- Oil's Long Shadow
For more than fifty years, oil has been extracted from the land and sea of the Niger Delta to fuel the economies of first England and now Europe, North America, Brazil, and China. Before oil, the people of the Niger Delta labored to produce palm oil for the use and wealth of the British. And before that, the commodity that shaped the region was the exportation of human beings, again to benefit other people's societies elsewhere. As a number of the contributors to Curse of the Black Gold: 50 Years of Oil in the Niger Delta outline, these three commodities provide a nearly seamless narrative of exploitation and abandonment by foreign powers abetted by Nigerian collaborators.
Edited and introduced by Michael Watts, the book brings together about one hundred photographs by Ed Kashi, taken during his visits to the Niger Delta in 2004 and 2005; short essays by or interviews with Nigerian academics, writers, journalists, and activists; as well as activist poetry; an excerpt from the Kaiama Declaration; and a 2007 statement by Nobel Laureates. Through his photography, Kashi seeks to "shed light on this world of shadows," particularly the work of the militant Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), while the essays provide a detailed indictment of the Nigerian "petro-state" and narratives of resistance. Curse of the Black Gold has won multiple awards, primarily in the U.S., and represents the "curse of oil" in Nigeria to a Euro-American audience.
The various textual contributions to the book largely focus on documenting and decrying the debilitating and pervasive corruption of the Nigerian state, the ecological destruction caused by the extraction of oil, the paradoxical and disproportionate poverty of those living in Nigeria's oil-rich states, the ethnic politics of the labor and material benefits of oil, and the chaos and ungovernability of the communities of the Niger Delta. Nnimmo Bassey's discussion of "disaster capitalism" implicates a neoliberal corporate culture and the governments of the U.S. and Europe. Ibiba DonPedro describes the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) as a feminized movement and discusses the occupation of Chevron and Shell offices by Ijaw women in 2002. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's essay provides a self-reflexive meditation on representation, specifically the way the story of oil in Nigeria always begins, implicitly, with "secondly"; in other words, the symptoms and consequences of injustice and not their causes.
In contrast to the essays, which provide a long view and critical reflections, the photographs reflect a particular historical moment and the gaze of an outsider to Nigerian politics and history. As Kashi's prefatory essay makes clear, he is captivated by the intrigue of armed revolution and particularly the illusive spokesperson of MEND, Jomo Gbomo, whom he compares to Zapatista Subcomandante Marcos. However, the photographs provide a diverse range of actualities of the Niger Delta: stereotypical images of the African male, threatening or noble, but corporeal, at times with face cropped out, like on the cover (bare muscular chests and abdominals glistening with sweat and oil, fists tight around the [End Page 5] handles of machetes; masked rebels in camouflage and holding guns); photos of gas flares and pipelines, which, like so many examples of the photojournalism of the suffering of Others, represent ecological degradation, the aftermath of physical violence, and chronic poverty in aesthetically alluring ways; and, most of all, images that seem to reflect neither intrigue nor hopelessness, but rather the resilience of daily life. Oil infrastructure often figures as the backdrop for children playing or women baking krokpo-garri by the heat of gas flares or, indeed, is not visible at all, as in Kashi's photographs of abattoirs, Egi New Year's celebrations, women preparing for a wedding, or silhouettes of security guards in a fast food restaurant.
Although people—almost always unnamed—provide the foreground for a great majority of the photographs, these people function as the background to the story...