Black Gold and the Golden Rule

Travel Stories: In Nigeria, Africa's leading petrostate, a local oil worker named Sunday had every reason for rage and despair, but as Jeffrey Tayler discovered, he turned the other cheek.

03.28.08 | 1:33 PM ET

Nigeria, Bonny JettyPhoto by Terry Wha, via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Balancing 10-foot-long steel pipes on their sweaty shoulders, two bare-backed porters picked their way through the touts and hawkers crowding the market stalls by Bonny Jetty, in Southernmost Nigeria, and began descending the gangplank to the dock. Wind blowing off the Niger River delta scattered them with heavy, singular drops of warm rain. A glowering European in a bright yellow mackintosh directed them to place the pipes in the launch; as they bent over the bow, they slipped on the oil-slick dock. The pipes splashed into the brown water and sank from sight.

I was on my way to Bonny Island on the Gulf of Guinea, where much of Nigeria’s petroleum industry is based, a number of years ago. The shuttle-launch in which I sat filled slowly with passengers settling carefully into their places on four unsteady benches. Our captain finally jumped aboard and started up the outboard motor; a youth on the dock untied our mooring rope and tossed it onto the bow. We backed out and then swung round and entered the mangrove creeks of the delta. Soon after, we hit open water and shot toward the shipping lanes, where tankers moved like roving megaliths among patches of fog, and lowering black clouds released torrents of rain and wind. We unfurled a plastic tarp and sheltered beneath it. Our launch began pitching on the swells.

The young man next to me introduced himself. To protect his identity, I’ll call him Sunday. Sunday was a welder for an oil company on Bonny. He pointed out bizarre columns of flame shooting hundreds of feet above the jungle to the Southeast.

“The oil fields of Ogoniland, my home,” he shouted. “They burn day and night.”

When I told Sunday I was an American, he smiled. “Ah, your country is trying to force the Nigerian government to comply, to give us Ogonis our rights and the money from our oil. Otherwise we don’t get.”

Amid the tankers our motor suddenly died, leaving us rising and falling on the heaving waters. The captain yanked at the spare outboard’s cord. It caught, and we lurched ahead, lilting port, with the motor sputtering.

“All of you, sit left! Sit left!” he yelled.

Rain thrummed on the tarp. We shifted left on the benches. I was at the end and lifted the tarp to see a towering, rust-mottled tanker bearing blindly down upon us. The spare motor then conked out. Again the captain yanked at the cord. Sunday began praying sotto voce; the woman behind me started to cry, sobbing out a psalm. Above the mangroves the oil fields flared; the rain drummed louder on the tarp and lashed my eyes when I lifted it to watch the tanker nearing. The engine started up again, and we spun round and shot out of the way of the huge craft, then bounced through its wake.

An hour later, after three more engine failures and much floundering amid other tankers, we pulled into Bonny Island. Shaking from cold and fear, we debarked onto a beach littered with gobs of oil.

Sunday pulled himself together and shrugged: “Typical for Nigeria. My country’s life is like that boat ride.”

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in what was to become Nigeria, touching down on Bonny Island in the 15th century. Exploitation began soon after. Slaves, gold and ivory poured forth from the interior in exchange for European-manufactured goods—at great profit for the Europeans. The French and the British eventually muscled out the Portuguese, and finally, in 1885, the British acquired exclusive trading rights over the Niger River basin, establishing protectorates over the ethnically diverse Northern and Southern territories. With the outlawing of the slave trade and the subsequent diminution of the role played by African commodities in European markets, the Niger delta might have become a backwater were it not for the discovery of oil there in 1956. In 1960 Nigeria became independent, and those in power—whether military or civilian—began systematically draining the black gold from public coffers into their own private strongboxes.

