Oceans in Transformation - Nabil Ahmed - Infrastructural Snare

Infrastructural Snare

Nabil Ahmed

Aerial view of an oil spill in Bodo. 2010. Photo: UNEP.

Oceans in Transformation
June 2020

In March 2019, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) acquired a leaked letter that would signal a new stage in their struggle for environmental self-determination. The letter was addressed to the Group Managing Director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation and was written by Abba Kiary, Chief of Staff of the President of Nigeria. At the direction of the president, it instructed the Managing Director to “take over the operatorship, from Shell Petroleum Development Company of the entire OML [Oil Mining License] 11.” The letter also reminded the managing director that this operation needed to “ensure smooth re-entry given the delicate situation in Ogoniland.”1

Ogoniland is a territory located within Rivers state on the south-east edge of the Niger delta, the largest river delta in Africa that opens onto the Atlantic Ocean. The landscape is a dense meshwork of rivers, swamps, creeks, lagoons, and mangroves. Cutting through this unique coastal ecosystem are hundreds of kilometers of poorly maintained oil pipelines and infrastructure that is of economic and strategic importance to the oil dependent Nigerian state. Decades of oil exploration and extraction has left Ogoniland as one of the most polluted places on earth. Yet at 2–5 meters above sea level, the Niger Delta is also vulnerable to the impacts of global warming. Today, environmental destruction from widespread and long-term oil contamination has come full circle with the climate emergency.

Commercial oil extraction began in Nigeria in 1958, when Shell started operating the Bomu oilfield (Bomu II, Dere, Ogoniland) in the north-east of the Niger delta. Decades of programmed neglect followed, which marginalized the environmental and political rights of the Niger delta’s indigenous minority groups. In 1967, the neighboring Igbo people and other ethnic minorities broke away from the Nigerian state by forming the independent Republic of Biafra. The Ogoni were caught in the middle of the bloody civil war that followed. Nigerian victory not only led to Biafra rejoining the state, it also cemented Nigeria’s strategic control of oil in the territory. However, conflict over oil would lead to the formation of a new political community.2

Protests in the Czech Republic after the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa. Photo: Friends of the Earth International/Flickr.

The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) was formed in 1990, and would prove to be a turning point in the long history of violence in the delta.3 Led by the acclaimed writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, MOSOP demanded self-determination and reparations through nonviolent resistance. Saro-Wiwa presciently recognized that his people’s struggle would get more international attention if it was framed both as an issue of minority rights and environmental rights.4 Eventually, some of the largest and most well-known human rights and environmental organizations in the world would rally behind the Ogoni cause.

In 1992, the movement drafted the Ogoni Bill of Rights, a landmark instrument of autonomy addressed to the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The following year, peaceful protests forced Shell to pull out of Ogoniland. In retaliation, and in collusion with the oil giant, Nigerian security forces killed thousands of Ogoni men and women, and burnt their villages to the ground.5 On November 11, 1995, Saro-Wiwa and eight other MOSOP leaders—collectively known as the Ogoni Nine—were executed on bogus murder charges by General Sani Abacha’s regime.

Terrorism experts often refer to “shell states” as a geographic area where a terrorist organization has a monopoly over violence and control of resources.6 In a shell state, terrorists and narco-traffickers are supposed to operate like corporations. In the case of Nigeria, however, it may be the other way around. Two decades after Saro Wiwa’s “judicial killing,” the Shell State—an appropriate name, given the longstanding, profitable collaboration between Royal Dutch Shell PLC and the Federal Republic of Nigeria—is sharpening its talons again for extracting oil from Ogoniland.7 The shut-down oil fields contained within the territory of OML 11—including Bomu, Bodo West, Tai, Korokoro, Yoria, Lubara Creek, and Afam—are not only lucrative. Covering almost the entire area of Ogoniland, OML 11 holds a strategic position between oil fields, pipelines, and Port Harcourt.8

Oil infrastructure cutting through population centres in Ogoniland. 2019. Map: INTERPRT.

