Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Oil, Corruption, Development, Violence and Hope

I have just finished reading an eye-opening and extremely depressing article in National Geographic’s February 2007 issue, “Curse of the Black Gold: Hope and Betrayal in the Niger Delta.” Generally I don’t have a problem choosing some words to start with when composing a blog post, but I am actually not sure where to begin in synthesizing this tragic situation and attempting to connect the ideas of the article with my own perceptions, experiences, and feelings.

Nigerian Shantytown

I recently visited at length with a friend whose church in Oklahoma City is working with the government of Rwanda and local universities to provide host families and support for Rwandan students studying science and engineering at local colleges. You may recall Rwanda suffered an unbelievably tragic genocide in 1994. That event was the focus of the movie “Hotel Rwanda” that told the true story of Paul Rusesabagina’s heroism amidst the nightmare of senseless killing. When I learned about the Presidential scholars program of the Rwandan government, I was struck by what foresight that program revealed about the long-term vision of Rwandan leaders and others. Economic development in a country like Rwanda and recovery from a tragedy like the ’94 genocide is certainly not something that can be “microwaved” with short-term planning. Only long-term planning and work, focusing on the goals of EDUCATING the next generation of leaders for the nation, can have a chance of bringing about an economic, political, and cultural turnaround for the nation.

I do remember in the same conversation, however, silently lamenting the fact that Rwanda does not have a lucrative national resource like oil. My thought was almost identical to the naive quotation which ends this National Geographic article:

We want oil here. It will make everything better.

It is unfortunate this formula has not proven successful for Nigeria. Since the 1950s when oil was first discovered there, the country has become a poster child for governmental corruption, ruthless military violence crushing those who oppose ruling oligarchs, environmental destruction, and an overwhelming rich/poor gap.

The situation in Nigeria sounds so hopeless, it makes me think of Haiti following the first successful African revolution against colonial rulers in the Western Hemisphere. The Haitian revolution ended in 1804, and the Haitian flag was changed to only include the colors black and red. (Black for the skin color of the victors, and red for the blood that was spilled in the victory.)

Haitian flag after independence in 1804

The Haitian slaves killed every white person who lived on their western half of Hispanola, and proceeded to destroy much of the the plantations, fields, and other property of the previously ruling white class. Eventually, these victorious revolutionaries and their descendants not only destroyed their means of successfully making a profitable living in their nation, they also destroyed their future economic potential. Once a lush, beautiful paradise, Haiti become a deforested eyesore and remains the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Haiti’s history included a violent struggle of epic proportions, with a tragic legacy that continues to this very day.

Like Haiti in the early years of the “age of exploration” in the Western Hemisphere, Nigeria has been and continues to be blessed with rich natural resources. The most plentiful resource is its Bonny Light crude oil, which (according to the NG article) brought in 45 BILLION dollars in oil export revenues in 2005. Yet despite this wealth, Nigeria languishes with rampant poverty and a strengthening violent insurgency which appears bent on the same sort of angry, ill-reasoned path of destruction that the revolutionaries of Haiti pursued at the turn of the 18th century.

Before reading this article, I had never heard of Ken Saro-Wiwa. Of course I know about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, and also Steve Biko – All leaders who were killed for speaking out on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised in their respective nations. Like these other fallen leaders, Ken Saro-Wiwa was killed because of the disruptive threat he posed to the governing elites and economically powerful enemies who wanted to preserve the status quo instead of tolerate reform and change. Saro-Wiwa was executed in 1995 by the Nigerian military. According to the NG article:

Shell and Ogoniland share a tragic history. Nigeria’s first mass protest against the oil industry emerged in these tribal lands southeast of Port Harcourt. In 1990, the charismatic writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, outraged by oil spills in Ogoniland, founded the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People. The organization demanded control of the oil on Ogoni lands and an end to environmental damage. A quarter of a million Ogoni, nearly half the population, rallied in early 1993 to support the cause. Later that year, Shell, citing security concerns, halted production from its 96 wells in Ogoniland—though oil from wells outside the area continued to flow in pipelines through Ogoni territory.

Alarmed by Saro-Wiwa’s popular support, Nigeria’s military government brought charges of murder against him and fellow activists. The government accused them of instigating the mob killings of four Ogoni leaders from a rival faction. At a tribunal widely regarded as a sham, and with the alleged complicity of Shell, Saro-Wiwa and eight others were found guilty and hanged in 1995. Though the world community reacted with outrage, and Saro-Wiwa’s son initiated a lawsuit against Shell for human rights abuses (which is ongoing), the situation has not improved. In fact, Isaac Osuoka told me, “things have gotten worse since Ken was murdered.”

