Guerrillas, soldiers and civilians struggle for justice and survival in the Niger Delta amid suffering and death fueled by the oil industry and the state.
When my fiance Paul was contacted to take a job to construct a road at the outskirts of Warri, an area where thugs and layabouts proliferated, Paul’s half brother Peter said that it was dangerous and that he could get killed.
Paul overruled him. I knew Paul was not scared of being killed. Though he was a gentle, self-effacing man with a sober voice, he had a steely core underneath, a core where no threat about being murdered could penetrate. When he came from a site and visited my flat in his jacket, jeans trousers and spotless boots – a blank expression on his face – we talked about the possibility of his being killed. It was as if by constantly discussing the issue I was telling him to be cautious about taking jobs that involved contact with street gangs, rebels, cultists and other bitter people, but it was of no use. Two months later Peter burst into my Benin City flat and shouted that while working with two British engineers at Ugborodo, Paul had been kidnapped by some boys belonging to a Niger Delta militant group. I almost fainted.
It was an era of militant groups. There were many of them: the Niger Delta Liberation Front (NDLF), the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), the Niger Delta Freedom Fighters (NDFF), the Movement for the Survival of the Niger Delta (MOSND) and others. They grew from groups of bitter unemployed graduates and other desperate elements, barricading the gates of oil companies over the oil spills and gas flares ravaging their rivers. They became organized gangs that kidnapped numerous foreign oil workers and threw bomb cocktails and grenades through windows of the houses of the politicians who betrayed their cause. Recently, in a typical incident, a group of workers were fixing a damaged pipeline at a creek near the camp of a gang, and as the workers went home in the evening, they were waylaid and kidnapped by masked boys in speedboats, swinging machine guns. The boys turned out to belong to MEND and the workers were Americans. The American embassy contacted the government and the government contacted MEND and bags of money were exchanged at Government House – while NDFF watched on a television screen.
The next day, another group of workers were working on a rig in the open sea, gunshots shattered the air and many speedboats appeared and the workers were kidnapped amid smoke from machine guns. The group turned out to be NDFF and the hostages Britons. The British High Commission at Abuja contacted Government House and the latter contacted NDFF and another bag of money exchanged hands so the workers were released.
The kidnapping and ransom paying went on and on. Shell, Chevron, AGIP and others were shutting their flow stations daily, spiriting their workers abroad through flights at the Murtala Mohhammed Airport; government officials sweated when the news of another attack aired and people grumbled, “Militants again?” The government soon called in the Joint Military Task Force to the Delta. Every day their blue speedboats sped through the creeks, waves rising and falling on the water, men in helmets and uniforms and life jackets swinging rifles. Paul, seeing all these soldiers on television, would shake his head. They can’t stop the militants, he told me.
Yet we knew Paul would work in the creeks if he had the opportunity. After still another television program where the militants kidnapped engineers on the high seas, and we complained that the workers were foolish to work there, Paul said in his sober voice: “Can you blame them for wanting to make money?” When he met a few people who had worked in the creeks, he questioned them, his hands thrust in the pockets of his jacket, about the money they made and when he heard it he would whistle and a wistful expression would cross his face. When he heard Sample, a musician from the Niger Delta, belting out “Ekwe” on CD, he would shake his head and then sigh. Every Sunday afternoon at Motel Benin Plaza, he and his friends discussed the situation over bottles of stout amid the aroma wafting from plates of pepper soup and the smell of the smoke drifting from St Moritz cigarettes. Paul spoke heatedly that the amount of money the workers earned justified the risk they took to work in the creeks. His logic infuriated Peter and James, his best friend.
One day, after yet another argument at Motel Plaza, James told him that if he were so concerned about money maybe he should go to the creeks to work. “Why not,” Paul said. “Working there doesn’t scare me. Can you imagine the money I will earn?” I assumed that though he could get work in the den of street gangs in Lagos and Warri, he didn’t have the contacts to give him work in the creeks. I was wrong. He was kidnapped and Peter said he was going to meet the community leader of Ugborodo to discuss how he could be released.
The next day, before dawn, we took James’ Toyota and drove through the silent highway from Benin City to Warri. On getting to town, we headed for its waterside and hired a boat. Its driver, a bulky young man, wore a vest that had a photograph sewn on it of Ken Saro Wiwa, a Niger Delta writer who had fought for freedom before being executed by the state. The man started the engine and headed for the creeks, the scent of petrol stinging our noses. After twenty minutes, we heard the sounds of gunshot behind us and I screamed and James shouted – our speedboat slowed down, then stopped. A vessel belonging to the task force sidled up to our side. The soldiers in the vessel, wearing green uniforms and waving rifles, climbed into our boat and searched through it and seeing no ammunition inside ordered us to continue our journey. Ten minutes later, six speedboats belonging to the task force passed us, but this time the soldiers in it did not stop our boat. Later, a barge moved slowly on the river, carrying many barrels of petrol. After it passed, our guide muttered under his breath and slowed the speed of his craft, and James, tense, asked him why.
“From here on, we’ll be in the territory of the militants,” the guide said. “But do not fear. With me around, they won’t harm you.”
Soon after, we drifted to a checkpoint manned by about ten young men in ragged clothes and camouflage uniforms.
“Who is that?” said one of the men, waving a machine gun, the stink of marijuana smoke coming off his clothes.
“It’s me, Cletus,” our guide said. “We’re going to Ugborodo. The boys have kidnapped their brother.” The boatman pointed at us.
The man with the machine gun stared at us then spat into the water. “Why are they kidnapping Nigerians?” he asked. “These boys are giving the struggle a bad name.”
He waved us through, and as we moved away, a shower of rain started to fall, and it pattered on us until our boat got to Ugborodo. Climbing the jetty, the guide beckoned to us and we clambered up it and he took us to the ramshackle hut of the community leader. He was sitting on a bench, half dressed, chewing kola nut. After hearing why we came, he coughed, placed the lobe of the kola nut on a stool by his feet, rubbed his jaw and said: “There was an oil spill some days ago. Your brother was unlucky to be near the spot. Unless Chevron agrees to pay compensation, he’ll not be released.”
“Oh, my God!” James wailed.
“Why?” I shouted. “Why Paul?”
“Take us to the leader of the militants,” Peter said.
“No problem about that. After all, your brother was working here when he was kidnapped.” The community leader stood up and went into an inner room. On coming out fully dressed, he followed us, and we trudged to the jetty, climbed into the speedboat and began a journey up the creek.
When we got to the camp of the militants, we saw many masked men on the jetty, some smoking sticks of cigarettes and others drinking from cups of palm wine. Clicking the triggers of their rifle and machine guns, they directed their muzzles at us. Apart from a twitch at the corner of his lips, Peter’s face was impassive. James’ eyes bulged with fright. I felt beads of sweat sprout out of my face. When the militants saw the community leader with us, they lowered their weapons.
“What’s the problem?” barked one of them, wearing a red beret.
Pointing at us, the community leader said: “Their brother is the Nigerian kidnapped. They want to see Commander.” The man with the beret thought for a second then said, “I’ll check to see whether it’s possible.” And he disappeared.
As we stood on the jetty, an explosion rocked the land and we looked around, unnerved.
“The oil companies blasting dynamite,” the community leader said, then pointed at the creek.
A film of oil floated on the water, edged by a line of mud and dead fishes.
“From the oil spill,” the community leader said.
“Then how do you drink?” Peter asked.
“We get water from Warri and Sapele, three hours away.”
The militant with the red beret returned, beckoned to us and we marched over soil muddy and stained with patches of crude oil to the tent of the Commander. He sat on a cane-woven chair, wearing a black vest, jeans trousers and a stocking mask, an AK-47 in one hand. Surrounded by others wearing masks and holding rifles.
“Your brother will die,” said the Commander to Peter, “if the Joint Task Force decides to storm the camp.”
“But my brother has done nothing to deserve this,” said Peter.
“He was at the wrong place at the wrong time,” said the Commander.
“It’s not his fault,” I said.
“Can we see him?” Peter asked.
The Commander hesitated then he gestured to one of his assistants. The latter nodded at him and beckoned to us and we followed him out of the shack to meet Paul. He sat on a bench at the back of the camp, in front of a thicket of mangrove plants. The scent of crude oil hung in the air. Away from him, on another bench placed adjacent to the one he was sitting on, were the haggard-looking Britons. I ran to Paul and held him in my hands.
