Rivers of the World: The Niger River

This programme is part of the series Rivers of the World
Fisherman in Ekoli Creek
Fisherman in Ekoli Creek (© Eric Beauchemin)

Rivers are the cradle of the world’s earliest civilisations. Mythology and religion were born on their banks. They provide us with life-giving water. We eat of their bounty and create power from their energy. Radio Netherlands tells the stories of some of these “arteries of the world”.

The Niger River is one of Africa’s great waterways. It runs over 4000 kilometres before spilling out into the Gulf of Guinea. The last segment runs through south-eastern Nigeria, known as the Niger Delta. It’s here that Nigeria’s vast oil resources are located. Eric Beauchemin tells a tale of money and powerful interests that threaten the millions of people who live in the lush, swampy delta.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: December 4, 2002


The Niger is one of the great rivers of Africa. Measuring over 4000 kilometres, the Niger originates in the plateaus of Guinea. It flows through three other West African nations before spilling out into the Gulf of Guinea. The last segment runs through the south-eastern part of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation. The region is known as the Niger Delta, a lush and swampy area – the size of the Netherlands. It’s Nigeria’s goldmine…under the land and the many tributaries of the Niger River, there’s oil, a lot of it. 95% of Nigeria’s revenues come from the oil produced in this region…the equivalent of about 20 billion dollars a year. But the discovery of black gold 4 decades ago has proven to be a curse for the Niger Delta. Oil spills are frequent and the people haven’t seen any of the benefits of the oil boom, as I discovered with Ogon Patterson of Environmental Rights Action, the Nigerian branch of Friends of the Earth.

We are actually here in the Ekoli Creek. Ekoli Creek is one of the tributaries of the River Niger. We can also see that a lot of fishing activities take place here. Three-quarters of the fish that are actually from the Gulf of Guinea down to the coast here in the Niger Delta actually breed here in the mangroves. Of course, the environment here is fragile. People depend on fishing and farming basically as a source of livelihood. EB: How frequent are oil spills in this area? The spills here is quite frequent. On the average year, we get about 221 spills on average year because most of the equipment used by the multinational corporations are old. They are subject to wear and tear. Because of that, the frequency of spills is quite rampant.

John (© Eric Beauchemin)

My name is John ??. EB: John, how old are you? 48 years old. EB: How long have you been fishing here on the river? This is making 25 years old in fishing. EB: Is your father a fisherman too? My father is a fisherman. EB: And your brothers and sisters? Yes, everybody. Yes. EB: What happens when there is an oil spill here? When the oil flow in the river, it disturbs the fishermen and hardly we can get fish from the river. EB: Has there been an oil spill here recently? The oil spillage is at the pipeline there, after the other village. Very close to the village, there is an oil pipeline there. EB: Is the oil spill, is it affecting you here? Every time. Every time it affects us. EB: So what do you do when there is an oil spill? Do you stop fishing for a few days? Sometimes we stop fishing for two or three months. EB: So what do you do during that period to earn money? That period, everybody hungry. We are angry because we depend on fishing. EB: You’re angry or you’re hungry? Hungry, hungry, hungry. EB: Are you hungry now? Yes, we’re hungry now. Very, very hungry, yes.

Ogon Patterson of Environmental Rights Action
Ogon Patterson of Environmental Rights Action

EB: You say that there are about 220 oil spills a year on average. Given the high number of spills, is this leading to permanent degradation of the environment? Yes, it has led to permanent degradation of the environment. It has led to depletion of the flora and fauna. It has also led to loss of biodiversity. There are quite a lot of fishes, we no longer see them now. If you talk to the fishermen, they won’t be able to give you on their fingertips the kind of fish they used to kill. But they can also tell you that in the last five years, there are some species of fish that they haven’t seen at all. Even in the forest, in the swamps, it leads to the same thing. There are quite a lot of species that have disappeared as a result of oil spills. In fact, tape worms are used as one of the basic sources of certain hooks for fishes. But because of the frequency of spills, they have mostly disappeared. So it makes it really difficult for people who depend on fishing. EB: These frequent oil spills, are they also leading to the growth of certain plants or things which didn’t exist in the river before? We have quite a lot of water hyacinths now, and the water hyacinths are directly linked to the frequent spills. There are quite a lot of plants, as you see, along the river bed that were not there. They’re actually new. They have also become problematic, problematic in the sense that they grow up to come out of river, so rowing or canoeing becomes a relatively difficult thing.

