On Michael Peel’s A Swamp Full of Dollars
by Ikhide R. Ikheloa
Reproduced here for archival purposes only. First published October 2009 on the Internet.
Given the opportunity to read Michael Peel’s new book about Nigeria A Swamp Full of Dollars I groaned inwardly. Oh no, not another condescending, smirking tome written by a white man about Nigeria, corruption, decay, injustice, crude oil, blah, blah, blah. I remembered painfully reading Karl Maier’s This House Has Fallen and that was the best of them. As I held the book, wondering whether to toss it into the heap of “I go read am” books, inside me, Esu-Elegbara, the god of my impish spirit roared, “Man Up! Read the book! If you don’t like it drop it like the dozens of other books littering your life!” I give thanks to Esu for making me read the book. I could not drop this book. It was written with respect, and it turned out to be a purposeful book written by a focused, purposeful journalist. Before you die, please read this book. A Swamp Full of Dollars is the definitive book about the ravages of the Niger Delta written by a man who actually prowled the delta with the best and the worst of us. Let me put it this way, I am still recovering from a harrowing 17 day mostly road trip through the ruins of Nigeria. This man spent years there. He deserves whatever prize they give to journalists that brave, or some would say, that reckless.
I love this book. In A Swamp Full of Dollars, Peel reexamines a familiar tale of the devastation of Nigeria’s Niger Delta by oil conglomerates and thieving Nigerian leaders. Fortunately, in Peel’s expert hands, it is reborn and told with fierce courage and gentle but damning conviction. The narrative is delivered in fresh, brilliant prose, shorn of clichés. This is not Karl Maier’s This House Has Fallen. You do not suffer the exhaustion of listening to drumbeats of despair. It is a sermon, but not in a sententious way. I appreciate that Peel writes a really sad story with respect and compassion for those at the receiving end of multiple pipes of greed. If you don’t read anything else, please read the prologue, Trigger Point. It is easily one of the best essays I have read in decades. Focused, disciplined, lush and crisp, this is great, data-driven prose. Bereft of the narcissism of messianic African writers, it is at once instructive and entertaining. We need to read this. And the world needs to hear this. Someone is getting away with genocide in Nigeria’s Niger Delta.
This book is not merely a clinical rendering of the tale of a catastrophe. The rendering is impressive in its delivery. In the prologue, talking about an encounter with a peasant in the island of São Tomé and Príncípe, Peel makes this observation: “When I give her dobras worth about £1.50, she grips my hand with a strength unnerving in one apparently so frail. The intensity of her gratitude fills me with loathing, both for the economic gulf from which it springs and for the feeling of power it awakens in me.” (xiv) How many of us Nigerians have not felt the rush of power from giving our crumbs to our dispossessed? It is a great shame that such haunting, evocative words about the suffering of our own people come from an outsider looking in. Here is fresh prose neatly describing decay, despair, and dilapidation: “Around the corner, at the Royal Niger Company’s old headquarters, the corrugated metal walls of the ground floor were corroded beyond repair and the upper floor had disintegrated. A once sturdy safe in the corner was a mess of stone and mangled metal. The building’s only occupant was a bare-breasted old woman, made pitifully thin by age and deprivation. She sat eating from an orange plastic bowl and begging visitors for food and money.” (p 33)
A Swamp Full of Dollars is a neatly compiled, carefully documented history coated in appealing prose. It is chock full of current statistics about Nigeria. This one is a keeper. And some of the data is frightening. During Peel’s time living in Nigeria, “oil sales typically accounted for about three-quarters of government revenues and more than 95 percent of export earnings. In Britain, where production levels are similar, crude accounted until 2006 for less than one-tenth of exports.” (p 27) This book should be in every Nigerian classroom. Every Nigerian intellectual should own this book; the data between the covers is priceless. The book’s attention to detail seems fueled by Peel’s photographic memory. He captures every Nigerian drama as if it is a sad Vaudeville act. It is also an immensely readable tutorial on the oil and geo- politics of the region. He documents the grisly atrocities carried out on the people of the Delta in a “democracy” run by Mr. Olusegun Obasanjo. He outlines Shell’s role in the Nigerian Civil war and he argues that Shell’s and Western interests arose from the fact that the war was interrupting the flow of crude. He goes further to explain, with the help of really good data, why Nigerian oil is of strategic importance to the West especially the US. Peel’s analysis is refreshing on many levels. He constantly makes the connection between the suffering in the Delta and the material comfort in the West, In other words, our comfort in the West is paid for by the bloody suffering in the Niger Delta. Peel gets it. “I could see the obscene asymmetry between the smoothness of my oil-fuelled life in Britain and the toxic impact of crude on one of its main source regions. Like other horrors that we tolerate in the West because they happen to people elsewhere, the disturbing story of Nigeria’s oil became harder to ignore once it was no longer abstract. What had been faraway and theoretical had now become up close and personal.” (p 14)
It is profound how Peel returns again and again to themes of connections between the West and Nigeria’s oil. He also attempts to make, in my view, unconvincing parallels between the oppression of the people of the Delta and the poor in the West: “Already I could see many common themes. The rich men’s houses in impoverished Oloibiri were no more obscene than their counterparts in London; their opulence was simply starker compared with the general standard of living. Nor were the Delta resource control disputes so different in essence from the campaign of the Scottish nationalists for dominion of the UK oil pumped off Scotland’s shores. That, too can be cast as a story of historical oppression and growing resistance to a nation state that some see as an unwanted fiction. In Nigeria, guns and deeper poverty have simply bolstered the polemic.” (p31) Nigeria’s poor would kill to be America’s destitute. Peel does offer a great point about the harmful effects of what he terms reverse racism – Westerners treating “progressive” but flawed African leaders like china that might shatter if subjected to the normal wear and tear of political debate. He points out for example that folks were dissuaded from asking hard questions about Obasanjo’s administration. Today, we are reeling in shock from the extent of that administration’s graft.
