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Water and Oil: The Rape of the Niger Delta

Updated: Aug 8, 2023



The Niger Delta region of southeastern Nigeria, before it was named, claimed and devastated by the British, was a verdantly fertile region rich with diverse wildlife, peoples and cultural traditions. Like the Nile River Valley’s depiction in Egyptian cosmology, this landscape can be said to have arisen “...out of the primeval waters.” (Erickson, 1991, p. 86) The tropical climate of this place gave birth to a veritable Garden of Eden, full of abundant natural resources in quantities which surpassed the needs of its inhabitants such that trade and inter-cultural exchange with neighboring and far flung groups was the norm. However, as was customary with European explorers who set sail

in pursuit of new lands, manifest destiny and the lawlessness of might is right philosophical orientations took precedence over any fair trade principles and led to a complete and utter destruction of this pristine place. The Niger Delta region now suffers painfully from the assaultive, greedy penetration of its terrain by those whose only aim was complete domination of people and place in the service of capitalist gain. Presently, due to monumental ecological crises resulting from wonton extraction of oil and other resources, and the concerted, calculated effort to drain the peoples of their dignity and natural rights by the British colonial government and later their puppet African despots, the region is plagued by corruption, ethnic/religious violence, famine conditions and almost total community devastation. Contrary to the image of a delta as a rich, flourishing region interspersed with

waterways and fecund forests, the Niger Delta is now a destitute place, unrecognizable.

With constant oil flares burning throughout the area due to rogue practices of oil extraction by companies like BP and Shell who bribe corrupt officials into relaxing all standards of community and environmental health, safety and sustainability, what was once an Eden appears to be a hell. The previously rich soil, once bountiful with cashews, avocadoes, mangos, bananas, papaya and more, can hardly be coaxed to grow edible things now. The waterways irrigating the land have been so irrevocably polluted with crude oil remnants dumped by the American and British companies in their effort to go about the business of procuring oil in the most cost-effective, least time-consuming ways. Showing no regard for the people or the place, these companies have mutilated the very essence of the Delta, taking from it with no respect for the

environment or concern for the consequences of such excessive raping of the soil. Oil interests have ravaged the soul of the place, its foundations, integrity and longevity. Moreover, the cultural framework of the indigenous people, the Urhobo, Ijaw, Itsekiri, and Edo, is intimately tied to the land, especially the waterways. They have formed their

understanding of self and locale based on the natural abundance of water and its fruits.

Casey asserts that “attachments to geographical localities contribute fundamentally to the formation of personal and social identities.” (Casey, p. 105) Consequently, the physical disruption of the pristine flow from the region’s waters has led to a considerable

halt in the cultural imagination of the people. Those who have not deserted the spent land for more livable places are engaged in constant acts of futile resistance to the status quo. These resistances lack clarity or purpose and inadvertently serve to further contribute to indigenous environmental and social degradation.


Upon entering the Delta region, the British saw not the glory of a splendid, abundant place full of wildflowers, medicinal plants, manifold creatures and pristine waters. Instead these cash-blind, so-called explorers, saw commodities that they could extract through slave labor, speedily export, and sell on the global market for significant profit. Instead of proud, peaceful people in harmony with nature and self, the British saw bodies to be exploited and used as capital to fortify England. The rampant theft of their colonial hegemony enabled the British empire to amass considerable material wealth on behalf of their Queen. Beginning with palm oil and ending with the discovery of crude oil in the Delta, the British have forcibly taken from the people their natural right to clean, pure, abundant water and given only cultural and environmental devastation in return. "Recognizing the social and ecological value of a resource leads to its equitable and sustainable use.” (Shiva, 2002, p. 6) This, the British colonials and American oil

companies have failed to do in Africa, despite the successful efforts of the indigenous people to preserve their lands for millennia. The milk of the people’s mother soil has been stolen so voraciously by greedy foreign mouths, that the babes of the land have little or nothing left to drink. Literally, both water and gasoline/kerosene are imported to the region from abroad, as are many food stuffs. So from a free people with full access to an abundant terrain, the indigenes of the Niger Delta have been forced into servitude and lack on their own land. The stripping of the place of all its natural value and worth has led to the excessive affluence of western nations at the total expense of the very people whose natural right to the place has been usurped. What is illustrated in this reality is the variance between “...a culture that sees water as sacred and treats its provision as a duty for the preservation

of life and another that sees water as a commodity, and its ownership and trade as

fundamental corporate rights.” (Shiva, 2002, p. x) Since the Niger Delta birthed a riverine community and culture tied deeply to its water through practical needs and mythical traditions, the European capitalist exploitation of oil reserves was a direct assault on the Delta’s waters as fundamental right/resource of the region. The belief that one can enter another’s place of abode and when the resident is absent or unaware, take over the dwelling and make it one’s own by right of might has

been the cornerstone of European hegemony to date. This belief is a direct assault on natural boundaries and leads to the creation of man-made borders which restrict entrance, access or movement of the first residents from/through their own birthplaces. As is true all over the third world, the Niger Delta people have been made strangers in their own land both by physical dislocation from their land and waterways and by psychic disconnection from their indigenous cultural ways. Their Riparian rights to the pure, flowing waters of the Delta have been usurped by foreigners. That “people have a right to life and the resources that sustain it,” has been completely lost to the

