The Killing Fields

Oil ravages the Niger Delta

by Greg Campbell

In These Times magazine, June 2001


Christiana Akpode was knee-deep in gasoline when the fire started. No one knows how it started exactly, only that a roaring fireball suddenly engulfed a river of raw petroleum on the outskirts of this rural village in the Niger Delta. Some days before the tragedy in October 1998, a pipeline valve either had malfunctioned or was intentionally breached to steal the gasoline that was being pumped from a refinery in Warri to Kaduna. For days, amber gasoline spurted into the sky, first pooling around the valve station and eventually flowing up to a half a mile away along a ditch approximately 50 yards wide.

Though Nigeria is the world's 12th-largest producer of crude oil, it's a telling sign of its backward nature that it must import gasoline. There are only four refineries in this country of 123 million, and only one is fully operational. But Nigerian law dictates that gas be sold at 22 naira per liter, about 18 cents, making it among the cheapest in the world. Therefore, it's tempting for tanker truck drivers to steer toward the Cameroon and Niger borders-where they can sell their entire load on the black market for up to 30 times the state-mandated rate. Much of the gas ends up back in Nigeria, sold on the side of the road by profiteers hawking the fuel from plastic yellow jugs adorned with religious stickers. The fuel is often double the price of that from gas stations, but it's far more widely available. Shortages have created mile-long lines of cars at filling stations.

In a country like Nigeria, where endemic corruption and misguided subsidy policies combine to create constant fuel shortages, free gas isn't something villagers keep away from. Indeed, in Jesse Town they swarmed the river with buckets and jerry-cans to scoop up the precious fuel for sale on the thriving black market. By the time of the inevitable cataclysm, village elders say, the gas was chest-deep in some locations.

Alfred Dmamogho, spokesman for the Jesse Town council of elders, says there were up to 1,000 people wading through the river and standing on the banks when it caught fire. He muses that perhaps a careless person with a cigarette or heat from the sun started the blaze. "The fuel," he says slowly, in a massive understatement, "does not like the fire."

"Just as I pull you to me in a quick hug, that's how fast the fire came," recalls Edward Akpodonor, a farmer from the village who was standing on the bank at the time. In a deafening whoosh he was instantly ablaze. He ran screaming from the fire, stumbling out of his burning clothes as quickly as he could, but not before suffering severe burns on his legs and buttocks.

Most of the people in the river couldn't escape, their bones reduced to ashes as the fire burned for two weeks. Christiana Akpode, however, managed to run through the river of fire to the bank, a human torch emerging from the inferno.

Almost three years later, she wishes she hadn't escaped.

Though it's one of the most dramatic examples of how oil pollution has ruined lives in the Delta, the tragedy at Jesse Town is hardly unique. Pipelines carrying both gas and oil rupture with alarming regularity in Nigeria, either at the hands of saboteurs or through neglect. Most of the 3,000 miles of aboveground pipelines crisscrossing the Delta are 30 years old and built to lower standards than modem pipes.

Shell Petroleum Development Corporation-the Nigerian arm of Royal/Dutch Shell-reports that 50,200 barrels of oil were spilled in 1998 and 123,377 barrels in 1999, citing sabotage as the cause for 70 percent of the volume spilled in 1999 (these are the most recent numbers available from Shell's 2000 annual report).

Gasoline pipe explosions occur less regularly, but with more deadly results. In December 2000, a pipe that had leaked for weeks exploded in Atlas Cove, near Lagos, killing about 50 people. Media accounts have implied that the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, the state-owned refinery and distribution company, didn't repair the damage because high ranking officials were receiving kickbacks from the black marketers.

Recent arrests have bolstered this theory: In Lagos State, several police officers have been arrested in the past eight months for allegedly plotting with fuel scoopers to vandalize pipelines. In April 2000, the head of Ajowon Police Station was arraigned on charges of colluding with fuel thieves to hack open an oil pipeline. In July, Lagos police arrested three members of the Nigerian navy alongside fishermen who claimed that the men supplied them with hoarded petroleum products. And that September, two more naval officials were caught with fuel believed to have come from a breached pipe.

Shell-the largest field operator in Nigeria, accounting for half of the country's oil operations-claims to adhere to the highest standards of practice in cleaning oil spills, but even a cursory visit to the Delta shows that those standards are far lower than in other countries. On the side of the highway leading to the town of Besini, two separate 2 year-old oil spills turn the jungle black. The lakes of oil make it seem like passing motorists could scoop it out with tin cans and feed it directly into their engines.

Near Shell's Etelebu flow station, where a roaring flare of spent natural gas torches the atmosphere around the clock, an oil spill ignited in January when a nearby farmer burned her fields to prepare for harvest. "It's frequent," says Chief Diekivie Ikiogha, the head of the Bayelsa State Bureau of Pollution and Environment. "We have a lot of spills. At this spot alone we have had three spills."

Even though Ikiogha is the government bureaucrat in charge of fining Shell for the spill and signing off on the cleanup, he's also Shell's contractor hired | to do the cleaning. Apparently aware of ~ his conflict of interest, he refuses to be I photographed while overseeing the cleanup operation, which amounts to four shirtless men scooping oil from the surface of the polluted water with Frisbees.

He claims most of the oil was removed earlier with absorbent foam and blankets. "This area is not so bad," he says, surveying the blackened moonscape of dead coconut and mangrove trees. "This will regenerate in about two years."