Oil fields in Nigeria are scattered, and thus require a complex network of pipelines to transport the extracted crude. Despite the fact that oil production technically stopped in Ogoniland in 1993, the Shell State never decommissioned its oil wells, flow stations, flow lines, and manifolds. To make matters worse, internal company documents show that Shell staff have been aware of the poorly maintained state of its oil infrastructure as a major cause of spills since at least 1994.9 Around 218 kilometers of pipelines cross this densely populated land, out of which 153 kilometers are still operational.10 In addition to seismic exploration, dredging, and filling, the vast, ruinous, corrosive pipelines effectively trap the approximately one million Ogoni people that live in an area of 1,000 square kilometers in an infrastructural snare.

In 1991, Saro-Wiwa had already described the casualties of the “unconventional war” that was unfolding in the delta: “oil blow-outs, spillages, oil slick and general pollution accompany the search for oil… Oil companies have flared gas in Nigeria for the past thirty-three years causing acid rain… What used to be the breadbasket of the delta has now become totally infertile. All one sees and feels around is death. environmental degradation has been a lethal weapon in the war against the indigenous Ogoni people.”11 Ecocide is a twenty-first century crime perpetrated at a planetary scale by the vast and efficient structure of the modern corporation. Yet ecocide is not recognized as an international crime and remains outside the authority of law.12 As such, there is no legally binding definition for it. Saro-Wiwa’s vivid description of environmental violence on his people’s land is a stark reminder of the necessity for speaking out against future ecocides. When seen from the point of view of victims, ecocide speaks more to crimes against the innocent and defenseless rather than objectives associated with conventional war.13

Evidence of this is how in a moment of purported peace, just six months after the end of Nigeria’s bloody civil war, a major blowout took place in the Bomu oilfield. In response, a letter was written by the Student Union in Dere to the general manager of Shell-BP Nigeria:

HORROR: On Sunday 19th July, 1970, a ghastly, grave situation completely out of control broke loose. Due to gross negligence on the part of SHELL-B.P., pressure over developed in one of the Well-heads (CHRISTMAS TREE) and erupted into a volcano of crude oil. It’s running into its second week of an uncontrolled FOUNTAIN of crude oil flooding farmlands, ravaging crops, polishing fishing ports, creeks, rivers and riverlets, mangrove forests, suffocating plants. Streams and entire air space are dangerously polluted. In earnest, we are all breathing vaporized crude in DERE at present and for how long, indefinite.14

Fifty years on, Ogoniland remains one of the most polluted places on earth. In 2011, a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) survey documented for the first time the scale of contamination from oil that has kept flowing through Ogoni territory from other parts of Nigeria towards the Bonny offshore terminal.15 The total amount of oil spilled in the Niger delta over the previous fifty years was estimated to be at least eleven million barrels, and the number of oil spills are in the thousands.16 And despite how impactful this information might be, a recent investigation showed that the number, frequency, and volume of spills is under-reported and unreliable.17

Map of area impacted by Bodo oil spill of 2008 from SPDC pipeline on 24’’/28’’ along Bomu-Bonny T/L used for compensation claims in The Bodo community v Shell. Map courtesy of MOSOP.

Two spills along Shell’s Trans Niger pipeline in Bodo, both from 2008, were ultimately brought to court and found the company guilty of environmental damage. The first took place on August 28 and continued for seventy-two days. The second occurred on December 7 and poured oil into the surrounding mangrove swamps unabated for seventy-seven days. These hundreds of thousands of spilled barrels was a renewed attack on the ecosystem, health, and livelihoods of the Bodo community’s 50,000 people. Fishing is a source of livelihood and a significant cultural heritage of the Ogoni people, and Bodo is a community of fishermen. Fisheries have entirely collapsed due to spills, and fishing within Bodo creek has been abandoned by the local fishermen who have to travel far and wide to find a catch.18 Fish in the Bodo creek were either killed directly from oil toxicity or escaped from the heavily oiled environment into the relatively “clean,” deeper waters downstream.19

Shell claimed it did not know about the first spill until one month after it occurred, whereupon it significantly underestimated the spill volume.20 Three long years passed afterwards, when the community’s attempts to seek an effective remedy fell on deaf ears. Initially, the oil company offered food relief and a sum of £4,000 in total for compensation. Despite national environmental laws in place prohibiting pollution, it was only within a foreign jurisdiction, in the United Kingdom, that the Bodo community was able to bring Shell to court. The successes of the 2014 case are welcome, but they are ultimately only partial.21 Shell settled for £55 million, more than half of which was paid out as compensation directly to individuals. As of the writing of this article, no meaningful steps have been taken to clean up, let alone remediate and restore the environments damaged by the spills.22

