By Samuel Oyadongha & Emem Idio, Yenagoa
Like the gold rush of California in 19th century America, the small settlement of Oloibiri, a district headquarters in Ogbia in the defunct Eastern Region, came into limelight in second half of the 20th century when workers of Shell Darcy converged on the town in search of the black gold.
However, the explorers made history in June 1956 when they struck the black gold in swampy communities of Otuabagi/Otuogidi in the Oloibiri District of Ogbia, making the latter district the first in West Africa where crude oil was discovered in commercial quantity.
Providence again ensured that the Ogbia kingdom produced the first minority President in history from the backwater of the Delta in the person of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, an indigene of Otuoke.
Interestingly, when the Shell Darcy landed on the shores of Niger Delta prospecting for oil, the local authorities and the natives never took interest in what the multinational was busy working on.
This was especially so as the Northern and Southern Protectorates, which Britain later amalgamated to form the country Nigeria, were only interested in their regional agro resources namely cocoa, coal, groundnut and palm oil business, which were then the main stay of the Nigerian economy.
However, the direction of the nation’s economy changed for good when the black gold was struck. There was a flurry of activities around the location causing the sleepy town to come alive. People from all walks of life trooped to the area in search of greener pasture.
The first crude oil well was named Oloibiri Well after Oloibiri community by the prospecting company.
While California, 31st state of the American union, grew from a country side to a modern and well planned city on account of the mad rush for the precious metal, the reverse has been the case for the Oloibiri oil field communities.
The discovery of the black gold, instead of accelerating the growth of the host communities, has turned out to be a pain to the people as Oloibiri could best be described as an abandoned fishing port after the anglers had left with their catch.
The communities, today, lack the basic necessities of life as the black gold, an exhaustible asset, which then made the area to be called Bioforoama, nicknamed “Eastern Congo”, due to its booming social life, has since dried up and Shell moved to another location regardless of the dislocation caused to the locals.
Sunday Vanguard’s trip to Oloibiri was one of disappointment and shock as the expectation of seeing the benefits of oil wealth on the communities was not to be. The people still face basic development challenges and environmental pollution caused by oil spills.
The site of the dried up Oloibiri Well 1 has been overtaken by weeds, just as the proposed research institute sponsored by the Federal Government was still at foundation level.
The Federal Government had proposed to build an oil museum at Oloibiri but the project was not actualized.
The foundation stone was laid by former President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2001. The area is a sad commentary of oil and gas in Nigeria. It shows that Bayelsa was the place where oil was first drilled and exported.
“This place should have some kind of national museum. We are not happy the way it is now but we understand that there is an institute that is proposed to be located here”, a native said.
“In spite of our peaceful disposition that led to uninterrupted oil production for several decades, development has eluded our community even as Shell which struck oil in the area has also abandoned the well”.
The natives, it was gathered, received the Shell Group with open arms and never bothered about what they were doing on their land until they came to solicit their assistance when they encountered mystic powers at the well site.
A source told Sunday Vanguard: “I am sure they told you when oil was struck here in 1956, at that time Oloibiri was the District Headquarters of the Ogbia area. When the white man came, at the Oloibiri Oil Well 1, they started putting their things but, at the end of the day, all the pipes they had sunk into the ground would come out on their own.
“Then they asked for the owners of the land, as the land needed appeasement. They consulted with the oracle.
“At the end, they said the gods of the land needed libation . They brought drinks, kola, white chalk, alligator pepper, plantain and other things. Yet they still could not get to oil. They will drill and close work for the day, but the following morning, all the pipes and casing that they had sunk in hundreds feet would be outside waiting for them. So, they were wondering how that could happen because no normal human being could have removed those pipes as it was practically impossible.
“The natives now brought a soothsayer who said the owners of the land knew what was there. After incantation and sacrifice, the gods said nothing will disturb them again but the situation remained the same. Then the white men asked the elders: `This thing that is happening, what do you want?’ Our people said, ‘Just bring a carton of JJW Peters’, a kind of whisky in those days, `a goat and other things for sacrifice and merriment’.
“The Shell officials were amazed about the demands. They said, ‘ You mean that is all you need?’ Our people replied, ‘ Yes, that is all we need’ . The rest is history.”
With the demand of the gods taken care of, he said, work went on smoothly with the creek connecting the area to the Oluasiri axis on the Atlantic fringe witnessing high traffic of passengers and cargo boats conveying men and equipment to the location.
The area, it was gathered, transformed into a trading post and became the centre of commerce in the central Niger Delta.
