A new book depicting the utter devastation in the Niger Delta and the suffering of the people has just been published. “The images that confront us in their awful beauty are of a hellish nightmare,” reports Stephen Williams.
Ace Nigerian photographer George Osodi’s latest book, Delta Nigeria – The Rape of Paradise, is the result of a six-year-long mission to record the environmental damage that the Niger Delta has endured – and the sufferings of its people – since the beginning of oil exploration in the region by major Western oil companies a half century ago. As Osodi tells Bisi Silva (the founder and artistic director of the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos) in a wide- ranging interview included in this book:
“I noticed there was so much injustice being perpetuated in the region. So much had been heard about the situation in the Delta but very little had been seen in images, presumably due to the hostile topography of the region.”
So, in 2003 Osodi took his camera to the Delta and began speaking to local people as he travelled into the creeks and villages “to document the reality of what was happening”.
It is often said that one photograph is worth a thousand words, and Osodi appears to hold this view.
“I felt the urge to share the information to create some form of document,” he tells Silva, “in the hope that it would be useful not only for the present but also future generations irrespective of the attendant risks or the duration involved.
“This was a huge task. Few realise just how big an area the Niger Delta represents – this tinderbox of oil-fuelled tensions stretches across five littoral states and six internal landlocked ones, and its population contains many diverse ethnic groups, such as the Ijaw, Ogoni, Igbo, Urhobo, Itsekeri and numerous smaller groupings.”
One survey indicated that fully 85% of the Delta’s residents are dissatisfied with the performance and behaviour of the Western oil companies within their midst – but many believe the true figure to be much higher.
It is certainly true that this book of very special photographs does represent a terrible and cruel irony. For even as we admire Osodi’s professional camera skills – and, it should not be forgotten, his extraordinary courage – the images that confront us in their awful beauty are of a hellish nightmare.
Not for nothing has oil been described as “the devil’s excrement”, and here we can witness the devastation that it has wrought on people’s lives and what was once a pristine environment, in a region that some suggest may be rendered uninhabitable within two decades.
It is instructive to note that when the Gulf of Mexico’s Deepwater Horizon oil well exploded in 2010, and the spilled crude washed up on US shores, there was a huge media-led upsurge of anger against the oil companies concerned and how their recklessness had created a massive environmental disaster.
But what the southern US states experienced was as nothing compared to the damage that has been wrought in the Niger Delta over the years, and it is this that Osodi has successfully documented. Here we see children scooping crude oil from the ground of their family’s farm after a ruptured oil pipeline explodes, damaging 300 hectares of community lands.
We see the massive oil slicks that despoil the waters which have always been used for fishing; we see the massive gas flares that burn and waste millions of cubic metres of natural gas.
We see the acrid, black, billowing smoke of the fires of burst pipelines; we see the eerie dead forests and wastelands; and we see the remnants of oil industry infrastructure in areas that have been sucked dry by the oil companies and abandoned.
Osodi also documents the special fortitude of the Delta peoples as they struggle to produce crops on their lands; and, importantly, the heavily armed groups that are waging war against Nigeria’s federal government and the oil companies that they say are acting in collusion with the government to deny them their birthright.
This extraordinary book is testimony to the despoiling of an entire region by an industry’s rapacious lust for crude oil. This is taking place in Nigeria, a country rich in natural and human resources, history and beauty – but where many of its peoples have been left with absolutely nothing.
(Delta Nigeria – The Rape of Paradise, by George Osodi, is published by Trolley Books at £24.99 ISBN: 978-1-904563-85-3)