Into the Heart of the Niger Delta

A journey to Okrika

By / December 2012


A year ago, I made a reporting trip to Nigeria. I went there because Nigeria has oil. And nearly all of it is in the Niger Delta, a swampy area along the country’s southern coast. Militant groups like the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) and the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF) have been active in the Delta for a decade. They are fighting for a great share of the money generated by Nigeria’s oil industry.

They have sabotaged oil pipelines, stole millions of dollars of oil from these same pipelines, and recruited thousands of soldiers – known in Nigeria as “boys” – to fight for their cause. Other smaller and less organized groups like the Icelanders and Bush Boys control the slums of Port Harcourt, the Delta’s largest city. For all practical purposes, much of the Delta, and nearly all of Port Harcourt, is lawless.

I have written more than 10,000 words in more than a dozen stories about my time in Nigeria. Nearly every one of those words was negative. I wrote about Boko Haram, an Islamic militant group that detonated a bomb outside of the United Nations compound in Nigeria’s capital in 2011. I wrote about a rape video and social media and the very-real prospect of civil war. I wrote so much about these things that I began to worry that I was self-plagiarizing. But the one thing I never got a chance to write about was my trip to Okrika.

Okrika, an island in the Bonny River just south of Port Harcourt, began as a fishing village in the 17th Century, and then became a slave trading port until the practice was abolished in the 1830s. Until the 1950s Okrika had little contact with the outside world. Its economy was largely self-sufficient. Locals relied on fish from local waters and cassava from local fields for sustenance.

That changed in 1965, when Nigeria’s first refinery opened near the island. Transport pipes were laid across Okrika, its first exposure to the oil business. These pipes, as well as countless others installed in subsequent years, poisoned Okrika’s land and water. Flaring, or the process of burning excess gas into the atmosphere, pollutes the air and turns the roofs of the local shanties black with soot. Trails from these flares are visible from outer space.

Okrika is considered one of the spiritual centers of Delta militancy. Groups like MEND and NDPVF evolved from non-violent political movements elsewhere in the Delta. But the militancy on Okrika lacks this political sophistication. The Bush Boys and the Icelanders, Okrika’s local gangs, aren’t fighting for a cause but for control of the island and access to the oil pipelines that cross it. The gangs are notorious for kidnapping foreign oil workers – not for political purposes but for ransom. They are skilled fighters who chased the Nigerian Navy out of the Delta in 2007.

During my first week in Nigeria, I was able to meet with leaders of MEND, NDPVF, and the Icelanders. But I met them halfway: I chartered boats for them to come to Port Harcourt. I met one in an alley, another in the home of a soldier, and a third next to a pool in an expatriate community. I wasn’t able to experience where these people were from or see the environmental devastation they described.

So I pushed my fixers, Charlie and Michael, to get me deeper into the Delta. Both were political activists. Charlie worked to improve governance. Michael worked with militants. They were anxious to venture further into the creeks around Port Harcourt. They, along with my driver Ani George, were also putting their lives at risk by working with me. But after a long discussion, they made some calls and told me that for a steep price, I could bribe the boys that patrol the creeks near Okrika to let me pass. I agreed and we chartered a boat for the following morning.



We left the hotel early the next day then headed off in an unfamiliar direction. I had little sense of Port Harcourt’s geography, except for the area around my hotel, but I knew I hadn’t seen this part of the city before. We passed what was left of downtown Port Harcourt, a mess of burned out and broken down buildings each no more than a few stories high. Unfinished highway exits lined the shoulder. Incomplete bridges straddled the road.

We moved quickly on wide roads. George drove uncomfortably close to other cars. A couple of miles later, we turned off the highway onto a narrow, unpaved street. Small, one-story stores, all selling beer and brands of food I didn’t recognize and mobile phone cards, lined the road. People stared as we zoomed by. Some begged at the window and others shouted. I looked straight ahead.

George parked at the dock and I started toward the water with Steven and Michael in tow. My fixers had hired a young woman to ride along with us. Her hair was short, her shirt was yellow, her demeanor serious. The girl’s presence, they said, would make us look less suspicious. As the four of us approached the waterfront, the ground grew slick with oil. I shuffled down the hill, afraid to fall.