Politicians and others who have objected to this have been dispensed with. Oil-related human-rights abuses in Nigeria have placed the West, and the United States in particular, in a quandary. In 1995 the military regime of Sani Abacha executed nine Ogoni rights activists (among them Ken Saro-Wiwa, one of Africa’s most renowned writers) militating for a share in the wealth pumped out of their land, despite international pleas for clemency and the threat of sanctions. Nigerian oil was (and still is) vital on the world energy markets; and the United States, one of Nigeria’s main customers, is reluctant to do much to spoil relations with Africa’s leading petrostate.

Apparently, Sunday, who talked of American efforts to force Nigeria to “comply,” did not know this.

Bonny Island has one of Nigeria’s four refineries. Sunday and I walked past signs pointing to oil-company compounds. When we came upon a 19th-century Anglican church, he paused. “That’s the oldest Anglican church in Nigeria.” Some 75 yards behind the church, a tanker loomed, entirely overshadowing the soot-encrusted structure.

We stopped at a local canteen and ate a lunch of spicy rice. Sunday tried to pay for my meal, and it was only after my lengthy protests that he let me treat him.

“Please, I invite you home,” he said. “Come wid me?”

We got up and left. We passed through a fence surrounding a row of single-story, prefab cement apartments. He led me inside to his room, a windowless cell with moldy walls. He flicked a switch and the ceiling fan, with a mousy squeak, began slow, wobbly rotations. He told me he had no choice but to come to Bonny and work. Oil bubbling into Ogoniland’s soil and water had made fishing and farming difficult.

“No jobs. No future. Nothing there,” he said.

While Ogonis lived without electricity or running water, revenues from crude extracted from their land went to Lagos and Abuja, then, it was rumored, bank accounts abroad. The local economy was so bad that the one bank had closed, and Sunday had to take his salary to his mother, whom he supported, in person.

With the ceiling fan squeaking, I listened to him recount, in a matter-of-fact way, a litany of injustices suffered by the Ogonis. Sunday’s livelihood depended on his service to an industry that was poisoning his land and polluting his water, on the resource that fueled the high life in the West and helped keep his people poor.

When I asked if he was angry, he shrugged.

“I just try to manage, to help Mama and manage. No time to think about big issues.” He swatted a blood-battened mosquito on his neck. “I’m lucky to work, and I’m thankful to God. Thankful to God.”

I, an atheist, could not understand his gratitude.

But I benefited from it. Sunday’s religion enjoined him to follow the Golden Rule: he tried to treat me, a guest from a country abetting the despoilment of his homeland, to a meal, and welcomed me into his home. Moreover, a good number of Africans, and most Nigerians, to be sure, could not survive without faith, without the belief that their tribulations had been ordained from on high, and that they won favor with their maker by enduring them. When Sunday had every reason for rage or despair, he turned the other cheek.

Though I’ve twice returned to Nigeria since then, I could never find Sunday again. These days separatists kidnap foreigners venturing into the creeks and hold them for ransom, and the Niger delta has descended into lawlessness. The rebels ride not rickety skiffs but modern speedboats and, with local villagers, conduct violent protests and acts of sabotage that paralyze drilling operations, forcing cutbacks or work stoppages for months at a time. As a result, oil prices spike on world markets.

But for now, at least, the despoilment goes on.

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor for The Atlantic and the author of six books, including River of No Reprieve: Descending Siberia's Waterway of Exile, Death, and Destiny. His latest is Murderers in Mausoleums. His second book "Facing the Congo" ranked No. 28 on World Hum's Top 30 Travel Books of all time. He was the subject of a World Hum interview.

1 Comment for Black Gold and the Golden Rule

pelu awofeso 04.08.08 | 5:47 AM ET

Good to read something about Nigeria finally on WH. Knowing the Niger Delta the way i do (I’ve lived in Port HArcourt for three years)and having written a couple of articles on the region myself, I would say Jeffreys’s piece (and experience) couldn’t have been better rendered. But I don’t seem to appreciate the fact of his bringing in the situation of Sunday’s room into the big picture. I feel it’s not so neccessary, and if left out would not have made the piece any less factual or interesting. All in a ll, it’s a better rendering than many western writers would’ve been able to manage. Thanks for being so sincere.

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