Ed Kashi: Oil and Conflict in the Niger Delta

Welcome to Circle of Blue Radio’s series Five and 15, where we’re asking global thought leaders five questions in fifteen minutes, more or less. These are experts working in journalism, science, communication design and water. I’m J. Carl Ganter hosting this week.

Billions of dollars are at stake in a militant conflict in the Niger Delta of Nigeria, and rebels are fighting for a percentage of the massive amounts of oil revenues generated by the thousands of miles of pipelines that crisscross the Delta. At the same time, the intense oil production and bombings of pipelines are devastating the sensitive ecosystems of the Delta – Africa’s largest wetland and the third largest wetland in the world. Circle of Blue reporter Aubrey Parker spoke with Ed Kashi. He is a photojournalist for National Geographic who was recently on location in the Delta. He also photographed for the book Curse of the Black Gold: 50 Years of Oil in the Niger Delta.

Ed, I understand this is your first time back in Nigeria since working on your book in 2006. How is this trip different since the last time you were in the Niger Delta?

Ah, you know, just today I was meant to go out with the Minister of Education to Nembe, which is an area out in the creeks and riverine. I’m in, you know, the capital of Bayelsa State, Yenagoa. Basically, they wouldn’t let me go with them as a white man because of the security risk unless I brought, you know, police or soldiers with me. So needless to say, I wasn’t able to go. And I think what I’m finding increasingly on this trip – I’m perfectly safe in the city here, well if you call it a city, you know, it’s a big town in the jungle. But the creeks are just too dangerous now. Even if I bring security, you know, when these boys in these boats – they’re young men, you know – they approach you, you’re helpless. Even with security. You’re really, you’re helpless because if at the very least they can shake you down for money, or your gear, or whatever, but you know, they could also take me hostage. I’m probably not going to be able to go out to these outlying communities unless the governor, you know, sends me in a chopper, or in a government motorboat. Because otherwise all of the travel on the rivers are in open boats. And a lot of it is because even though the JTF are everywhere – I mean compared to 2006, when I was last here, there’s so much more security, even in the streets, on the roads – but from what I understand, out in the creeks and on the rivers as well. But I think what’s happened is the militants — they are not even militants, just really I think all these sort of angry, frustrated young guys — they are just like criminal gangs. I would say it’s the equivalent of gang warfare over turf and control, and instead of crack and cocaine, it’s oil, and instead of being on the main streets of a city, it’s out in the rivers and creeks, on small boats.

Who are the militants and the JTF engaged in this fighting on the creeks of the Niger Delta?

The quote-unquote “militants,” which would be MEND and whatever splintered groups — but really, MEND is the only one that has any credibility, and even they are suspect as anything more than a profiteering gang in the guise of a political movement. And then you’ve got the Joint Task Force ( JTF) who have come in – again, nobody can get in to the areas where they’ve been fighting in Delta State; really, I don’t think that anybody could get in, you know journalists, foreigners, even locals; I was speaking to a filmmaker who’s here, she’s traveling with a Nigerian woman who’s one of the main fixers, if you like, who have helped journalists. And this woman was saying that there’s no way she would even go into that area. It’s just not safe enough. So therefore, there’s no accurate reporting of what’s going on, while all this dance is going on, this charade, this puppet show, whatever it is — and some of it is quite lethal and serious. I mean, I’m not saying that to minimize the deadliness and the importance, the seriousness of it — ultimately, the people continue to just be trashed here and really get no benefit or improvement in their daily lives.

What about drinking water in those areas? Do these villages in the Delta State have access to running water, or do the majority of them not?

No…No, Aubrey, I am staying in the “presidential lodge”, quote-unquote, in the government house of the state capital of Yenagoa. I don’t have running water. I mean, you know, the plumbing exists, but I’ve been here three weeks – every 4 or 5 days the water dies and it has to be pumped back up, and as of yesterday it hasn’t been pumped back up. In my situation it’s related to certain ineptitude and deterioration of preexisting infrastructure. So out where the fighting is going on, there is no infrastructure. It’s buckets of water from the river. Or bottled water. Or what they call “pure water,” which are these like little plastic 5-inch-by-5-inch, you know, by maybe 3-inch wide–you know, just like a little plastic sack of water that I would not drink. I don’t think that you or I–I don’t know, I mean, let’s say we could drink from it and we wouldn’t die from it, but there’s a chance we might get sick. That’s what you see most people here drinking. So those sorts of things…well, actually, they’re probably not getting out there now…hmm, I wonder?

Ed Kashi
Ed Kashi is a photojournalist, filmmaker and educator who has worked extensively in the Niger Delta for National Geographic and the book, “Curse of the Black Gold: 50 years of Oil in the Niger Delta.”

Amnesty International reported in June that more than 70 percent of the people live on less than a dollar a day in the Niger Delta. Surrounding this topic is a lot of discussion about corruption. What is your take on this situation?

