ve lit up the night sky here for decades.

The sanguine glow shimmered off the club’s manicured grass field and immaculately trimmed shrubbery, both still glistening from a late afternoon shower. Oronto Douglas studied the gathering crowd as a waiter wiped our table. A couple of South African oil men laughed nearby. A few Nigerian Air Force officers lounged at the bar. Inside, a local juju band was warming up for an evening of Sunny Ade covers. The steely din added a measure of privacy.

"You must understand," Douglas said, after judging it safe to talk. "This is not the first time the Ijo man has fought against a foreign enterprise. … In the Niger Delta, we have long been on the receiving end of injustice, whether at the hands of British colonialists or native imperialist dictators. There is no difference. The common denominator is resource control."

Douglas is a prominent Nigerian lawyer and activist. He has helped found several of the nation’s more successful human rights and environmental organizations. He also happens to be Ijo.

"This place you call Nigeria was created by a multinational corporation, and named by the wife of a mercenary," he continued.

Sir George Taubman Goldie established the Royal Niger Company to harvest palm oil and other resources from the tropical Niger Delta. Palm oil, squeezed from palm tree kernels, was used for everything from engine lubricants to cosmetics. Goldie hired an ambitious mariner named Capt. Frederick Lugard to secure "free trade agreements" with the natives of what became known as the Oil Rivers region.

In reality, these contracts had little to do with trade — the natives received nothing in exchange for access to the palm kernels — and even less to do with freedom: Lugard turned Goldie’s guns on anyone who refused to sign.

As the lopsided nature of these so-called "free trade" deals became evident, an Ijo king named William Koko sought to renegotiate. Koko observed that the British believed that the paperwork itself somehow granted them the right to take whatever they liked from his kingdom. So Koko led an army of 1,200 men to the Royal Niger Company headquarters. Without harming the British clerks and foremen, Koko piled up all the company’s paperwork, doused it with palm oil and set it ablaze. The Ijo king then told the British to go home, and he and his men did likewise.

Lugard showed up at Koko’s village a short time later. He carried Maxim machine guns aboard his boats. His men emptied their magazines into mobs armed with nothing but hoes and hatchets. Thousands of Ijo villagers were slaughtered. Lugard left some of their severed heads on spikes at the river’s edge.

"Lugard called it a ‘pacification’ campaign," Douglas said. Goldie sold the rights and properties of the Royal Niger Company to the British government in 1898. Lugard was made a lord. And his wife Flora gave a name to the 250 distinct ethnic groups Lugard cobbled together: "She called it Nigeria."

This crazy quilt of a colony was ruled by Britain until 1960. But the British never unified Nigeria. Rather, the British administrators repeatedly fueled ethnic and religious conflicts among its former kingdoms in order to maintain control. The military dictators who have held the country together for all but a few years since independence practiced the same tactics.

"We have seen such deliberately engineered conflicts over and over again," Douglas said. "This divide-and-rule practice is known well throughout history."

The electricity flickered off in the bar, and the music died with it. We sat silently for a moment, basking together in the eerie red glow.

These polo fields themselves played a role in Nigeria’s most deadly divide-and-rule conflict. The short-lived Republic of Biafra used this section of Port Harcourt as a military staging area. Biafra seceded from Nigeria in 1967, after local ethnic Ibos declared their independence from the Muslim Hausa to the north and the Christian Yoruba to the west.

The Royal Dutch Shell Company had discovered oil near Port Harcourt in 1956. By the time independent Nigeria’s first democracy collapsed into civil war, European oil men were following Lugard’s footsteps into the Niger Delta. Sensing an opportunity to gain access to the oil-rich region, France and Portugal backed Biafra. The United States and Britain backed the nationalists. With such steady supplies of arms and ammunition flowing to both sides, an estimated 3 million Nigerians died before the bloody civil war ended.

After a generator kicked the power back on, several businessmen placed calls on their cellular telephones. Port Harcourt may have been part of colonial Britain and rebel Biafra, but the subsequent flood of oil money has left the garden city awash with the accouterments of any American suburb, including air conditioners, satellite TVs and shiny sport utility vehicles.

Nigeria today is among the world’s 10 leading exporters of crude oil, and a leading force in the OPEC cartel. Nigerian wells were pumping more than two billion barrels a day before the Ijo shutdown. Roughly half of that revenue goes to the oil companies. The rest goes to the Nigerian government. Almost none of the money reaches the oil-producing villages. Much of it can be seen in the luxurious suburbs of Lagos, Port Harcourt and the built-from-scratch capital of Abuja. This is because the club of military dictators who have kept the peace in Nigeria since the end of the Biafran war have evolved into a kleptocracy.

From time to time, the impoverished oil-producing communities have protested. In most instances, these complaints have been answered with Lugard-like brutality.

In the early ’90s, for example, a tiny ethnic group called the Ogoni began a campaign of civil disobedience to call attention to their plight, which was and still remains much like that of Ijo villages such as Kiangbene. Led by a charismatic poet and playwright named Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Ogoni struggle captured the attention of international environmental organizations.

The Royal Dutch Shell Company, which was responsible for more than 3,000 polluted sites in tiny Ogoniland, was embarrassed by the international attention. So the Nigerian military — with financial assistance, logistical support and even guns provided by Shell — mounted a Lugard-style assault. Some 1,800 Ogoni were slain. Twenty-seven villages were burned. And in 1995, after a sham trial, Saro-Wiwa was executed along with eight others. Douglas was one of Saro-Wiwa’s lawyers.

"From 1895 to 1995, from the Royal Niger Company to Royal Dutch Shell, from palm oil to crude oil, the story of exploitation and violence on our people and corporate rule has not changed."