OGONI REGION — Stanley, 40, once considered becoming a fighter. He says he already has a small stash of Kalashnikov assault rifles hidden somewhere. He's not boasting. That's just how things are in the creeks of the Niger Delta. The youth have easier access to weapons than to schools and jobs. But instead of becoming a fighter, Stanley chose a more lucrative industry: oil.

"This oil doesn't belong to foreign multinationals. It's ours. So I became an oil producer," he says as he drives his motorbike by night on a dirt road in the Ogoni region, a 1,000-square-kilometer territory in southern Nigeria's oil-rich Rivers state.

The day for this former fisherman begins when the sun sets. The sky becomes hazy with a thick toxic smoke as he nears his workplace, from where a powerful, rainproof flame spurts. Stanley has installed one of his self-made refineries in the middle of a field. From the crude he buys from pirates and other bandits in pipeline piercing, every night he produces 30,000 liters of gasoline, which he sells in the region, as well as to the neighboring countries of Benin and Cameroon.

It's illegal, extremely polluting, and tracked by the Nigerian army, which carries out air and sea operations against the innumerable Stanleys in the region. But this Stanley isn't too worried about it: He greases the palm of soldiers posted in the area.

"I used to be a poor fisherman. Now, I have a wife, children who go to school, a car, about 60 employees and I'm a millionaire [in naira, the Nigerian currency]," he laughs. "I know I'm polluting a soil that's already been killed by oil companies. I can only be accused of killing something that's already dead."

The rainwater we drink, the air we breathe, what we fish, what we grow: Everything is toxic.

The federal government earns 90% of its income with exports of oil concentrated in the Niger delta, a territory nearly the size of Belgium. If Nigeria became the biggest African economy in 2014, before losing the title to South Africa two years later, it's mostly thanks to the black gold that's been filling the state's coffers ever since it was discovered in 1956.

But it brought no benefits to the Niger Delta region. Crisscrossing the maze of rivers, creeks, mangroves and forests are about 3,000 kilometers of pipelines that are either corroded or stolen by thieves who release oil into the wild. This region of farmers and fishermen has become one of the world's most polluted.

The small island of Nwemu offers a glimpse into how Stanley's life would look like if he hadn't chosen the parallel economy. On this toxic piece of land, even the palm trees look sad. A large part of the mangrove, Africa's largest, is covered in a dark gloss.

"Nature has ceased to live and we have to go far away to fish," says Peter Gbobarra as he puts away his nets. About 30 fishermen appeared here five years ago after they had been expelled from Cameroon, where they had been illegally fishing. "The rainwater we drink, the air we breathe, what we fish, what we grow: Everything is toxic," they say as they come out of the water covered in oil.

According to the federal government, the region has seen more than 7,000 oil leaks between 1970 and 2000. Millions of square meters of toxic waste were spilled in addition to air pollution from gas flares. The water from several wells was contaminated by high levels of benzene; part of the land is devastated and the groundwater table in places contains thick strata of refined oil, according to a scientific study published in 2011 by the United Nations Environment Programme.

Over the past few years, some have turned to European justice for compensation. People on Nwemu Island, however, didn't get any part of the compensation paid in 2015 by the British-Dutch oil giant Shell to the inhabitants of the village of Bodo, located on the other bank of this arm of the Niger river.

Two oil spills in 2008 and 2009 have worsened the environmental disaster. An old pipeline of Shell — the main oil producer in Nigeria producing 132,000 to 141,000 barrels per day — leaked for three months. More than 4,000 barrels were spilled, according to the company, which accused pipeline saboteurs.

"There's another type of pollution in the villages: the money oil producers and politicians ply to corrupt all levels of traditional organizations," says environmentalist Celestine AkpoBari. "Societies are in a complete mess."

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Leaking oil wells Photo: Mark Allen Johnson/ZUMA

The Ogoni Nine

AkpoBari dedicated his life to the peaceful fight conceptualized and put into practice by writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, who became a defender of the Ogoni people. With his Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (Mosop), this African environmentalist hero succeeded in attracting the attention of Western NGOs and rallying residents against Shell, which ended up suspending its activities in Ogoniland in 1993. Two years later, Ken Saro-Wiwa was imprisoned and hanged by the military regime of Sani Abacha (who ruled the country between 1993 and 1998), despite Nelson Mandela's demand that he be freed.

Eight other activists suffered the same fate as Ken Saro-Wiwa. Their bodies were thrown into a mass grave. Among them was Barinem Kiobel, a senior official who fought against the army's poor treatment of Ogoni people. With the help of Western NGOs, his widow Esther initiated a legal battle that's lasted close to two decades. This past June, Shell found itself in the hot seat again, in the Netherlands, accused of complicity in the arrest, incarceration, and execution of the "Ogoni Nine."

These activists have demonstrated their capacity to terrorize oil giants.

While Mosop keeps up the fight, some of its members have cozied up to oil companies, and the movement's influence has waned. On top of fighting against their two traditional enemies — the federal government and oil multinationals — Ogoniland's protest movements must now wage another battle: The populations they're defending no longer respect them.

"When I denounce the illegal refineries, which are now the main party responsible for the pollution, I'm not well received in the villages and I get threats from the youngsters who took power," says Mosop's president Legborsi Saro Pyagbara. "Whether by polluting with refineries or by taking up arms to then negotiate millions of dollars with the government, defending the environment is an excuse to get rich."

Over the past 10 years, nonviolent activists have largely been replaced by a constellation of heavily-armed groups. With their quick boats, they've multiplied the attacks against tankers and oil giants that invested in offshore exploration. Between a fight for a better distribution of the oil windfall, organized crime, environmental demands and political motivations, these activists have demonstrated their capacity to terrorize oil giants and to cost the Nigerian federal government tens of billions of dollars.

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Used oil drums laying along the waterside in the Niger River Delta area Photo: Mark Allen Johnson/ZUMA

"More than ever, the only solution is the independence of the Niger Delta," says Alhaji Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, one such activist who created a private school in Benin to launder his dirty money and who is close to the leaders of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND).

"I'm Biafran, not Nigerian. May Buhari (The Nigerian President) and his government let us leave this joke so we can build our own state with our oil. It's in their interest," says Dokubo-Asari, who is suspected of wanting to rearm. "Weapons are not a problem. We've just put the war on hold but we're ready to resume at any time to oust this government led by a gangster who's a Muslim like me but whom God is punishing by making him sick. Where there's petrol in Nigeria, there's suffering. Our young people are doomed to suffer or to pollute even more by refining crude. This has to stop."

Ultimatum

The Nigerian government is looking for solutions. Beyond short-term amnesty and pledges to find work and training for young people, President Muhammadu Buhari launched in June the largest clean-up program the world has ever seen.

One billion dollars were paid by oil companies for the first five years of what is slated to be a three-decade-long clean-up. Since Nigeria is plagued by corruption, governance structures were set up over the past few months to guarantee the funds would be used efficiently and transparently.

Environmental activists want to believe this will work. The population is waiting for the hundreds of jobs young people were promised, impatient as they are to recover their lands and rivers of old. More skeptical, Stanley and his colleagues want to see what's being offered to them. Armed groups have given the government an ultimatum for the clean-up operations to materialize. In spite of everything, the Niger Delta's last hope could rest on this ambitious clean-up — a risky bet to resuscitate a region long sacrificed for petrodollars.


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