FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Hell in Nigeria’s Delta

$300 billion. That’s the figure typically mentioned as Nigeria’s oil money that has been misappropriated, disappeared. The celebrated Nigerian writer and activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa?who attempted to expose the environmental degradation in his country’s Delta Region?was hanged by the last military dictator, Sani Abacha (a monster by any measurement), for his “political” activities. Oil has become woven into the fabric of Nigeria’s recent history, mostly with negative results because of greed and destruction to the environment, which has rendered much of the land in the oil area unfit for human occupation.

Out of this context, Helon Habila (another honored Nigerian writer) has written his most important work, taking the reader into territory previously untapped by other writers, beginning with the seductive title: Oil on Water. We all know?are taught as children?that oil and water do not mix. If you have any doubts, then read Habila’s mesmerizing novel, rooted in the works of Graham Greene and, sadly, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I say “sadly” because I’d like to believe that some time Africa will get beyond the exploitative stage, but Habila’s novel is not very optimistic about that. Yet writer has his finger on the pulse of the social and political inequities that plague the country of his birth.

Even at the beginning of the story, things look pretty bleak. The British wife of one of the oil executives has been kidnapped and taken by militants into the Delta for ransom. Two Nigerian journalists, Rufus and Zaq, are sent by their respective newspapers into the area to get a story about the kidnapping but, also, to help negotiate the woman’s release. They’ve been hired by her husband, fully aware of the danger they face: local people, the militants who have been destroying pipes and oil rigs, and the soldiers who pursue them. After he has tempted them with a large amount of money, the Englishman tells them, “Your job is simple. Just confirm she’s alive, take pictures and we’ll take it from there. It should be easy. You leave in two days, early, and by sundown you’re back.”

Thus, money has already trumped their journalistic goals, as Habila implies that hardly anything happens in Nigeria without the exchange of cash. The militants hope to get several million dollars so they can continue their activities. Although Rufus and Zaq hope they’ll get good stories out of their adventure, it is clear that without the added cash incentive from the woman’s husband, they would not have ventured into such dangerous territory. And although they may be somewhat na?ve about this, the journalists also believe that since the militants rely on publicity to keep their operations going, they won’t be harmed.

Early in the story, Habila mirrors Heart of Darkness as Rufus and Zaq are guided through the Delta by a boatman and his son, entering the mangroves in brackish water: “?the foul smell of the swamps replaced by the musky, energizing river smell, and at such times we’d become aware of the clear sky above as if for the first time. But the swamps and the mist always returned, and strange objects would float past us: a piece of cloth, a rolling log, a dead fowl, a bloated dog belly-up with black birds perching on it, their expressionless eyes blinking rapidly, their sharp beaks savagely cutting into the soft decaying flesh. Once we saw a human arm severed at the elbow bobbing away from us, its fingers opening and closing, beckoning.” When they get closer to their destination, the evenings become particularly eerie: gas burning at the rigs in the distance, the air so polluted they can hardly breathe. These are, after all, the conditions of living in the area.

Habila brilliantly captures the environmental collapse, but no better than in the story of a local chief, who had pleaded with his villagers unsuccessfully not to lease their lands to the oil companies. “Well, they had made an offer, they had offered to buy the whole village, and with the money?and yes, there was a lot of money, more money than any of them had ever imagined?and with the money they could relocate elsewhere and live a rich life. But Chief Malabo had said no, on behalf of the whole village he had said no. This was their ancestral land, this was where their fathers and their fathers’ fathers were buried. They’d been born here, they’d grown up here, they were happy here, and though they may not be rich, the land had been good to them, they never lacked for anything.” But their story didn’t end their. Other villages sold out to the oil companies. Soon they were surrounded by pollution. Then, the chief was taken away, disappeared like so many others who resisted, and the next thing the villagers were told was that their chief had signed papers with the oil companies before he died.

Oil on Water is a harrowing story. In a flashback we learn that Rufus’s own family encountered serious consequences when a pipeline in their own village exploded. Habila’s descriptive passages of flames everywhere and sometimes even whole islands going up in fire conjure up images of hell, inescapable, everywhere, and?worse of all?sacred lands of the Delta people rendered uninhabitable. Finally, Rufus learns that even the kidnapping of the English woman is not what he had been told it was, but that discovery and many others you will have to make for yourself.