“We pleaded to be released,” said Paul, fiddling with a strand of my hair.
“And what did they say?” asked James.
Paul explained that the militants said no, and took the hostages in their boats around communities near Ugborodo to make them understand why. At one of the communities, they were taken to a pond where the people fetched water to drink, at the outskirts of the small town. Paul had been shocked. The pond was filmed by layers of crude oil, and dead fishes and mosses floated on it. The hostages saw a young boy bathing in the pond. On coming out, he used a cup to take up the water and drank out of it. Three boys sprinted towards him, and they started to struggle with him over the cup. Not bearing to look at them, one of the Britons closed his eyes.
After this, Paul and the others had been taken to a nearby village, about a kilometer from the spot of the pond. They saw people bending at their haunches and defecating into the river, above which their shacks stood. They saw one man defecating blood, watched it splashing into the water and spreading in different directions. They were told the man defecated blood because he had eaten a fish which died from drinking the oil-spill water. Paul agonized when fifty meters away he saw an old woman fetching the same water. He was told that she intended to use it to wash a pile of clothes by her feet.
Later, the militants took the hostages to the jetty and they were told to stand for an hour and not to move. Within minutes, the hostages were covering their noses against the gas that stank in the air. One of the Britons scratched his nose and soon it turned bloody and red. Staring at the blood that stained his finger, he shook his head and said: “People don’t deserve to live like this.” One of the militants laughed at him and pointed to a spot of shriveled grass by the jetty. There Paul and the others saw many fishing nets stained black by the oil spill. “Unless Chevron signs compensation agreements for these things, none of you will be released,” one of the militants said.
Peter, James and I left, but returned three days later. We escaped being shot at by a group of militants who had set up a checkpoint on the creek leading to Ugborodo. By this time, however, we had all changed our views formed in Benin. Peter did not say he would wring the necks of the rascally boys. He did not recount the story of how he had chased two boys, members of a street gang, that tried to extort money from him while he was painting at Bar Beach in Lagos. James did not clench his hands to fists and boast that he would smash bottles of beer on their heads. He did not blame the militants for extorting money on the creeks or demanding compensation from oil companies. I had stopped calling members of street gangs and militants, thugs and miscreants. Though we were still confused about the situation, we were not so certain that the youths toting machine guns and throwing bombs and murdering the people in the Niger Delta were simply ruffians who needed to be taught a lesson or two for terrorizing the creeks with AK-47s.
When we got to the camp, the militant in a red beret waved us through the jetty in a businesslike manner, eyes tense. I suspected there had been a change in situation. On getting to Paul, I placed a cooler containing his favorite meal before him, rice and beans, but he didn’t look at it. He appeared nervous.
“I don’t feel like eating,” he said.
“What happened?” Peter asked.
“Eat something,” I told Paul.
Drumming his fingers on the bench, Paul told us that some complications had set in and that this might act against his being released. According to him, three children had suddenly taken ill in one of the villages close to the camp, vomiting and coughing blood.
“What caused their sickness?” I asked.
A pained expression appeared on his face as if he were disappointed I didn’t know. He said the three children drank from a pond polluted by the spill and had also smoked and eaten the dead fishes floating in it. Hours later, they began to sneeze and cough and had taken ill. When they were questioned, they admitted they had been drinking from the oil spill water and had eaten some of the poisoned fishes.
“Were they not told to avoid eating the fish?” Peter asked.
“They were,” Paul said, “but there was nothing else to eat. No water to drink.”
“They should take them to the hospital.”
Paul stopped drumming on the bench and stared above our heads at the Commander’s shack fifty meters ahead. As he did so, I saw a look of bitterness in his eyes and then he stared at us.
“There’s no hospital here,” he said. “There are no roads. They tried to take the children to the hospital at Warri but it took too long. They died before they got them there.”
“So how does this concern your case?” Peter asked.
“The militants got angry,” Paul said. “One of the dead children belongs to one of them. They immediately increased their demands of compensation for the spill. Talks between them and Chevron and the government broke down.”
“Don’t let that worry you,” I told him. “I’m sure they’ll work out something.”
