Nigeria: Life Down on the Delta

A Little Overview

The Niger Delta… The mention of this wild land conjures up images of destitute, lawless millions; massive industrial complexes and lush green areas that can easily conceal both oil spills and bodies. Why is this Africa’s answer to South Louisiana, USA?

Now, for an individual with a truly ambitious exploratory nature, this is a land that is still far from conquered. Even getting here is a truly wild ride in itself, and just being here is an incredibly high and accurate indication that one has truly lost his grip on reality.

Nigeria is, of course, world renowned for corruption that begins at the top and permeates society at every level and facet. This is an area where con men and thieves change and alter their means and methods as often as bacteria mutate in a laboratory petri dish. The country gives the resemblance of a hierarchal, oversized rat cage that has been denied food for two weeks. Babies are still being born in mass and whichever rat does not have his back strategically placed into a corner has probably been jumped and eaten alive.

Although Nigeria’s problems are too numerous to list, the relatively wealthy Delta region is free of religious violence between Christians and Muslims that plagues areas to the North. However, it has all the rest of the problems and one large one that is exclusive to the area: The warring Itsekiri and Ijaw tribes. Yes, it is comforting that the more this crazy world changes, the more it stays the same. As the 21st century is dawning and globalization is undeniably taking us in the direction of global government and unification, there are still tribes fighting over the same patch of jungle that they have competed for, for a thousand years.

Thank God someone holds on to their traditions. Heated competition for land and resources that result in the deaths of hundreds takes place as often as and with the international attention of a Red Sox-Yankees baseball game. It is cyclical and will not go away. Though the excuses used change frequently enough, the basic hatred and revenge that drives these warring factions will never go away. It is a sad epiphany but soon after arriving in the country it occurs to the visitor that Nigerians have learned the only way to gain anything in this life is to outmuscle the next man. Very few are ever provided with an alternative opportunity and the communities prey upon each other.

Delta Geography

The Delta is dominated by two large cities. The first and more dirty, dangerous, and lawless of the two is Warri. This is the area where Itsekiri-Ijaw violence is localized and is also the area where offshore and swamp oil field development was first established. Following years of difficulties in the Warri area that included seizure and mutinies of oil field facilities and installations, murder and kidnapping of expatriates, and the eventual completion and utilization of local swamp oil field developments, most oil companies relocated to the second city of the Delta, Port Harcourt. Port Harcourt is a well-established city of the Delta with good port facilities that offered an escape from the tribal violence that plagues Warri. Not that Port Harcourt is without its fair share of problems. This becomes blatantly apparent as one sits in “no-go” traffic at Elimay Junction watching your mobile policeman whip fellow motorists that have not gotten out of the way quickly enough, being extorted for money by customs officials in the Port Harcourt international airport at gun point, or having the infamous skateboard boys accost you outside of “Cheers” or “The Barracuda” after an evening of cocktails and discussing world affairs with Nigeria’s young socialite ladies.

Three-Day Cruise (A Short Narrative).

If you have ever gone on a vacation cruise, it usually begins something like this: In early, celebratory exuberance, one wakes up slightly hung over. After fighting against slight traffic and dealing with the hassles of the ticketing agencies, one is at ease taking a slow, rolling ride out to sea. That does not even come close to this morning. While the hangover (compliments of the Tiki Bar and the boys at Intel camp) is equivalent, the similarities begin to diverge from there.

Travel via the roadway in Port Harcourt is a wonder to behold. Not only are there literally hundreds of thousands of 30 year old compact cars, transport and tanker trucks, motorcycles, bikes, people and animals on the road, they are all on the same road.
Why? Two reasons: The Saturday marketplace where many will end up is located along this road, and most of the other roadways are impassable to all vehicles except the 4×4 wheel drives due to the rainy season. All relief this morning stems from the fact that the vehicle of choice is a 4×4 Land Cruiser.

While a Land Cruiser was available, unfortunately a mobile policeman was not. The concept of a mobile policeman is an interesting one. This is an individual that was formerly in the Nigerian military and was recruited to be an autonomous civil authority within a given state of Nigeria. They are employed by companies to circumnavigate the street-level incompetence of local policing authorities. In practice, they range from compound security to traffic directors to hired muscle. The only ones that can be trusted, and that is a relative term, are those in your employment. All others will rob and kill you. The most highly visible, public action taken by these individuals is traffic direction. It is often achieved with rapid results due to the three-strand horse haired whip that they carry to flog those that do not immediately respond to their directives. It also helps as an initial attention grabber. While these men are vicious and despisable, they are also indispensable for security reasons. They are armed at all times with an AK-47 with three taped together clips and dissuade all but the most determined attackers.

After a 45-minute ride along every side road and two bit jungle trail that my driver knows while pushing through five foot, rain filled pot holes that would give most overland adventure race expeditions a run for their money, there is the port terminal entry. Now to check in with dispatch and away we go. But, not so fast! The customs agent at the entry is looking for passport and visa papers and in the rush to leave the office before sunset last night, none were photo copied. After a brief conversation, the fact that this agent is an easy man to get along with is expressed to me with the price of his ease being something in the $5-10 dollar range. What a day to have no money. After hours of trying to contact associates and a belligerent, threatening attempt by the officer to separate me from my driver and only eye witness in order to achieve getting me into the customs house all by my lonesome, contact is established, papers are received, and the prey slips away. The parting is a smiling-through-gritted-teeth wonder to behold.

Finally, up the gangplank and onto the back deck of the workboat that serves the capacity of supply and lifeline for the offshore workers. The Captain is American, the Chief Engineer English, and the First Mate Peruvian. All are great individuals and there is not another passenger onboard. The boat itself is new. It is capable of reaching 35 knots when pushed to full throttle. This is highly desirable for several reasons. First, crews and equipment can be moved around the contracting companies’ fields at a much greater rate. Secondly, if a smaller, lighter boat with a motor and boarding party gives chase, it will be easier to throttle the engines and build escape speed quickly. This speed is specifically why this boat is here.
While pirating is always an unspoken concern, there are also legal requirements within the Delta. These regulations deal with the locals concerns for travel, fishing, and commerce, which utilize the Delta regions with only canoes. From sunrise to sunset, ships and vessels have the right of way on the Delta waterways. The other half of the day, the right of the way belongs to the canoes adrift on the waterways. This effectively requires ships to be in the Delta waterways by 1600 hours or to spend the night at sea and come in the morning. It also means that once in dock, no matter what the reason (such as attack), a ship cannot cast off from its moorings.

The ride through the delta and out to sea is relatively serene. The tide is out, storms are sitting on the coastline, and the traffic on the waterway is light. Lush green foliage, picturesque, National Geographic style fishing villages, canoes, and rolling brown water is the view for the most part. Occasionally, port facilities and scuttled ships pulled to the shore and left to rust on sand bars are passed. The sea is calling. The calmness is overwhelming. Out there are men and equipment pushing frontier boundaries. Was this the way Ishmael felt coming from New Bedford? Thank God this time all the Quequeg’s are still on shore.

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