National Geographic : 2007 Feb
an Ogoni journalist who had marched with Saro-Wiwa, to convince the village chief to let us in. Naagbanton led the way, shoving through the crowd toward the well. A fireball was erupting from the ground. The flames roared. Within the inferno, the iron Christmas tree was melting like an effigy thrown on a funeral pyre. Letam Nwinek, one of the villagers, pulled us away from the heat. "We're afraid that if the fire enters the pipeline, the whole community could go up," he said. "Shell keeps promising to come, but they say they need more foam and special equipment because the fire has grown so large." Suddenly, the crowd began scattering. A man dressed for the city in a pink shirt and black beret came up to us. "You'd better leave. Now!" Our evictor, Marvin Yobana, was president of the Ogoni Youth Council. As he spoke, five men surrounded us in a threatening stance. "Yobana is what passes as an Ogoni leader today," Naagbanton said as we retreated. "He's a thug. I believe he's negotiating with Shell to gain a lucrative clean-up contract and doesn't want journalists around." Taking a last look at the fire, Naagbanton said with disgust, "He's just part of the predatory, parasitic struggle to get oil money." Well 13 would burn for two more months before a Shell team arrived to extinguish it. fi sanyone listening?" Ken Saro-Wiwa had asked in his final newspaper column. "The delta people must be allowed to join in the lucra Stive sale of crude oil," he wrote. "Only in this way can the cataclysm that is building up in the delta be avoided." The cataclysm is upon the delta. As I write this, 70 militants have just attacked a Shell con voy in the Cawthorne Channel, taking 25 oil workers hostage. Rebels have killed nine Nige rian soldiers in a firefight near Brass Island, the site of a large, vulnerable export terminal. Meanwhile, east of Port Harcourt, gunmen have raided an ExxonMobil residential compound and abducted four Scottish oil workers, demand ing ten million dollars each for their release. The number and severity of attacks in the delta have been building, led by youth groups t Blood and Oil Hear voices from the Niger Delta, where oil means poverty and suffering for many. See this multimedia production at ngm.com/0702. 116 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * FEBRUARY 2007 demanding access to the oil wealth in their ter ritories. This surge in militancy is emblematic of a continent-wide frustration among the young, says Michael Watts, of the University of California. "Across Africa you have a huge num ber of alienated youths, politically footloose, who thought they could achieve something with their countries' moves to independence and democracy. Those hopes have been almost everywhere violently snuffed out. The youth are pissed off and willing to up the ante." In the Niger Delta, escalating violence has undermined the country's financial stability and its ability to supply crude to the Western world. Shipments from new offshore rigs are making up for some of the oil lost to sabotage, but rebels identified with MEND have threatened to shut down everything. The day the U.S. consulate warned of the possible attack on Bonny Island, a spokesman for MEND boasted to the press: "We will wipe out the Nigerian oil export indus try in one swipe." Late one night in a darkened neighborhood in central Port Harcourt (the city was experi encing one of its regular blackouts), an angry young man, who asked for anonymity, explained his outrage. "Nigeria made its greatest mistake taking the life of that man Ken Saro-Wiwa. It will not be forgiven. When the Nigerian state overreacted like that, the thinking became, We have to carry weapons unless we want to die. Violence begets violence. When someone loses hope, he is devastated, and he will say, 'Either I fight, or I leave this world.'" This young Nigerian is a university lecturer, who says the time for talking has passed. "When the situation in the delta threatens to turn into another Middle East, then the world will finally intervene." Another night in Port Harcourt, a prolonged gun battle erupted outside my compound. Vol leys from AK-47s, answered by the booms of pump-action shotguns, sent me running to barricade my door. The gunmen abducted four expatriates from Goodfellas, a nightclub nearby. (It was this incident that led the oil companies to cancel their tours.) A Dutch oil worker on contract to Shell, who makes $80,000 a year as a pipeline construction supervisor, told me he has to travel everywhere with an armed escort. "You must keep it in your mind that peo ple out there may kill you," he said.