Michael Peel, the former West Africa correspondent for the Financial Times, has written a fascinating book. Part travelogue, part insight into big oil and the multinationals that produce and market it, the book is also a story of admiration for Nigeria with all its chaos, corruption and injustice. Peel travels the (often dangerous) world of the Niger delta where Shell, AGIP Chevron and other companies are tapping one of the more important reserves of crude oil in the world. The light, sweet crude is readily refined into petrol and there are considerable reserves in nearby Sao Tome, Gabon and Cape Verde. Yet the vast oil revenue that has come to the Federal Government (and the states) of Nigeria has done little to raise the living standard of the poor people who live in the delta. Quite the opposite, in fact. Pollution from the oil and the disinclination of the oil companies to clear up have turned the delta into something of a wasteland. And the story of theft by successive Nigerian government officials is staggering. Yet at the end of his story, Michael Peel is optimistic. Nigeria is a new country; its injustices and problems and abuses of power are more open, more blatant but in a way more honest. Legitimacy is really longevity, as it is in the West. People in newer countries can offer fresh ways of thinking and a hunger for reform. As the need for oil grows, and the need for this reformation, we shall surely hear a lot more about Nigeria.
The Nigerian Delta – a disturbing and alien place, its value system warped by oil? That was my preconception when I first went to Port Harcourt. But Michael Peel vividly describes the rich and raucous characters and life in Nigeria and the geopolitics of oil which enmesh us all, with which I can identify from my own experiences.
As a good journalist , Michael Peel meets and tells the tale of a range of characters from the street hustlers to the ruthless, violent delta rebels to oil executives to presidents and diplomats. He is a brave man. His excursions into the delta with unruly, heavily armed and ill disciplined rebels seem like exceptionally high risk journalism. As a Financial Times journalist he is well connected and gains access to Presidents, Ministers of State and senior oil executives. The book is based on a series of first hand conversations and interviews that set the framework for his interpretation of events.
The delta encompasses vast oil resources. Shell alone operates 90 oilfields, with 1,000 wells and 3,750 miles of flowlines and pipelines. A huge part of the oil produced is illegally tapped and stolen and the delta is heavily polluted by oil spills.
The deltan Ijaw people have been marginalised. In 1978 the president Olusegun Obasanjo gave the federal government ownership of all the region’s oil. The violence of the rebels can be seen as an attempt to share in the oil wealth.
Corruption is endemic at all levels. The local fishermen,as do the oil companies, pay protection money to community leaders. The cash can be put in an account administered by a local commander who gives donations to those in need. But it is often hard to tell with Deltan local leaders where their ambitions for their communities ended and where their personal desires began – one who described the damage that oil had done to the community grumbled that Shell had not even given him a mobile phone for Christmas.
The attitude of the deltans to both oil companies and to the history of imperial British intrusion and oppression is very nuanced. Some of the ostensibly proudest, toughest, fiercest opponents of the multinationals seemed to see their fellow Nigerians as the greatest obstacles to progress. They do not want to expel the multinationals but reach an accommodation with them that would allow a long-shackled country to develop.
Michael Peel holds the Pandora’s box hope for Nigeria. It is a vast , messy country with no polish or veneer of order. He maintains that in oil driven Nigeria the exploitation, injustices and abuses of power are more open, blatant and in a strange way, more honest than in a country such as Britain where wrongs have been entrenched and subtly concealed over many centuries.
Some say the history of crude oil extraction has a dark and seedy side; most say nowhere is it more glaringly visible than in Nigeria - a confused ex-colonial outpost with a complex ethnic and tribal mix turned into a unified nation and given its independence by the British some five decades ago.
In this candid book, Michael Peel, a former FT journalist who spent many-a-year in Nigeria, presents a warts n' all account of this most chaotic and often fascinating of African countries shaped by oil, driven by oil and in more ways than one - held to ransom by oil. The author dwells on how the discovery of crude oil has not been quite the bonanza for its peoples who remain among the poorest and most deprived in this world. End result is growing dissent and chaos.
The book has its 220 pages split into three parts, comprising of nine chapters, containing a firsthand and first rate narration of the violence, confusion, partial anarchy and corruption in Nigeria where its people who deserve better have to contend with depravity and pollution. Some have risen up and abide by their own rule - the rule of force, rather than the law.
If the reader seeks insight into this complex country, Peel provides it. If the reader seeks a travel guide - this is one candid book. If the reader seeks info on what went wrong in Nigeria from a socioeconomic standpoint, the author duly obliges. Hence, this multifaceted work, for which Peel deserves top marks, is a much needed book. It addresses an information gap about a young nation, its serious challenges, addiction to its oil endowment and the sense of injustice the crude stuff creates for those who observe the oil bonanza from a distance but cannot get their hands into the cookie jar.
Peel notes that the chaos of Niger delta is as much a story of colonial misadventure, as it is about corporate mismanagement, corruption in the bureaucracy and a peculiar and often misplaced sense of entitlement that creates friction between the country's haves and have nots.
Drop into the mix, an unfolding ecological disaster and you get a swamp full of dollars whose inhabitants range from impromptu militias with creative names to Shell, from terrorists to ExxonMobil, from leaking pipelines to illegal crude sales. It demands to be read and I am happy to recommend it to a very wide readership base not just those interested in African history and that of crude oil.