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The Oil and the Glory

O&G Book Review: Michael Peel’s A Swamp Full of Dollars

Seven years ago, Michael Peel — a journalist for the Financial Times — took a boat into the mangrove creeks of Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta looking for the country’s most infamous rebel. The man was Alhaji Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, or just Asari as everyone knew him. He was ruthless, deft, and had a reputation for luring ...

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Seven years ago, Michael Peel — a journalist for the Financial Times — took a boat into the mangrove creeks of Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta looking for the country’s most infamous rebel. The man was Alhaji Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, or just Asari as everyone knew him. He was ruthless, deft, and had a reputation for luring young men to the creeks to fight for his cause. He spoke eloquently about his aim to kick international oil companies out of the Niger Delta and at last win a fair share of the country’s oil wealth for the very region from whose soil it was drawn. “Protests against big oil in the Delta had gone on for many years, but Asari had stepped up the violence and the rhetoric,” Peel explains. “From his self-promotional talk, expertly fed into the international media, you would have thought he was Nigeria’s Robin Hood, the creeks and mangroves his Sherwood Forest.”

In 2007, I made the same journey. Asari had long been unseated as rebel du jour-co-opted by the very government he once fought against. When I arrived in the Delta, a stalky, robust man named Ateke Tom was running the show, hiding out in what had been dubbed the Evil Forest. Ateke, like Asari, walked with a delegation of boys trailing him, watching his every move, ready to serve his every beck and call. Ateke was a patron to those men and to the community; his illicit activity was their entire economic system. Dressed in tacky designer suits that made his sweat run, gold necklaces dangling on his chest, Ateke’s bling seemed to shine all the more given where he was from: one of the poorest communities in one of the poorest regions of the globe.  

At that moment, Ateke seemed like the most powerful man in the bush. But Ateke also fell-bought out by the government in 2009, just like Asari had been.

History repeats itself in Nigeria. And this is one of the key precepts of Peel’s new book about Nigeria, A Swamp Full of Dollars. From the oily delta to the presidential palace in Abuja, time seems almost suspended. One criminal replaces another, the characters falling like dominos once they’ve sucked the state for their share and fallen victim to their own vices. Throughout the book, Peel seems to be trying to answer the question plaguing his mind: Why and how can the human spirit tolerate so much corruption? It’s obviously something that fascinates him-the very anthropology of what’s going on. And with an anthropologist’s eye, he unpacks a series of morally bereft situations, trying to make sense of them. He concludes that the present is a product of the past, repackaged and re-enacted, over and over.

Peel begins his book as far away from the seat of power in Nigeria as one could be: in the creeks of the Niger Delta. Using his rebel encounters as hook, he traces the history of unrest there-how discontent with environmental devastation from the oil business morphed into dismay at the abominable economic prospects for a generation of restless youth. The unemployed boys-more numerous with each year’s university graduation-found their only job prospects in the bush with the Asaris and Atekes of the day. Many of them have little choice to speak of; it’s either the creeks or the streets. And the creeks pay better. (Peel gets this story right, if he misses some details along the way. He marvels, for example, at why the Delta’s gangs carry the “surreal names such as KKK, Icelanders and Germans.” Ironically, those names come from the country’s university system, where campus “cults” by those names dominate campus life.)

From the Delta, Peel jumps to the booming metropolis of Lagos, where he follows a street gang called the Bookshop Boys. “Just like Asari’s gang, the Bookshop House boys claim they provide their area with security that the authorities are incapable of delivering,” Peel writes. In fact, he seems to decide, they are bribing and extorting local residents-and from themselves; each level up the hierarchy takes a cut of his subordinates’ pay. Peel draws further analogies to the Delta: Here too, many of the boys drawn into the gang have no other economic choice-and they are honestly seeking a better life. It is the state, not their own particular moral value system, that has failed them.

But the closer Peel gets to the top of the pile, the more difficult his societal justification of corruption is to maintain. One case study comes in the form of Bayelsa state’s Governor Diepteye SP Alamieyeseigha, who managed to whisk away some $20 million during a single four-year term in office. Some of the money went to London real estate; he stashed more away in British banks-amounts that would later be returned to Nigeria during corruption investigations. (Peel quotes the investigator at one point with a tinge of guilt-feeling bad that he might in fact be returning the money to Nigeria again, where it will simply be stolen a second time.) Like an investigator, Peel looks around the governor’s seized London apartment for signs of what might be on Alamieyesigha’s mind. “The flat’s collection of books and papers testifies to a lifestyle full of chutzpah and internal contradictions,” Peel writes. “Many are religious works, with such titles as How to Trouble your Trouble, Smite the Enemy and Satan Get Lost!”

Peel reveals and unpacks with all the details one would expect of the legendary journalist he is. Still, his analysis takes us to a thoroughly unsatisfying answer to the question of why there is so much corruption: Simply because there is. Nigeria is so tied up in-so much built upon-the system of extortion and theft that there is simply no reality in which to function. And so everyone, from the highest-level politicians to the taxi drivers and street boys, has to act accordingly.

The trouble with this explanation is that it seems to eliminate the very humanity of the characters in his colorful tale-both for better and worse. From the motorcycle taxi drivers in Lagos to the politicians through the years, Peel looks in as if from a different world, unable to comprehend the individuals as anything separate from the system-Nigeria-in which they operate. He seems unable to lift the veil from the characters he describes-unable to get inside their heads and reveal their real motivations. What are the politicians really thinking when they take millions? It’s surely not just because that’s “what is done” anymore. Peel seems puzzled that the gang boys in Lagos are Christian, since they spend all day stealing money. But this is no different from the moral contradictions that we all live. After all, who is really worse-the hungry extortionist or the healthy one? Particularly as an expat in Nigeria, Peel should be no stranger to this: Do you give a bribe to a man who obviously struggles to put food on the table every night? How much harm could it really do?

And as much as history repeats in Nigeria, it changes as well. There is more good news here than Peel lets on. No matter where I traveled, I always found a new generation fighting back against the system that has become so ingrained. I met scrupulous taxi drivers who refused to cheat me, or stopped the gas pump clerk from overcharging because I was an expat (and hence probably easily trickable). I knew businessmen who were doing everything they could to build supply chains rid of graft. Sometimes, I was disappointed; the banker who had been a pillar of change turned out to be just as corrupt as the rest. But I was equally as often surprised, for example by the former rebel who left because he wanted to turn his life around.

I don’t believe that Nigeria is stuck. Because history can only repeat itself so many times before it becomes unbearable. Every time the past reappears in another guise, its criminal acts grow all the more pernicious. They begin to grind. The first protests in the Niger Delta were democratic manifestations against the oil-sheen that was coating the earth as it dripped from poorly maintained pipelines. Peel’s rebels a decade later at least claimed sobriety and discipline; the ones I saw in the creek were smoking crack and firing rifles through windows for fun. Things that spiral down so severely often crash.

Still, this is definitely a book to read — so long as you understand what it is you’re reading. This isn’t a portrait of Nigeria or Nigerians. It’s a portrait of corruption and the many debaucherous things that man will do for money when there is none. The paradox of Nigeria is that the majority of the country lives austerely in deprivation. So perhaps even the richest thieves feel like they are stealing to avoid being poor.

“The Pandora’s box hope for Nigeria, an independent nation less than 50 years, is that — if it is ever given the chance — it still has all the opportunities to change character that youth allows,” Peel concludes. Here’s hoping that the naivety of youth is all that such patterns can be-the need to make mistakes for oneself. Or here’s hoping that they aren’t patterns at all, but merely the observations of outsiders, as we both are, unable to see clearly what’s burgeoning within.

Elizabeth Dickinson is assistant managing editor of Foreign Policy, and formerly was Nigeria correspondent for The Economist.

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