Eurocentric mentality of might is right and doctrine of Prior Appropriation. (Shiva, 2002,

p. 21) What was given the Urhobo, Ijaw, Itsekiri and Edo people, by natural right, has been appropriated by the British and the Americans. The natural boundaries of a place by which the people sustained themselves, lived and prospered have been usurped and re-positioned into false borders, which suit the exploitative needs and capitalist aims of western colonial companies. The home place itself of the Niger delta has been raped of

its deep founts and left to burn and cry whilst endless streams of its substance flow west

for the feeding of an insatiable machine. Meanwhile, the divide and conquer strategies

of the rapists have pitted land against sea, neighbor against neighbor and sister against

mother. Backed by foreign oil companies, a pitiful elite native to the region grow fat off

of the leftovers of humongous plates of dripping oil drunkenly ingested by Shell, BP,

Exxon, et al.


In order to sustain such theft and greed, European colonialists used the teachings of Christianity as a substitute for the real and tangible water loss of the Delta peoples. The word of the white man’s God became the substance with which the peoples could replace their dwindling natural resources and access to livelihood. A place in heaven became the focus and goal of a people once daily connected to the riches of an abundant land. A living, present Eden was co-opted by a far off, intangible place that could only be accessed through the white man’s portal of western knowledge, tradition and culture. This denigration of traditional southeastern Niger Delta culture was the final nail in the coffin of the people’s freedom and the region’s fecundity. “The natural joy one feels in nature had to be combatted by the Christian spirit.” (Jung, 2002,p. 81) The forced doctrine of a Christian God of provision effectively masked the fact that “over-exploitation of water [through oil exploitation] and the disruption of the water cycle creates absolute scarcity that markets cannot substitute with other commodities.”(Shiva, 2002, p. 15) Running the aqueous region into the ground, literally and figuratively, while indoctrinating the people with a foreign myth of heavenly salvation served to obscure the reality that, “there is simply no substitute for this precious liquid

necessary for the survival of animals and plants.” (Shiva, 2002, p. 15) Now, while the people pray without ceasing in makeshift churches to a blond, blue-eyed god, their

black faces grow ashen with the soot from the debris of continuous flaring oil fires on

what was once fertile marsh. The worship of ancestors who inhabited the marsh and forest has all but ceased as there is no longer a place for these deities to peacefully inhabit. The rich cuisine utilizing cassava yam, water leaf and fresh fish with palm oil has been largely replaced by imported plastic wrapped instant noodles and packaged milk from cows of another land. The traditional dance ceremonies, griot storytelling, and communal government have lost their meaning and occur only, if they do at all, in the faint, eerie glow of the murky streams and under the oil-smoke clouded sky. It is clear that the “lived relationships with a space give space meaning.” (Casey, 2009, p. 106)

Imagine a people dancing under a soot-filled vista blocking out “...the cosmic order that

ancient people throughout the world witnessed in their skies.” (Andrews, 1998, p. 137)

As of now a majority of the jobless, impoverished youth of the Niger Delta region either make their way destroying oil pipelines with rudimentary materials or engaging in neo-

slavery prostitution. Like caged lions they fight against their own being, forgetting their true place; “it is only [their] body that knows, moving them, daily, hourly, back and forth, before the bars of their cage.” (Griffin, 1978) The lack of infrastructure, clean air and water, public education, jobs, and cultural connection has led to a mutinous atmosphere in the region which illustrates “the ecology of terrorism.” (Shiva, 2002, p. xi) This place has been made inhospitable and in some cases uninhabitable for its natural residents by systems of rule that discount human and environmental rights. “Non-democratic economic systems that centralize control over decision making and resources and displace people from productive

employment and livelihoods create a culture of insecurity.” (Shiva, 2002, p. xi) The despotism and misrule under which these peoples have been subjugated and disenfranchised have created divisive, volatile lines of religious and ethnic conflict in the region that have led to a domino effect of disastrous acts of terror. For the peoples of a delta region to rely on bottled water from the Pepsi and Coca Cola companies is sacrilege and bespeaks of a fundamental wrong. Vandana Shiva affirms that “political

violence often arises over scarce but vital water resources.” (Shiva, 2002, p. xi) The anarchy of the Niger Delta is aimed at the ex-colonial powers and their African lackeys, but the reach is not far and so ricochets back to the community and suffers them even more. Hence, the men and boys of the Delta, out of frustration and petty greed, pierce holes in the pipelines collecting buckets of oil to sell, and in the process cause leaks and spillage of more crude oil into the waterways and soil. Some,