It’s not the intention of Shell or the Nigeria government to clean the Ogoni environment. They are deceiving the international community by the announcement that they are cleaning Ogoniland. The emergency measures that UNEP recommended in its report of 2011 have not been carried out… The interest of the Nigerian government and Shell is to return to oil exploration in Ogoniland as detailed in the presidential decree of 1st of March 2019.
—Lazarus Tamana, European coordinator of MOSOP.23

The calculus of pollution in Nigeria has taken on a new complexity as pipeline integrity malfunctions and oil thefts remain rife. The oil companies active in Ogoniland, namely Shell and Agip, try to divert responsibility for the oil spills that take place from their facilities, and through what is known in the industry as Right of Way, apportion blame onto the poor for the theft of oil.24 Yet the reality of oil theft, or bunkering, is much murkier than a simple dichotomy between “illegal” stealing by gangs and “legal” capitalist extraction, as oil company contractors, government officials, and the military are implicated in such “illegal” operations.

In particular, the Nigerian Joint Task Force (JTF), which consists of members from the national Army, Navy, Air Force, and local police, have been deployed in the Niger delta to deter militancy and protect oil capital, effectively enabling every stage of the bunkering process. And indeed, bunkering is an extensive process, spanning extraction and refining to transportation to offshore tankers bound for the international market.25 Billions of dollars’ worth of crude is siphoned from pipelines each year at an industrial scale that creates ever new geographical flow lines between “bush refineries” in the delta to boats waiting in the gulf of Guinea to banks in global financial centers that launder money for the ruling Nigerian elite.26

Shell pipelines flowing through Okirika town with gas flares in the distance. 2009. Photo: UNEP.

Since production began, gas flaring has been widely used in the Ogoni fields as the cheapest way to burn off natural gas after it is separated from crude. When combined with oil spills, they have caused widespread, long-term, and severe ecological consequences such as acid rain, soil, surface, and groundwater contamination, mangrove forest loss, and vegetation decline.27 In the Ogale community of 40,000 near Port Harcourt, for instance—which has seen twenty-three spills in the last four years alone—UNEP’s field observations documented concentrations of Benzene in drinking water at levels more than 900 times higher than permitted by WHO guidelines.28 The UN agency’s emergency measures recommended that the government provide households with clean drinking water, but this has yet to materialize.29 Generations of men, women, and children have lived with severe health impacts associated with chronic hydrocarbon pollution such as respiratory illnesses, skin conditions, trauma, hypertension, weakened immunity, and higher child mortality, to name only a few.30

Many women are giving stillbirths. There is not sufficient food for them to eat. Even the food to give to the children is scarce. During this period of COVID-19 we don’t know who is dying because everybody is under lockdown… but I believe it’s not that COVID-19 is killing us because we have been dying before this COVID-19.
—Mrs. Bariloful Atea, farmer, Bodo.31

Gas flaring also releases massive amounts of carbon dioxide, driving global warming. One study found the total carbon dioxide emitted from gas flaring in the Niger delta from 1999 to 2009 alone to be 457 million metric tons, roughly equivalent to ninety-eight million cars.32

We ask ourselves why are we here? Why did God put us in this type of position? You can’t sleep because of the heat, you can’t breathe well because of the pollution. I normally go to the waterfront every morning and evening to look at the movements of the tide. There is no mangrove to protect from the tides coming from the sea.
—Mr. Christian Kpendai, environmentalist, Bodo.33

The poverty and pollution described by Bariloful Atea and Christian Kpandei are linked not only to Shell’s checkered environmental record in the Niger delta, but also to its historical contribution to global warming. A recent study has traced Shell’s share of carbon emissions to 1.6% of the measured rise in global mean surface temperature, and 1.4% of the rise in sea levels.34

Mangrove forest loss and oil spills. Satellite imagery analysis and map: INTERPRT.

