What do we REALLY know about the Niger Delta?

Nigeria is possibly the world’s best known exemplar of Resource Curse. There are – literally – coffee table books of poor people covered in oil with polluted lakes and gas flares behind them. I have one. There’s even something a little disturbing about the degree to which the Delta has become disaster porn, a morality tale that we know our way around, where we are familiar with the plot, the characters, and how it all ends.

So it came as a surprise to me a few months ago when my friend Olumide Abimbola declared that nobody really knows anything about the Niger Delta. You’ve got to be joking, I said. I can Google a thousand and one papers. Yes, he said, but how many are based on actual information from the region? How many are ground up, not top down? Olu should know. He’s not just Nigerian, he’s an anthropologist and informed commentator and he’s looked into it. Forty years on, what we know about the peoples and societies of the Delta is scant at best. Just as Michael Herr said for American grunts Vietnam was not a country but a war, the Niger Delta is not a place and group of people but an issue – a multi-billion dollar headache or a contention in ongoing ideological debates, depending on where you stand.

Now Olu is setting out to fill that gap by compiling a complete bibliography of ground level research, and then gearing up Nigeria’s social science faculties to start filling the void. But the fact we’ve got this far without this is mind-boggling and begs the question: what do we know about the people of southern Iraq, the Yusuni native Ecuadoreans, or the peoples of West Papua – apart from their relationship to the Black Stuff?

Nigeria came to mind for three reasons this week. First, I read a great novel on the goings on in the Delta by Helon Habila. Second, a story broke about a major trial of oil thieves producing a rash of coverage of bunkering including the incredible estimate that it is still happening at the rate of nearly 200,000 barrels a day. And third, we started to think about adapting our generic book on oil contracts to write one solely on Nigeria’s much disputed contracts.

Habila’s book is a great read and “feels right”. The main protagonist is a young and intermittently ambitious journalist who tries to track down the wife of a British oil executive who’s been taken hostage by a group of militants. Whatever boxes the characters start in, the sheer anarchy of endless multi-party struggle soon brings them out of them. Both militants and soldiers are ruthless, villagers are caught in the middle and, disaggregated from the group. there are everyone’s personal motives to consider – the affronted lover, the megalomaniac commander, the angelic nurse, the hapless expat housewife (no plot spoiler, though). It’s very refreshing to see these people as… people.

Habila doesn’t get much into the specificity of local cultures or political economies. The complexity he presents is in that sense generic rather than empirical. The sheer scale of the bunkering business makes you think whatever structures existed before the industry developed must have changed beyond all recognition – 200,000 barrels a day has end-user value of $7 billion. This is an illicit economy on the scale of Afghan heroin or Colombian cocaine at various points. How much are there similarities, politics merging into organised crime FARC or Taliban style so it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins? And clearly major differences: oil is much heavier than cocaine, you can’t get a single “oil mule” to walk onto a plane with $100,000 of street value. And, correspondingly, there is no direct end user market for contraband – logically, most stolen crude must be “laundered” back into conventional marketing networks through scaled and clever accounting, corporate registration and knowing the right refinery manager somewhere. Which suggests the overwhelming likelihood is that we have all used fuel products made from bunkered crude at some time, to some fraction, even just driving to our Mum’s, sold to us at regular gas stations. This week’s backgrounders to the trial in Nigeria state that bunkering has increased, even as much touted programs to defuse the issues of the Delta, create other job opportunities and so on are acclaimed as a great success.

And, finally, not to wrack ourselves with too much self-doubt but in such an anarchic situation, how much impact do we think our project of teasing out the meaning and relationships in paper contracts that sit in offices hundreds and thousands of miles away from the militias and the gas flares will really have? Our working answer is we can’t exactly say, but let’s just suck it and see. Something is better than nothing. The other side of the chaos in the producing regions is the heavy veil of secrecy which still sits over the management and revenue flows of the industry and to begin to unpick that could at least start to create some kind of systematic public understanding.

Which brings us back to the question of what any of us actually knows in the first place. There are any number of petro-political commentators from venerable think tanks ready to opine on CNN to tell us about the military balance around the Straits of Hormuz, Syria’s strategic relationship with Russia and what is being said in the corridors of power about Nabucco (and of course here we have to raise our hands, too). But Olu’s work can point the way towards adapting forms of applied sociology developed by such fascinating outfits as Counterpoint to the extractive industries and the understanding that, actually, it is often the case that nobody knows much about the dynamics of the communities and societies where extraction is actually taking place.

That also would be some kind of start.

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