Sadly, what is West Africa’s first oil well is today covered with rust several decades after it stopped pumping crude and is marked by weather beaten signboard with the inscription, Oloibiri Well 1, drilled June 1956, 12,008 feet.
Journey to the league of petro-dollar states
The crude from the Oloibiri fields was conveyed through pipelines constructed to link Emago-Kugbo waterside jetty from where the black gold was exported in the late fifties and 1960s, making the latter the first crude oil loading bay in West Africa. It was called the Emogo-Kugbo Loading Bay.
It was from the Emago-Kugbo settlement, which though is administratively situated in Abua-Odual local government area of Rivers State, that the first crude oil from Oloibiri was shipped for export on the 17th day of February 1958.
MV Emago, MV Otuabagi, MV Otuogidi, MV Oloibiri, among other vessels, Sunday Vanguard findings revealed, were used to load crude oil from the pipes laid by Shell to the bay.
All the settlements share same characteristics of neglect and abandonment by the Nigerian state. There is nothing tangible on ground to showcase Otuabagi/Otuogidi axis land owners of the Oloibiri oil fields as the place where crude was first discovered in West Africa.
Also, there is nothing on ground to show that Emago-Kugbo is the first loading bay which launched Nigeria into the elite club of oil producing countries.
Sunday Vanguard’s trip to the area revealed the inherent contradiction in the nation’s oil industry as Otuabagi and Otuogidi lack all the basic amenities of life. The area could be mistaken for an abandoned farm settlement.
Oloibiri is not better off. Though the community has a ring road and bridge linking it to Ogbia main town, most of the structures in Oloibiri secondary school have been abandoned due to their terrible state.
The story was not different at Otuabagi where the road leading to the community was riddled with potholes while Otuogidi is not linked by tarred road. What perhaps could have been the quickest route to the community through the state government owned College of Health Technology was not to be as the latter constructed a gate across the road as part of its complex thereby causing the natives to go through Ogbia.
But for the concrete bridge built across the Kolo creek to link the community by Hon Nadu Karibo, as a constituency project when he was a member of Bayelsa State House of Assembly representing the area, the people would have been cut off from the rest of the world.
Two vehicles cannot pass through the road side by side due to its narrow nature, but the bridge had, nonetheless, lightened the pain of the people.
The Oloibiri oil field communities could be described as a paradox of a resource-rich enclave remaining so pervasively poor.
The situation in the communities and Emago-Kugbo, Nigeria nay West Africa first crude loading bay, should prick the conscience of the nation.
The effects of oil exploration and exploitation are everywhere.
Marine life is extinct. Indigenous occupational industries are comatose. Erosion is widespread. Pollution of the very sources of life for the ordinary people manifests in everything from their fishing equipment to the water they drink.
The oil company is certainly not helping the situation by its flagrant display of insensitivity.
A source told Sunday Vanguard that at the drilling sites then, “all the amenities that make life tick were to be found: electricity, water, high-powdered marine transport vehicles and health facilities.
Yet, within a short radius of this drilling haven, there was a stark disparity in living standards.”
OTU Ibru: A man of diligence UABAGI: The situation in Otuabagi best captures what neglect means. The community lacks portable drinking water. 60 years after, the community still depends on a polluted creek as a source of water. There is nothing to envy about the nondescript settlement.
The natives said they have nothing to show for their community historic role in the economy of the country, adding that the relics and pollution associated with oil exploration in the area were still evident.
They lamented that the promises made by past administrations to develop the area and give them a sense of belonging have remained a mirage.
Lamenting the plight of his people, Lawrence Idumesaro, Obim V of Otuabagi, said that in spite of the enormous contribution of his community to the development of the country as the cradle of the nation’s crude oil industry, his community lacked the basic things of life.
Politics surrounding first oil well name
“The Otuabagi community is the original landlord of the Oloibiri oil fields. At that time, Oloibiri was the district headquarters and anything that came to the area was always going to the district headquarters.
Right from that time, the Oloibiri has been using us and has refused to cooperate with us. Oloibiri did not have a single oil well. The first oil well location was within our community. We have done our best to rectify this distortion of history but not successful”, the monarch said.
“If you are told that this community is where oil was first struck in the whole of West Africa, you will not believe it. In terms of development or infrastructure, we have nothing. We are suffering here. The young men are suffering and roaming about jobless. No electricity, no water, no good roads. In fact, we are living in bondage, while they use our oil to develop other areas, what is our gain? Nothing.
