The First Oil War

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Saturday WRITERS’ WORLD

By Bisi Daniels; bisi.daniels@thisdaylive.com

Blog: www.bisidaniels.com, 08050220700

This is an excerpt from my new novel, The First Oil War, on the first major oil crisis in the Niger Delta – the first time bombs were used – for your holiday reading pleasure.

John Hunter’s life in the swamps had worsened progressively since it started at an oil spill site. For this assignment, Hunter had learned about the effects of oil spills through research and the reports of his fellow journalists. He had seen countless photographs and hours of video footage of ravaged plant life and oil-soaked animals unable to shake the thick noxious gunk off their bodies.

Now, as he stood by the small slogging stream, Hunter witnessed the devastation firsthand—and it was tragic. It was shocking, intimidating, and even terrifying. He was at a spot where he could barely breathe and he didn’t dare touch the water. The experience gave him a remarkable sense of mortality and his smallness in regard to the expanse of nature.

Hunter pulled away the handkerchief he was using to aide his breathing and gave it a hard shake before quickly replacing it over his nose and mouth. The move was instinctive and not based on any scientific theory. Luckily enough, it actually seemed to work. Hunter felt as if he had stolen a few clean breaths.

Despite the pain, Hunter had carefully studied the impact of the pollution and made notes. As he walked along the banks of the stream, he had studied the environmental carnage and found himself mourning aspects of nature he had never considered deeply in the past. The water did not playfully splash its way downstream as it should. Instead, it chugged with great effort, tired and sluggish. The oil perching on its surface weighed it down, its sheen reflecting ugly spectrums of unnatural colour when the sunlight flashed upon it. The stench of dead fish was distinct. Some of the scaly bodies were carried by the sludge, while others became lodged in the tall grass or in rocks along the banks.

Hunter knew the damage far exceeded what his eyes could see. The fish were hardly the oil spill’s only victims. All the plants and animals in the river valley were destined to meet their untimely death, as were all the creatures who fed off them. The stream, which at one time had teamed with fish, crab, and shrimp, was dead. Even the sky above was dead. No birds to sing. No insects buzzing and humming. Not even another human in sight.

The experience had reminded him of the documented fact that more than 600 million gallons of oil had been spilled in the Niger Delta in the 50 years of oil production. At least ten per cent of the mangrove forest had been destroyed. With his experience in the river valley, he felt he understood why the people complained about the loss of human rights such as health, access to food, clean water, and an ability to work.

Hunter felt his body grow heavier with each step, the result of the polluted air on his ability to breathe. All he could do was put one foot in front of the other and repeat.

Beyond the stream, the sky over Urodo village was coloured in bronze by the hot flare of burning gas from an oil facility. The houses ahead of him were no more than poor constructions with walls of mud or unplastered blocks laid on one another without much skill. The houses had narrow wooden doors and windows, and roofs of thatch or corrugated steel sheets.

Poverty had been a feature of these people for years, but they never protested as long as their farmlands and water bodies were not troubled by the activities of the oil companies.

Hunter’s frustration and sorrow was disrupted by the rustling of a shrub a few metres away. He stopped short. Although he saw nothing, he sensed a presence nearby. He took a few steps forward, focusing on every tiny sound, hoping to encourage his follower to reveal himself. The effort proved fruitless. The noise ceased, leaving Hunter to wonder if the toxic air was causing him to hallucinate.

The sun was setting, and a cool breeze wafted across the area. Under most circumstances, Hunter might have found the breeze refreshing, but in this case, it served only to spread the toxins more aggressively.

Hunter decided to talk to the elders of the village before nightfall and so he laboured his way toward the houses. Feeling irritable and tired of holding his hand up to his face, he stuffed his handkerchief into his trouser pocket and forged onwards in defiance of the stench. He coughed and wheezed a few times, but committing to a concept of mind over matter, he managed to adjust.

The bushes rustled again, only this time, it wasn’t sneaky or subtle, and Hunter knew he wasn’t imagining it. The noise grew louder, and it seemed to be coming from every direction, accompanied by loud, menacing voices. Hunter’s eyes darted in every direction in search of the source of the noise and for an escape route.

He had staggered through the brush, unsure which direction to take. In his haste and confusion, he twisted his ankle and fell hard onto the muddy ground. He pulled himself to one knee, and against the navy blue sky, he saw the silhouettes of some twenty men circled around him.

They were from nearby villages, Hunter thought. He felt a sharp pain in his side. One of the attackers hit him in his ribcage with a big stick. A barrage of voices screamed at him, and several men leaned in closely to shout insults in broken English directly into his ears. He felt hot angry breath on his face, and saw some of them brandishing their weapons of big sticks and machetes. All they needed was the slightest excuse to use them. Hunter slowly raised his hands to show the men that he was unarmed, while being careful not to make any sudden movements.

“I’m not here to make trouble,” Hunter announced. He wanted to get his message across in the calmest tone possible, but he was forced to raise his voice to be heard over the men’s furious voices. “My name is John Hunter I do not work for the oil company. I’m a journalist. I’ve come to write a story about the oil spill.”

The angry chattering came to an abrupt halt. The men shuffled around, looking at one another as if waiting for someone to take charge of the situation. Hunter hoped they might lay down their weapons and engage in a healthy discussion of the environmental calamity in which they were living.

He was about to initiate a  discussion by asking one of the men to introduce himself, but before his mouth could form the question, several men reached down and grabbed him by the arm. In a fluid, yet violent motion, they hoisted him up off the ground and dragged him through the brush, beating him as they moved along.

Hunter was thrown into a small room. He came down with a thud and injured his ankle again. The cement floor beneath him was hard. He rolled over onto his side. Each movement caused pain and made his eyes water. Whoever had brought him there had not done so in a particularly gentle fashion. The beatings he’d taken to the ribcage turned the simple act of breathing into a torturous exercise. His left eye was puffy, and he tasted the saltiness of his blood on his lips. The thrashing had been thorough!

He flipped over on his back and tried to identify his surroundings. The room was small, just slightly larger than a closet, with no furniture or windows. The only light seeped through the cracks around the door frame from the adjoining room. The space provided no clues to the building’s location.

Hunter tried to reduce the throbbing in his head to concentrate on the chatter he heard on the other side of the door. He counted three distinct voices, but other than that, and the occasional shrieked profanity, he could not decipher the details of the conversation. Clearly, the attackers were unhappy. He felt his attackers’ anger was displaced aggression, but for sure his life was in their hands.

****************************************************

Hunter tried to steady and deepen his breathing to deliver as much oxygen as possible to his aching muscles, hoping it would ease his pain and calm his shattered nerves. He wasn’t convinced it would work, but it was worth a try.

As an additional therapy, he tried to focus his mind on something other than his injuries. “The American prophecy,” he muttered, and wondered if it had any correlation with his ordeal.

Days before his trip to the Niger Delta his editor, the experienced gum-chewing Musa Duke, had shared with him a document on a prognosis for the Niger Delta:  a product of an exercise was conceived and conducted by energy think-tanks in conjunction with the National Commission on Energy Policy and Securing America’s Future Energy

As Hunter took in more deep breaths, he remembered clearly the first scenario of the exercise called Oil Shockwave. It involved the outbreak of violence in the oil-producing area of Nigeria that would lead to evacuation of expatriates, including US citizens, from the region and hike up oil prices. Nigeria is the eighth largest oil exporter in the world and the fourth largest exporter of crude oil to the US.

Later that day, as he tried to understand the subject better, his online Oil Shockwave search had been quickly interrupted. Logging on to the Internet brought him directly to The News Hub’s home page. The headline of one of the stories in the secret file tagged ‘Developing Stories’ jumped off the screen:

Another Oil Spill In Urodo

Hunter had called their correspondent in Port Harcourt, Timothy Dari, immediately.

“The great John Hunter has read my work,” Darri had said with a laugh. “I must say that I’m truly flattered.”

Hunter rolled his eyes. He appreciated the compliment, but wasn’t oblivious to the accompanying sarcasm. “How bad is it this time?” he asked. s“Just as bad as the ones that came before it,” Darri had said. “But fortunately, not worse.”

“I need to see it,” Hunter had stated. “I need to be up close and personal with it. I just want to have a feel of the Delta.”

There was a pause on the other end of the telephone. “Well,” Darri said, “It’s worth seeing if you have a strong stomach and an even stronger nose.”

Hunter drew in a deep breath. “I’m listening.”

“With all that had been happening lately, the people of Urodo are very distrusting of outsiders,” Darri advised.

This warning now rang loudly in Hunter’s ears as he lay battered and bruised in the darkened room in Urodo village.