Navigating Nigeria's Muddy Landscape

The Niger Delta from space. Credit: NASA. i i

This photo taken from space captures the immensity of the Niger River Delta, mile after mile of greenery laced with waterways emptying into the Gulf of Guinea. NASA hide caption

itoggle caption NASA
The Niger Delta from space. Credit: NASA.

This photo taken from space captures the immensity of the Niger River Delta, mile after mile of greenery laced with waterways emptying into the Gulf of Guinea.

NASA
Rooftops in Lagos, Nigeria. Credit: Gideon Mendel/ActionAid/Corbis. i i

Corrugated metal roofs spread across Lagos as far as the eye can see. Estimates put the coastal city's population at 15 million. Gideon Mendel/Corbis hide caption

itoggle caption Gideon Mendel/Corbis
Rooftops in Lagos, Nigeria. Credit: Gideon Mendel/ActionAid/Corbis.

Corrugated metal roofs spread across Lagos as far as the eye can see. Estimates put the coastal city's population at 15 million.

Gideon Mendel/Corbis
A mud street in Oloibiri, Nigeria. Credit: Jim Wallace, NPR. i i

The town of Oloibiri is near the site of Nigeria's first oil well. With its muddy paths, the city is typical of delta towns that have failed to benefit from the oil money that has flowed into Nigeria for decades. Jim Wallace, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jim Wallace, NPR
A mud street in Oloibiri, Nigeria. Credit: Jim Wallace, NPR.

The town of Oloibiri is near the site of Nigeria's first oil well. With its muddy paths, the city is typical of delta towns that have failed to benefit from the oil money that has flowed into Nigeria for decades.

Jim Wallace, NPR
Steve Inskeep conducts an interview in Nigeria. Credit: Jim Wallace, NPR. i i

NPR's Steve Inskeep (right) and engineer Kimberly Jones (left, with headphones) conduct an interview in the streets of Njemaze, a neighborhood in the city of Port Harcourt. Jim Wallace, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jim Wallace, NPR
Steve Inskeep conducts an interview in Nigeria. Credit: Jim Wallace, NPR.

NPR's Steve Inskeep (right) and engineer Kimberly Jones (left, with headphones) conduct an interview in the streets of Njemaze, a neighborhood in the city of Port Harcourt.

Jim Wallace, NPR
A map of Nigeria. Credit: NPR. i i

Steve Inskeep traveled across the Niger River Delta in the course of reporting this series on Nigeria's oil industry. He also visited Nigeria's capital, Abuja, in the country's center. NPR hide caption

itoggle caption NPR
A map of Nigeria. Credit: NPR.

Steve Inskeep traveled across the Niger River Delta in the course of reporting this series on Nigeria's oil industry. He also visited Nigeria's capital, Abuja, in the country's center.

NPR

When your plane breaks through the clouds over Nigeria's Niger River Delta, you look down on what could be paradise — winding rivers, green fields, and clusters of red-roofed homes. It's a lovely country from 5,000 feet.

After you land, you see that the roofs are corrugated metal, the reddish color is rust, and the houses are jammed together along mud lanes too narrow for a car. Children jump across the open sewers that line many streets, and in certain places the rivers smell like oil.

Nigerians are grappling with the challenge of making their country a little more like the one that appears from 5,000 feet.

The cause is not hopeless. Nigeria has tremendous energy. On a main street in Port Harcourt, the delta's biggest city, it seems that if you picked any three buildings at random, one would be a church, the next would be a bar and the third would be an Internet cafe.

Globalization is opening up a region that had been largely closed off by poverty, bad government and bad roads. When we pulled into a filling station in the city of Yenagoa, the American country song Sea of Heartbreak was blasting over the speakers. It actually took a little work to find Nigerian music for sale. The street hawkers were selling Jessica Simpson CDs and American DVDs. We ate Chinese food, and borrowed an Internet connection from a Lebanese emigre. Cell phone companies, including a South African firm, provide instant (if inconsistent) service in remote areas.

Bill Knight, of the development group Pro-Natura, told us that the Internet is transforming places where messages previously traveled only by boat. Knight is an outsider, a white man who chose to live for years in a Delta town; his business card now calls him "Chief" Bill Knight, a traditional term of leadership and respect. He told us that he senses a gradually improving atmosphere in the delta, though he does not minimize the problems that remain. The oil industry is the chief employer, and it's deeply mistrusted after decades of conflict. Many traditional tribal leaders have been paid by the industry and are discredited.

In some parts of the Delta, armed militias vie for power with the authorities, forcing the military to intervene. In other places, the authorities seem more lawless than militias. Nigerians, including government officials, speak frankly about the problem of corruption.

On the main highway between Port Harcourt and Warri, another major city, some police officers turned checkpoints into private tollbooths. During several trips, on several different days, we saw a number of Nigerians placing tips in the hands of officers.

At one point we were stopped; our driver was told there was a problem with the serial number on one of his car parts. A man with a rifle was put in our car to escort us to a police station. There the driver was taken aside and told that he must pay 20,000 Nigerian naira -– about $140. Our Nigerian companions argued with the police, and we were eventually released.

We also argued our way out of a payoff at the Port Harcourt airport, when customs inspectors said that the recording equipment of our engineer, Kimberly Jones, was subject to an "import duty." Our producer, Jim Wallace, was less lucky as we departed Nigeria from Lagos: an airport security guard said he was guilty of traveling with too much money, and demanded $100 to overlook this alleged problem. The guard gave instructions for how to hand over the money unobtrusively.

At one point I complained to a Nigerian about the police, and he said that I should be more sympathetic. The cops, he speculated, might need to extort money because their bosses had stolen their pay.

His speculation wasn't entirely implausible. This summer, Nigeria's former chief inspector of police has been on trial on corruption charges.

Were we special targets because we were foreigners? Maybe. But I think that, in general, visitors have an easier time of it. Many Nigerians treated us with special care. At one point, in a remote area, a military officer, Brigadier General Elias Zamani, insisted on sending an escort with us. And we knew that whatever trouble we did encounter would be temporary. Many Nigerians know they must deal with corruption and lawlessness every day of their lives.

This doesn’t stop people from speaking out. Nigeria has an active press, and a tradition of letting everyone speak (even if that means that a meeting goes on for hours).

It also has plenty of fearless people. There’s Nuhu Ribadu, the nation's chief anti-corruption investigator. He's a former cop, and when he put the chief inspector of police on trial, he was prosecuting his own former boss.

While we were visiting, a two-page advertisement in a news magazine accused Ribadu of using corruption prosecutions simply to destroy the opponents of Nigeria’s central government. Ribadu shrugged off this accusation.

There’s also Austin Onuoha, a Nigerian with the Center for Social and Corporate Responsibility, or CSCR. His non-governmental organization, which is linked with the Catholic Church, is trying to bridge the divide between oil companies and their desperately poor neighbors in the Niger River Delta. In the process, he has made both sides unhappy.

Over dinner one night, he told us that he had been threatened in the past, but he wasn’t worried. "What’s the worst they can do? Kill me? If they did that, then CSCR would just advertise my job, and somebody else would fill it, and probably do it better."

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