It is particularly telling that not one of the Nigerian leaders interviewed in the book had anything of substance to contribute to the discourse at hand. They sounded like hapless fools wondering what to do with the mantle in their hands. Indeed, Peel’s impressions of the Niger Delta activist Dokubo Asari reads like the making of a tragic-comedy. Asari comes across as a money grubbing opportunist whose “freedom fighters” have surreal, silly names like “KKK.” Peel visits Asari’s military hide-out, and is witness to a theatre of the absurd: “A man dressed in an orange Shell jumpsuit, inseparable from his Kalashnikov caught my eye. He and some others started wrestling, sprawling in the mud. Some of the photos I took turned out to be hilarious: the scene looked more like a reality game show with guns than the training base of a militia movement.” (p 11) There is more of this farce: “A well-muscled young fighter, wearing nothing but tight black underpants, started to move around jerkily, like a Convent Garden mime artist. Water ran to the ground off his bare chest. The whole atmosphere, charged with testosterone and a certain homoerotic tension, seemed more camp militancy than militants’ camp. Whether I was watching spontaneous ecstasy or a performance for a foreign visitor was open to question, although I didn’t get the sense of being much noticed until I started taking photos.” (p 12) Peel sees in the military camp a strange, bizarre world “in which weapons, spiritual belief, ideology and mercantilism combined to such deadly effect.” (p13) Unfortunately, Peel provides no pictures in the book. I wonder what he is going to do with those pictures. Perhaps we should look forward to a coffee table book.
Peel points out this fact: “In 1886, the United Africa Company – by now a behemothic conglomeration of British manufacturing and trading interests – found a novel way of gaining extra competitive leverage. It won a royal charter from the British government, creating a trade protectorate reserved exclusively to the company.” (p 37) It is a little known but interesting form of governance by the private sector. Wal-Mart may end up ruling Africa. Wal-Mart may need to govern Africa to keep commerce flowing. They may need to build the roads, power up the electricity plants and provide a functioning police force to protect their widgets. Sadly, it is not as far-fetched and silly as it sounds. There are some Nigerians who would welcome this re-colonization; I don’t blame them. Talking about governance, as an aside, Peel is a white witness to black days of election horrors under Olusegun Obasanjo: “In a day spent travelling in and around Port Harcourt, I did not see a single person cast their vote legitimately. Instead, I saw ballot-box stuffing and intimidation of electors by ruling-party agents, and heard accounts of voting materials being stolen by armed thugs. In one counting centre, I watched as returning officers leafed through a sheaf of results recording 100 percent turnouts and 100 percent votes for the president. In Port Harcourt, a group of young men identified by locals as ruling-party supporters tried to persuade me that a large street protest complaining about the non-distribution of ballot boxes was being staged by people who were mentally disturbed.” (p 17)
For an insightful look into Lagos, please read chapter 4, titled The Boys From the Bookshop. Precious little about Lagos escapes Peel in chapter 4; this is a delightful chapter. It is about Lagos in all of its glory and confusion. His is one of the most apt descriptions of Lagosian anarchy that has been penned in contemporary times. Peel dissects the anarchy of Lagos thus:, “Lagos life exemplifies how the modern state wrought by crude has become the kind of dysfunctional world depicted in Thomas Hobbes’ classic Leviathan written in the shadow of England’s Civil War. Hobbes argued that, in the absence of central autocratic control, societies were doomed to exist in a state of perpetual conflict pitting all against all… Hobbes described what he saw as the inevitable and frightening results of an absence of checks on people’s behaviour, when men live without other security, than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal.” (p 75) Lagos, aka Nigeria is ugly, as ceaseless materialism jostles for space with grinding poverty. It never ends, the quest for material wealth, this is a society gifting soulless materialism to its young: “Few of the structures, rich or poor, offer much to the aesthete. A British architect who has lived in Lagos for many years once gave me a sweeping assessment of the quality on offer.’ It’s all shite,’ he said.’ I know – I built some of it.’” (p 77) Peel does not waste any words in describing the systemic laying to waste of huge swaths of Nigeria, her potential and resources. For example he mines the food web of bottom feeders in a molue bus. Riveting is the relentless bottom feeding of preachers, motor touts, the police, etc, etc.
