Written by Jethu Abraham
If one is to Google on ‘Niger Delta’, the headlines that show up talk nothing of a place once thought to have more tourism potential than most places in Africa— sights such as the Kurukuru Hills of Samorika touted to rival the Himalayas in their beauty or the Igun bronze casting in Edo— the last of the reminders of the rich cultural heritage of the people of Edo.
What pops up instead are the words, ‘gang rape’, ‘armed looting’ and ‘Shell oil spills’. These words are not entirely unrelated, in fact they can be used synonymously to describe the plight of the people living on the 70,000 sq.km that line the Niger river, also known as the ‘Oil river’.
The Niger delta had all the makings of a great story: An African country that reverses its fate with its discovery of oil and translates it to jobs, education and better health facilities. Instead, what happened in 1956, after the discovery of the first oil plot, was exactly the opposite. While the first gush brought in the petro dollars and elevated Nigeria to the ranks of an OPEC, it would just be the beginning of the country’s ruin.
Despite the vast wealth created by petrol, the benefits have been slow to trickle down to the population. The slow pace of oil extraction and indigenous conflicts soon brought in foreign oil companies such as Shell, Total, Agip, ExxonMobil and Chevron who started drilling away at the Delta. Soon, the remote but green wetland was transformed into an industrial wasteland.
Meanwhile, the discovery also brought in other changes: the people of the Niger Delta were forced to abandon their traditional agricultural farms. Previously a number of agricultural products such as palm oil and cocoa beans made up for the exports from the Niger delta. Today, they do not even register as trade items.
The current conflict in the Delta began in the 1990’s between the foreign oil companies and some local ethnic groups such as the Ogoni and the Ijaw and persists even today— the latest retaliation being the bombing of the UN office last month. Further on, competition for oil has fuelled violence between different ethnic groups as well and government-led soldiers who are brought in to contain the situation, do that and worse in the form of rapes and mindless slaughter.
According to the Human Rights Watch, several hundred soldiers were deployed to Odi on November 20, 2010 to fight off gangs of armed youth who had killed a dozen policemen. The soldiers made no apparent attempt to arrest the suspected perpetrators, and instead systematically destroyed the village over the next two weeks and killed several hundred unarmed civilians as well, In another incident, in Choba, soldiers dispersed demonstrators outside the premises of Willbros Nigeria Ltd., a subsidiary of an American oil contractor, but not before killing four people and a number of women from the community,
The Niger Delta is a particularly extreme example of a culture of violence that is woven into a society ruled by military dictators and fuelled by foreign powers.
This region has little or no development, no electricity, no water, no communications, no health facilities, little and poor education. In contrast, the region generated an estimated over US $30 billion in oil revenues, over a 38-year period, through in the form of rents for the government and profit for the multinational oil companies (Rowell, 1996).
The multinational oil companies, mainly Shell, Chevron/Texaco, and Elf, have treated both the people and the environment with total disdain and hostility (Okonta & Douglas, 2001). They have worked hand in hand with a succession of brutal and corrupt regimes to protect their exploitation of the land and people by providing the Nigerian military and police with weapons, transport, logistical support and finance.
In return the Nigerian government has allowed the oil companies a free hand to operate without any monitoring. In fact, the oil companies in the Niger Delta have one of the worst environmental records in the world—(Independent report, Sokari Ekine)
Be it the government or the militia, life of the people, especially the women and the children have become a nightmare as they struggle for survival, on one side and on the other, fight a useless battle against crime and violence in the region.
Rape, in particular, has left a terrible scar on the region; in some areas of the Niger Delta, nine out of ten women have been violated. An academic study undertaken in Nigeria identified members of the security forces as primarily responsible for the gender-based violence (including rape, sexual slavery and forced pregnancy) committed against the tribal women of the Delta’s Ogoniland between 1990 and 1998. A 2001 report published by the non-governmental organization Centre for Democracy and Development also documented gender-based violence in the Niger Delta, perpetrated for the most part by the military.
In an interview with journalist Remi Adeoye from The WIP; Grace, an Ogoni human rights defender in her 40’s, narrated her experience:
"I was raped by three army men. They carried guns and they had uniforms. They kicked in the door and hit me in the face. [They] threw me on the bed and raped me using [a] gun. My son was trying to run away from the soldiers but he was beaten up. There were no witnesses to the rape. I didn't report [the rape] to the police, there is no police in Ogoniland, [but] I testified for the Oputa Panel, had my face covered by a black cloth. I have no money so I can't go to court."
The level and degree of violence on women and children are so appalling that global humanitarian organisations have given up trying to get figures and are desperately seeking measures to stop the Delta from being another Congo (preyed for their gold resources) or Sierra Leone (home to the notorious blood diamonds).
But then again, they might be a tad too late.