Documenting The Paradox Of Oil, Poverty In Nigeria

Nigeria is the sixth-largest producer of oil in the world and one of the main suppliers of oil to American customers. Yet even though the West African nation is awash in oil money, much of its population is destitute.

A new book, Curse of the Black Gold, examines the relationship between oil, the environment and the community in Nigeria in the 50 years since oil was discovered there.

Photojournalist Ed Kashi, the book's co-author, spent years documenting the country's oil industry. He tells Liane Hansen that Nigeria has reaped more than $600 billion of oil wealth in the past half-century. But for the people in the region, he says, oil has brought dire poverty and a lack of development and fostered government corruption.

"While it's very easy to point our fingers at the oil companies — and we absolutely need to — it's the Nigerian government that I feel having spent three years working there that really bears the greatest responsibility," says Kashi.

"As one environmentalist in Nigeria pointed out," he adds, "because the politicians are not beholden to being voted into power and they get their money from the residual monies that come in from the oil industry, there's a way that they can bypass the people and they don't really have to serve them."

The region's oil industry also has had a profound effect on the environment and health, Kashi says. The past two decades have seen the equivalent of two oil spills a day, and a 2006 World Wildlife Fund report called the Niger Delta one of the most polluted places on Earth.

Still, the people who live there have learned to adapt. One of Kashi's photographs shows Urhobo women in the oil town of Afiesere baking tapioca in the heat of a massive gas flare.

"It's like baking a cake from the tailpipe of your car," Kashi says.

He says that those people "who have the least are the most resourceful ... because it's about survival."

The average person lives on less than a dollar a day, even though Nigeria takes in $2.2 million a day in oil revenue. And the poor have seen little or no benefit from the spiraling price of crude.

"If we spend more money here in America or Europe on oil, it has no impact on the people in the Niger Delta, no positive impact," Kashi says. "What it does is just further enriches the power structure, from the government people to the chieftain and tribal leaders who all benefit from the rise of the oil prices."

Nigeria is among the world's largest oil producers — and a major supplier to the United States. But Kashi says it has been overtaken by Angola as the largest producer in Africa, a shift largely due to a militant group known as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND.

In the past three or four years since it was formed, MEND has grown more aggressive in attacking oil facilities and taking oil workers hostage. Kashi says the group has "shut in" more than a quarter of Nigeria's oil production — meaning not only that production has been stopped, but that the oil has been stopped from leaving the country.

But he says the conflict has had a negative trickle-down effect on the poor and is contributing to the increase of oil prices around the world.

For his book, Curse of the Black Gold, Kashi says he strove to create powerful images that would grab public attention and tell the story of what is happening in the Niger Delta.

Because the United States imports a sizable amount of oil from Nigeria, he says, all Americans are consumers of Nigerian energy.

"It's important that we understand that connection," Kashi says. "I feel the days are gone in this world when we can just blithely ignore these kinds of connections because what I see from traveling around the world ... is that it's unsustainable. What's happening in the world today is unsustainable."

Excerpt: 'Curse Of The Black Gold'

'Curse Of The Black Gold'

Shadows and Light in the Niger Delta

Iraq led me to the Niger Delta. Actually, it was my work in Iraq that brought me to the attention of Michael Watts, a Berkeley-based scholar. For over thiry years, Michael has studied issues of oil and conflict, especially in regards to the Niger Delta. With Michael's guidance, on my first trip to Nigeria in July 2004, my eyes and heart were opened and my anger and disgust were ignited. To tell this difficult, but profoundly important, geopolitical story in a visual way became an obsession.

The Delta is the pivotal point where all of Nigeria's plagues of political gangsterism, corruption, and poverty seem to converge. In late 2005, I returned alone to continue the project and faced severe restrictions and frustrations. There were moments in Port Harcourt, lying in a dark, hot, mosquito-infested room, when I wondered if I could continue to see beyond my own weaknesses to overcome the seemingly insuperable obstacles that challenged me at every turn.

With a commission from the National Geographic magazine, I traveled again to Nigeria in 2006. This new level of support afforded me the opportunity to make breakthroughs to areas and subjects that had been unattainable before.

During the course of this project, one of the most important subjects I felt compelled to capture in images was MEND, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. They are an armed and formidible militant group based in the cities and creeks of the Niger Delta, particularly in the western region of the Delta in and around Warri (the so-called "Warri axis"). MEND is responsible for "shutting-in" 40 percent (at present: approximately 900,000 barrels per day) of Nigeria's oil industry through making direct attacks on facilities, taking hostages, and generally creating an inhospitable and unsafe environment for the oil industry.

To get access to this group, it was necessary to communicate with a shadowy figure named Jomo Gbomo. There were rumors he was a South African arms dealer, but nobody knew for certain his true identity, whether he was osmeone local or if he might be based on another continnent. Our only link was an email address. Whoever he was, Jomo was media-savvy and wrote with a flair and elan that was reminiscent of Subcomandante Marcos.

