I KNOW the Niger Delta pretty well. Between 1981 and 1982, as freshly minted University graduates, my cousin – Bola Awosika Oyeleye, and friends – Barine L. D. Gbosi, Joseph Uduehi, and I, were all ‘itinerant’ evangelists’ in this area.
With our newly acquired Victor and RCA projectors, gasoline generator, reels of Christian movies, and a bed sheet for a screen, we would bundle ourselves into engine powered canoes and make our way into the creeks to preach the Gospel. We were not always welcome, but for the most part, we happened to be the only major ‘entertainment’ gig in town. God blessed our feeble efforts in many a community.
For decades, the Niger Delta has poured trillions of dollars into the coffers of Nigeria’s Federal Government. However, more than 50 years after the first crude oil explorations began here, Bayelsa is a sight to behold, and not for all the right reasons. Unlike its distant oil-rich Gulf cousin, Dubai (the world’s quintessential ’22nd Century’ hi-tech nation), Bayelsa and much of the Niger Delta remain squalid and poverty stricken wastelands. A land where the major highlight for a teeming population of unemployed youth and former militants is the monthly allocation of amnesty checks (cheques). A land where women continue to bear a disproportionate burden of manual labor, and where life expectancy is miserably low.
My destination was Koluama, a small oil-rich fishing community that’s a three-hour speed boat ride from the capital city of Yenegoa. As you wind your way through the narrow mangrove and head toward the Atlantic Ocean, the frightening evidence of poverty assaults your senses every nautical mile of the way. It’s been more than 30 years since I’ve been back to the creeks of the Niger Delta. Sadly, time has stood still. Nothing much has changed. Electricity, pipe borne water, basic health services, good schools, and decent jobs, are almost non-existent.
When I finally pulled up at Koluama, I was greeted by a wailing crowd. As I scrambled out of the boat, I wasn’t too sure that I had arrived at the most expeditious of times. Two young men with blood shot eyes and reeking of alcohol were the vanguard of my early morning welcome party. Very quickly, I was introduced to a young man who introduced himself as the ‘Chief Security Officer’, and shortly thereafter, I was brought to the community’s very articulate traditional ruler, Chief S.E. Edi-Mangi.
I gathered that two days earlier, a late night tidal surge from the Atlantic had swept away more than a hundred metres of its tree dense coastline, and with it, families who were still missing. Brackish water from the Atlantic poured unimpeded into the Koluama River. According to Chief Edi-Mangi, ever since, many in the community have been too scared to sleep at night. It is no surprise that residents of this eco-rich mangrove have a tendency to see the crude oil beneath their feet as a curse, rather than a blessing. For more than 50 years, this sleepy community has borne the brunt of the environmental cost of crude oil extraction, oil spills, and gas explosions. With no real power to enforce the need for Ecological Impact Assessments, hapless residents literally fold their arms as oil companies such as Chevron, Shell, and Agip, conduct business with wanton impunity. Today, local livelihoods have pretty much been displaced, agriculture has been impeded, and health disorders have risen astronomically.
I met Rebecca, a widow with six children to fend for. She proudly ushered me into her humble hut with a little furnace in the corner with which she dried smoked fish. Until recently, she had barely been able to survive. Thanks to a trawler net provided by the country’s Federal Ministry of Agriculture, she said for the very first time, she had enough to feed her family and make a decent living. I also met Chris, a young college graduate who is committed to saving his community from ecocide, the ravages of the sea, and the impunity of oil companies.
Every household in Koluama has a story to tell. Of hopes dashed and an uncertain future. As I left Koluama, I could not help but think that Bayelsa and the Niger Delta, lay bare what for decades has epitomised all that is wrong with the Nigerian State – corrupt, brutish, cynical, adrift, aloof, lacking systems that make for good governance and functional societies, and the absence of ideas or the political will with which to bring about real change.
In short, the Niger Delta continues to be a modern day gold rush that makes El Dorado pale in comparison. An El Dorado, where might is right and where lip service is given to lifting the serf-like conditions of millions of rural poor who hope that ‘some day’ change will come. May God bless the people of Koluama, the Niger Delta, and may God bless Nigeria.
•Dr. Victor Oladokun is a TV Broadcaster and Media Consultant