“We cannot beg the Federal Government to come and develop us; they are the one to beg us. If we have our way, we would want an instant or magical development because we have been suffering for so long and we are tired of endless waiting and vain promises.
LIFE THEN AND NOW
“Meanwhile, we cannot compare life then with now, but even when Shell was working here with our fathers and grandfathers, they (Shell) did nothing for us. Today, we are struggling on our own because we cannot continue to depend on oil and oil companies. If we had been dependent on oil, we would be killing each other every now and then. You can attest to the fact that other oil producing areas are volatile but, in terms of peaceful coexistence and hospitality, we are the best.
“We conduct ourselves in a peaceful manner. The Federal Government should come and rescue us because there will come a time when we would no longer bear the injustice and I will lead my people on a revolt, the sooner the better for us all.”
Also speaking to Sunday Vanguard, the CDC Chairman, James Samuel, said, “We have been suffering for a very long time since 1956 without assistance from anywhere. We are not asking for too much but we should be able to boast of the basic things of life like water, electricity and gainful employment for our youths.
“We have about 20 oil locations around our community and we are suffering from pollution. Our environment is polluted, our rivers are polluted, and we no longer fish in our rivers. Our soil is also polluted making farming almost an unfruitful endeavour. Even bush meat hunting has been disrupted due to pollution. Oil exploration has devastated our environment and means of livelihood.
“Our youths are idle because they are not engaged. There are no scholarship opportunities and skill acquisition programmes; I am a graduate but unemployed because there are no jobs. We are suffering. We are humbly appealing to government at all levels and Shell to come to our aid. Even though we have no jobs, we are entitled to live in a comfortable environment.
NO WATER, FREQUENT OUTBREAK OF EPIDEMIC
“You can imagine that from 1956 till date, this community has no potable drinking water; we drink from the polluted creek and rivers. We cannot count the number of deaths due to epidemic ravaging our community. Our people are dying every day due to cholera because we have no good source of drinking water, we are dying in silence. Water is a major problem for us.
“We don’t believe in using violence to attract attention because we are a peaceful people. It is not that we cannot cause crisis, but we are exposed academically. It is unfortunate that Shell and even the Federal Government have done nothing for this community.”
Etasi Ninato-Love, a retired police officer and an indigene of Otuabagi, had this to say:
“You are here and have seen things for yourselves, Shell and government have not done anything for us as the first oil producing community. You cannot even compare this place with other communities that hosts oil companies like Shell. There is nothing to write home about. Shell and governments have done nothing that is commensurate with what they have taken out of Otuabagi soil. We need good drinking water, internal roads, and empowerment for our youths”.
Kode Oguma, a youth leader, said:
“The youths are angry with the situation of our community being where crude oil was first struck in this part of the world. We are not happy. You cannot equate us with other oil producing communities, they are far better off than we are in terms of development. In spite of the marginalization, we have never resorted to sabotage of oil facilities in our domain. We are suffering; we want employment, skills acquisition centres so that our youths can acquire skills to be self-reliant.”
OTUOGIDI: The settlement is far from civilisation. It has no link-road. The natives pass through Ogbia. And passing through the narrow concrete bridge connecting the community with Ogbia could be a harrowing experience for a first time visitor to the area.
King Ibobiri Nicholas, Okpini VI, the paramount ruler of Otuogidi told Sunday Vanguard that the discovery of oil in the area altered the natives lifestyle.
According to him, farming and fishing, which were their means of livelihood, were no longer fashionable due to the exploration and exploitation of crude in the area.
The royal father, who launched into history, said, “I am sure they told you that when oil was struck here in 1956, Oloibiri was the district headquarters of the Ogbia area.
“At that time, Shell did not name their oil well heads indiscriminately. As a cluster, they will look for a name that befits that place and name it. Also, at that time, the Oloibiri people were the elite and they foresaw what will happen in future. But here in our community, there were no knowledgeable persons; their stock in trade was drinking, merriment, and commerce.
“So, the Oloibiri elite used their status as district headquarters to manoeuver and project their name. Anyway, we still own two oil wells, and 12 on the other side. So, oil was first struck here. The first oil wells are owned by this community, Otuogidi, and Otuabagi.
“All the goodies that Nigeria is enjoying, Abuja is just like London and was built from the money from the oil from our soil, and look at our community. Even in Oloibiri, the then district headquarters, there is nothing.
“But some big people will take pictures of beautiful places and show to the outside world that this is the community. But you can see for yourselves that there is nothing here to enjoy. We are at zero level. No federal projects, the only thing they wanted to build was a primary healthcare centre. They were given a site where they started moulding blocks and, before we knew it, the place was abandoned, only for us to hear that the project had been completed.
