OLOIBIRI, Nigeria — This small town in the Niger Delta region near the country’s southern tip should be a tourist attraction: It’s the place oil was first discovered in 1956. However, a visit today provides little to write home about. Despite the town’s rich history, poor leadership, corruption and lack of accountability have helped make it one of the country’s most underdeveloped places. “If not for corruption,” says Terkaa Ode—a technical officer with the international non-governmental organization PACT based in Bayelsa state, where Oloibiri is located—the region would be “the Dubai of Nigeria.”
When I found out that Oloibiri is the site of Nigeria’s first oil well, I had to visit. What I found was irony—a place that helped transform the country into a global economic competitor now plagued with glaring unemployment, underdevelopment and abject poverty. The only sign of its historic status is the physical structure of the oil well located at the town’s entrance. Not even a visitor’s center or a museum, despite government promises, preserves the legacy of this site.
Life in Oloibiri
It was raining when I arrived in town on a motorbike from the junction where a taxi had dropped me off. The town was quiet and surrounded by overgrown bushes. Oloibiri is a one-way-in and out community with several bungalows—few completed—and several other unkempt and unfinished buildings. A wooden utility pole stands on the side of the road with a streetlight on top. The town is also accessible by sea; fishing boats are mainly used.
Oloibiri’s oil lasted for only 20 years before it dried up, producing “approximately 20 million barrels of oil that generated millions of dollars for the Nigerian government,” in the words of one expert.
Site of the first oil well in Oloibiri
Now fishing and farming are the primary occupations of Oloibiri’s residents. They don’t fish to sell, but feed their families, however. One resident I met, 32-year-old Chinenye Chinedu, has lived in the town for six years after relocating from Abia state (southeastern Nigeria) with her husband. A secondary-school graduate and mother of three children, Chinenye works as a teacher in a small private school in the community, earning 15,000 naira a month, the equivalent of around $42. She uses the little she earns to support her husband, a civil servant who has not been paid his salary for more than a year. Failure to pay government workers was a common lament from community members, caused by the transition of political leaders and poor management of funds.
Chinenye tells me that unlike her, many women in the community have not been able to bear the economic challenges, and several have left their husbands and children in search of greener pastures elsewhere. “What I don’t like here is that they depend on salary,” she says. “If there is no money, you will see that this place is not moving fine. When Goodluck Jonathan was president, money was floating; every month they paid salaries and you’ll see the women bubbling,” she says. Although many enterprising women engage in petty trade such as frying and selling local pastries and other food, Chinenye says they need economic empowerment. “We need government support. We need jobs.”
Twenty-eight-year-old Odomunu Azibaolomeriesa, whose striking name translates as “lack no more” and “God has shown us the way,” is an Oloibiri native who has lived in the town all her life. I met her sitting on a fence of an uncompleted building as I walked through the town. “Our rivers are our problem,” she tells me when I ask about the community’s challenges. “We don’t have a place to throw dirt, so we throw it in the river.” As a child, Odomunu bathed in the river and drank its water, along with her friends. No building had water faucets at the time. “We used the water to cook and we put alum [aluminum sulfate] in before drinking it,” she says of the purification method.
Although houses do have faucets now, the town still has no toilets. Odomunu describes how community members relieve themselves at the edge of town. “There are bending trees that we normally climb and do our business,” she says. “We carry water from our houses when we go.” There’s also no electricity (despite utility poles and electrical wires erected along the streets). “Since 2008, we haven’t seen light,” Odomunu adds. “We’re just like that, in darkness. It’s only during burial days that we have light” thanks to a generator.
Odomunu by the river behind her home
Odomunu is a single mother of four with two different men. Her children live with her: a seven-year-old, five-year-old twins and a three-year-old. She is the second daughter in a family of nine children (also from two different fathers). The integrated family structure is typical in Bayelsa because many men marry multiple wives and sometimes couples not legally or traditionally married cohabit. Odomunu is very well-spoken in English; she paid her way through secondary school by fishing, making brooms from palm-tree branches and working for the NGO Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) as a community worker. She sold her brooms in the market, using the money to pay her school fees. When I asked her about her parents, she chuckled. “My mother is also struggling,” she said. “She has nine children and our fathers are not with us anymore. They left her with the children.”
Odomunu’s father has two wives, including her mother, each of whom gave birth to three children with him, two girls and a boy. Her mother also has six children with two other men. Odomunu can farm and fish. However, she tells me she is currently not working. Asked how she fends for herself, she responds, “it is by the grace of God.”
Economic hardship and the desire for someone to take care of her resulted in Odomunu’s first pregnancy, during her final year in secondary school. She gave birth to her first daughter after writing her senior exams. However, her relationship with the child’s father was short-lived. She left his house on the day she gave birth to her daughter because he was very violent and “I’m not ready to die before my time,” she said. The other man, the father of her five- and three-year-olds, wants her to move in with him. However, she has refused because “he has not paid my bride price” in order to marry. She says she doesn’t want to become an addition to the all-too-common community statistic of a woman who lives with a man and has several children with him while not being legally married.
The neglect of Oloibiri
What happened to Oloibiri? How did a town so richly blessed in mineral resources become dilapidated and forgotten? To understand the challenges facing such towns in the Niger Delta, I spoke to Victor Akubo, deputy director of social investment and community relations with Accord for Community Development, a social enterprise that promotes good governance and builds local actors’ development capacity. We met in his office in Port Harcourt, capital of the Niger Delta’s Rivers state, about ten hours west of Abuja by car. Victor manages social development for multinational oil companies including Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) and Chevron. The organization has been working in Bayelsa for the past three years. Part of Victor’s work is to help implement Shell’s Global Memorandum of Understanding (GMOU), an agreement with a number of communities that establishes “guiding principles of partnership, transparency, accountability, sustainability assurance, peace building, and project monitoring and evaluation.”
Shell and Chevron are interested in the GMOU because it enables them to extract oil without being hampered by the concerns of the locals there. They are expected to fulfill corporate social responsibility requirements, recently relabeled “social investment” because oil companies are funding sustainable community development in order to aid their own work. The GMOU stipulates that, unlike in the past, community members must be directly involved in the allocation and use of corporate funds, and control their communities’ development processes. NGOs offer technical support for the implementation of projects funded by the oil companies. Accord for Community Development is engaging some communities in carrying out Sustainable Livelihood Assessment (SLA), intended to inform community development plans by outlining their specific needs.
Community trophies and money going to the chiefs
But successfully implementing such schemes faces many obstacles, among them competition between communities. If one village gets a 13-classroom school, for example, another may also ask for the same even if it doesn’t particularly need one.
Representation is even more critical. Typically, male chiefs and other men in the community are nominated to represent the people. However, they often don’t speak on behalf of most community members as opposed to their personal interests.
Local men (and sometimes boys) are engaged during focus-group discussions to learn about social needs. But when funds are allocated and disbursed, they are given mainly to community chiefs and/or other local leaders, who often siphon off the money. That poses a disconnect between what most community members say is needed and what actually happens, if anything. Many of the leaders don’t even live in the communities, as I learned when I asked about the chief in Oloibiri.
As a result, financial agreements are often made for development projects that communities never see implemented. One reason for establishing the GMOU was to create a systematic way to ensure that benefits reach the rural poor. As Victor said, “the region is riddled with a lot of benefit captors,” people who divert funds for personal interests. That provokes violence from people—mostly young people—who say they’re demanding their rights.
Hope for Oloibiri?
“In this community,” Odomunu says, “we’re in total darkness. It’s only God that is giving us strength.” She’s tired of people like me who come to her town to ask about their lives. “The only thing they come here to do is exactly what you are doing,” she told me. “They will come and video the river and uncompleted buildings. Every month, a government official will come and visit the community health facility. Still, nothing changes. Our hospital is very big, but it is not functional.” She raises her voice. “Every month, we see different people—some people speaking Yoruba, some speaking Hausa, people speaking all types of languages. They will walk around, but nothing ever happens.”
Locals have a working community health center thanks only to Medecins Sans Frontieres. However, it has only one staff member working there. The place is overgrown with grass because of a lack of maintenance. Odomunu says that other health workers collect salaries, but never come to the center.
Although Oloibiri has a community chief, as I’ve said, he does not seem to have a presence in the town. “We don’t have any chief,” Odomunu says. “He doesn’t do anything.” An older woman who overheard our conversation tells us, “Since I was growing up, I’ve just been hearing ‘oil well,’ ‘oil wealth,’ but I have not seen anything; we’re not benefitting anything. Since 1960, I have not seen any benefit from the oil well.” Asked how she supports her family, she told me that she farms cassava and plantain. She doesn’t sell her products, just harvests enough to feed her family members. They’re limited in what they eat because of the harsh terrain caused by oil pollution and lack of money to purchase processing tools. They don’t farm rice because they don’t have machinery to process the grain. They don’t plant beans because the soil does not support their growth. The daily meal is mostly starchy food with occasional fish.
Onyinye with Odomunu behind her home
Looking to the Future
Who’s responsible for the failure of Oloibiri and other Niger Delta communities? Victor blames the federal government. He believes it is in the best position to alleviate the people’s suffering. Speaking of the agency established by the president in 2000 with a mandate to develop the Niger Delta region, he says, “It’s the duty of the federal government to hold the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) accountable for the money they’ve given them. They should go down to the communities where NDDC is working and say let’s look at what you have done.” However, “there is no agency that has been created to monitor the implementation of NDDC.”
The Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs (MNDA) created in 2008 has also not been functional. Despite the establishment of offices in all the Niger Delta states, the minister is based far away in Abuja. “The ministry is being funded, but it’s not doing anything.”
During a meeting in Abuja two years ago, Victor told me, a MNDA representative said the agency was building housing in some of the states as a way of addressing poverty in oil-producing areas. However, some of the units were built in non-oil producing communities in southeast Imo state instead. Then, for more than a year after the structures were built, they remained unallocated and vacant. When challenged with a question about it at the meeting, a representative said the ministry was “looking into it.” Unfortunately, billions of naira have been mismanaged during the allocation of project contracts while funds have gone into private pockets. At the same time, although a core mandate of the NDDC is to train and educate young people in the Niger Delta region to reduce poverty and violence, many continue to wander the streets in search of gainful employment.
Bubbling with potential, Odomunu hopes to leave Oloibiri in a few months to study catering. She plans to leave her children behind with her mother until she settles elsewhere. For now, she jokingly tells me that she will start throwing rocks at any more curious visitors who come to ask questions offering little hope of actually improving lives here. “Tell [President] Buhari we are suffering!”
A common mode of transportation in Oloibiri—this one equipped for rain