You know, the Niger Delta is like a golden goose that lays these golden eggs, and it’s basically being kept in a back room with no water and no electricity. It’s being raped constantly. And basically as soon as she stops laying golden eggs, they’ll just leave her to die in the back room. You know, I always go back to that quote – I can’t remember which British minister said it is related to Northern Ireland at some point in the 1970s during the troubles, but he said: “As long as we can get the situation to an acceptable level of violence, then that’s fine.” And in fact, it’s that approach, it’s not what we can do to resolve or solve that situation. It’s just, as long as we can keep it under control and there is an acceptable level of violence – or in this case, an acceptable level of, you know, environmental damage and, you know, all of the things that are related where we don’t have to be held responsible for actually bringing development to this area – they’ll just let things crank along as they are because the oil and the gas keeps on flowing. Right? And the billions of dollars keep on coming in. So we’ll extract what we need from that area of the country, but we won’t do anything truly in good faith to improve the situation and the lot of the people living there.

Backing up a little, you mentioned that nobody in the JTF has a connection to the people in the Niger Delta so it’s easier for them to mistreat the people while they search for the militants. Why is that?

Pretty much everybody in the JTF and most of the Nigerians who are working in the oil and gas industry here, except the lowliest laborers, are from other parts of Nigeria. So imagine that, you know, New Yorkers and Texans and Floridians go to Alaska both to work in the oil industry as well as as soldiers and security forces to, whatever, protect and guard it. Well, none of them really give a crap about the Alaskans, right?. Even though the Alaskans’ resource is giving 80 percent of our GDP. You understand what I’m trying to get at. So it’s something that I think is very important — a more subtle layer of analyzing and interpreting, understanding of what’s going on here. These six states out of the 36 states of the Federation of Nigeria provide most of the wealth. These are the Ijaws, I mean, these groups that the rest of Nigeria doesn’t like, necessarily. So you have almost like a kind of a racism that is connected to this. I don’t know if racism is exactly the right word, but you know, this sort of, um, discriminatory perspective that even though they might be fellow Nigerians, they’re viewed — the Ijaws, which are the main tribe here, and some of the other tribes — you know, it’s easy to sort of put them as “the other.” I guess that’s the point. They’re trouble makers. They’re “the other.”

What is your take on how the people are affected by all of this negative energy that is pointed in their direction?

In some ways, there’s a wonderful energy here, but it’s so kind of corrupted and corroded by the overall, you know, the dynamic of the situation. Schools have no roofs so when it rains, it leaks; you know it’s just like, there’s no labs, there’s no textbooks. There’s sort of like the barest signs of civilization. It’s like, “OK well, it’s a poor country.” But 700 billion… dollars! Of oil! Hello! Even a poor part of America–OK, there’s poverty everywhere, there’s dysfunction everywhere, there’s varying degrees of lack of development everywhere, to some degree–But when you have the backdrop or the knowledge that there is so much wealth being generated from this area, that is where to me, the kind of criminality — it’s like it’s unacceptable. It’s unacceptable, that’s all. Where is it all going, and how? It’s unconscienable. How can the government, how can the people here allow this to happen, you know? It’s beyond blaming the oil companies, because at the end of the day the oil companies are a business. It’s a business. Their job is to come here, to be as efficient, as profitable as possible. Yes, they shouldn’t harm the environment. Yes, they shouldn’t, like, you know, use security forces to kill the local people…so forth and so on, of course. But in the end of the day, it’s the government that’s responsible. So where the hell are they? So they are reaping some — or a hell-of-a-lot –of the profits. So they can drive in their SUVs, and they can lead a relatively cushy life compared to the local people. But then the lion’s share of the people are truly living in abject poverty.

Think about what in other places are almost called like, you know, peasant revolts, or, no no, or like, you know, guerrilla uprisings. Wherever you have these situations, it always ends up that the people get caught in the middle. That I have heard — that what’s happening now is these small villages out in the creeks, they are under threat from both sides. No more is it a case where if MEND shows up, then it’s like, “Ah, good, you know, our saviors are here. Or our protectors are here. Or our advocates are here.” You know, now it’s almost as frightening for MEND to show up as it is for the JTF. Now it allows the Federal Government to make it a law and order issue. And not really deal with the claims of the communities and the true problems of this area, that have caused this. As I say all the time, there’s no good guys here. They’re all bad guys, it’s just to varying degrees from different perspectives.

Thank you, Ed and Aubrey. Circle of Blue’s Aubrey Parker has been speaking with Ed Kashi. Kashi is a photojournalist for National Geographic and has been covering the intersection of oil, conflict and water in the Niger Delta of Nigeria. To learn more about the challenges in Nigeria and to find more articles and broadcasts on water, design, policy and related issues, be sure to tune in to Circle of Blue online at Our theme is composed by Nadav Kahn, and we have had support today from Traverse Legal. Join us again for Circle of Blue Radio’s Five and 15. I am J. Carl Ganter.

To read more about the conflict, please see War on Water: A Clash Over Oil, Power and Poverty in the Niger Delta

Circle of Blue Radio is made possible with generous support from Traverse Legal.

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