The first thing Peter Maass encountered when he arrived at Oru Sangama was the stench of raw sewage. The trip from Port Harcourt had not been long, even in a leaky canoe, but the tiny slum seemed a world apart from the sprawling, oil-rich hub of the Niger Delta. Sangama’s villagers, housed in a cluster of mud-brick huts, had no access to clean water or electricity. Their toilet was a filmy creek through which ran a network of pipes feeding oil to nearby processing stations. They slept in the glow of the Soku natural gas plant, which lit the night sky with carcinogenic flares. Acid rain was slowly boring holes in their metal roofs.
Across the creek, ample tap water and modern amenities were available to the hundreds of workers living at the Soku facility–one of many plants Shell operates in the region. Shell, which has been doing business in Nigeria since the 1930s, enjoyed exclusive exploration rights during the colonial era. Since Nigeria’s independence, however, it has been the dominant player competing with other international oil companies for government contracts. Hundreds of millions of barrels of oil have been extracted from Nigeria in the past fifty years, but the country’s 150 million residents have not benefited from the profits. According to the World Bank, 80 percent of Nigeria’s vast oil wealth is distributed among 1 percent of the population, while the overwhelming majority of citizens languish on less than $2 a day.
Such gross economic disparities have understandably exacerbated ethnic tensions and helped to fuel a string of rebellions against the state–most notably the Biafran war of 1967-70, a failed Igbo-led secession effort in which as many as 2 million people died. Nigerians have been spared such widescale violence since the Biafran disaster, but a low rumble of discord continually pits the military and its corporate allies against the people. By the time Maass arrived in the Niger Delta, in the fall of 2004, an Ijaw warlord named Dokubou Asari had established himself as the region’s new “alpha rebel,” having amassed a small army and adequate means (acquired through bribes, ransoms and oil illegally siphoned from the pipelines) to fund his uprising. It was Asari, not the Nigerian government or Shell, who granted Maass permission to travel and secured arrangements to take him upriver to Sangama.
A month before Maass visited Sangama, the Nigerian army had decimated the village. Maass didn’t accept his guide’s explanation that the assault was unprompted. He knew Asari was using Sangama as a stronghold and suspected that Asari or a subordinate was being punished for failing to share the profits from stolen oil. But he was equally dismissive of the Potemkin village Shell had erected in the area to tout its commitment to corporate responsibility (the water tower was dry, the health clinic padlocked, market stalls empty). And at the company’s main office in Lagos, he confronted Chris Finlayson, director of operations in Nigeria, with the claim that Shell had provided the soldiers room and board at the Soku facility, and that helicopters had evacuated workers from the site a few hours before the raid–suggesting complicity or at least foreknowledge of an attack that left several civilians dead. Finlayson deftly denied all this, of course. But after investigating the incident for himself, Maass was well equipped to sniff out corporate dissembling, a far more subtle stench than sewage.