Emmanuel Addeh writes that Oloibiri, a community in today’s Bayelsa State, where oil was first discovered in commercial quantity, lies almost in ruins despite promises made by the authorities to revamp the small area which was once the country’s golden goose
“I lay on the altar of faded glory, oily tears rolling through my veins, to nourish households in the desert.
“…I hear the echoe of years gone by in my vicinity, there is the quake of discovery, a zebra string of pipelines running through my belly, causing me to ache from relentless exploitation.
“…Yet I quench the thirst of the desert dwellers while my children wallow in the crude mud peculiar to my swamp.
“Now with my fertility gone, I carry a begging bowl, unable to form a sovereign body to build a monument to my forsaken glory.”
That was Sophia Obi-Apoko, an Oloibiri-born writer pouring out her heart in her highly acclaimed poem of the same title, taken from her first collection aptly tagged ‘Tears in a basket’.
In the aforementioned work, Obi-Apoko, in a few lines, captures the seeming abandonment of the community by government at all levels and the oil multinationals that have, it appears, used and discarded the cluster located in Ogbia council of the state, leaving it in despoliation.
The year was 1956, the month was January, the day was Sunday 15 and the company that eventually struck the black gold in the now neglected district after several years of futile search was Shell Darcy, as it was then called.
The onshore oilfield named Oloibiri 1 by the company, according to records, had an initial production of 5,000 barrels of oil per day, thereby becoming the ‘firstborn’ of all wells in the country which today produce over two million barrels per day.
But it was not until February 1958 that Nigeria’s first crude oil export came from Oloibiri field and has since then changed the trajectory of Nigeria for better or for worse depending on whose narrative one is listening to.
While the country is now dependent largely on revenue from oil export and has generally gained from the exploitation of the black gold from the Niger Delta, the host communities have always had stories of woe to tell.
It is in the main, like the story of a beautiful maiden whose innocence was stolen by a callous prospective suitor, then used and dumped in her prime.
With no knowledge of the workings of the oil and gas industry which had just taken off at the time, members of the historic community were rather satisfied with just hosting white men in the villages and boasting about their contact with the expatriates.
No demands were made on the oil prospectors and even where they were made, attempts to ensure implementation were usually feeble.
So, rather than ensure development for the hosts, like is done in other parts of the world where oil has been discovered, the people today, remain poor peasants, with little access to basic amenities.
To make matters worse, some of the oil wells, specifically the Oloibiri1 has since dried up and the land left uncultivable by residents due to the massive pollution. So, as it were, there is nobody on whom demand can be made by the community.
Several movies have been shot, books have been written, countless symposia have been organised depicting degradation of Oloibiri as a theme, yet nothing much is available to show in reality.
It has been 61 years since the first drop of oil was found in the now Bayelsa creek, which was then part of Eastern Nigeria, and later Rivers State, but the frustration occasioned by unmet needs remains fresh unlike the old and rusty facilities which remind the people of the origin of their pains.
Even the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, after viewing a movie of the same title recently described the Oloibiri situation as a reminder of our “collective guilt”.
And he was right. Dilapidated schools, absence of a functional health centre, a polluted water source, absence of electricity and other facilities that make life a bit comfortable.
Even Gen. Yakubu Gowon, Nigeria’s former Head of State during whose tenure the oil wells were still functional, just a couple of months ago, described Oloibiri as “a clear manifestation of the collective negligence and failure of leadership,” offering the nation’s “profound regrets and my personal apology to the good people of Oloibiri.”
Same for the House of Representatives which a couple of years ago, called on the federal authorities and Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) to immediately build and develop the Oloibiri 1 site into a centre of training for petroleum and tourism.
Even the erstwhile Director–General, Nigeria Tourism Development Corporation, (NTDC), Mrs. Sally Uwechue – Mbanefo, while in office, visited Oloibiri and said “it is a crime on the part of the oil companies against Nigeria and the tourism sector to have forsaken and abandoned the very source, origin and beginning of their lucrative business.”
But the people of Oloibiri need more than prevarications and platitudes. They earnestly yearn for the day when things that are taken for granted in other climes by people on whose land their governments struck gold are not a rarity in theirs.
With weeds now outgrowing the Oloibiri 1 well from which oil last gushed out from over 20 years ago, the treatment of the area and its people remain a sad commentary on the issue of oil and gas exploration in Nigeria.