We boarded a wooden boat. It was fifteen feet long, five feet wide, and outfitted with four or five rows of seats. The vessel swayed uncomfortably from side to side as we got on. Michael, who had paid off the lookout boys, took the front. The woman sat in silence on the row in front of Charlie and me. We waited as the boats ahead of us, some harboring barrels of bunkered, or stolen, oil, drifted out into the Delta. The channel was cramped and balmy. Thick as insulation, the haze overhead seemed to trap and intensify the October heat.

Eventually the boat began to move. There were men standing on burned out ships on either side of the dock. I was wary to take photos – I had been chased out of a slum a few days earlier for taking pictures – but I did manage to get a short video of us leaving:

leaving the dock

Port Harcourt is a claustrophobic place. Public spaces are always packed and cars move along with only inches separating them. But within minutes, we were on open water, with the wind in our faces, as we moved toward Okrika. Charlie pointed out the lookout boys, who leered at us but did not make a move as we floated past them.

Charlie explained what I would see upon arrival. Okrika residents had recently elected a number of new leaders to represent the different parts of the island. He said there had not been such an election in thirty years, and that I would get to witness the swearing in ceremony. He also said it was very rare for white people to visit the island and told me not to be concerned if people stared.



We arrived on the island twenty minutes later. A group of ten boys was playing billiards at a table near the dock. Michael went to speak with them and then waved us ashore. We followed a sandy path for fifty yards until we came to a row of okadas, the motorbikes Nigerians use to get around. I had never ridden on a motorcycle before but was in no position to object. I also had no idea of who my driver was or where we were going. Charlie and Michael were on separate bikes. My driver could have easily taken off in a different direction. It occurred to me that if I were going to be kidnapped, this was the time.

Soon we were weaving through pedestrians on narrow paths of sand. People were shouting at me but all I could make out was “shell,” Port Harcourt’s euphemism for “white boy.” Each time I lost sight of Charlie and Michael my chest tightened with worry that I’d been set up. Only when we reached an open paved road that allowed me to keep them in sight did I feel comfortable again.

The sides of the road were clear but for an occasional shanty or empty building. Cassava, a starchy plant that is a staple of the Nigerian diet, grew between the structures. Other areas were unusable swamps. We rode fast and only slowed to avoid potholes or other bikes. The sky was clear except for a streak of black soot. My fixers later told me that the dark cloud came from a natural gas flare at a refinery not far in front of us.

Oil refineries were what had brought me to Nigeria, but this was the closest I’d ever come to one. Oil is the sole reason that Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, is important to Europe and the United States. Since the 1950s, multinational companies have dug their pipes into Nigerian soil and removed billions of barrels of Bonny Light, a kind of oil that can easily and cheaply be refined into gasoline. Bonny Light has made Nigeria the fifth largest supplier of oil to the United States. Without Nigeria, gas in America would cost well over five dollars.

Fences and razor wire surrounded the plant. I dismounted from the motorbike and hustled into a lookout toilet, a concrete structure built at the edge of the water that serves as a watchtower and a lavatory. There are holes where one can defecate into the ocean during high tide and onto the shore during low tide. I was there during low tide and the beach was covered with shit. In the heat it smelled like rotting flesh. Buckets of water were scattered throughout the building. Two naked men bathed and watched me as I made my way to the edge.

From that perch the oil refinery looked as if alien invaders had placed it there to steal Okrika’s wealth. It was a technologic wonder surrounded on all sides by squalor. The plant was capable of refining millions of gallons of Bonny Light each month. It likely had living quarters for workers too scared to live outside of its boundaries. Some oil outposts had bars, movie theaters, and restaurants. Fire from the flaring pipe burned continuously, producing the black soot that covers Okrika. The flame blew in the wind like a flag. No doubt the refinery had running water and plumbing. Where I stood, less than a mile away, Okrikans still count on the ocean to carry away their waste.



The swearing-in ceremony took place in a neighborhood made up of concrete and cinderblock buildings without doors or windows. In the de facto town square, elders were reclining under tents. Young men and women surrounded them. The men wore long shirts, some with colorful patterns, others plain blue or white. Many of the women wore bright head coverings that matched their dresses.

As I walked into the square, old men reached out to shake my hand. Many of the women said, “You are welcome.” Some even offered their seats. But I moved to the back of the crowd and readied my camera. As I was fitting my lenses a crowd of young men, all dressed in white, stormed into the square. They were screaming in a language I didn’t recognize. Another group of men met them screaming and pushing back.

