FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
The next time you fill up your tank, the oil may have come not from the Middle East, but Nigeria. It's one of the top producers of oil in the world and a major supplier of oil to the U.S. Now, a book called the "Curse of the Black Gold" documents the pollution, violence and lifestyle created by the oil industry in Nigeria's delta villages. Photojournalist Ed Kashi has traveled throughout the Niger Delta and his pictures are featured in the book. Also joining the conversation is Omoyele Sowore. He's an expert on Nigerian oil and publisher of the website, Sahara Reporters. Ed and Omoyele, thank you so much for joining us.
Mr. ED KASHI (Photojournalist): Hello.
Mr. OMOYELE SOWORE (Publisher, Sahara Reports): Thank you for bringing us.
CHIDEYA: So Ed, this book, this photo-heavy book, also a lot of text, a lot of information, the subtitle is "50 Years of Oil in the Niger Delta" and it begs a question that often comes up as we do our job in the news business which is, why should people care? Why is this important?
Mr. KASHI: The reason we should care is that not only because oil is now 140 or 145 dollars a barrel, of course that's why anyone is interested at all. But do you realize that last year the United States took 50 percent of Nigeria's oil output. So that right there, in my view, is a reason to care. As a parent, as a citizen of this country, as someone who cares about the world, this situation is unsustainable.
What's going on in Niger Delta, the perverse relationship between the West and now increasingly China and India as they need more resources that this situation is dynamic, is unsustainable. We've got to wake up, we've got to pay attention because frankly, oil, it has a negative impact on the people and on the environment.
CHIDEYA: Omoyele, let me turn to you.
Mr. SOWORE: Yes.
CHIDEYA: Give us a sense of how much oil Nigeria has. I mean, I think now with all of the news coverage of oil people - many more people know that Nigeria is an oil-producing state than ever did. But at the same time, you know, the first thing that comes to mind is Saudi Arabia. What's Nigeria's place in this rarefied world?
Mr. SOWORE: Well, the best way to put it in this modern day, 2008, is that we have enough oil to attract a wing of the U.S. military African(ph). It is for the sake of the oil in the Gulf of Guinea, which is (unintelligible) controlled by Nigeria, that the U.S. decided that it is time to have an African command of the U.S. military.
But in terms of mathematics, it's difficult to say, because nobody tells the truth about how much oil is pumped out of Nigeria. Because oil companies don't want anybody to know, the government don't want anybody to know because they steal it, but what we know officially is that we pump out about 2 million barrels of oil on a daily basis. If you multiply by 146 dollar per barrel, that's a lot of money.
CHIDEYA: A lot of money. And Omoyele, I was looking at a website that offers you as a speaker for lectures. And it talks about your activism, and then it adds, currently abroad and being treated for the effects of torture, Sowore is adamant he'll return to Nigeria. Catch us up on what form your activism has taken and what price you've paid.
Mr. SOWORE: Between 1989 and 1999, when I left Nigeria, a 10-year period, I spent quite some time in jail. Eight times that I could count that I spent several days, and each of those days - I can't count how many times I got stopped and got beaten up. And on those eight occasions I was tortured, heavily tortured. So in 1999, I came to the U.S. and checked myself into the Bellevue Center for Survivors of Torture in New York and stayed there for quite a while, tried to take care of my health business.
CHIDEYA: Do you have hope that this oil will be used for the good of the Nigerian people?
Mr. SOWORE: Hope sounds a little bit too religious for me, and optimism sounds a little bit too intellectual for me. But I just think people at this point need will in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, and Nigeria as a whole, to take back that country from people who run the country, the military leaders, the democratic leaders and I'm sorry to say, the morons who runs the place. So it is just will that I have. It's difficult to have hope in Nigeria, it's difficult to be optimistic in Nigeria, I've got to tell you.
CHIDEYA: Do you blame the West, Omoyele, in the sense that, you know, when the G8 met recently to talk about issues, the Nigerian president brought up oil as a possibly destructive force for all the reasons we're talking about? Do you think that the West needs to step up, and if so, what would stepping up mean?
Mr. SOWORE: Well, it's not about stepping up only, it's about taking responsibility for the damages that have been done. Because people have been hot over these years. Of course, we blame the West, not because it is very convenient to blame the West. It's because the West hands have been caught in the cookie jar of human rights abuses in these third-world countries, of pollution of the environment, of destruction of, you know, cultures and peoples, of exploitation. This is well documented. The West has admitted to - they've admitted to it several times. And when you hear people say we blame the West, it's because the hypocrisy of the West also have come a full circle.
For example, you see in Nigeria the president goes up to the G8 and says, well, I need assistance to criminalize oil bunkering, you know. That's all he could say. Well, what needs to be criminalized in Nigeria is oil - is pollution of the environment, is destruction of the trees and forests and the ecosystem and the decimation of the cultures of the people. The militarization of the Niger Delta and the lack of regard for human rights and human dignities is what needs to be criminalized first time forward. So you see…
CHIDEYA: Just define - quickly define what oil bunkering is.
Mr. SOWORE: Oil bunkering is like, you know, all these fire brands that I exposed out of lack of maintenance and they bust open disguised just still - the crude.
Mr. KASHI: You know, I'd like to build on that if I could. That, you know, one of the things we have to remember is roughly 10 years ago, a little more than 10 years ago, Ken Saro-Wiwa, a great writer and journalist, Nigerian writer and journalist, he was from Ogoniland in the Niger Delta. He came and gave the first, really the first sort of contemporary expression to so much of what Sowore is talking about. The environmental destruction, the lack of human rights, the lack of, you know, economic equity. All, you know, around oil in the Niger Delta, and how it was adversely affecting his people.
And what happened to him? The Nigerian government hung him. So, if you have - and I'm sorry, and his movement was expressly a non-violent movement. So this is what happens, right? The ante gets raised. You have this great man who comes along. He says, I'm not interested in hurting anyone, killing anyone, I just want justice for my people and my land. And then the people in power kill him. And then 10 years or more later, surprise, surprise, you have MEND and you have all these armed groups who now are saying, well, the government and the military doesn't want to talk, they want to fight. Or they actually don't want to do anything, they want to keep the status quo. But that's not good enough any more. We're not going to stand for it.
That's what concerns me about the Niger Delta, is that as long as oil is flowing and so you have this huge booty to sort of fight over, or to protect in the case of the oil companies and the government and the military, then violence will increase.
Mr. SOWORE: Enough of grandstanding. We said this is not going to work. We could put all the military in the world in the Niger Delta region, without addressing the injustices that have been done over 50 years. They're not going to stop the militancy, can't stop a guerrilla war, it's just going to escalate more and more. And why people should care also in this country is that Nigeria has 140 million people. You know, the world will have to deal with a humanitarian catastrophe that we've probably never seen before in the black world.
Mr. KASHI: I mean, just to pick up on that, think about this. One out of every five Africans is Nigerian.
CHIDEYA: Well gentlemen, it's been great to talk to you. Thanks so much.
Mr. SOWORE: Thank you for bringing us.
Mr. KASHI: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: That was photo journalist Ed Kashi. His pictures are featured in the book "Curse of the Black Gold." We also heard from Omoyele Sowore. He's an expert on oil in Nigeria and publisher of the website Sahara Reporters. You can see pictures from the book on our website, nprnewsandnotes.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.