My name is Dr. Doze Izunguzu. I work for Shell Petroleum Development Company. I am currently the head of environmental studies in the Department of Environment. It is possible that the oil that you find on the surface of the water first of all has the impact of shielding off the oxygen. The very first aquatic life that would be affected would be the phytoplankton, which are right on the surface. It is also possible that as the phytoplankton die as a result of starvation of oxygen, the other food chain organisms that depend on the phytoplankton might take up these phytoplankton with the contaminated oil. That’s a possibility. As to whether this would accumulate over time depends on how long this pollution is in the environment. From the studies that we have carried out so far, we have not yet established any clear case of bio-accumulation. Although we have seen from some fishes that have died in some areas some stains of oil in the gills of some of these fishes that the community people brought along. That is a simple fact that when there is oil pollution, the surface fishes like the sardines and all that that depend on a lot of oxygen would come in contact with some oil. In most cases, this has resulted in some deaths that you find in fishes. EB: Is it possible because there are frequent oil spills that there are mutations that appear in the fish population? I don’t see the type of contamination in our oil that could lead to that. However, it is possible if bio-accumulation occurs over a long period of time for the genetic composition of certain organisms to change. That of fish is not very specific because we don’t expect that this actually gets into the tissue. Having said that, for microorganisms and other macro-organisms it is possible for mutation to occur. But this takes quite some time.

Ekoli Creek
Ekoli Creek (© Eric Beauchemin)

Fishermen also complain that most of the fish they catch actually smell of petrol. If it smells of petrol then of course it has something to do with the level of spills. EB: Do the oil companies do anything to try to clean up these oil spills? It takes a long time before most of these oil spills are cleaned. In fact, it actually takes a lot of fight before the oil companies actually understand the need to get these spills cleaned. Sometimes they are left like that for 2, 3, 4, 5 months. There are places where you go that you see spills that have occurred since 1, 2 years back. It’s because they don’t stand to see the environment as a heritage. They only see it as a resource. They are more interested in cents and dollars. They are not interested in the impact on local people, on the environment, on the land and on the waters that people depend on for farming and fishing. EB: But once there’s an oil spill in the river, there’s actually no way of cleaning it up, is there? It’s always very difficult to clean up spills, especially because they travel fast. And because the spills travel fast because of the tides And the current and the current, right, it goes a very long way. In a situation like that, you have to act fast when there is a spill. But here they look at it differently. Sometimes it’s reported before they even come for inspection it takes weeks to get them to come to inspect before they even begin to talk about blocking the source of the spill and then doing the proper cleaning.

Joel Bestman, 25-year-old fisherman.
Joel Bestman (© Eric Beauchemin)

My name is Bestman Joel. I’m 25 years old. EB: Have you been a fisherman for a long time? I’ve been fishing for over 10 years. EB: Do you fish every day? Yes, yes, yes. EB: How many hours a day do you fish in general? OK, sometimes I spend two hours, while other days I fish the whole of the day. Sometimes I do catch 5 fishes. It depends on the size of the net I’m using. And sometimes I do caught one like that. EB: What have you caught today? I’ve caught 3 fish today. EB: How much do you think you can sell them for? The three I have caught, I have sold at the rate of 700 Naira, and I’ve reserved that one for my own personal consumption. EB: How much do you earn in general? OK, on average, 2000 Naira. EB: 2000 Naira a day. That’s around $15. Is that enough to survive on? It’s not enough. It’s not enough. EB: How much would you need? I need like 5000 Naira a day. EB: So how do you manage then? I manage with other works like farming together with the trapping. EB: Are you married? I’m married. EB: How many children do you have? At present, I have four, four children. EB: Does your wife also fish? No, my wife is not a fisherman, but she’s a trader. EB: A trader, OK. What happens when there are oil spills here? During the flood period, we sometimes put a net in the creek like that. So if that’s the case, they used to compensate for that net. EB: Because the net has been destroyed. Yes. EB: How long is it before you can start fishing again once there’s been an oil spill? It depends on how the current is flowing. If the current can be able to carry the oil, in normal times then the process will not take too long. But if the place is somehow stagnant, the water, if the area is not floating very well, it may stay up to 3 or 4 months before we can start our normal work. EB: So during those 3 or 4 months, you can’t fish at all. Yes, yes, yes. EB: So how do you survive then? My wife normally give me assistance and, as I’m a farmer also, I do depend on that side. EB: Do you farm as a type of insurance policy because of the oil spills or is it simply to get more money that you farm? Yes, since the river has been polluted, I have to focus my attention on the farming to make sure I meet up with my family’s demands. EB: So, that is why you are farming, because of the oil spills. Yes, yes. EB: Did your father also have to farm or was he just a fisherman? My father was a complete fisherman only. In those days, there was no oil spills.

Farming is being affected too because many of the oil spills take place on land. During the rainy season, the tributaries of the Niger River frequently flood, transporting the oil from the land into the water and vice versa. Land is scarce in the Niger Delta, so many fishermen have little choice but to farm on the banks of the river.

If you talk to farmers, they will tell you that their crops no longer yield well. The crops die and then even when they plant, it leads to stunted growth of plants. And then there are also situations where because of impact of crude, the land becomes totally unusable. They can no longer use them. You get to such places, you discover that it has become barren, even grasses can no longer grow. So these are some of the impacts of crude on land. Given situations like that, when arable lands have been made unusable as a result of crude, it becomes difficult, especially here where the land tenant system is such that they have to share small portions of land to family members to enable them sustain their livelihoods. So it becomes useless to you, and so it also tests on your source of income and also how you are going to survive.

Land in the Niger Delta is scarce because of overpopulation, soil erosion and overgrazing. But oil spills aren’t the only factor putting pressure on the land, says Dr. George Frynas, a lecturer in International Management at the University of Birmingham in Britain.

Dr. George Frynas, a lecturer in International Management at the University of Birmingham
Dr. George Frynas (© Eric Beauchemin)

Oil companies, when they are trying to find oil, they have to do some geological studies, and these are called seismic studies, which involve often hundreds of people who go in a team into an area with all sorts of equipment and have to carry out those studies. Now, what it involves is that those hundreds of people will cut down trees. They will go on boats and might damage some local property, which affects local people. EB: Is it a lot of damage? Oh yes, it can be. The thing is that there are quite a few of those teams and you must imagine those geological surveys have to be carried out on large areas, like 5 miles this way and 2 miles in another way, where you have to cut through the trees, also the local area, to lay what are called seismic lines, which will help you then to measure whether there is oil under the surface. So actually this can go on for miles and miles. So it does have an impact.

The degradation of the water and soil is affecting the health of more and more people in the Niger Delta. Few studies have been carried out to measure the true extent of the damage, but doctors in the region say they’re seeing more and more medical problems, as I heard from one physician who works for the Nigerian government and who preferred to remain anonymous.

We now have a drastic reduction in the fish stock, which has been the major source of protein. Also from the kind of subsistence farming we’ve been doing here, where the people rely on farming on the river banks, after the flood season where humus has been deposited, then when such soil is contaminated, then the natural food items like cassava from which we have tapioca, gari and what not will not be there again. Also yam, which we grow normally, and vegetables, they are no more there. So what they do is to import from other parts of the country. So it just follows the normal trend that a child who ordinarily would have been blessed with so much protein, so much carbohydrates, does not have enough. Then you now have the normal sequel of protein energy malnutrition. Starvation comes in in the long run. EB: You mentioned that there are fewer proteins and carbohydrates, but there’s also an additional factor. If fishermen no longer earn as much as they used to, they’re becoming more and more impoverished. As a result, not only do they not have fish to feed their families, they also have less income and therefore cannot buy the types of food that their families and children need. Exactly. Very true. The income of the man, who is ordinarily a fisherman, that’s his major trade, he doesn’t have enough again. So even when a child is ill, he cannot even provide for the basic medications. He cannot provide for his children to go to school. He cannot provide the basic things of life.

Fishermen in Ekoli Creek
Fishermen in Ekoli Creek (© Eric Beauchemin)

Gas flaring has been one of the most important environmental impacts in Nigeria and in other African countries over the years. What it basically means is that when you produce oil, the oil comes up to the surface together with some gas and water. So you have to separate the two. Now, in the past, you weren’t able to use the gas for commercials purposes. So the gas was basically burned, which is called gas flaring.

Gas flaring is actually very hazardous to the environment. It leads to acid rain. And because of the inability of government to provide potable drinking water for local people, quite a lot depend on water from the river and rain water. So whenever it rains, people bring out their bottles to catch this water. But we’ve discovered in the past couple of years that whenever you have such waters, there is always a sediment, a very black sediment, which has made it very unhealthy for drinking purposes and even for domestic purposes. Gas flaring has also led to degradation of the environment. It has led to a situation where you see that wherever gases are flared, the environment is totally withered. You can’t find crops and the forests doing very well in such places. It has also increased the rate of respiratory illnesses in most of the local communities. And, of course, when you get in there, you feel permanent heat till you leave. If for a moment you get in there as a visitor, you are subjected to that kind of heat. I leave it to you to image what local people there, who live there 24 hours a day, 7 days in the week, actually go through.

Much of what has been written about the Niger Delta focused on the environmental impact. But actually if you go to the Niger Delta, you find that the social impact is actually much more important. I’ll just give you one example: for example, those seismic studies, well, they might destroy trees, but trees will grow again. But they have impacts in terms of introducing new lifestyles. Now when several hundreds of people go into the area, they hire local people, for instance, to cut down trees, to cut down plants. So you might have lots of local men who for a short period of time will earn very, very high wages in comparison to their fathers. So for short periods, they will get used to very, very different lifestyles, and obviously there will be prostitution and lots of other things. But after say three months, they will become unemployed. Now what it means is that many of these people get very frustrated. They expect jobs to be provided again by the oil companies, but there is no jobs.

Part of the reason is that quite a few protests have taken place against the oil companies is that the government hasn’t done much for the local people for decades in terms of building schools, hospitals, etc. So the frustration is there against both. But although the government hasn’t done very much for the local people, it doesn’t mean that the companies have been blameless. It happened quite often in the past that oil companies basically didn’t take any responsibility for what they did and that caused further aggravation among local people, which in the end can lead basically to violence because the people are becoming really restless, that here an oil company comes and they can see that the oil company is quite rich, and the company has done quite a bit of damage to the local economy and to individual people but isn’t taking responsibility and is not paying for what they’ve done, so that’s created quite a bit of resentment.

The feeling of injustice about the destruction of the Niger Delta led young people belonging to several ethnic minorities to launch a violent campaign in the 1990’s, when Nigeria was still under military rule, for a greater say over the huge oil reserves under their land and rivers.

Political violence came into the limelight especially from 1998 when quite a bit of the nationalists in the Niger Delta started agitation for resource control. And by resource control, it’s essentially that the revenue derived from oil, which is found in the Niger Delta, has been used to develop other parts of this country. And the call has been that these resources should be used to develop the places where they are gotten from. But the federal government has pandered rather to the argument of force by deploying troops, soldiers, mobile policemen and navy to quell local protests. But in most instances, we have always felt convinced that the best thing would have been for them to listen to the voice of the people and then try to address the issues that are raised because 41 years of oil exploration has been a cost to the Niger Delta. People rather feel here that oil is a cost, not a source of pride because it has affected the life and livelihood of the people. The call has been for transnational oil organisations doing business in the Niger Delta to be more responsible to the environment, to treat the environment with care, but that hasn’t been done at all. So whenever the issue of protesting by local communities comes into full focus and try to call the oil transnational corporations to order, you discover that the state is always ready, at every point in time, to fight local people.

In 1998, 5,000 Ijaw youths gathered here on the banks of the Non, another tributary of the Niger River. They drew up a declaration, condemning the devastation of their environment and livelihoods and demanding the pull-out of oil multinationals until local people and the government reached an agreement about who owns the land and its resources. The government’s response to this protest was swift and violent.

What they did is to amass the forces of coercion, soldiers, mobile policemen, to attack local residents here, leading to the killing of the chief and very many others, making the village a deserted place because they ransacked every household, broke down every door, and the communities were displaced. EB: How long were the communities displaced? The people were displaced between December 1998 to February of 1999. EB: Why did the government react in such a violent way to this declaration? Because of the oil question. Oil was involved and the Nigerian economy revives centrally around oil. So the government saw the whole issue of the declaration and attempting to stop the oil multinationals from operating as an attempt to sabotage the economy of the country. There was actually a coalition. It has always been there. The federal government and the transnational corporations actually operate a joint venture alliance. The companies have their own percentage. The federal government has their own percentage. Local villagers, quite a lot of them, were shot, even on their way to the farms because they were suspected of having an intention of sabotaging oil facilities. So that relationship has always been there. It’s still there.

Another even more violent incident occurred not far away from here in the town of Odi. In November 1999, government troops entered Odi to avenge the murder of 12 policemen by local armed groups. Chief Milonia Asangba remembers that it was 2 o’clock in the afternoon when they heard the first shots and shelling.

Chief Milonia Asangba in front of the charred remains of his home
Chief Milonia Asangba in front of the charred remains of his home (© Eric Beauchemin)

People started to run helter skelter. Some of us were able to run away into the forest, and for almost 16 days, continuous destruction, intentionally destroying everything they could see. ??, houses, animals, anything you can think of. When we came back, we found out the whole community has been ?? EB: How many people were killed? From our own records, over 5000 people were killed. EB: What was the reason behind this army violence? We believe that it was because of this issue of resource control. Since the federal government has been in control of these resources, not for the development of our land, rather for the development of the majority areas, they felt it’s a better way to punish Odi, to show us as an example to other ??, so that we should not protest the merciless exploitation of our resources for the benefit of their areas. I think that is the only reason.

Even today, all that remains of many of the houses in Odi are cement walls. Whether 5000 people were actually killed or not, no one knows because the government never carried out an investigation, and no member of the armed forces has been prosecuted. But the events of November 1999 deeply traumatised the people in Odi and the rest of the Niger Delta. They felt that their protests for resource control would never be heard. Many people have simply given up.

Lot of people who feel that it’s no longer useful to do fishing or to do farming, have totally abandoned fishing and farming as an activity. They have also left the villages. In fact, you see, we are here in the state capital of Bayelsa State. The population here is enormous, and that is because quite a lot of people have abandoned their sources of livelihood because it no longer yields. They have abandoned their local communities to seek refuge in the slums of the state capital. They feel that it might be a better thing for them to do, to leave their home, to leave the village, and to seek sources of livelihood, either by maybe trying to look for menial jobs to do rather than to be at home looking for fish that are not there.

Village on the banks of Ekoli Creek
Village on the banks of Ekoli Creek (© Eric Beauchemin)

The Niger Delta is quite a beautiful place. If well managed, we hope to be one of the best environments in the world. The future that we have is that if only the government and the transnational oil corporations will be reasonable enough to see the environment as our heritage, to treat it with care, and then to clean up all the spills that have occurred in the past couple of years. The people are so resolved. The people are so committed to the fight. People are ready to defend actually allocating the roses and turns of oil exploration equitably. They are not saying they want it all. They are saying, well, since the resources come from us, we also need to have a stake in what has been produced, in what has been taken out of our land, to have a say. We need to have a voice in how these resources are being allocated and used. Like my grandfather use to say that we did not inherit the environment from our fathers. We borrowed it for our children. And that we need to preserve it the way we found it.

That documentary was produced by Eric Beauchemin for Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service.

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