The first research I ever did on African politics was about oil in the Niger Delta. I was 18, a freshman in college, and completely naive about a lot of things.
Everything I knew about Big Oil came from my dad’s stories about my grandfather, who worked in the west Texas oil fields for decades. My dad had his own stories, too, about working in the fields during summers home from college and how little the petroleum engineering majors from Houston really knew compared to the field hands like my grandpa. Our family didn’t love the oil companies, but they had provided for us.
I was naive at 18, but I was also smart and a hard worker, so I started reading. My topic was the case of the Ogoni Nine.
Just a few months before, Ken Saro-Wiwa and his fellow activists had been executed by Gen. Sani Abacha’s regime for their protests against what Royal Dutch Shell was doing to their land. It was a fascinating topic to study, as responsibility was in some ways crystal clear and in other ways impossible to untangle. It was obvious that Shell was responsible for more than they would admit, that the government was corrupt and brutal to the core, and that the lives and livelihoods of millions of people were being forever destroyed by the marriage between the two.
What I learned from that research about power, resources, social movements, political manipulation, backroom deals, disasters and injustice set me on my life’s course. I was fascinated. I never got over wanting to know more.
A few months later, I started studying refugee movements in the Great Lakes region, obsessively reading Howard French’s dispatches from Kinshasa and Judith Matloff’s analysis from Johannesburg and tracing movements across maps of Zaire, a country that soon ceased to exist. And that was that. I was hooked.
Not much has changed for the Delta, either. Nigerians of the Delta region are watching in dismay as every news network in the world covers the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, wondering why their despair has been ignored for so long.
“We don’t have an international media to cover us, so nobody cares about it,” Emman Mbong, in nearby Eket, told the New York Times. “Whatever cry we cry is not heard outside of here.”
We don’t have the slightest idea what it’s like to live in the Niger Delta.
Yes, it’s bad on the Gulf Coast, and it will take years if not decades to clean up. But we live in a strong state. Clean-up crews are trying. Victims will be compensated. New regulations will be enacted. Stories will be in the papers for years.
And most of us will go on with our lives, not changing our habits, and certainly not thinking about the tiny threads that tie our stories to Nigerian children who swim in oily water, to oil hands in west Texas, to nasty dictators and to refugees walking to Kisangani.
I wonder what would change if we did.
Laura Seay is an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College in Atlanta. This column was adapted from her blog, Texas in Africa. She did fieldwork from 2005-07 related to the Congo for her doctoral dissertation, “Authority at ‘Twilight:’ Civil Society, Social Services and the State in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.”
Laura Seay is an Assistant Professor of Government at Colby College. She studies African politics, conflict and development, with a focus on central Africa.