The human costs of Nigeria's oil industry

Helon Habila

Image of Oil on Water: A Novel
Author: Helon Habila
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (2011)
Binding: Paperback, 239 pages

Kai Ryssdal: We spent some time on the Gulf Coast last month, checking in a year after the BP oil spill. A lot of the communities down there are, at best, still recovering.

Today on our series, The Art of Money, what artists and others see when they look at the economy, we go halfway around the world for a conversation with Nigerian novelist Helon Habila about another coastline dotted with oil rigs. The Niger Delta is one of the world's biggest wetlands. But beneath the swamps lie thousands of miles of pipeline pumping billion of barrels of oil for export. Over the past 50 years, best guesses are that 500 million gallons of that oil has spilled or leaked into the water. It is in the water, narrow river passages amid islands and mangrove trees, that Habila sets his new book, Oil on Water. It's where his protagonist, Rufus, a black journalist, goes in search of the white wife of an oil executive who's been kidnapped by anti-government rebels. Welcome to the program.

Helon Habila: Thank you for having me.

Ryssdal: This is a very, the word that kept coming to me as I was reading it, was that this was a very liquid book. Not only does the writing and the storyline flow, but the water is ever present in this narrative.

Habila: Yeah, that was my intention. To have the two reporters who ascend in search of the kidnapped white woman to travel inland by book, gradually we begin to see the effect of the oil exploration, the deforestation of the land. You see the dead fishes in the water, you see the settlements, you see people bathing in oil. You see people dying. You see corpses. You see the activities also of the rivals and the criminals who are using that chaos to make a living.

Ryssdal: Yeah, the title of this book actually is a literal one. There is oil on the water there.

Habila: Yeah, oil and water. And they don't mix.

Ryssdal: You're not from this part of Nigeria at all. You're from the northern part, right?

Habila: Yes, I'm from the northern part of Nigeria.

Ryssdal: Why then, set this book down there?

Habila: Because we're all involved. As a Nigerian, you can't escape it. Oil is the biggest, single export. That's what the government depends on. So if it affects that part of the country where the oil is explored, it also affects all parts of the country and there's also the increasing violence that has started to be exported. There was a bomb blast, for instance, on October 1 of last year in Abuja, the federal capital, which is the northern part of the country. So how can one sit down and keep quiet and not say anything when such crime is being committed for profit, you know. People are dying, people are losing their livelihoods, people are being totally displaced. So I think as a writer one just has to say something, one has to write about it.

Ryssdal: Are there -- this is over simplistic, I guess -- but are there good guys and bad guys in Nigeria in the oil? I mean, you've got the militants who are blowing up the oil installations, you've got the oil companies, you've got the government exploiting the people and not sharing the profits. I mean...

Habila: Yeah, I always try to avoid that. Like you say, it's simplistic. You know, portrayal of people. I believe that people are culpable in one way or another. Even the lowest of the peasants who are led by the easy way of making money through kidnapping -- even though they started doing that as a protest of the degradation of their environment -- at a certain point, you lose sight of that rightful struggle and you turn into a mere criminal. So there really isn't a good person versus a bad person in the book. I'm just trying to show people, ordinary people, just living in this place and fighting with each other, interacting with each other -- and that's it.

Ryssdal: So as hard as it is, though, for Nigeria to live with its oil wealth as evidenced by the violence and the pollution and the political corruption, can Nigeria live without it?

Habila: I think Nigeria can live without it. Some people actually say that it's better if Nigeria is without the oil. Oil has heightened the political tension. It's made politicians so greedy and unaccountable. I think if the oil is taken away, people would begin to think about the ways of developing the agricultural sector, manufacturing, doing so many other things that people used to do actually before the discovery of oil.

Ryssdal: Has oil brought any good though?

Habila: Some governments have used the oil money to develop the infrastructure, build roads. But when you look at what oil money could have done to the country, could have changed, that's where you feel that almost as if what has been achieved is nothing.

Ryssdal: The book by Helon Habila is called Oil on Water. He teaches creative writing at George Mason University. Mr. Habila, thank you so much for your time.

Habila: Thank you for having me.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.
Image of Oil on Water: A Novel
Author: Helon Habila
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (2011)
Binding: Paperback, 239 pages

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