These numbers stand for a daily reality for those in the global south most impacted by climate change. In Ogoniland, the sea is not only rising, but the delta is also subsiding. Decades of oil pollution has already led to the loss of approximately 30,000 hectares of mangrove forests, which provide natural protection from high tides, storm surges, and cyclones in intertidal ecosystems and are a source of livelihood. Local shellfish species—periwinkles, oysters, cockles, African crabs, and prawns—which make the mangroves their habitat are all but gone. Ogoni women have no choice but to travel six hours by boat as far away as Andoni and Bonny to gather (oil contaminated) shellfish.35 As the Nigerian architect, activist, and author Nnimmo Bassey put it, “oil extraction has effectively uprooted the people from the soil.”36

Resisting the global processes of environmental dispossession most often take place via ethnic mobilization.37 MOSOP was formed in the early 1990s “as a movement for social and ecological justice, informed by the finest traditions of African participatory democracy and powered by the philosophy of nonviolence.”38 While their land remains severely polluted, the Ogoni people have kept Shell out of their territory and the oil in the ground. After many years of struggle, the Bodo community won a landmark victory against the Shell State in a London High Court. These are but a few examples of why the Ogoni people’s praxis of the oppressed is an enduring lesson for those fighting impunity in a warming world.


Lazarus Tamana, European Coordinator of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. Email to the author, March 17, 2019.


Michael Watts, “The Sinister Political Life of Community: Economies of Violence and Governable Spaces in the Niger Delta, Nigeria,” in The Seductions of Community: Emancipations, Oppressions, Quandaries, ed. Gerald W. Creed (Santa Fe: SAR Press, 2006), 101–142.


This history of violence began with the Atlantic slave trade. It is important to point out that no Ogoni person was ever enslaved during the Atlantic slave trade. See Ken Saro-Wiwa, Genocide in Nigeria: The Ogoni Tragedy (Port Harcourt: Saros International Publishers, 1992), 14.


Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 111.


Amnesty International, A Criminal Enterprise? Shell’s Involvement in Human Rights Violations in Nigeria in the 1990s (London: Amnesty International, 2017), .


See Loreta Napoleoni. Terror Incorporated: Tracing the Dollars Behind the Terror Networks (London: Penguin Random House, 2005).


Kelvin Ebiri, “How Politics of OML 11 Reignites Ogoni Resistance Against Expropriation,” The Guardian, June 20, 2020, .


This incursion is of grave concern for a people that has for so long been at the sharp end of fossil-capital’s greed. MOSOP activists know all too well how violence accompanies the Nigerian armed forces sent to protect oil infrastructure. They are organizing once again in resisting the Shell State. Lazarus Tamana, conversation with the author, March 13, 2019.


Amnesty International, On Trial: Shell in Nigeria (London: Amnesty International, 2020), 18, .


Joel Koupermann, spatial analysis of pipelines carried out inside Ogoniland territory, INTERPRT.


Cited in Nixon, Slow Violence, 111.


“Making Ecocide a Crime,” Stop Ecocide, .


The feminist theorist Adriana Cavarero makes a similar point in her understanding of violence experienced by civilians in contemporary conflicts. See Adriana Cavarero, Horrorism: Naming Contemporary Violence (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).


Saro-Wiwa. Genocide in Nigeria, 68. Twenty-two years after the catastrophic blowout in Bomu, Saro-Wiwa described the landscape as a barren and useless wasteland. A similar blowout due to equipment failure took place in 2008 in Bomu which has not been cleaned up. See Karina Igonikon, “Di Ogoni community wey no dey fit swim or fish for dia river,” BBC News Pidgin, .


United Nations Environment Programme, Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland (Nairobi: United Nations Environment Programme, 2011). The UNEP study is the first independent environmental impact assessment (EIA) carried out in Ogoniland. The previous “Niger Delta Environmental Survey” launched by Shell during Saro-wiwa’s trial has been thoroughly discredited by activists as a public relations stunt. See Okonto and Douglas, Where Vultures Feast, 168. Importantly while it is not all encompassing, the UNEP report’s scientific evidence is trusted by the Ogoni.


Richard Steiner, Double standard: Shell practices in Nigeria compared with international standards to prevent and control pipeline oil spills and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (Amsterdam: Milieudefensie, 2010). Milieudefensie’s report provides details of how Shell has conducted its petroleum operations far below common standards it follows elsewhere in the world.


Amnesty International, Bad Information: Oil Spill Investigations in the Niger Delta (London: Amnesty International Publications, 2013).


Christian Kpendai, WhatsApp voice call interview with the author, June 19, 2020.


Scott Pegg and Nenibarini Zabbey, “Oil and water: the Bodo spills and the destruction of traditional livelihood structures in the Niger Delta,” Community Development Journal 48 (2013): 391–405.


Amnesty International, The True Tragedy: Delays and Failures in Tackling Oil Spills in the Niger Delta (London: Amnesty International, 2011).


John Vidal, “Shell Announces £55m Payout for Nigeria Oil Spills,” The Guardian, January 7, 2015, .


Lazarus Tamana. WhatsApp voice call interview with the author, June 19, 2020. See also Kelechukwu Iruoma and Ruth Olurounbi, “Nigeria’s silent killer: Compensation to the communities,” The Africa Report, April 30, 2020, .


“It’s Ogoniland today, but it could be your home tomorrow,” Minority Rights Group International, July 18, 2019, .


“API Guidelines for Right-of-Way Activities,” American Petroleum Institute, August 2018, .


Transparency International, Military Involvement in Oil Theft in the Niger Delta (London: Transparency International UK, 2019), .


As MOSOP activists and others have pointed out, UNEP’s landmark report, while highlighting the proliferation of bunkering related spills, failed to examine its root causes.


A good example of NIMBY and environmental racism, governments in the global north have relegated acid rain to the past while northern corporations remain responsible for acid rain in the Niger delta. See Environmental Rights Action and the Climate Justice Programme, Gas Flaring in Nigeria: A Human Rights, Environmental and Economic Monstrosity (Amsterdam: Environmental Rights Action and the Climate Justice Programme, 2005).


UNEP, Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland, 189.


Inspired by the Bodo community’s lawsuit, the Ogale and Bille community have filed lawsuit themselves in UK courts against Shell. See “Supreme Court grants permission to appeal to Nigerian Communities in their fight against Shell,” Leigh Day, July 24, 2019, .


Anna Bruederle and Roland Hodler, “Effect of oil spills on infant mortality in Nigeria,” PNAS 116, no. 12 (March 2019): 5467–5471.


Bariloful Atea, WhatsApp voice call interview with the author, June 19, 2020.


Ochuko Anomohanran, “Determination of Greenhouse Gas Emission Resulting from Gas Flaring Activities in Nigeria,” Energy Policy 45, no. 1 (June 2012): 666–670.


Kpendai, interview with the author, June 19, 2020.


Brenda Ekwurzel et al., “The Rise in Global Atmospheric CO2, Surface Temperature, and Sea Level from Emissions Traced to Major Carbon Producers,” Climatic Change 144, no. 4 (October 2017): 579–590. See also Paul Griffin, The Carbon Majors Database: CDP Carbon Majors Report (London: CDP Worldwide, 2017).


Atea, interview with the author, June 19, 2020.


Nnimmo Bassey, To Cook a Continent: Destructive Extraction and the Climate Crisis in Africa (Cape Town: Pambazuka Press, 2012), 121.


Roy Doron and Toyin Falola, “The Nigerian Activist whose Death Shamed Shell,” interview by Portia Roelofs, Jacobin, November 10, 2019, .


Okonto and Douglas, Where Vultures Feast, 118.

Oceans in Transformation is a collaboration between TBA21–Academy and e-flux Architecture within the context of the eponymous exhibition at Ocean Space in Venice by Territorial Agency and its manifestation on Ocean Archive.

Indigenous Issues & Indigeneity
Water & The Sea, Extractivism, Africa, Pollution & Toxicity, Health & Disease, Climate change, Dispossession
Return to Oceans in Transformation

Oceans in Transformation is a collaboration between TBA21–Academy and e-flux Architecture within the context of the eponymous exhibition at Ocean Space in Venice by Territorial Agency and its manifestation on Ocean Archive.

Nabil Ahmed is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Academy of Fine Art, Architecture and Design faculty of Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and founder of INTERPRT, a research and design studio commissioned by TBA21–Academy that investigates environmental crimes.


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