in a faulty warrior cry of displaced sons of the soil, demand reparations or bribes in exchange for protecting the pipelines from anarchist acts. Likewise, the sense of dislocation from place has led many girls and women to relocate to other regions, often abroad, to work as prostitutes. As the land of their mothers has been raped, pillaged and plundered for easy profit, they too offer their precious bodies up for cheap sale and abuse. Clearly, “with identity no longer coming from positive experience of being... [their] culture is reduced to a negative shell.” (Shiva, 2002, p. xxi) The psychological

consequences of the environmental degradation on the people of this region are without number. Carl Jung postulates that, “the collective unconscious is at one with the natural

world.” (Jung, 2002, p. 79) When their natural environment is obliterated, a community

loses its sense of self and place. People identity with the space they naturally occupy and as that space is terrorized, simultaneously, the inner space of dislocated persons is assaulted. “To be displaced is therefore to incur both culture loss and memory loss resulting from the loss of the land itself.” (Casey, 2009, p. 37) People’s minds flow with the imagery of the place around them and so it is no wonder that many of the Delta region peoples of Nigeria have lost their minds, along with the local earth and its losses. This mental destabilization is rooted in the loss of access to pure flowing water, which leads to crop failure, extreme poverty and famine conditions. Famine conditions are desperate conditions for the human mind, heart and soul, not to mention the body. The body is not only formed by nutriment, it is imagined in relation to its environment. Yes, "body and space are construed in tandem.” (Shepard, 1996, p. 90) In a toxic environment humanity lies at the brink of itself, suffering hungrily, thirsting for the very

essence of life itself, water - in both its physical and spiritual manifestations.


In the Delta region of southeastern Nigeria, oil has taken precedence over water and commerce over natural right. The way forward can only be in the restructuring of priorities from capitalist gain to humanitarian service. This can only be done through a rising up of the people of this land with clarity and vision to restore the sanctity of their natural resources and rights. Their friends and supporters abroad must understand the ways in which gas usage in the western world contributes directly to the plight of indigenous peoples in oil-rich lands, and act accordingly. These people’s places must

be returned to them, restored, revitalized and set up for full reengagement by the peoples born there. For, “our place is part of what we are.” (Snyder, 2004, p. 19) The might is right philosophy must be exposed for the wrong it hides, and efforts must be made by multinational companies to make truly right what they have sullied throughout the world. After all, “the world is our consciousness and it surrounds us.” (Snyder, 2004,p. 17) If the western mind fails to align itself with the rights of the wild and its peoples, we will all perish. “The outsider must attempt to come to grips with the indigenous cultural forms that the landscape is experienced with.” (Casey, 2009, p. 109) The war on terrorism cannot be fought from the outside in. The roots of terrorism - “economic insecurity, cultural subordination and ecological dispossession,” are rampant in Africa in general and the Niger Delta in particular. Moreover, “the forced apportion of resources from peoples is a form of terrorism - corporate terrorism.” (Shiva, 2002, p. xiii)

Undoubtedly, the extraction of vital resources from the fertile regions of the so-called

third world have transformed fecund places into virtual wastelands and this reality must

be rectified. No civilized global society can result from an institutionalized piracy mandate. “Commerce that threatens life must be stopped.” (Shiva, 2002, p. xiii) It is

imperative that so called civilized people develop “the capacity to hear the song of

Gaia.” (Black Elk Speaks, 1979, p. 196) And herein lies our charge.


References


Andrews, T. (Ed.). (1998). Nile River. In A dictionary of nature myths (pp. 136137).

Oxford: Oxford University Press. Black Elk, & Neihardt, J. G. (1979).

Black Elk speaks: Being the life story of a holy man of the Oglala Sioux. Lincoln:

University of Nebraska Press.

Casey, Ed. (2009). Getting back into place. Bloomington, IN.: Indiana University Press.

Griffin, S. (1978). Woman and nature: The roaring inside her. San Francisco, CA:

Sierra Club Books.

Erickson, W., & Scott, S. (1991). Myth of Ptah from Memphis. In B. Sproul (Ed.),

Primal myths (pp. 86-87). San Francisco, CA: Harper.

Jung, C.G. (2002). Nature was once fully spirit and matter. In M. Sabini (Ed.), The

Earth has a soul: Nature writings of C.G. Jung (pp. 79-88). Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic

Books.

Shiva, V. (2002). Water wars: Privatization, pollution, and profit. Cambridge, MA:

South End Press.

Shepard, P. (1996). Place and human development. In Traces of an omnivore (pp.

8792). Washington, DC: Island Press.

Snyder, G. (2004).The practice of the wild. Washington, D.C.: Shoemaker & Hoard.



The Esther Dress by Patience Torlowei visually and poignantly describes the rape of the Niger Delta region of southeastern Nigeria. The designer and artist states that this dress was born of pain, reflecting the highs and lows of modern Africa.

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