One is entertained and saddened by the endless cycle of ten-percenters and pay-offs. He documents with a telling eye Made-In-Nigeria farce, hiding incompetence behind a veil of pretend processes and titles: “A few yards away, behind a pile of wooden planks, a black-tiled monument commemorated the March 2001 visit of President Olusegun Obasanjo, The dedication announced the laying of the foundation stone of the Oloibiri Oil and gas Research Institute, ‘to the glory of God and service to the Niger Delta people of Nigeria’. The institute, like so many projects in this region of unfinished business, had been promised but not built. A local official who was with Obasanjo on the day of the dedication told me the president was much irritated when he found out he was to inaugurate a project for which no funds had been made available.” (p 24) Hello Graham Greene. V.S. Naipaul would love this.
Peel documents the complicity and duplicity of Shell and other multinational corporations. Sadder still, the alleged leaders of the aggrieved Delta subscribe to the Nigerian maxim “man wen dey cry dey see road!” It seems that some of the “community leaders” of the Delta are always walking around looking for an opportunity to line their own pockets. Peel recalls a conversation he once had with “a traditional chief from another Delta town, who after describing persuasively the damage oil had done to his community, grumbled that Shell had not even given him a mobile phone for Christmas.” As a result, Peel states understandably that he often found it hard to tell with local leaders “where their ambitions for their communities ended and where their personal desires began.” (p 26) The kleptomania of the governors of the oil producing state is distressing and described in heartbreaking detail. Shell seems happy to trot out the proverbial “token Nigerian” before Peel to play defense. That person is Basil Omiyi, Shell’s managing director for Nigeria. Peel’s interview of this civil servant is an exercise in obfuscation. Omiyi’s bureaucratic parsing of words and the cloying insincerity of his remarks do little to mask Shell’s shameful conduct in the Niger Delta. All in all, Peel carefully maps out the food web or chain of relationships among the MNC’s, the “activists” and the government. Sadly, except for the people, it is perversely symbiotic. The suffering people of the Niger Delta are treated with the indifference reserved for the dispossessed protesting their humanity.
The saddest chapter by far is chapter 8, Things Are Looking Up. Hear Peel: “As the Nigerian government celebrated the debt relief in late 2005, I spent a depressing day in Rivers State, one of Shell’s biggest areas of operation. In Port Harcourt, I visited Community Primary School One on the Rumueme district, where head teacher M.C. Anwuri showed me her dilapidated empire. Many of the children didn’t have desks and had to defecate on waste ground because of the lack of a working toilet. In the centre of the courtyard, three girls of about 13 were using bricks to bash charcoal against a patch of concrete; the end product was to be smeared on the wall of the classroom, to serve as a makeshift blackboard. In Anwuri’s office, a calendar produced at no little expense by the state government told – or taunted – her that she had the good fortune to be living in the ‘Treasure base of the Nation’.” (p 173) This chapter, if read aloud to the people would cause a bloody revolt.
Peel does tend to overly romanticize the under-dog. He seems taken by the aura of Odumegwu Ojukwu. This leads him to drop his guard and desist from plumbing the depth of a most complex and polarizing figure. As a result his image and depiction of Ojukwu comes across as inchoate. Ojukwu is no saint. The Ogoni and Saro Wiwa are a footnote to the story. I think that is an unfortunate omission; he could have explored the complex relationship between the Eastern minorities and the Igbo and their ambivalence about Biafra. Peel talks about the difficulty of buying an air ticket in Lagos. Maybe in 2003. Today you can go online in Nigeria and buy an airline ticket in minutes. My experience this year (2009) with Aero airlines was very pleasant. I wonder why he did not interview certain other major players: Yakubu Gowon, Shagari, Obasanjo, etc. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is interviewed but the source is not quoted (*Interview by Charlie Kimber, October 2006, in the Socialist Review) (p 44). Not to worry, Thank Google! The drink Ogogoro is not made from the leaves of the palm tree; rather it is distilled from the tree’s sap. And palm oil is not only a lubricant, it is an important source of cooking oil. These glitches do little to diminish what is in my opinion a great book.
Finally, as Peel is careful to point out, Nigeria is not without hope. Technology in the form of cell phones and the Internet is becoming a muscular force in restructuring relationships and transforming the dispossessed from helpless to self-dependent. The private sector is inspiring; what Nigerian entrepreneurs are able to do with the virtual absence of an infrastructure is miraculous. The ebullient spirit of the people is a huge factor in the ability of the society to absorb bone-crushing dysfunction. Peel’s focus is on the miseries of the people of the Delta but this does not blind him to the sprouts of hope germinating in places. It is not all despair in Nigeria; there are hints of hope, but admittedly hardly visible. All in all a memorable tome-documentary of the hell-farce that Nigeria is fast becoming. Buy this book, shut off your generator and weep for the new Nigeria.