I worry that students in school today, as well as many people formally out of school, may have a mistaken perception that the battle for civil rights and economic justice is something only in history books and not a current event. When studying the U.S. civil rights movement and remembering Dr. King, I think it is wholly appropriate for students to learn about the unfinished work of Saro-Wiwa and the plight of the Nigerian people.

Nigerian Black Market

A quick scan of recent articles on the Global Voices Online blog for Nigeria reveals discussions about a lot of topics (most interesting to me probably the post on the departure of Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Nweala from the Nigerian government last summer) but not much on the issues raised by this NG article. Are there many Nigerian bloggers currently living in Nigeria? If so, do many or any feel secure in publicly criticizing their government or their President, as I did this past week? I am not sure. If this NG article is accurate, I doubt many people living in Nigeria today feel wholly secure about anything.

Given the preceding discussion, let us not lose sight of the following ideas:

  1. Students should be in school acquiring an education for much more lofty purposes than merely scoring well on a test so the district and school can look good in the local paper when the test score results are published. Students should be getting an education to do far more with their lives than earn a comfortable living. We need to encourage students to understand and embrace ideals so they will seek to make the world a better place in their lives: To work with others for positive changes in places like Nigeria.
  2. Whose is at fault in this situation? Certainly corrupt government officials as well as the actions of the multi-national oil companies have a lot to do with it, but there is not a single individual or group who can legitimately take all the blame for a situation that has evolved over centuries. The fact that one person is not to blame and a simple, “microwaveable” solution does not exist should not deter us from striving together to address and solve challenges like the economic, environmental, and social morass in Nigeria, however.
  3. The importance of citizen journalists and citizen journalism is only going to increase in the months and years ahead. We need to find more ways to empower and encourage responsible and ethical citizen journalism. Any viable solution to a challenging array of problems like those facing the Nigerian people is going to be multi-faceted, but the cause of transparency and accountability in government is sure to figure high on the list. OLPC is likely to be a huge factor in the growth of citizen journalism in the years ahead.

I count my blessings to live in a community where my level of fear for my personal safety and that of my family is extremely low. The lack of basic infrastructure and public utilities (roads, water, electricity, sanitation) in many parts of Nigeria as well as other parts of the “developing world” should be seen as a call for action on the parts of wealthier nations and people in the world. (Yes, I know the U.S. gives millions each year in foreign aid, but clearly enough is not being done by private individuals, businesses, governments and NGOs when we still have so many living in poverty.)

I do not see this as a “white man’s burden” to naively attempt to “save” the developed world from a list of maladies. I do see, however, the need for us to not assume that capitalism and the unregulated market will “blindly” create a just and humane society. Vast natural resources have not created a utopia in Nigeria. Ethical, visionary and strong governmental and non-governmental leadership, sustained investments in infrastructure, and high-quality educational preparation for citizens seem to me to the the best hope for positive long-term change in Nigeria. Violence and violent revolution is likely to continue to draw the attention of international media sources as well as drive up the price of oil, but in the long run cannot bring about the sort of peaceful, economic prosperity which the Nigerian people deserve and likely want.

My prayers are with the Nigerian people this night, who face an array of forbidding challenges that overwhelm my own limited intellect and capacity to comprehend. Faced with such obstacles, a reliance on faith (as well as accompanying hard work) seems to me to be the only viable strategy for Nigerians to embrace to avoid becoming lost in hopeless depression.

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4 responses to “Oil, Corruption, Development, Violence and Hope”

  1. Diana Avatar

    Just yesterday I sat with my 125 students in an auditorium and listened to Paul Rusesabagina tell his story. My students had been prepping for the opportunity to hear him speak for about a month. In order to temper the grim horror of the genocide, I chose to focus attention on the ‘Power of One’ ( by having students digitally share stories of other people, around the world, that use or have used their lives to positively impact the world around them.. After the assembly, one of my students and I were able to have lunch at a small venue with Mr. Rusesabagina. He sat at the table across from me intimating how much the travel of his job weighed on his mind, because of the time it took away from his family. When he shook my hand he listened carefully to someone tell him who I was, held my hand, paused a few moments and then shared his appreciation for the time I took to teach my students about the stories of genocide. What struck me was how present he was, he probably meets thousands of people a year, all over the world, but still takes the time to be present for each introduction.

    Stories like Paul’s are rare in that we actually hear about them. After spending time in South Africa this summer, I realized how little the American public hears about Africa in general. It was a little stunning that Sudan and Darfur actually made it into the State of the Union this year. I do this year long activity during the year that I teach World Geography. Each day a student cuts out international articles from the local paper and then they staple it up on the big bulletin board under the matching continent. It is no big surprise that at the end of each year that I do this activity, Africa is the least populated with articles, by a long shot. We have a conversation about the fact that just because it isn’t on the evening news or in the newspaper that it isn’t happening. The issues of awareness are paramount.

    Western nations often turn away from the issues of Africa. Having Paul Rusesabagina present to share his story expanded, just a little, the telling of the African story. More stories like Paul’s need to be told, shared, publicized. People need to act in a way that reflects a value of all people, not just the ones living north of the Equator. I believe that sharing stories like the Water Buffalo show the manner in which the web is a wonderful tool in telling the stories of developing nations. We all need to do a better job at telling the stories that we know, that we can share and that we must publish. Mr. Rusesabagina talks about the fact that the events of Rwanda happen because people are willing to be bystanders. With the web at our disposal, we have the means to not be the bystanders anymore. It is amazing that I was able to share that lesson with my students this past month.

  2. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    Diana: Thank you so much for sharing these experiences and the message of Paul Rusesabagina. How remarkable that you and your students were able to hear him speak in person. I am sure it was quite challenging to determine how to adequately but not overwhelmingly prepare your students with “schema” prior to his talk. I would love to read and hear more of your students’ perceptions about his message, the genocide, and what relevance they understand that message has for their own lives.

    I really agree with David Warlick’s contention in his keynote address for K-12 Online last year that students and teachers need to take more “sidetrips for learning” in schools. I am convinced we need to regularly use the power of intereactive videoconferencing (especially desktop videoconferencing, which is SO much easier to coordinate than traditional room-based connections) to help our students cultivate not only cognative understanding about events like the Rwandan genocide, but also relationships with other students in other places who have and are living through different experiences: In some cases events that students may read about and study, but not tangibly EXPERIENCE and understand as REAL and current.

    I continue to believe we are changed more by conversations and relationships with other people than by lectures and textbook readings. We need to access content via “read-only” modalities, but it is our personal remixing of these ideas which connects to our own perceptions and lives that becomes learning which truly “sticks” with us. I salute you for focusing the attention and studies of your students on the Rwandan genocide and other international events. We all DO need to understand and embrace the importance of being ACTIVE citizens and members of our communities who do and will NOT just “stand by” when evil deeds are done around us or to us.

  3. […] As someone who embraced technology as a learning tool early on (my first classroom computer was a 64K Apple ll – not even a lle) I’m right there with many in the edblogosphere that have come to the conclusion that the snails pace of adoption by many in education would be enhanced if we had many examples of it truly making a difference in schools. My class has now successfully included a student that cannot attend school because of her leukemia twice using FREE video Skype software (see here and here). Our plan is to do it as many days as she feels up to it. And beyond the obvious implications of that, what needs to be pointed out is that it was EASY. Beyond getting her a DSL line and computer, which took the better part of 2 months, setting up the Skype connection literally took less than half an hour at her house and our classroom combined. My fourth graders that came into this year having close to zero experience with technology beyond video games and phones, hook up the laptop and web cam we use easily after we did it ONE TIME (we’ve done it twice more since). […]

  4. Avatar

    It is because I deeply care about this issue that I feel strongly in saying that education is not a panacea. You should research the idea of collecting natural resource rents for the benefit of citizens. It goes back to Henry George, who proposed to tax land, which according to classical economists includes all natural resources like oil. Ken Saro-Wiwa was murdered by the military government for expressing the view that oil rent should be shared with the people. He spoke out against the environmental and health problems caused by the oil extraction process as practised in Nigeria as well. Oil would be great for Rwanda if it would share the rent with all the citizens. It just so happens that almost all economists agree with the idea of taxing resource rents, instead of taxing citizen’s for working. Australia is considering this at present. Norway and Alaska are funded primarily though oil rents. Botswana is funded by diamond rents primarily as well. The earth belongs to everyone.