I had heard about Ikebiri long before visiting. The Ikebiri Kingdom of the Southern Ijaw region in Bayelsa State is well-known for being at the epicenter of militancy. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) emerged not far away, and the area is considered to be one of the “hottest” in the Niger Delta. It hosts the Nigerian Agip Oil Company, which locals blame for the destructive oil spills and gas flares that have killed local wildlife, poisoned drinking water, and ruined agricultural land. There have been several incidents of Ijaw women from Ikebiri demonstrating in the capital, and four years ago they threatened to march nude to Agip in protest of the lack of economic development in their villages.
To access Ikebiri from Yenagoa, we took an old speedboat an hour and a half towards the ocean. We passed two military checkpoints along the way that required us to raise our hands upon approaching, to show that we meant no harm and didn’t carry weapons. Although we were stopped for having a white person onboard, the soldiers were amiable. We maneuvered around fishermen in their canoes and made sure to avoid the nets that they were floating using empty water bottles. We waved to farmers along the banks as they dug up yams and cassava. Families were living in thatched-covered homes perched on stilts, some constructed out of scrap wood and others out of reeds. Most of the women we saw were washing clothes or bathing themselves in the muddy water and children were fishing or diving for snails in their underwear. It was a world apart from the middle- and upper-class neighborhoods that rely on the oil underground there.
Spending less than an hour at Ikebiri makes it clear why residents demand more economic development from the Nigerian government. Our first stop was at the health clinic, which services the thousands of people in the Kingdom. From outside it looks new, but once inside we saw that the building was simply a skeleton. There was nothing inside except for two dilapidated twin beds and a few foam pads on the floor; there were no medicine cabinets, furniture, nor machines of any type. Wondering about machines is highly optimistic though since those machines would require electricity or a generator, which the clinic didn’t have. The only doctor on staff, a 23-year-old recent college graduate doing his National Youth Service, said that he performs surgeries using satchels of drinking water, but if those satchels run out the he is forced to boil river water. When a human rights activist that I had traveled with asked about health problems related to the ongoing fire on a Chevron rig, which has been burning for almost three weeks, he seemed overwhelmed and mumbled that it was causing asthma and gastrointestinal issues with the patients. Two older men interrupted to point out their red and pussing eyes. I don’t know if these problems can be linked to oil pollution or the poor living conditions in the community in general, but hospitals need medicines, machines, and doctors, and this one didn’t have any of those things.
During our walk back to the boat, it suddenly dawned on me why this community had felt unusual. The majority of the residents were children. All around were children carrying babies, children washing babies, children feeding babies. The children must have outnumbered the adults almost ten to one. Additionally, the adults I did see were women, and almost half of those women were visibly pregnant. Presumably the men must have left to go find work, since fishing and agriculture are no longer able to sustain families anymore, but somehow the community still managed to have astronomically high birth rates. Nigeria has a young population, with over 1/3 of the population under the age of 24, but this community must have had an even more dramatic youth bulge.
Each community we visited seemed to have even more noticeable poverty than the one before it. As the seat of the Kingdom, Ikebiri I receives the majority of resources, so that newer Ikebiri II was noticeably less developed. Our final visit was to Otorgbene, an island community situated in muddy mangroves. We went to ask about the thousands of fish that had washed up on shore in the last few days, probably as result of the ongoing rig fire. Residents told us that every morning they would wake up to find more and more fish on the banks, and that they didn’t know what they could do to stop it. They told us about common health problems they experienced; foremost among them was malaria, a problem certainly predating the development of the oil industry. They asked about the free mosquito nets they had been promised months ago by the federal government, and the investigator had to tell them that a state government official had been caught selling the nets for personal profit, and so there were no more left. They admitted they had been excited when our speedboat pulled up because a white person was on it (me); they thought we were arriving to deliver food and medical supplies.
We carefully made our way to where the Delta creek meets the ocean at the village of Kolu-Ama. We went to see the smoke fumes caused by the Chevron fire. The billows came up out of the trees and then disappeared into the sky. We had passengers in our boat from a community that is in a legal battle with Kolu-Ama over land rights, so we didn’t want to approach too closely out of fear of provoking a conflict. I was glad to see the Kolu-Ama community that I had heard about in recent weeks, the one in which women marched to the Chevron office in Warri and then to Government House in Bayelsa to demonstrate against the company’s failure to put out the fire. It is still burning.
On the ride back to Yenagoa, I chatted with a pleasant woman who had joined us for the day. When she showed me a picture of her deceased son, I realized that she is the mother of the 20-year-old who was shot by police for refusing to pay a traffic bribe. It is well-known story here. The two of them were coming home from church, his mother tried her best to protect him during the altercation, and he was killed holding a bible in his hand. The police involved were acquitted of all charges except mishandling a firearm. The parents have filed a civil suit and are being assisted by the human rights activist who had led the site visit. I couldn’t help noting the irony that her husband helps head the Joint Task Force (JTF), which has had a very heavy hand when dealing with collective action in the Delta. The very organization that was representing her in her case for her son’s murder is the same one that speaks out against rights abuses perpetrated by the JTF in the very areas we had visited. The Niger Delta is a complicated place.
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