Monday, October 11, 2004

Scholarship: Oil Rich but Dirt Poor

Scholarship: Oil Rich but Dirt Poor

by Wilson Akpan

Winter 2004

Courtesy of Wilson Akpan

Wilson Akpan in Oloibiri.

Wilson Akpan, a Ford Foundation International Fellow, is pursuing a Ph.D in environmental sociology at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa. He is focusing on the impact of extractive industries on indigenous populations. Akpan sent this dispatch after conducting field research in the Niger Delta region in his native Nigeria in the spring of 2003.

The little sandy island town in Nigeria's rich but impoverished Bayelsa State welcomes me with a weather-beaten signpost. "This is Oloibiri," it reads, "the Goose that Lays the Golden Egg." A shabbily dressed young man dashes to me from one of the nearby shacks and with a smile helps me to decode the message on the signpost. I knew about the "golden egg," Nigeria's brand of petro-capitalism that has brought my West African homeland tens of billions of dollars in oil earnings over the past five decades. But here in Oloibiri, I had expected to see a fairly well-nourished goose, not a famished and emaciated caricature.

Oloibiri is where Nigeria's claim to fame as the world's sixth largest oil-producing country began. A rich oil deposit was struck here on June 10, 1956. The king of the town at that time, His Royal Highness J.C. Egba, told me: "So great was our joy that day! We even celebrated by organizing a friendly football match between our youths and the company's seismic crew."

Oil flowed here until the 1970's and is still pumped in nearby communities. Yet Oloibiri today is strewn with evidence of neglect and abuse. There are no roads, no hospital, no potable water and not a single modern industry. Pollution has turned the surrounding creeks into oily and turbid dead seas. The town consists of thatch houses, shanties, dirt tracks and angry men and women.

"We thought the discovery of oil would improve our community," said King Egba, an erudite former senior court official. "But they carried the money elsewhere, and worse, the local food chain has been virtually destroyed."

'We thought the discovery of oil would improve our community, but they carried the money elsewhere.'

The only visible improvement since oil was discovered is in the form of an unfinished landing jetty, part of a community development project of the Niger River Delta Development Commission, recently created by the government to improve the lives of Nigeria's oil communities.

While in the Niger Delta, I met men and women desperate for changes in Nigeria's resource allocations, as well as in its politics and governance. I came away convinced that one cannot undertake a project in social justice in Nigeria without a clear understanding of the dynamics of oil operations and what life is like for people in the oil communities.

The Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program supports up to three years of postgraduate degree study for individuals who possess outstanding leadership skills and social commitment as well as excellent academic records. The I.F.P. especially seeks candidates among groups or communities that have had little access to higher education. The program is administered by the New York-based International Fellowships Fund and partners in 22 countries and territories worldwide. For more information about the I.F.P. and eligibility for 2004 fellowship competitions, please visit


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