The emails ranged from personal, direct conversations to general communiques distributed to a list of journalists about the group's activities. Generally, Jomo's pronouncements presaged what would later appear in the media, or they were responses to developments on the ground, including attacks on oil facilities or hostage takings. At times it was comical, always surreal, but ultimately serious and potentially dangerous. Amidst the theater and drama of masked militants lay an insurgency in which, as Jomo put it, "bitter men" were engaged in a ferocious struggle with the Nigerian state. I reached a point with Jomo where we were communicating nearly every day, and I looked forward to his daily urgings, instructions, or vows to keep me safe. Even though I accomplished my goal of access to MEND, it wasn't through Jomo but instead through other contacts. At least, that is what I thought, but in reality I'll never know. In the end, my perceived intimacy and trust might have been nothing more than another shadow in an enigmatic place that an outsider can never fully understand.

Following are excerpts of emails exchanged with Jomo over a two-month period in the summer of 2006. This ongoing online conversation lead me to important reporting, exclusive access to a difficult part of this project, and powerful images. I never met Jomo Gbomo. At least, I don't think so.

From: Ed Kashi

Date: May 24, 2006 1:03:22 AM EDT

Dear Jomo,

I am a photojournalist working with the National Geographic magazine on a story about the Niger Delta. I have already been there two previous times to develop a project that is looking at the effects of nearly 50 years of oil on the communities, people and environment in the Delta. I understand you can help me get close to MEND, which I see as a vitally important part of this story. I will be coming to Port Harcourt in a few days and would appreciate any help you could give me to accomplish this task.

Best,

Ed Kashi

From: Jomo Gbomo

Date: May 25, 2006 8:03:22 AM EDT

Thanks ed, we are always eager to get our story out. We had earlier resolved not to have any contacts with the media except by way of this email address. Perhaps that will be reconsidered. I will think about this and get back to you as soon as i can. Im a great fan of the national geographic.

From: Ed Kashi

Date: May 31, 2006 5:59:29 AM EDT

Dear Jomo,

I am now in Port Harcourt and have begun my work for the National Geographic. ... If we could meet that would be great. I am hoping you can help me.

Thanks

Ed

From: Jomo Gbomo

Date: June 1, 2006 2:20:21 PM EDT

Hi ed, sorry i will be unable to meet with you...

[One June 16, Kashi and his fixer, Elias Courson, were captured and illegally detained by a Nigerian Joint Military Task Force that was based at an oil flow station at Nembe. They were detained for four days and the story made headlines in the Nigerian press as well as running on the BBC and Reuters.]

From: Jomo Gbomo

Date: July 1, 2006 11:19:04 AM EDT

Hi ed, i read about your experience. The international media shares your views. The nigerian government and its security apparatus is brutal. Extra-judical killings is usual in nigeria but this time, people who have fought with us were victims. I promise you we will repay this debt ten fold. When you come in august, you will meet me and all my senior commanders. However i will not grant any interviews nor allow myself to be photographed. You may be allowed to speak with and film any of my commanders who may be willing to speak with you. We will give you a comprehensive tour of the delta as you have not seen it. This is a promise, God willing.

From: Ed Kashi

Date: July 21, 2006

Dear Jomo,

...I am planning to return to the delta for August to finish my project for National Geographic. I appreciate any cooperation you can offer at that time.

Ed

From: Jomo Gbomo

Date: July 24, 2006 12:28:45 PM EDT

... this return date ensures you will be on time for the next wave of our attacks. This will be unrelenting and more punishing on the oil industry. You will be taken as far as you wish. We are capable of taking you through the states of the delta, meeting with our units scattered across the niger delta. You will be shown through villages that the nigerian government will not wish you to see as well as locations the nigerian military will not venture near. The choice remains yours. Decide how far you are willing or able to go. You will meet me but i dont know how much good that will be as i will not be granting any recorded interviews. As promised however, you may be permited to speak with any of my ground commanders who consents to an interview. ...

From: Ed Kashi

Date: July 24, 2006 12:35:56 PM EDT

Cc: Tom O'Neill

Dear Jomo,

if it is not necessary to meet with you, then better to keep the security situation less stressful for both of us. ...The writer, Tom O'Neill, will be accompanying me on this trip and he will need to do interviews with your commanders. ...In terms of how far I am willing to go, my main concern is putting myself in a situation where I am with your men and we encounter Nigerian security forces. ...

I look forward to your next instructions. thanks, Ed

From: Jomo Gbomo

Date: July 24, 2006 1:22:06 PM EDT

Hi, your safety is of great concern to us otherwise, how would our story get out? ...When we take you through the creeks, we will ensure that you meet no security operatives and will always be taken in a clearly civilian boat, a good distance from our fighters. Like i said the choice remains yours. Be certain you will get all you ask for on this trip

From: Ed Kashi

Date: August 13, 2006 7:05:42 PM EDT

Jomo,

we are all quite shaken by the fierce gun battles that just took place right outside of our compound. We thought they were coming for us, but thank goodness we are fine. I can see things have heated up

From: Jomo Gbomo

Date: August 13, 2006 7:26:16 PM EDT

I was informed so. No one can take you guys anyway, Be sure about that. Im more worried about you been hit by a stray bullet or something. They came for the other white guys. If by any chance you are taken be sure to tell anyone you are here at our instance. You will be released immediately or else..................? Always give me notice of your movement and sign in each night for your safety. I want to be able to act in good time if the unexpected occurs

From: Ed Kashi

Date: August 14, 2006 2:03:34 PM EDT

Dear Jomo,

we have been turned down by Shell for tomorrow and Thursday due to increased hostage taking, ... I have spoken with my man in Port Harcourt and he sounds a bit skeptical but he told me that a leaking well that he showed us last week has exploded and is on fire. This is exactly what we need for our work. ...

Thanks, Ed

From: Jomo Gbomo

Date: August 14, 2006 2:15:41 PM EDT

I will instruct that. Expect a call.

From: Jomo Gbomo

Date: August 21, 2006 7:21:08 AM EDT

Hi ed, im sorry i may not be able to arrange the trip for you today ... may be the end of this month. In trying to effect the release of all hostages in the delta, we sent out 14 of our fighters to a community in bayelsa holding a shell worker. They effected his release and on the way back to the camp, were ambushed by aobut 100 nigerian army soldiers ... lost 10 of our fighters in this attack ...in moourning. ...big blow to us ... attack was unprovoked and without warning. ...impossible at this point to do anything else. Hope you understand.

Yours truly

From: Jomo Gbomo

Date: August 28, 2006 8:22:00 AM EDT

Hi ed, please let me know when you get into warri I have arranged for you to speak with tompolo, the most superior ground commander in the western delta. Im afraid for now, that is the closest you will get to me. ...I have never allowed this sort of contact in the past and this is like a compensation for not keeping to my promise made before you left from nigeria, ...There will be no further hostage taking for ransome. I have instructed that across the entire niger delta. Please abide by whatever rules you are subjected to when you arrive at the first camp, ...

From: Jomo Gbomo

Date: August 28, 2006 11:35:19 AM EDT

...No one knows me as jomo. they know who sent you there and you may try but i doubt if anyone will speak to you about me. ...

From: Jomo Gbomo

Date: August 28, 2006 2:20:08 PM EDT

...it is important to us the world understands the galvanizing factor beneath our struggle. We have been called all kinds of names in the american media by those who have not bothered to be as thorough as you have chosen to be. ...It is assumed that our motivation is derived from a desire to steal little amounts of crude oil from pipelines. What we are fighting for aside from what we term to be a liberation of the niger delta peoples from 50 years of political and economic slavery, is that the truth be heard everywhere about our fight for the freedom of the peoples of the niger delta who have cried out in vain for help. The truth as we all know is unambiguos and no matter how well camoflaged, will not remain hidden forever. We hope the truth ...will come to light ...We have nothing to say to anyone, go around as freely as you wish and decide if we have reason to fight.

I never heard from Jomo again while in the Niger Delta. I made my way to the funerals and creeks where MEND was through my own contacts. But I'll never know how much was triangulated behind my back. As always, the real decisions took places in the shadows, out of my sight.

In September of 2007, a man purported to be JomoGbomo was arrested in Angola while trying to make an arms deal. Communiques from Jomo continue to this day, albeit with a slightly slicker tone and voice. My assumption is that whoever Jomo is doesn't matter at this point. The struggle that MEND represents has grown beyond one person and will continue its fight until real change occurs in the Niger Delta.

Currently in the Delta, an unrestricted military struggle is taking place between state security forces with an awful reputation and a violent state machinery. An imbalance exists between secrecy and publicity about their causes, and it is this disparity that sustains the shadows of this troubled land. The violence of the Delta is a reaction to a long history of exploitation, the presence of transnational corporations, a style of politics where violence is often encouraged and supported by politicians, and the sheer welter of groups, gangs, and cults without a leadership.

The Niger Delta is one of the most difficult places I've ever worked. The people are hesitant and suspicious of outsiders, the terrain is tricky with remote areas reachable only by small boats and along every road and waterway danger lurks for the intruder.

In June 2006, I experienced the worst incident of the entire trip. While attempting to photograph flow stations in the creeks of Nembe, I was taken into custody and detained illegally by the Nigerian military. The local boatmen we hired had lied about the presence of military in order to get extra cash. We knew if there was military present at the installations, we were not allowed to photograph. We relied on faulty information and paid the price. My fixer and I were detained for four harrowing days, our possessions and equipment were confiscated, we were locked in a room and were never told our fate. In the end, we were released because of the great work of Nigerian friends, human rights workers, the media, the National Geographic and my wife, Julie. Most people are not as fortunate and would have endured a much longer, more painful incarceration. This event left me empowered and even more determined to pursue my goal of creating a visual body of work to tell the untold story of the Niger Delta.

I always try to remain open in my heart and mind. This is what makes life worth living and allows one the opportunity to witness the unimaginable. From my chance encounter with Michael, I was given the opportunity to work in the Niger Delta — to shed light on this world of shadows.

Excerpt from Curse of the Black Gold, photographs by Ed Kashi, edited by Michael Watts, published by powerHouse Books, © 2008. All rights reserved.

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