The sense of relentless crisis has deepened since last year, when a secretive group of armed, hooded rebels operating under the name of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, intensified attacks on oil platforms and pumping stations, most operated by Shell Nigeria. Militants from MEND and other groups have killed soldiers and security guards, kidnapped foreign oil workers, set off car bombs in the delta city of Warri to protest the visit of Chinese oil executives, and, to show off their reach, overrun an oil rig 40 miles (64 kilometers) offshore in the Gulf of Guinea. The attacks have shut down the daily flow of more than 500,000 barrels of oil, leading the country to tap offshore reserves to make up for lost revenue. With each disruption, the daily price of oil on the world market climbed. According to the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, escalating violence in a region teeming with angry, frustrated people is creating a "militant time bomb."
From a potential model nation, Nigeria has become a dangerous country, addicted to oil money, with people increasingly willing to turn to corruption, sabotage, and murder to get a fix of the wealth. The cruelest twist is that half a century of oil extraction in the delta has failed to make the lives of the people better. Instead, they are poorer still, and hopeless.
Every day at Bonny Island, oceangoing tankers line up in Cawthorne Channel like massive parade floats. They're each waiting to fill up with close to a million barrels of the coveted Bonny Light, drawing the oil from a nearby export terminal. Ships have been gathering at this 15-mile-long (24 kilometers) barrier island since the mid-1500s, when slave trading between West Africa and the New World began. Beneath the contemporary cacophony—the yammer of motorcycle taxis, the call of Christian preachers from the market stalls, the throb of drums and guitars from boomboxes inside shacks—strains of anger and sorrow echo the tragedy of exploitation.
"It's not fair," Felix James Harry muttered in a meetinghouse in the village of Finima on the western end of the island, close to the oil and gas complex. "We can hardly catch fish anymore. Surviving is very hard." Harry, a 30-year-old father of two children, should have been in his canoe this afternoon, throwing out nets to snare crayfish and sardines. But he was sitting in an airless concrete-block shelter with half a dozen other fishermen, none of whom had much to do.
Their fishing community once stood on the other side of a small inlet, where fuel storage tanks the size of cathedral domes now loom, and where the superstructure of a liquefied natural gas plant juts higher than any tree in the forest. The relocation of Finima in the early 1990s jarred loose the community's economic moorings. "We can't support our families anymore," Harry said.
Houses in the new village are tightly packed, leaving little room for gardens. Windows look out on walls. In this claustrophobic setting, the men talked about nature. "The forest where the gas plant is protected us from the east wind," Solomon David, the community chairman, said. "Now, the rain and wind ruin our thatched roofs every three months. They lasted more than twice as long before." Another fisherman mentioned how construction and increased ship traffic changed local wave patterns, causing shore erosion and forcing fish into deeper water. "We would need a 55-horsepower engine to get to those places." No one in the room could afford such an engine.
The meetinghouse had no electricity, but a battery-powered wall clock, the only decoration, showed that another day was ebbing away. Forced to give up fishing, the young men of the village put their hope in landing a job with the oil industry. But offers are scarce. "People from the outside get all the jobs," Harry said, alluding to members of Nigeria's majority ethnic groups—the Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa, and Fulani—who are the country's political and economic elite. "We have diploma holders, but they have nothing to do."
Grievances crowded the dim room. Bernard Cosmos, a strapping young man in a striped polo shirt, spoke out: "I have a degree in petrochemical engineering from Rivers State University in Port Harcourt. I've applied many times with the oil companies for a good job. It's always no. They tell me that I can work in an oil field as an unskilled laborer but not as an engineer. I have no money to get other training."
Isaac Asume Osuoka, director of Social Action, Nigeria, believes that callousness toward the people of the delta stems from their economic irrelevance. "With all the oil money coming in, the state doesn't need taxes from people. Rather than being a resource for the state, the people are impediments. There is no incentive anymore for the government to build schools or hospitals.
"I can say this," Osuoka said firmly. "Nigeria was a much better place without oil."