No one is sure of the exact environmental impact of the spills. To date, there have been no baseline studies of the Delta's ecology, says Miriam Isoun, director of the Niger Delta Wetlands Center, an environmental group in Port Harcourt. "Nigeria has never had that as a priority," she says. "In Nigeria, you've got the attitude that [oil spills] are only affecting 400 people, but for those 400 people it's absolutely devastating. It's a very serious problem. We as scientists would like to know what we have so we can start working with it."

Such shoddy remediation efforts have fueled more than destructive fires. Lackadaisical response from oil companies and virtually no governmental oversight of pollution problems have been a source of high tension in the Delta for decades. ° Two years into democratic rule, little, if anything, has changed.

What we need now is for Shell to 77 come in and settle with us 4 billion naira [about $40 million] for destroying our stream," says Isaac Osaro Agbara, village chief of Ebubu in Ogoniland. "We have been waiting for Shell to come in and say sorry."

Ebubu residents want Shell to apologize-and pay for-a massive oil spill that occurred in 1970. An oil pipeline ruptured and caught fire, destroying 30 homes and killing about as many people. The fire was so intense that it created a lumpy asphalt surface where the homes once stood.

The facts about the fire are disputed. Ebubu residents clearly blame Shell for the accident, but Shell has long maintained that the fire occurred at the end of the Biafran civil war in 1968, when it wasn't operating in the area. The company claims that the fire was set intentionally by retreating soldiers.

Chief Philip Ode, the only survivor of the fire, remembers things differently. In his cinder-block and linoleum home near the fire site-slumped under a 1998 calendar from the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation that proudly announces, "We touch your lives in many ways"- Ode says the day the fire occurred was a normal one. He only escaped death by walking to town to retrieve food for his family, all of whom were killed. He says there were no soldiers in the area.

In June 2000, a Rivers State high court apparently agreed more with Ebubu's version of events and ordered Shell to compensate the community with $40 million. The company has appealed the decision. Awaiting the outcome of the court fight is a monstrous piece of machinery designed to clean oil-polluted soil. The equipment was installed by Safewater Technologies of Dallas, Texas, an environmental remediation company. A year ago, the company performed a pilot test and determined that it could almost completely remove the oil from the ground, but nothing has been done since then, pending the appeal.

Six Ogoni men have been guarding the machine against thieves and looters night and day even though they stopped receiving wages eight months ago, according to one of the guards. "The type of water we are taking in here because of the pollution is killing us," Agbara says. "The air we breathe is poisonous, no crops grow well because the oil has killed the land. It is time for them to come into this area and pay us."

"If they fail to settle with us," he adds, "we will take this problem worldwide."

Many have stopped waiting. In Ebubu, the elders created the Ejamaa Youth Council-run by a handsome, gregarious man who looks like he could coach high school basketball- to keep the town's youths from attacking tanker trucks with rocks and bottles. Even though Shell ceased operations in Ogoniland in 1993, trucks filled with gasoline must pass through Ebubu to other areas in the Delta. The Ejamaa Youth Council is meant to organize youths for nonviolent protests and political action, but so far has enjoyed limited success in preventing attacks on passing tankers. And on April 25, Ogoni youths engaged in an hours-long gun battle with Nigerian police in Port Harcourt as they attempted to disrupt operations at the city's refinery. Media accounts say the youths were protesting the lack of wealth distribution in the Delta. The Associated Press reports that three protesters were wounded during the clash.

The 14-day fire in Jesse Town fixed the valve leak: The entire mechanism was melted away and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation eventually turned off the flow from the Warri refinery. After the victims' ashes were shoveled into wheelbarrows and buried in a mass grave- and after tons of dirt was placed atop the scorched earth-a new valve was built. This one is guarded by three bored police officers, who lounge shirtless in a thatched-roof hut and spend their days cleaning their assault rifles and drinking palm wine.

The damage to the survivors wasn't so easy to erase. After the fire, private vehicles transported some victims to the nearest medical facility, a small hospital in Sapele about 20 miles away. That's where Edward Akpodonor was taken, but he says the care from the overwhelmed staff was so substandard as to be nonexistent. He eventually left, reasoning he could administer to his wounds better on his own.

Christiana Akpode never went to the hospital, and no doctor ever came to Jesse Town. Her legs, which suffered crippling third-degree burns, were wrapped in bedsheets and doused with water. To this day, that's the extent of the treatment she has received.

A procession of male chiefs leads the way over the plank that spans the community sewer and through a narrow alley between mud huts. On the right is a doorway covered with a billowing green sheet. Alfred Dmamogho leans his head inside and orders Christiana outdoors to meet with visiting reporters. Beneath the sheet, a disfigured foot stirs.

Christiana can barely walk, her legs permanently forged into a kneeling position, and she hobbles the two feet outside with great difficulty and in obvious pain, making her way to a small porch to sit. Her legs are hard to look at: From the toes to the shin, the skin is shiny and stretched tightly, threatening to crack. She scratches this section incessantly. From the shin to the knee, her legs are little more than red and purple scabs bleeding white pus.

Christiana's days are spent warding away flies from the open wounds. Her arms, upper chest and neck are also burned. The only thing untouched is her face, which, despite the constant grimace of pain, reflects her natural 27-year-old beauty. She only has one question on her mind: "Are you here to cure me?"

It's difficult to imagine that anyone can cure her at this point. Her legs are obviously infected beyond repair-and without amputation, she doesn't seem likely to survive.

When the answer from the strangers is an uncomfortable "no," she makes the difficult journey back to where the flies are easier to control, dragging her young son, who was 3 months old when the fire ravaged his mother, behind her.

"Then you should kill me," she says, before disappearing behind the curtain.


Greg Campbell is a freelance reporter living in Colorado. He's currently working on a book about diamonds and their impact on the civil war in Sierra Leone.

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