Here’s the second guest post from Chris Hennemeyer, an expert in contemporary Africa. He’s spent more years than he cares to remember working international aid and development across the subcontinent. His first post described dealing with rebels in Liberia; in this article he guides us through the corruption and danger of Nigeria’s oil region.
In a scene right out of the old mercenary movie The Dogs of War the parting words from the immigration officials who had, in their phraseology, “intercepted” me on the highway and determined I was working illegally in Nigeria, are “Welcome to Bayelsa!”
After four sweaty hours of detention and interrogation, I am finally released, with fraternal claps on the back and proclamations of eternal friendship, to enjoy the splendours of the state capital, Yenagoa.
Sitting like a blood clot right in the economic heart of Africa’s most populous country and biggest economy, awash with the source of its massive petroleum wealth, one would think Bayelsa state would have something to distinguish it other than schizophrenic immigration personnel. And one would be right, but for all the wrong reasons.
Even in this land of mediocrity, Yenagoa stands out. It is a place that offers nothing, grows nothing, and produces nothing, except for oil, gas and grifters. What it does excel at is kidnapping, ranking second in Nigeria, just behind the neighbouring Nigerian oil state of Rivers, also in the Niger Delta.
I appear to be the only Westerner traveling through the region without a heavily armed police contingent. On the rutted highway between the Rivers state capital of Port Harcourt (locally pronounced Pote Hah-Coat) and Yenagoa, we pass a dozen convoys of foreign oil workers being escorted to their jobs by AK47-wielding cops. My lack of security naturally attracts the attention of the local authorities and my pickup truck is stopped several times at checkpoints as they try to ascertain if I am a spy, a victim, or preferably a potential source of income.
Once in downtown Yenagoa, I check in to the delusionally named Monalisa Luxury Resort with its twin twelve-foot high portraits of the Dona bracketing the cracked plywood reception desk. Despite the pervasive mildew, inedible food, spotty electricity, and somnolent staff, I have to agree with TripAdvisor that it may well be “the best in Bayelsa”. An alternative might have been the hulking Aridolf Hotel & Entertainment Center, built by the wife of the notoriously corrupt former Nigeria president, Goodluck Jonathan, native son of Bayelsa and a character of such utter goofiness that it’s a tragedy Evelyn Waugh isn’t alive to novelize him. An Economist article referred to him as an “ineffectual buffoon”, but Nigerians tend to pity him as a tragicomic figure, preferring to loathe his wife for her bottomless greed.
Studying the endless billboards alongside the region’s ruined roads, an amateur could be forgiven for believing that southern Nigeria is locked in an epic manichean struggle between the sacred and the profane. But the giant signs bearing the smilingly insincere faces of Africa’s most venal politicians — eternally vying for office and a chance to loot the coffers — are generally indistinguishable from those of myriad Christian ministers calling for a religious revival. The only real difference is that the politicians, invariably large and plump (physical heft being an indicator of social status in Africa) wear fedoras straight out of The Godfather, headgear dubbed “resource control” by the locals.
The preachers are over-the-top imitations of their American brethren, the likes of Joel Olsteen, Pat Robertson, and the perfectly named Crefto Dollar. Dressed in vibrant polyesters and patent leather loafers, they promise salvation, success and of course silver, lots of it. They lead empires with names like the Charismatic Renaissance Church, the New Redeemers of Glory, and the mystifying City of Zuph, which guarantees “forceful manifestations”. New Life Ministries cuts straight to the chase by printing its message on the image of a giant one hundred dollar bill. The wonderful thing about this “prosperity gospel” is that its followers don’t actually have to live the difficult lives of true Christians; they simply need to bellow its clichés in the loudest voices possible and wait for monetary mana to drop from heaven.
In a classic example of the resource curse phenomenon, Yenagoa’s streets are full of rotting garbage and pools of stagnant mosquito-breeding water, the power cuts are constant, buildings look ancient and dilapidated even before they are completed, and expectations, especially of government, are always rock bottom.
Nigeria has thirty-six states, each with the governmental structure of a small country, replete with Ministers, Permanent Secretaries, large buildings, fleets of SUVs, rivers of red tape, and opportunities for graft, and Bayelsa is no exception. The 2013 annual federal allocation to the state was well over a billion dollars, not to mention the revenues received directly by the state government. Needless to say, government is in no way synonymous with governance, especially in Nigeria, and the State Ministry of Health which I visit proves to be a depressing object lesson in waste, incompetence and brazen criminality.
The Ministry’s mammoth concrete HQ is straight out of the zombie apocalypse. From the dark, lightless corridors replete with trash and broken equipment, to staff literally sleeping at their desks, to the drunken head of security belligerently begging for money, this is dystopia at its purest. A senior administrator proudly shows off the Ministry’s new organizational chart with words like parasitology and epidemiology misspelled, then offers to send some prostitutes over to my hotel.
“After all”, he chuckles, “we are men!”.
This from the man responsible for tackling the state’s staggering HIV/ AIDs pandemic. His boss, the Ministry’s top civil servant, dressed in a tight, shiny, sky blue suit, greets us in an exaggerated Texan drawl and boasted that “my guys are working their asses off”.
Bled from the Ground
Nigeria didn’t invent corruption, but a particularly cruel culture of capitalism does have deep roots in the Delta. In the 18th century, great fortunes were made in slaves, which in turn were supplanted by ivory, and palm oil. Communities ripped apart, pachyderms driven to extinction, entire forests clear cut: no price is too high to pay when there is money to be made. And always by Nigerians working hand-in-glove with foreigners.
For the past sixty years, the region’s crude oil has been bled from the ground by Shell, Chevron, ExxonMobil and others and shipped around the globe, to Rotterdam, Mumbai, Houston, Le Havre and so on. What remains for the people of places like Bayelsa is precious little. Oil spills occur with depressing regularity, the soil and ground water is heavily polluted, and dead fish float in the filthy lagoons.
The locals, most of them anyway, can’t fly out of there, but I could and do, with a palpable sense of relief. Waiting for my flight at Port Harcourt’s “international” airport, I spot one more sad sign of Nigeria’s diseased culture. Although the current airport terminal is relatively new and in fact unfinished, a brand new terminal is being erected just a few hundred yards away.
“Yes”, chuckles my cynical colleague, “yet another golden opportunity to issue contracts and reap the kickbacks”.
I’m a longtime relief worker who’s spent most of the past few decades in Africa. It’s almost killed me a few times, but I still remain tied to the place and its people. Now and then I return to the Washington DC area to say hello to my paltry belongings which are stored in my sister’s basement.
Anyone interested in Chris’ work and writing can contact him via his website. In the meantime, for more warlike weirdness you can buy my books in paperback or ebook: