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Gas flares on an offshore oil rig near Nigeria's petroleum-rich Bayelsa State, most of whose residents live in extreme poverty. The photo is one of many by Ed Kashi to be included in Curse of the Black Gold: 50 Years of Oil in the Niger Delta, a book edited by Michael Watts and scheduled to be published in March 2008 by powerHouse Books. ( Ed Kashi)

Taking a bullet for research
To geographer Michael Watts, who made headlines in a summer shootout in the Niger Delta, the real story is the impact of oil development on Nigerians themselves

| 06 December 2007

Ask Michael Watts about his encounter with a gang of armed thugs last July in the Niger Delta - a guns-blazing assault in which he was pistol-whipped and robbed, then shot in the hand by a late-arriving attacker - and he replies with a steady river of words, at once purposeful and gently meandering, deepened by any number of historical tributaries and multidisciplinary feeder streams. The recounting flows through the global oil market, U.S. energy security, environmental pollution, political corruption, the "paradox of plenty," Che Guevara, and youth violence (among other things) before finally tumbling down, as surely as the Niger into the Gulf of Guinea, to the episode that grabbed international headlines during the 2007 summer break.

Looking back, Watts - who's been traveling to the region for 35 years and knows the lay of the land both literally and figuratively - says he should have known better. And he's happy to count the ways.

"It's like Monty Python, to be honest with you," laughs the British-born geographer. "It's a catalog of failures."

Funny or frightening, the misadventure occurred in Port Harcourt, the capital of Nigeria's Rivers State, where violence had surged in the wake of hotly contested elections Watts calls "perhaps the most corrupt - and this is really saying something - in the entire postcolonial history of Nigeria." Yet despite warnings from friends and colleagues, Watts, who directs the campus's Center for African Studies - and whose research into oil's true costs has occasionally required him to interview AK-47-bearing militants on their own turf - may have failed to fully appreciate the degree to which the so-called "resource curse" had permeated everyday life in the city.

Watts reflects on his most recent trip to Port Harcourt, Nigeria. (Peg Skorpinski photo)

Watts was on his way to see an old friend, an editor at the independent weekly newspaper the National Point, when he stopped at a bank for some cash. A man at the door advised him against carrying his shoulder bag, but "it didn't click," Watts recalls. "I didn't think anything of it at the time. But what he was flagging was that in the previous couple of weeks, these guys had been casing banks. And when they see a white guy coming out, he must by definition be taking out money, because the only white guys in town are oil people, and oil people in local perception must be well-to-do."

Ironically, "for purely bureaucratic reasons" he ended up leaving the bank empty-handed. Nevertheless, he was tailed by youths on motorbikes, who - once Watts had entered the building - shot and wounded the driver of his car, then blasted their way into the three-story structure that houses the newspaper, injuring a security guard in the leg. Watts heard the commotion from the paper's second-floor office.

"I can now see, on reflection, that as soon as this happened the people I was talking to immediately disappeared," Watts remembers. "They moved out of the room where I was. I didn't quite know what was going on, except I looked out of the door to see that all of them were lying on the floor on their bellies," hands clasped behind their necks. "And I thought, 'Oh, that's interesting.'

"So then," he continues, "four of these guys come screaming up the stairs, burst into where I am, and say, 'Where's the money from the bank?' And I stupidly say, 'I have no money.' Which is the worst thing you can do, because they think you're f---ing with them."

To make matters worse, Watts was still standing, "so the guy just cracks me over the head with his pistol," he says. Fortunately, while he was on the floor he managed to check his bag, and "thank God, Allah be praised," found about $650 in cash that he'd changed a few weeks earlier. The men took the money, vandalized some laptops and other office equipment, and left.

But it wasn't over yet. Four more men - wide-eyed, shaking, and otherwise exhibiting signs of drug use - entered the office, again demanding that Watts turn over his money.

"Then I did something unbelievably stupid on reflection," relates Watts, warming further to his comic self-portrait of the scholar-as-shlemazel. "I said, 'Look, I have no money,' and I tried to stand up. And obviously this guy thought I was making a move on him. So that's when I got shot."

Because the gunman fired from above, the bullet grazed Watts' shoulder and slightly injured two fingers of his left hand. The intruders went through his bag, wrecked his $4,000 Canon camera by flinging it across the room, and took off. Watts and the other two shooting victims were treated and released at a local hospital.

The 'devil's excrement'

In a sense, the incident provides a telescopic view of Watts' own research, a terrifyingly personal playing out of economic and political forces he's described in policy reports, books, scholarly journals, and such popular media as the left-leaning online journal Counterpunch. For Nigeria - a country of 140 million inhabitants that gained independence from Britain in 1960 - the gusher of petrodollars has yielded levels of corruption, poverty, violence, and political instability equal to the devastating environmental consequences of extraction and production. That, says Watts, was the context for July's attack.

"The larger story, for me, is that all of this is, of course, about armed robbery," he says. "But it's more than anything about the fact that, at that time, this city was essentially not being governed. It was being run violently by competing politicians - they're called 'godfathers' locally - who were using these guys to sort of duke it out. And in that space of complete disorder, the type of armed violence that you could find almost anywhere was given free reign. That's the big story.

"And behind that political story is, yet again, a bigger story, which is really about how a major oil-producing country went through a series of elections that were fantastically corrupt and reflected, more than anything else, how very big, powerful political forces were trying to retain their control over this golden egg that sits in the center of the economy - the oil."

A Venezuelan oil minister once dubbed oil "the devil's excrement," and Watts, perhaps better than most, understands why. He's spent years studying what he calls "the oil complex," and documenting the ways in which the transition to an oil-based economy has plunged Nigeria into "the most unsettled, and potentially the gravest political crisis the country has faced since the 1960s, when this part of Nigeria descended into the nightmare of the Biafran war."

This, he explains, is the "paradox of plenty." While oligarchs and oil companies have reaped massive profits since petroleum was first discovered here around 1960 - Watts puts the government's cumulative revenues alone at some $600 billion - an estimated 80 percent of the income generated by oil accrues to just 1 percent of the population. For the past four decades, annual per-capita income has failed to climb beyond $250 or so - less than half the amount Watts' attackers made off with - and three in four Nigerians survive on roughly a dollar a day.

"This paradox of plenty produces a classic type of response among people who say, 'Wait a second, this is a national treasure, but how do I benefit?' I haven't got a road - I haven't even got a bicycle,'?" says Watts. "And that produces this incredible internal volatility."

The volatility has only escalated, despite a recent turn from military rule to ostensible democracy. In 1995, Ogoni novelist and television producer Ken Saro-Wiwa and six others were hanged for leading a nonviolent movement against what he termed "the slick alliance" of multinational oil producers, the Nigerian government, and the United States and its geostrategic allies. Sani Abacha, the general who seized power in 1993, died in 1998, opening the door to free elections.

Since then, however, the country has seen an upsurge in violence directed at oil-company personnel - from hostage-taking to attacks on security forces by armed militias - and vandalism aimed at disrupting oil operations, such as blowing up platforms and pipelines. Organized oil theft, known as "bunkering," has fed a thriving underground economy and the criminality that goes with it.

The growing chaos in the Delta region, Watts says, is partly due to what's called the "restive youth" problem - large numbers of unemployed men who are "incredibly alienated and angry at the consequences of this catastrophically failed oil development" and are "either fighting among themselves or fighting local chiefs, local elites, for a cut of the oil money." And it's "partly wrapped up with these armed insurgents - in a way it's reminiscent of the '60s guerrilla movements we think of in Latin America or Southeast Asia, and in fact some of these guys have read Che, they know the history of these movements."

Yet there's another, more immediate analogy for what's happening today in the Niger Delta: the fight against radical Islam in the oil-rich Middle East. Watts notes that in the early days of the Bush administration, Vice President Dick Cheney's national energy strategy called West Africa "one of the fastest-growing sources of oil and gas for the American market." After the 9/11 attacks, the White House identified Nigeria - whose majority-Muslim population is mostly Sunni - as a frontline ally in its "war on terror," and the U.S. military shifted from a focus on training for peacekeeping missions to training for counterterrorism and energy security. The U.S. recently established a new military command, AFRICOM, with responsibility for Africa.

The world's 11th-largest oil producer, Nigeria now provides 15 percent of U.S. petroleum imports, a number expected to increase substantially over the next decade. "The U.S. has grown more dependent on oil from Nigeria," explains Watts, "partly because its oil policy with respect to Iran, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia" - the three pillars of America's energy-security strategy since before World War II - "is such a wreckage. So it's begun to depend increasingly on West Africa in general, the so-called Gulf of Guinea, and Nigeria in particular." And he hears disturbing echoes of Iraq in Nigeria, another "corrupt, crappy secular state awash in oil money."

"Part of the political conflict is, how the hell is the oil money that's currently flowing into Iraq - which will be much greater when and if stability ever comes to that country - to be allocated in the context of ethnic and religious diversity?" he says. "The parallel is striking. And it's been going on in both countries for a long time, and Saddam put a lid on it in exactly the same way that military governments in Nigeria put a lid on it. Take that lid off and you've got a very ugly situation."

That, of course, is the situation Watts walked into in July, but fully appreciated only in hindsight. "During the event, my pulse did not change," he reports. "I wasn't scared in any way. Even when I was shot - at first I didn't even feel the shot, I didn't know I'd been hit. The fear part of it came in the days after, when you think of all the things that could have happened, and what you did that was so unbelievably stupid that you could have gotten yourself killed. That's when you sort of relive those moments."

Wiser now - and promising to show a bit more caution - he plans to return yet again in January.

Port Harcourt "has always been a rough-and-tumble city," Watts says. And then adds, smiling: "That's partly why I like it."