Interestingly, the naming of the first oil well after Oloibiri has generated its own controversies.
Indeed Otuabagi and Otuogidi creeks are the actual owners of the land where oil was first found, but because of the system of naming of facilities by Shell, the multinational called it the Oloibiri oil field, a cluster different from the actual place the product was found. At the time, it was said to be the headquarters of Ogbia district.
That controversy aside, both Otuabagi and Otuogidi and Oloibiri are alike in terms of the near absence of infrastructure and basic amenities, including pollution of the environment and pervasive erosion.
Potable drinking water remains a pipe-dream and epidemics are rampant because of the source of drinking water, mainly from the river.
Many residents of Oloibiri and environs believe that if the government and oil companies were really interested in revamping the infrastructure in Oloibiri, it will be by the snap of a finger.
But being naturally peaceful, given that even when militancy was at its peak, not a single youth from the local government carried arms against the federal government, their voices seem to be neglected by the authorities.
This could account for why many of the projects the government seemed to have carried out in the area, including a secondary school without buildings, roads, electricity, water and health centres usually end up on paper and not in reality.
Chief Africas Lawal hails from Oloibiri and apart from being a member of the community’s Council of Chiefs, is also an activist as well as being deeply involved in peace building in the Niger Delta.
In an interview recently, the community leader who is also the Asuku 1 of Oloibiri told THISDAY that the issue of developing the area and making it compare with other areas where oil is found has not been taken very seriously by concerned stakeholders.
He cleared the air on the controversy surrounding the naming of the oil well after Oloibiri town, insisting that it was a ploy by the authorities to divide those he described as the “Landlord Communities”.
“The problems have always been there. That is why when you visit the communities, you don’t see any progress or infrastructure. There’s no real life there. That’s why any young man will not want to sleep overnight in Oloibiri.
“They are either in Yenagoa or Lagos. There’s absolutely nothing going on here. This is a place that fed the nation for years, government should have turned this place to a small London or small Dubai.
Waxing spiritual, Lawal said the reason that Nigeria has not made progress economically is because it has forgotten its source, the place oil was first struck which was used to develop other places.
“Nigeria will not move forward until they go back and see what they can do for Oloibiri. It is normal in the spiritual realm. If you forget your roots, even if you make progress temporarily, after some time retrogression will set in. That is why Nigeria is always moving one step forward and many steps backwards,” he added.
According to the community leader, the authorities have taken the peaceable nature of the people of Ogbia for granted, which is the reason their demands are always ignored, including promises made by the Olusegun Obasanjo administration to build an oil research institute in Oloibiri.
“We are more of intellectual militants,” he said, adding that “the community has nothing to show for the historic spot it occupies in the economic history of Nigeria.
“There’s nothing to talk about at all. The schools are the same schools people like Adaka Boro, Prof. Joe Alagoa, ex-President Goodluck Jonathan attended in those days. You also expected Jonathan to turn that place around.
“It’s easy to do, but the neglect continues by all those who are supposed to turn around this community,” he concluded.
To Mr. Alagoa Morris of the Environmental Rights Action and Friends of the Earth (ERA/FoEN), one of the major problems of the people living in Oloibiri is massive pollution of the environment.
The activist who had his early education in the Oloibiri district, said he was sad over the fate that had befallen Oloibiri and other oil field communities.
Aside making a conscious effort to ensure that the communities now ravaged by pollution was cleaned up, Morris tasked the Ministry of the Niger Delta, and the Rivers and Bayelsa State Governments to upgrade the road from the site of Oloibiri Oil Well 1, Otuabagi, to the community.
He noted that it was surprising that the communities of Otuabagi, Otuogidi and Oloibiri were used and dumped by the oil companies and the government and called for immediate remediation of the polluted villages.
But back to Obi-Apoko, the poet expresses hope that in no distant future the light will shine on Oloibiri again and it would not be all forlorn hopelessness and gloom.
She ends her very inspiring poem thus: “Awakened by the oil tears of the Ijaw nation, I hear the laughter, I hear the celebration that comes with controlling the blessings of my God-given inheritance.”
To the people of Oloibiri, Otuogidi and Otuabagi, they can’t wait to witness that day when they will laugh heartily again and dry the tears brought about by the black gold which has, as it seems, become a curse.