“They better work out something,” Paul said, and I saw anger flash in his eyes. “It hurts to see all these things.” To control himself, he took a deep breath and began again to drum his fingers on the bench. After a while, he stopped and stared at us. “I have decided that I don’t want to stay here anymore,” he said. Saying that, he lifted up his eyes and stared at the sky. Bringing his eyes down, he said: “Any opportunity I get, I’ll damn the consequences. I’ll try to escape.”
“Don’t,” I said.
“No,” James said. “They’ll shoot you.”
“I’ll try to escape,” Paul repeated.
We had not resolved the issue by the time we left him that afternoon.
The Joint Military Task Force stormed the camp that evening, taking two of the militants hostage, before being repelled.
Worried when we heard, we left Warri, our temporary abode, for Ugborodo, to see the community leader. Tossing to the earth floor a lobe of kola nut when we met him, he told us neither the Britons nor Paul had been captured, and he agreed to accompany us to the camp. When we got there, we were surprised to see the Commander happily drinking from a calabash of palm wine and smoking a wrap of marijuana, his AK 47 placed on the table. When he saw us, his mood changed and he became angry.
“Why can’t your brother behave like the Britons?” he said. “During the attack, the Britons stayed calm. Now, they’re going to be released this afternoon. Chevron now knows it can’t take them from us. We’ve come to an agreement.”
“What about my brother?” Peter shouted.
“If you shout like that again, I’ll kill you,” one of the militants said to him.
“Quiet there,” the Commander told him and turned to us. “Your brother escaped during the attack. We don’t know where he is.”
“How can you not know where he is?” I asked.
“You know where he is!” James shouted. “You’ve killed him.”
“Shut up there, you fool!” the Commander said. “Why should we kill him? He has no hostage value. We were only keeping him because of the Britons.” Turning, he stared at one of his assistants. “Sky-B, go with them to search for him. Release him if he’s still alive.”
Sky-B stepped out of the group surrounding the Commander. He was a tall thin man and he held a rifle, an ammunition belt wound over his chest. From the hatred that burned in his eyes, I knew he wasn’t pleased with the assignment. He strode to the front of the tent and beckoned to us. “Let’s go,” he said.
James hesitated, then leaned over and whispered into my ear. “Should we go? This might be a way to get rid of us,” he said. I looked at Peter. He did not say anything.
“Don’t be scared,” the Commander said. “We’re not doing anything to you. You have no value to us alive or dead.”
Though not assured by this, we followed Sky-B out of the tent, and he headed towards a shack at the back of the camp.
“All this comes from wanting our money,” he said, his voice gruff. “But he’s made a mistake. I believe he’s dead.”
“He’s not dead,” I said
“My brother is not dead,” Peter agreed, his voice stubborn.
“Who told you he’s alive?” Sky-B sneered. “In front of the camp, we have the creek. It’s infested with crocodiles and alligators. There’s also the thick forest. Get in there and mosquitoes and all sorts of insects will attack him. He’ll get malaria in hours.”
“What about the back of the camp?” I asked.
“A few meters into it is the swamp. It’ll swallow him in seconds. So how can he be alive?”
Beside the shack where we stood, the forest began.
“Are those not boot marks?” I asked. Sky-B stared at the spot and frowned. Peter went past him, bent to his haunches and stared.
“Those are the marks of Paul’s boots,” he announced.
James swept past him and tramped into the path that led into the forest, beating at leaves and the stems of small trees in the way. We followed him, but we were soon hemmed in by the walls of the thicket lining the path, following the boot marks. As we stepped aside and pushed away the smaller plants in our path, swarms of mosquitoes and flies buzzed across our faces, Sky-B swatting at them in anger. We struggled through the forest for a few minutes, and then it opened into another path that led to an isolated shack. The boot marks entered through the doorway.
“Do you think he can be here?” James asked.
“He might be,” Sky-B muttered, bringing out a wrap of marijuana, putting it between his lips and holding the flame of a match against it. Inhaling, he blew out a cloud of smoke and said, “But he’ll be dead.”
Peter pushed the door of the shack open and tiptoed inside. I followed him – so did James and Sky-B. “He’s not here,” the militant said.
I smelled a faint scent of cigarette smoke in the stuffy shack and looked around. Sure enough, there was a packet of St Moritz tossed on a sandy mound at the corner of the shack, three cigarettes spilt on the ground, none of them having been lit.