Charlie, who works to promote good governance by fighting corruption on Okirka, threw himself into the middle of the pack to separate them. After a few minutes of shoving, Charlie pulled a man from each group aside. They disappeared to an area off the square and came back a few moments later. An agreement had been reached; the events could continue.

Charlie later told me that the men in white were unhappy with the results of the election and planned to stop the ceremony. He said a quick truce had been negotiated between the two, but said these kinds of disputes were common and often turned violent. He said he didn’t expect the dispute to end that day.

A man in a black bowler hat and long blue robe stepped into the middle of the square. He said a few words. The seven representatives then lined up. The man in the bowler wrapped a palm – a symbol of peace in the Delta – around each of their heads and rubbed oil on their hands. As each approached, someone would scream praise for the man and the crowd would response. I have no idea what was said – Charlie and Michael were busy keeping the ceremony moving so they couldn’t translate – but the call and response grew louder as each man approached.

After the elders were anointed and cloaked in palm, a priest entered the square. He wore a long white robe and a small black hat. The newly appointed men kneeled before him individually and he blessed them one by one. I couldn’t understand entire prayers, but I did recognize certain phrases and names. The priest ended each blessing with the Holy Trinity.

Much of the ceremony reminded me of rituals performed by priests during the countless masses I attended while going to Catholic schools growing up. I never paid much attention during those masses, but weekly repetition drilled the rites into my subconscious. I recognized the cadence of the prayer used to anoint them men with oil. I knew the rhythm of many of the call and responses. I knew the names of the people these men were praying to – Jacob, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. The name used the most was Michael, the angel who in Christian tradition is said to have defeated Lucifer, casting him down to hell. My guess was that the priest was praying for these leaders to show similar strength.



As the ceremony continued Charlie urged me to move closer and take more pictures. I was reluctant. My presence had already changed the dynamic of the ceremony, and I didn’t want to draw any additional attention to myself. I stayed in the back and marveled at what I was seeing. I don’t often write about these kinds of things. In the past, my reporting has concentrated on issues with broad international implications. I’ve written about the war in Afghanistan, the U.S.-Mexico border, and the European financial crisis. My work in Nigeria focused on militancy and its impact on global energy markets and the fight against terrorism. This ceremony, by contrast, had no implications beyond the borders of the island. I understood so little of what was going on. I wondered if the experience was wasted on me.

When the priest finished blessing the elders, the crowd erupted. People jumped up and down. The women in the headscarves began to sing and dance in unison, stepping forward with their left foot while lowering their left shoulder, then stepping forward with their right foot while lifting their hands to the sky. More pomp and circumstance followed. I rode another okada to a short ceremony at the makeshift city hall. Afterwards, the new representatives hosted parties in public buildings on their portions of Okrika.

It was getting later in the day. I needed to repair back to Port Harcourt to file a separate story. At a party at a school that was missing a wall, I grabbed my fixers and we headed back to the dock. This time I sat with Michael on the boat. When we first met, he had told me about his past. I knew he had a hard life. He had grown up with hard men and had become hard himself. I never asked but I suspect he flirted with the militancy at a younger age.

Michael told me that many of the people at the events we had attended were either former militants or still active in the movement. Prior to my trip to Okrika all I had known of the militancy was violence. I’m no anthropologist, and I have only a vague idea about what I witnessed on the island, but I knew the ceremony had moved those in attendance. People I talked with at the parties spoke with passion about making Okrika better, about improving the Delta, about finally getting the oil companies to pay for what they’ve done there. After seeing what the militants were fighting for, I better understood their motivations. The oil under Okrika is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The oil was theirs before Okrikans were the oil’s. Every person on that island should be rich.

Water splashed over the side of the boat as we motored through the wakes of other vessels. The boat rocked back and forth and Michael and I both grabbed on to the side to keep steady. For the first time it occurred to me that the boat might not have been safe. I had been so preoccupied worrying about the lookout boys that I had not worried about the boat. Michael must have noticed my alarm. For the first time on my trip to Nigeria, I heard him laugh.

“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“I never asked you: can you swim?”

With that, we docked, got into the George’s car, and drove back to my hotel. On the way I doubted I’d be able to tell this story – a good story – about Okrika. One year later, it’s about time.


David Francis reported from Nigeria as an International Reporting Project fellow. The names of the fixers in the story have been changed.