COMMUNITY GREATEST NEED
“We have so many needs; we have a secondary school with no buildings. We want the federal or state government to link us to the major road. We also need electricity, water, health care centre. We also do not have a befitting town hall.
LIFE DURING SHELL OPERATIONS
“At that time, this place was called Bioforoama, nicknamed “Eastern Congo”, full of life. At that time, all the speedboats and houseboats of Shell workers used to anchor in our place. People from far and near always converged here. It was a booming community till when Isaac Boro invaded this area during his 12 days revolution. It was just enjoyment without development.”
Just as indigenes of Otuabagi and Otuogidi are lamenting their woes, the story is not different at Emago-Kugbo which played host to first loading bay from where the crude oil from Oloibiri oil fields was shipped abroad.
The community is today a sad commentary of the inherent contradiction of the Nigerian state as there is nothing tangible on ground to show that Emago-Kugbo hosted the nation’s first loading bay which launched Nigeria into the elite club of oil producing countries.
Indigenes, Sunday Vanguard findings revealed, were the first to see the colour of crude oil in West Africa and that was precisely May 31, 1960 when the rural community was rocked by a catastrophe.
The incident, which has since turned out to be a constant factor in the community, occurred at the loading bay due to alleged valve failure. It led to the first oil spillage in West Africa, with production losses of about half daily production of 4,928 barrels. The spillage subsequently contaminated the Emago-Kugbo creek with the attendant inferno.
“Our people were the very first people in this part of the world to see the colour of crude oil, the so-called black gold; when others were only hearing about it,” recalled an indigene of Emago-Kugbo.
The crude reportedly gushed out for about 48 hours and devastated the community’s farmlands and aquatic environment before it was stopped. Sadly, fire also raged on the river soon after the spill occurred and continued for several weeks before it was put off. The loading of crude oil, it was gathered, stopped when the Kugbo-Diobu pipeline, which terminated at Bonny, at about the mid-1960s, was constructed.
Sunday Vanguard learned that, being a brackish water area, where fresh water and salt water meet, it was rich in fishes and other aquatic lives but, because of the oil spillage, most of the animals that survived migrated to other places.
However, nearly 60 years after, the people of this community, who are predominantly loggers, wood carvers, fishermen and farmers, are not happy with the turn of events in their land which lacked government presence.
The area, which boasts of an old, untarred and very difficult-to-access road, should have been a tourist destination on account of its hosting the first crude oil loading bay in the West Africa.
Instead, the deplorable road and dilapidated bridges, used by Shell to access the first oil well called Oloibiri fields, are some of the relics in spite of the significant role of the area as a major player in the growth of the nation’s oil industry.
The now deplorable road, linking the Oloibiri oil fields with Otuabagi and Kugbo Loading Bay, was called “Location Road,” it was gathered, a name associated with the Shell facilities.
Except during the dry season, no car can access that road as the people are compelled to reach the rest of the world through the river, which is expensive and time consuming for the rural folks.
Aside the absence of government in Emago-Kugbo, the natives have had to contend with oil spills/fire along pipelines that run through the land.
“It is a sad commentary that this community, which jetty served as the harbinger of the nation to the petro dollar league, could be left in the lurch by the Nigerian state as it today cuts the forlorn look of a desolate land”, a native told Sunday Vanguard.
“The occupation of the people are basically fishing, farming, logging and palm wine tapping. However, most of the people engaged in these means of livelihood have been forced to abandon their occupation due to years of despoliation occasioned by the activities of the oil multinationals.
“It is sad to point out that the expectations of our people are dashed. Crude oil, which should have been a blessing, is now seen as a curse.
“It is difficult for our people to go out and return to the community. We need this road to be upgraded and made usable. Shell constructed and used that road in the 1960s to move between the Oloibiri oil fields and the Kugbo Loading Bay. The authorities and oil companies should revisit this land where crude oil was first loaded and shipped out in West Africa.”
Also speaking, an environmentalist, who had his early education in the Oloibiri district, Comrade Alagoa Morris, Field Coordinator of Environment Rights Action/Friends of the Earth in Bayelsa, expressed sadness over the fate of Oloibiri oil field communities and called on the elected representatives of the people to wake up and come to the aid of the communities.
Morris pleaded with the Ministry of the Niger Delta, NDDC, and Rivers/Bayelsa State governments to take steps to upgrade the road from the site of Oloibiri Oil Well 1, Otuabagi, to the community.