The noise from gas furnaces burning across the Niger Delta make it impossible for parents to whisper to their children. Whispering may sound conspiratorial, but parents cannot even speak normally to their children – a thing people take for granted. The explosive noises and hisses from the infernal fires make shouting the only way to hold a conversation. This anomaly has become the norm for two reasons: they must speak louder than the thunderous flares or shout to overcome the challenge of many persons slowly going deaf.
Dialogue in the oil fields require keen attention because much of what is communicated is more in what is not being said than in what is said. Tears and sorrows, groans and gnashing of teeth speak louder than speeches or songs. Rivers coated with crude oil or bursting in flames at the whiff of a naked flame, say more than words can convey. And how about the fishes popping up belly up? The whale or the dolphin washing ashore and attracting machetes, saws and hammers as malnourished fishers hack away at the hope of a meal. They tell tales of feasting in dangerous pots.
Living in the oil field has been a disaster. And the many-tentacled roots of the ecological crisis require deep considerations. At one end is the wilful irresponsibility of the oil companies who simply rake in more profits as they externalize production costs by heaping harms on the hapless communities and ignoring their groans. At the other end are the complicit governments who are trapped in the false hope that extractivism can extricate their nations from the carefully engineered grip of poverty.
Joint ventures easily turn into misadventures as the oil companies take the driving seats and determine how much of the revenue goes into production costs and what crumbs are shared as profit. Taking the measly shares coated with promises of rising production to the bank, the governments suddenly become “credit worthy” and get enticed by financial institutions to start a borrowing spree and sink into the quicksand of debts. Oftentimes, they borrow their own cash stowed away in foreign banks. Indebted and addicted, communities and their environments are sacrificed so the companies can keep up the rapacious binge.
Oil wealth flies above the heads of communities. Just like power lines take power elsewhere leaving us in the dark. Communities farm and endure rotten harvests. Fishers’ fish, but the fishes are banished by crude. Fishes eat imported iced fish. Communities live by the riverside but may well have been in parched deserts. Riverine communities drink pure water!
Oil spills are waved off as inconsequential. And no matter how much is spilled, the volume exported is never affected because the export volume is a twisted piece of fiction. Whether on land or in the deep sea, no one knows exactly how much oil is extracted. When NEITI blew the whistle concerning offshore oil the government agency responsible for ensuring responsible behaviour among the oil companies squirmed and provided some specious denial. Oh, we know how much is taken! Really?
The oil spills that turned farmlands into an oily lake at Ikot Ada Udo in 2006/7 was ignored for many months. The spill attracted media and NASS’s attention and became a tourist attraction before Shell adjusted the cap on the well. The Niger Delta holds so much crude oil that hundreds of thousands of barrels of the resource can be spilled or stolen daily and no one would bat an eyelid. Community farms get destroyed. Forests get incinerated. Rivers get suffocated by blankets of crude. The big shots directly committing this ecocide are safely hidden away in air-conditioned board rooms onshore and offshore.
At Ororo-1 oil well at OML 95 off the coast of Ondo State, a blowout-induced fire has been burning for almost one year with no one lifting a finger to stop it.
And over a period of two years (2018-2019) NOSDRA registered 1,300 oil spills or five spills a day.
Oil spills are readily classified as being caused by sabotage even before officials get to the scene of the incident. The poor community people, the victims, are labelled criminals while the actual criminals are safely ensconced in stately mansions and are serenaded by wailing sirens as they dash between the bank and their stuffed bars and pepper soup joints.
Dialogues in the oil fields have to be hurried because our communities are basically open isolation wards of the forgotten. Territories of the sick and forgotten. The toxic air loaded with volatile hydrocarbons give visitors a headache within a few minutes of arrival there. For the locals, the fumes produce breathing diseases that make their whizzing sound like dull dirges and their voices crack like overstretched funeral drums.
Will this situation continue for ever? The answer is a resounding NO. Soon the income from crude oil will dry. Soon, crude oil will become a stranded asset. The signs are in. At the height of COVID-19 lockdowns, the price of oil went below $40 per barrel. The Nigerian government struggled to meet budgetary needs. The struggle continues today. While the world charts ways out of the oil pit, we dig deeper into it.
Our healing will come, and it must come soon. Now is the time for the process to begin. As we sit at the banks of our rivers or in the middle of our forests, let us remind ourselves of stories of times when we could drink water from our streams and never needed to buy water hawked in plastic sachets. It is time for us to reflect on what went wrong and who we accepted should exploit our land in exchange for a dream that has become a nightmare.
It is time for reflection as to what went wrong that our land would be so polluted while the polluter walks away free. It is time for us to reflect on what must be done so we can live in our land with dignity and enjoy the gifts of nature with no hindrance.
It is time for us to hear ourselves again, to hear the crickets chirp and the birds sing. It is time to quench the evil flames and allow the moon to light our night sky again. The time it is for us to flush away the polluting crude and toxic wastes from our steams, creeks and rivers and once more see our faces in our waters.
The future begins with an open whisper, an open dialogue. An open dream. An open conspiracy where people hear each other and whispers ride on the waves of our hopes.
Our future begins today with dialogues on our struggles, visions and hopes.
Nnimmo Bassey, whose talking points at the “Oil Field Dialogue” held at Ikot Ada Udo in Akwa Ibom State on April 20, 2021 formed the crux of this treatise, is Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF)