Power, politics, poverty of oil exploration in Nwoye’s Oil Cemetery
Although oil exploration by multinationals has been going on since the 1950s in Nigeria, environmental issues and by extension oil exploration in the Niger Delta with its attendant ecological problems remain one of the liveliest and topical issues of our day. Nigerian writers and artistes using different genres such as poetry, drama, fiction or songs, have greatly enriched the country’s literature with powerful and enduring narratives on the vagaries of oil exploration and its attendant ecological problems. Such writers include but are not limited to John Pepper Clark, Gabriel Okara, Tanure Ojaide, Tess Onwueme, Kaine Agary, Ahmed Yerimah, Nnimo Bassey, Ebi Yeibo, Obari Gomba, Ike Okonta, Ibiwari Ikiriko, Ogaga Ifowodo and Sam Ukala to name just a few.
In 2015, another significant work was added to this eminent class of oil crusaders. That work, Oil Cemetery, written by May Ifeoma Nwoye, is a well crafted 243 page novel that is divided into 25 chapters. Although a work of fiction, the narrative shows how the manipulative elite enjoys its obscene wealth at the expense of the larger majority who live in poverty and suffer from the environmental degradation of their land. The novel tells the story of Rita, a fragile young girl whose father was a victim of an oil company which set up business in a community which the author describes as ‘untouched by any form of civilization’.
As the author puts it; ‘’Oblivious of what lies beneath their land, the people of Ubolu are happy with their life, living it as they choose to, and resisting intrusions with all the force they can muster’’.
Unfortunately for the people of this unspoilt environment, the discovery of the contentious black gold under their soil brought along with it tears, sorrow and death which expectedly leads to a sudden and violent revolution which briefly disorganizes the entire community, but eventually, brings back the much needed sanity and progress to the people.
Oil Cemetery is a moving story of the poor, who have said no to oppression as they seek a solution to end the suffering and deaths brought by oil exploration and exploitation. Although the theme of the text is a familiar one, the author succeeded in telling her story in a refreshing way using her huge unique literary talent to transform the chaos of trauma, suffering into a glowing work of art.
One recurring trick of multi-national oil companies which has been aptly captured in our literature, which is financially inducing community leaders against the community, also came to the fore in the novel.
According to the author; ‘’As Jefferson updated them on the laying of pipes at Ubolu and Isioye, the men listened attentively without interruption. The area is very quiet, the local people are complacent, and there is nothing to worry about, Jefferson concluded. I am not sure about that, a voice warned. I am apprehensive about some of these tribal villagers. Some of them understand the situation to our detriment. It was the voice of Smith, an Englishman with Hispanic features and wavy greying hair. A young man known as Bill expressed surprise at Mr. Smith’s comment. I can’t really see what you are getting at.
These Negro people are quite ignorant. We have been in the Niger Delta for some years now; all you need do is to get a smart guy, one of their types and give him money to share with their local chiefs. Then you’re on”
With the above, May Nwoye sets the tone for a literary adventure where money, sex, kidnapping, fetish, blackmail and even murder play significant roles. Part entertaining and part educative, Oil Cemetery is another addition to the growing literature on the political and environmental tragedy of oil exploration in Nigeria as well as in the sphere of conflict resolution.
Though community leaders are notorious for collecting bribes from oil companies, the youths of Ubolu community are equally guilty of this grave offence as could be gleaned from an incident in the story.
Though Literature has been regarded as a mirror of the society, nowhere else is this so apt as on the issue of oil exploration and its tragedies.
In the conclusion to his highly seminal paper; “Environmental Conflicts; The Case Of The Niger Delta”, Akpobibo Onduku had this to say; ‘’In view of the dramatic worsening of the environment of the Niger Delta, genuine peace effort in the Niger Delta can be achieved by participation, equitable distribution of resources, appropriate development, transparency and environmental sustainability. Therefore, all the stakeholders should forget about the past and lay a solid foundation for the future by embracing options for positive peace which revolves around addressing the issues of poverty, environmental devastation, political, economic and social injustice, low level of literacy and unemployment’’.
In a move that seemed to agree with Onduku, Nwoye concluded this riveting work of art with a touch of conflict resolution when after all the sufferings, tears and deaths, a peace meeting takes place between the oil company and representatives of the community with a resultant happy ending. As the author puts it; ‘’The Ubolu community was back to normal and it was better than it had ever been. The men had learned to accept their women as valuable partners. The women had learned how to exercise power in their communities. The oil companies had learned how to cooperate with the indigenous people of the lands they explore, and they had provided the funding for schools, hospitals, and other essential services’’.
Oil Cemetery, despite its scary title, is an unforgettable story of human suffering, misery and survival at all costs. With every page alive and full of surprising turn of events, May Nwoye has succeeded in using her immense literary skills as well as some of her native Igbo mythology, proverbs and humour to conjure up an interesting account of the seemingly intractable oil exploration problems. By so doing, she has produced a work that advocates for dialogue between oil companies and their host communities in finding solutions to the challenges of oil exploration. In addition, she has also encouraged young writers to write more on the issue of the environment and so sustain the pressure of the Niger Delta advocacy through literature.
• Dr. Okediran is a former national president of the Association of Nigerian Authors