DEEP IN THE OIL FIELDS WITH A MILITANT
It had been a journey long planned in my mind. If I had to do a comparative dissertation on the political economy of oil in the Niger Delta and its counterpart in the Mississippi Delta, I'd rather start exploration from home. Yes, I had to. Professors Mike Ogbeidi and his friend Ademola Adeleke, who were my mates but now my supervisors would not take anything but quality work from their doctoral student.
What does the black liquid gold look like? What does an oil pipeline look like? What is a rig? What is a flow station? What is gas flaring? What is pollution and what are ecological disasters and environmental degradations? What's the impact of oil on the peoples of the two look-alike deltaic oil rich regions of the world - comparatively speaking? Hmmm but what really is an oil well or its head?
Why is it, that some oil wells are cocked (keys thrown away) say by Shell while Agip and SAIPEM remain in constant (sometimes) elusive search for glory that comes with discoveries - whether active, dormant, abandoned, cocked or effusive?
Those were some of the jargons I had come across severally in the course of my research. Again, what does an oil well look like? How would you explain/discuss with your inquisitive research peers and compeers, a substance you do not have a vivid pictorial handle of its image? What for example is the color of crude oil? Black, opal, white, green, yellow or what? What about its texture? Slimy, velveteen, smooth, smelly, sticky or as plain as it could be. Why is it called liquid gold? But if it is crude, it must, seriously speaking, be in an undiluted format to proclaim its crudity - as in its rawness.
Does one have to meander, walk through a puddle of mud and shove mangrove shrubs aside to get close to a typical oil well? Would I see oil spill if I got into the mangrove? What of the famed and under publicized ecological disasters caused by ill-managed spills? What of an army of Delta militants waiting to have a slugfest with a stranger. Would they kidnap him? I meant to ask if they would kidnap me. If they did, would they kill or maim me? What of the crude methods of refineries found in the jungle. Myth or real? What is oil bunkering?
Who are those involved. Is it true that most of the sponsors of oil bunkering are retired but not tired Generals and high- ranking former naval personnel? What are the roles played by oil companies in the bunkering business? What is spot market? What is OPEC? How is the quantity and quality of oil drilled and exported in a day measured? What percentage of the total drill is refined locally? Does OPEC truly know about the degrading conditions of the lives of the peoples of Niger Delta? Why do oil multinationals such as Shell and Agip or Total very conscious of pollution in the Mississippi Delta while they look the other way when such happens in the Niger Delta?
What of the inhabitants - through whose cries to high heavens for help national and international attention have been drawn to a once downgraded cause? Yes, a cause caused by the crude oil curse. What of their leaders? What of their leaders' local political inclinations and their concomitant impacts on oil and its place in the collective lives of natives in the oil producing areas? We mean the oily part of politics. Why the loud silence of traditional rulers? Are they willing tools or have they by any stretch been intimidated and cowed?
To find answers to some of these nagging questions, I had to go to the oil kingdom of Egbema with a militant as my guide. But we must take a quick lesson on the political economy and brief history of Egbema - the oil conurbation of Igboland. Egbema is made up of 17 villages. They are all richly endowed with crude oil beneath their own portion of the earth's surface. Egbema has two kingdoms. One, which is made up of three villages is in the northwest tip of Rivers State of Nigeria. The others, (the remaining 14 villages) are in the southwest tip of Imo State of Nigeria. Listen up folks, in the beginning, the two Egbema used to be one. Did you hear me well?
They were in the old Ahoada Province of old Eastern Nigeria. They were Igbo speaking. They still are. Although as linguists and social anthropologists have come to confirm, the two Egbema types of Igbo, like the Owerri and Ohafia or even Mbaise, are a special variant. The people are vibrant, hardworking, industrious and essentially agrarian, depending largely on working the farmlands and fishing. Egbema has produced some of Nigeria's important personalities such as the former Inspector General of Police, Mike Okiro. And a former super aeronautic engineer and first class pilot named Nze Obi.
However, something, uniquely unusual happened to Egbema and its people along the political lines of Nigeria. It was when the feds decided to redraw (they called it boundary adjustments) the boundaries of the federation with the future politics of oil in mind. Without being sensitive and sensible enough to the cultural affinities of the people, Justice Ayo Irikefe, it was, who with the nodding satisfaction of my friend, General Olusegun Obasanjo, drew an awkward line of demarcation for the two Egbema. Essentially to ensure that the part consisting of fewer kindred (three villages) but with multiple oil wells and other better oil exploitation logistic potentials are situated outside the core Igbo state of Imo. It was soon after the civil war, when the fear of Biafra was the beginning of wisdom for the feds.
And so, today, a drive through the two Egbema would show what difference oil politics has wrought on the people. While the Imo Egbema, like Imo State, is stagnating and underdeveloped, the Rivers Egbema, like Rivers State has everything an oil-producing community would be proud of. Little wonder, militancy, like some oil wells, is dormant in that part of Egbema. They have good roads, functional infrastructure and social amenities such as hospitals, adequate supply of electricity, cottage industries, mall-like markets, good schools and potable drinkable waters. What about education?
There are sprinkles of cottage industries that employ mostly, those dislocated from their farmland and fishing activities. This reporter's investigation revealed that while Agip and its subsidiary, SAIPEM, are the major oil companies operating in the Rivers State half of Egbema, Shell – the ubiquitous sleek old British company in Africa for sake of Pax Britannica – does every oily deal in the best trading and commercial interest of mother country – Great Britain.
And that because of this, the larger Egbema with about fourteen communities are like a theater of oil war, with Shell, characteristically, employing the scorched earth policy in its relationship with its own half of the ancient kingdom of Egbema. That's how the other half whose oil is managed by Agip, enjoy a living standard which has turned out to be the envy of the other fourteen villages in Imo that fall in the sphere of influence of Shell. This visible, abject neglect of the other 14 Egbema communities by Shell has become the reason why the area became a breeding ground for militancy by its restive youths, fueling hatred and rebellion not only against Shell but extended to everything that looks like oil and its affiliate products.
The aim, one of the militants who led me through to see the sorry oil sites of Egbema, 'is to at least call the attention of the feds to the exploitative tendencies inherent in Shell's exploration and exploitation oil policies.' Remember Shell company, it was, who through exploration and exploitation in Oloibiri and Ogoniland polluted the creeks, brought untold sorrows and made life unbearable for the natives. Shell, it was, which laid the exploration and exploitation foundation from which newer, latter day oil producing companies in Nigeria have copied. And Shell, it was, whose reckless oil exploration and exploitation methods provoked the Ogoni youths and the subsequent hanging of Ken Saro Wiwa and others. Remember, it was Shell.
We entered Egbema through the Ohaji side of the town. Driving through and passing the 14 square kilometer stretch of Imo Palm Plantation called ADAPALM, before hitting Obiakpu, one of the two Shell flow stations in Egbema. On our way, we came upon a series of sealed or dormant oil wells appropriately tagged for easier identification and location but looked abandoned. They belong to Shell. The ex-militant guide told me that so many such pyramid-like coves are a feature in almost every nook and cranny of Egbema. Because the first one we saw was on the road and held no serious key to unlock the mystery of oil, he led me through a near bush part.
There, we encountered an active oil-well with a prominent head, connected with variegated pipes of different sizes and shapes pointing towards same direction - southwards to a flow station at Obiakpu from where they made their unending southward journeys to the waiting oil vessels and tankers of the West. 'Here' he explained pointing his index finger at a bolt, 'if I want to disrupt oil flow from this head, I know what to do. If I turn this knob clock wise, the drilling will stop automatically. I will automatically shut down the pumping and drilling will stop.
That's how we can successfully disrupt oil drilling and or supply from this part of our world. We have done it a couple of times. Can't you see, there are little or no security personnel on site? It was Eze Nzeobi of Egbema that begged us to stop. Listen; listen to the tick-tack noises emanating from here (we held our breaths for some seconds to listen to the unending tick-tack, tick tack, sound that sounded like a heightened heart beat of a quarter miler). That is the sound of oil being pumped.'
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