The Oil Thieves of Nigeria

How a violent conflict in the resource-rich Niger Delta has wrought ecological and economic devastation for a generation

The Oil Thieves of Nigeria
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

As the three women from Otuabagi tell it, the Niger Delta’s woes began with a simple yet consequential misunderstanding. The European engineers came to the village in 1956, four years before Nigeria’s independence, to dig holes around the surrounding creeks for reasons that were hardly apparent to the local residents. The engineers found what they were looking for, came back with heavy equipment and announced that they were going to establish camps in the area — which, in fact, they did not know the name of.

“Our people were not too much educated,” explains the oldest of the three women at the table, who would have been a young girl in those years. “When those white men came, we did not understand [their language] well.”

When the Europeans asked what the village that lies along those oil-rich creeks was called, the residents thought they were asking what district the village belonged to — because, after all, the white men had rarely shown any interest in what names Indigenous people assigned to things, preferring instead to impose their own names and administrative concepts such as “ward,” “district” and “Nigeria” on the region’s geography. The villagers responded accordingly: We are part of Oloibiri district.

Thus, the first oil well in Nigeria was christened “Oloibiri Well 1.” To this day, Nigerians are taught that oil, the precious commodity that typically funds half of the federal budget and accounts for approximately 90% of the country’s foreign exchange earnings, was first discovered outside Oloibiri town in present-day Bayelsa state in 1956. The people of Otuabagi, for their part, claim they have never recovered from this initial confusion.

“The name is one of the problems in our community. It is affecting us till [this] date,” a second woman from the community says, as thunder rolls and rain falls outside the rundown hotel where we are meeting in Bayelsa’s capital, Yenagoa, one afternoon in July 2022.

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