The year of belated global oil awareness, 2010, reminded me that I have been in the oil business for quite a while. It all began in the years before Nigerian independence, when I happened on a small news item revealing that oil had been found in some hitherto obscure village with the appropriate name of Oloibiri.
I was a student in Britain — that is, living in a country that was exploring the natural resources of other places, especially its former colonies. This did not mean I had the slightest inkling of the search for energy resources by rich industrialized nations. What that would mean for the poor developing countries bequeathed the gift of oil, commencing the race to control such treasures, was not on my radar.
The news affected me in a thoroughly non-industrial, non-commercial way. I mused on what sort of transformation could follow as the basic trading commodity changed from palm oil to crude oil.
I had never been to the Niger Delta, certainly not before my sojourn abroad to college in 1954. I knew of it only from my secondary-school geography lessons: a place of dense mangrove swamps and the folkloric Mami Wata — the half-human, half-fish seductress, our local mermaid! My imagination swept to the reinsertion of an alien presence in the ancient rhythms of life there: first, missionaries, traders and colonial powers, now oil exploration.
My play “The Swamp Dwellers” had little to do with what had triggered the idea. My compulsive dialogue with nature took over. The economic consequences, the impact of a global scramble for our wealth, hovered only dimly in the background.
Those consequences would require a few more decades to be felt. It would take longer to demonstrate that the corporate irresponsibility of bounty hunters in one obscure corner of the world has a way of spreading, like an oil slick, to the very shores of the originating, industrialized nations.
On my return to Nigeria, I began to traverse the country, researching traditional drama. The extraction phase — drilling — was under way, and its flickering signature across the skies was the oil flare. I had the fortune of flying across the southeast, courtesy of a road-construction company. These flares signaled at the time nothing more than the mission of the company — to open the land to industrialization. Oil was only the facilitator.
Slowly, however, the news seeped and then began to gush out as the other face of oil. The earth of the swamp dwellers was under siege.
Eviction; land takeovers; home demolitions; environmental degradation; lost livelihoods: The oil flares were no longer harmless sky-writings but the fires of improvidence and indifference.
In 1975, long before the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, another tanker, the Pacific Colocotronis, fractured its hull off the Dutch coast. Now the resulting spill could be regarded as a warning. For me, the name Colocotronis echoed, in an eerie way, Oloibiri.
When the environmental devastation in the Delta began to be known, I obtained a copy of the Colocotronis court proceedings — the verdict had come down against the shipping company. The attention to detail was staggering; it was the first time I’d seen the value of a bird, an insect or a square foot of arable land assessed in dollars-and-cents. The itemization of flora and fauna killed was routine record-keeping in the case of oil spills, I realized — except, it seemed, if the event affected Africa or other Third World countries.
When a feisty friend and fellow writer knocked on my door, arriving from the region of the swamp dwellers, I was more than primed. His name was Ken Saro-wiwa, and he came armed with an agenda of reforms addressed to the government and the oil companies. There, on behalf of his people, the Ogoni, his crusade would lead to his martyrdom. Before that devastating end, however, he succeeded in arousing the conscience of the world.
In return for being the pot of plenty into which every part of the nation dipped its ladle, the Delta locals’ ancient ways of generating their livelihood had been destroyed. Through Ken, the cause of the environment became the cause of indigenous peoples and minorities all over the world; they wanted their lives back and their voices heard.
I assured Ken he could take my support for granted.
Fast-forward to April 20, 2010, and news of a massive oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. This prompted the fury of U.S. lawmakers and catapulted their short-sleeved president to the scene. A Congressional hearing gathered oil executives to mumble excuses. News of all this dominated the media worldwide.
When I read a confirmation of the obvious — that the oil lost into the Gulf of Mexico was but a fraction of the quantity that had drenched the land of the swamp dwellers for more than half a century — when I listened to expressions of remorse from BP’s chief executive, my mind reverted to Saro-wiwa, that stumpy man with an unlit pipe between his teeth.
His mind had always been fixed on the land of the swamp dwellers, the fragile ecosystem. He had long experience with the collaboration of oil companies and past Nigerian governments, which eventually aroused people to resistance, having first made sacrificial lambs of nine human beings — the Ogoni Nine. Would he, I wondered, have expe-rienced — as I dared to on his behalf — a sense of vindication? Or, per-haps, something akin to closure?
Wole Soyinka, a Nigerian writer, poet and playwright, received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986, cited for his wide cultural perspective and poetic overtones.