Even the words of one of the militant leaders as he lets Rufus free so that he can return to Port Harcourt and write his story offer little hope for the situation in Nigeria’s hell: “Write only the truth. Tell them about the flares you see at night, and the oil on the water. And the soldiers forcing us to escalate the violence every day. Tell them how we are hounded daily in our own land. Where do they want us to go, tell me, where? Tell them we are going nowhere. This land belongs to us. That is the truth, remember that. You can go.”

Quite an inspired story.

Oil on Water
By Helon Habila
W. W. Norton, 239 pp., $14.95

Charles R. Larson is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.

More articles by:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

Weekend Edition
June 22, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Karl Grossman
Star Wars Redux: Trump’s Space Force
Andrew Levine
Strange Bedfellows
Jeffrey St. Clair
Intolerable Opinions in an Intolerant Time
Paul Street
None of Us are Free, One of Us is Chained
Edward Curtin
Slow Suicide and the Abandonment of the World
Celina Stien-della Croce
The ‘Soft Coup’ and the Attack on the Brazilian People 
James Bovard
Pro-War Media Deserve Slamming, Not Sainthood
Louisa Willcox
My Friend Margot Kidder: Sharing a Love of Dogs, the Wild, and Speaking Truth to Power
David Rosen
Trump’s War on Sex
Mir Alikhan
Trump, North Korea, and the Death of IR Theory
Christopher Jones
Neoliberalism, Pipelines, and Canadian Political Economy
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Why is Tariq Ramadan Imprisoned?
Robert Fantina
MAGA, Trump Style
Linn Washington Jr.
Justice System Abuses Mothers with No Apologies
Martha Rosenberg
Questions About a Popular Antibiotic Class
Ida Audeh
A Watershed Moment in Palestinian History: Interview with Jamal Juma’
Edward Hunt
The Afghan War is Killing More People Than Ever
Geoff Dutton
Electrocuting Oral Tradition
Don Fitz
When Cuban Polyclinics Were Born
Ramzy Baroud
End the Wars to Halt the Refugee Crisis
Ralph Nader
The Unsurpassed Power trip by an Insuperable Control Freak
Lara Merling
The Pain of Puerto Ricans is a Profit Source for Creditors
James Jordan
Struggle and Defiance at Colombia’s Feast of Pestilence
Tamara Pearson
Indifference to a Hellish World
Kathy Kelly
Hungering for Nuclear Disarmament
Jessicah Pierre
Celebrating the End of Slavery, With One Big Asterisk
Rohullah Naderi
The Ever-Shrinking Space for Hazara Ethnic Group
Binoy Kampmark
Leaving the UN Human Rights Council
Nomi Prins 
How Trump’s Trade Wars Could Lead to a Great Depression
Robert Fisk
Can Former Lebanese MP Mustafa Alloush Turn Even the Coldest of Middle Eastern Sceptics into an Optimist?
Franklin Lamb
Could “Tough Love” Salvage Lebanon?
George Ochenski
Why Wild Horse Island is Still Wild
Ann Garrison
Nikki Haley: Damn the UNHRC and the Rest of You Too
Jonah Raskin
What’s Hippie Food? A Culinary Quest for the Real Deal
Raouf Halaby
Give It Up, Ya Mahmoud
Brian Wakamo
We Subsidize the Wrong Kind of Agriculture
Patrick Higgins
Children in Cages Create Glimmers of the Moral Reserve
Patrick Bobilin
What Does Optimism Look Like Now?
Don Qaswa
A Reduction of Economic Warfare and Bombing Might Help 
Robin Carver
Why We Still Need Pride Parades
Jill Richardson
Immigrant Kids are Suffering From Trauma That Will Last for Years
Thomas Mountain
USA’s “Soft” Coup in Ethiopia?
Jim Hightower
Big Oil’s Man in Foreign Policy
Louis Proyect
Civilization and Its Absence
David Yearsley
Midsummer Music Even the Nazis Couldn’t Stamp Out
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail