29 December 2006 (Ikeja, Lagos)
I am spending the Christmas period in Lagos with Aunt and her family. Due to fuel scarcity and its attendant horrors, it has been a tense time. Otite’s driver deposited me in Lagos after battling traffic for hours. Truck breakdowns, overflowing queues at fuel stations, and frenzied travelers either rushing in or out of Lagos for the holiday were the causes of mass confusion. Of course, people do not pay heed to traffic lights (when they function) and traffic conductors only get in the way here. Anything and everything goes on the streets and roads here, like the rest of life in Lagos. It is a collage of energy and potential disaster, all moving to an unfathomable logic. The sheer force with which this place manages to function and even thrive amazes me.
With ready sarcasm, my aunt informed me upon arrival that the fuel scarcity came just in time to spice up the holiday season. We speculate this is an artificial problem, calculated to boost the profits of fuel mongers. This is the eighth largest oil-producing country in the world, and fifth largest supplier of American crude oil. We all know that with American demands, the oil flow from Nigeria is constant. Given these statistics, does it make sense that Nigerians would not have enough petrol to go around at any given time, much less during the holiday season? A logical person would assume that it would be in the government’s and the industry’s best interest to provide fuel during this period because it is good for business: more cars on the road; more people in the air; more business to transact. Ah, but we are in Nigeria, and that kind of logic may not work here. Auntie chalks it up to wickedness…and I am compelled to agree.
Thinking on it more, I wonder if we are not ultimately paying the price for the violence (the kidnappings, bombings, evacuations, pipeline vandalism) in the Delta, which features regularly in the news. Instead of passing it on to consumers in the international community, Nigerians pay for reduced production (25% less due to the above-mentioned violence) by not having enough to go around for the holidays. God forbid they raise the price of oil at gas pumps across the United States…and the oil company executives would loathe taking a cut in their corporate profits. No, Nigerians are paying the price. I wonder if this crosses people’s minds when they either puncture the pipelines or rush to collect the oil in Gerry cans to make some small extra cash on the black market. This is a place of extreme deprivation and the immediacy of survival supersedes any caution or precaution, or any thought of the “larger picture.” It is a complex system, fueled by all kinds of greed and desperation.
As a result of this situation, we have to calculate which outings would be feasible and which we would have to cancel. Auntie’s in-law works for Chevron, an American multinational oil company doing big business in the Niger Delta. We spent an afternoon at the Chevron country club. Very posh. My young cousins brought their swimsuits and while they splashed, we reclined in the shade with soft drinks and bland Jollof Rice. The club sits in an exclusive neighborhood, with gated mansions all around. Inside the premises, manicured walkways and palms border recreational areas: swimming pools, tennis and racquetball courts, drinking bars. The compound is complete with a library, a restaurant, a canteen for the staff, and even a clinic to serve Chevron employees. Our host informed me that these employees preferred Lagos to Warri or Port Harcourt because it was “safer”…at least for the administrative staff. They still cannot protect their workers out in the field. Most of those workers in the field are Nigerians anyway. In the gist of the afternoon, Auntie’s in-law informs us that due to the recent spate of kidnappings near Port Harcourt, Chevron has evacuated all expatriate staff from the region until further notice. I asked how they would manage without this part of their workforce. Nigerian substitutes, of course. Just a few days before, we heard of bombings on two oil campuses in Port Harcourt. I recall that not all the captives of these kidnappings have been European or American. How safe are Chevron’s (Nigerian) employees? I bet the international media is not asking this question. The media gaze continues to focus on European and American captives.
We returned home from our outing, on the day before Christmas, through fairly quiet streets. Auntie told me that this was unusual; that the streets are usually filled with a carnival atmosphere, usually starting a few days before Christmas until the New Year. She was right; I don’t remember the streets of Lagos ever being that sparse. We spent Christmas day in-doors. Auntie cooked a very special pot of Banga Soup, and I hung out with the girls. They are all growing very fast: tall, slender, graceful, all of them. They are very curious about life in the U.S.: what high school is like, boys and dating, fashion and shopping, etc. It was a simple, lovely day.
We woke up the next morning to the horrible news of a pipeline explosion here in Ikeja. People were tapping fuel from a breached pipeline to fuel their vehicles or sell on the black market, when it lit up, killing over 200 people. Hundreds more were injured. The images on the television were horrifying: billowing black smoke, people blindly moving through the area with air masks, either trying to help themselves or help others.
It doesn’t make sense. So much oil and hundreds of people die annually in these kinds of explosions. In the newspaper, we read about the first anniversary of a tragic plane crash (the Sosoliso crash), which occurred exactly one year before. A plane full of school children coming from Abuja went down, with only two survivors. On the television, we watched the news of various accidents on the highways; the same highways I traveled to get to Lagos (I recalled the stalled trucks and buses that littered our journey). The mood has been somber, and we are all silently frustrated with the situation. We say our prayers tonight, thanking God for the most precious of things: life and health.