“He was here,” I said.
“He must have left in a hurry,” Peter said. “Perhaps when he heard us coming.”
Taking off at a run, Peter moved to the doorway. Standing in it and staring at the forest, he shouted: “Paul!” No answer. The trees around the shack closed in on his voice and it was drowned in the rustle of a light breeze. I pushed past Peter, stepped out of the shack and surveyed the ground. I soon found the boot marks on it and followed them until they got to the edge of the forest. When I pushed aside the branches of a small tree in front of me and attempted to step in, Sky-B grabbed my hand. “Let me go,” I told him.
He didn’t release me; instead, he bent my neck down and pointed through the leaves, saying in a harsh voice: “That’s the swamp. If you step a meter into the bush, you’ll get sucked in.”
I stared through the leaves into the dim light under the trees of the forest. As I strained to look through, I heard the croaks of a frog, followed by those of others. Looking in the direction of the sounds, I saw the flash and glassy glow of water a few yards away. I drew back.
“Its true,” I said. “There’s a swamp there.”
“What does this mean?” Peter asked.
“He’s dead,” Sky-B said. “He must be drowned in it.”
“He’s the only relative I have,” Peter said.
I couldn’t, wouldn’t, believe that Paul was dead. I stared at the boot marks, at the spot that they entered the swamp. I noticed they didn’t go straight, but branched and moved along the edge of the forest. I followed the marks again.
“What are you doing?” James asked.
I pointed out the marks going along the side of the forest.
The others followed, Sky-B grumbling. I trudged along, kicking at the leaves and sticks that obstructed my movement, beating at the mosquitoes and the flies that buzzed across my face, until I couldn’t see the marks again. I stopped. All around the suffocating stench of the swamp. Dense green growth marked the spot where the marks stopped. With my leg, I shifted a small plant out of the way, and there lying on a clump of wet grass was the bag Paul usually hung on his shoulder, its strap on the leaves of a plant, its leather spattered with mud. I shouted. Looking around the bag, I saw a head covered by some leaves and hands splayed about. Pushing aside the leaves, I saw Paul lying face down on the ground, his breath coming in harsh gasps, his legs stretched towards the marsh, caked with mud. He gasped, his face twisted with pain. I ran to him and grabbed him. Peter came up in a rush, grabbing his brother’s hand.
“Paul!” he shouted.
“I’m sick,” Paul mumbled.
Peter wrapped his arm around his shoulder and lifted him up, while I beat at the sand and the leaves that clung to his clothes, knocking off the leaves and blades of grass on his trousers. James picked up Paul’s bag, and Paul kept moaning, “Oh, my God!”
The three of us half-carried and half-dragged Paul from the bush, heading for the camp, while Sky-B followed. On reaching the Commander’s shack, the community leader of Ugborodo threw away the lobe of kola nut in his hand and grunted, then joined us as we hustled Paul to the speedboat. Sky-B, the hatred still in his eyes, shouted at us as we climbed into the boat, and when he saw that he had Paul’s attention, he wagged a finger at him.
“Advice for you,” he said. “Stay away from this land. Next time you come here, you die.”
Without waiting for an answer, he turned and headed back to the Commander’s shack. The boatman was now wearing a vest with the picture of Asari Dokubo, another freedom fighter. He sniggered at Sky-B as he walked away then started the engine of the boat. It lurched forward and headed towards Ugborodo, where we were to drop the community leader. Not until we approached the waterfront of the town did Paul gather the strength to say anything.
“The Joint Task Force attacked the camp at night,” he said in a rush. “There was so much confusion, so many gun shots. Everybody was running helter skelter. The militant with us pointed his rifle at the Britons and warned that if they didn’t stay where they were, they would die in the crossfire. He then left to join the battle.” Paul coughed. “I’d already decided to run. I told the Britons we should make for the forest. They said no, they would die of malaria. I had no choice but to leave them and enter the forest.” He fell silent and we said nothing as the boat stopped at the jetty of Ugborodo. The community leader got out, and the boat swerved away.
The current of the water in the creek now swift, the boat streamed towards Warri. Paul was alive. He had survived the creeks where so many others had not. Ripples of wave swirled from the boat as it coursed through the water and carried us on, away from the camp, away from the creeks covered by a film of oil, away from death.