Books: Nigeria’s oil curse

In A Swamp Full of Dollars, Michael Peel explores the west’s role in exploiting the resources of the Niger Delta. His study of corruption and cynicism, plunder and desperation, impressed John Vidal.

A Swamp Full of Dollars: Pipelines and Paramilitaries at Nigeria’s Oil Frontier
Michael Peel
IB Taurus & Co Ltd, 2009

Not much news comes to Britain from Nigeria. Our press and TV correspondents are mostly based in Johannesburg or Nairobi; travel there is expensive; and, because it’s not at war and is beastly hot and volatile, the world’s 10th-largest country and Africa’s second-largest economy is woefully under-reported and greatly misunderstood.

A few fine Nigerian writers and artists help to pierce the ignorance, but mostly we recognise only the stench of corruption that drifts in from the oilfields of the Niger Delta or the desperation embedded in scam e-mails. So we hold our noses and avoid the Bight of Benin, just as travellers from Liverpool to South Africa did 100 years ago; glad to think that what happens there has nothing to do with us, and convinced that we could never end up like them.

Or could we? The premise of Michael Peel’s illuminating investigation into the Nigerian condition is that this vast and complex land is not just the creature of the west in the old colonial sense, but is fatally cursed by our dependence on its oil to grease the wheels of our society and financial institutions. Nigeria, he argues, offers a terrifying vision of the consequences of tolerating gross inequality, profligate energy use and environmental abuse.

Peel does not record his reaction on being uprooted as the Financial Times’s accountancy correspondent and tossed into Lagos in 2002. But it’s likely that he arrived in this “tropical Brobdingnag” – predicted to be twice the size of London in a few years – with bewilderment and naivety. Nowhere else in the world prepares the visitor for this mega-city of limitless slums, sense-bombarding rubbish, infinite riches and burning tropical vigour and enterprise.

The FT has its share of free-market zealots and it mostly reflects the concerns of the world’s financial elites, but at least it encourages its writers to explore their patches and try to make sense of them. Peel, a bit of a heretic, is a consummate lifter-up of stones just to see what is there. In this case he becomes intrigued by the psychology and consequences of corruption at every level of society and the way oil has permeated all Nigerian life.

And who better to write about money in the global capital of corruption than an accountant? Peel the nerd brilliantly examines the economics of Lagos’s okadas (motorbike taxis) and molues (buses); Peel the amiable English prig sets out hilariously to challenge police bribery; Peel the adventurer spends a week aboard a US warship patrolling the waters off Nigeria for pirates and hangs out with youth gangs, disabled dancers, novelists and the hustling class.

The longer he lives in Lagos, the more he sees the parallels with Britain. The rich men’s houses are no more obscene than those in London, but their opulence is starker. The rubbish on the street is actually far less than the amount produced in London, but less well hidden. There is a revolting asymmetry, he concludes, between the smoothness of his oil-fuelled British life and the toxic impact of crude on the region. The exploitation, injustices and abuses of power that he witnesses on the delta are more open, more blatant and more honest.

But the best of his writing is in his forays to the swamps and creeks of the increasingly militarised and lawless Niger Delta, where he talks with warlords, fighters, kidnappers, oil workers and communities in the shadow of Shell and Chevron. There he finds the true curse of oil in Africa – the headlong descent into social desperation, a frightening absence of government and the grotesque cynicism and amorality of the multinationals.

Peel is clear. Nigeria’s two main client states, the United States and Britain, have profited vastly from the systematic plunder of the country’s assets by dictators, governors and businessmen. A venal western financial system centred in London is allegedly linked to corrupt money that has spread like an oil slick right the way through the international financial system.

I would have liked more from Ogoniland and more insight into the escalating armed struggle, but Peel at least has grasped the scale and importance of the Nigerian oil crisis. Happily, he retains his compassion and genuine affection for the country. Change, he believes, is more likely to arise there than in Britain, where injustices have become entrenched and subtly concealed over centuries. Nigeria may be, in his words, “the emblem of a parasitic and potentially cataclysmic era of human history dedicated to short-term material gain”, but the extraordinary struggle of its people to develop must be recognised and respected.

Copyright Guardian News & Media Limited, 2010