Nigeria. My first reaction was vague familiarity, but I couldn’t put my finger on any specifics. I thought I remembered the musician King Sunny Ade was Nigerian. Then it hit me: Ken Saro-Wiwa had been executed there. He had been the Nelson Mandela of Nigeria, defending the rights of his people, the Ogoni of the Niger Delta, against “big oil.” The dictator Abacha had ordered his death while the world community begged in vain, then watched helplessly. That was a decade ago, and it seemed – at least in the “first world” – that the story had died along with him. I had to Google it to be sure I had it right. And then I remembered an NPR story I’d heard more recently about Niger Delta women protesting on oil platforms – literally putting their bodies on the line to make a statement that perhaps the world would finally hear: For all the wealth generated from their land, Nigerians were living in desperate poverty in a decimated environment. The deeper I went in reviewing Niger Delta events and issues, the more I understood just how high the current stakes were.
I said yes.
I had been asked to travel to Nigeria with American nonprofit organization Global Citizen Journey, to videotape a “citizen diplomacy” trip and the building of a library in a small Niger Delta village. The library would be a place where people from previously warring tribes could share a new and thrilling resource. Nigerians and Americans would work side-by-side to build it and oversee its use. In the past ten years, Nigeria had seen escalating interethnic conflict. Tribes had been pitted against each other, some believe intentionally, as they struggled to carve out the tiniest piece of the vast resource base created by the crude oil flowing from their land. Despite enormous profits for the oil companies and the Nigerian federal government, most villages still had no running water, electricity or healthcare. Villagers were not hired to work on the platforms. And traditional livelihoods like fishing and arming were in serious jeopardy as unregulated oil production took its toll on water and land. I learned that the library project was being partially funded by Chevron and that a student organization had made a substantial contribution to pay for the roof. I had a bunch of questions about that.
I packed my bags.
As our boats arrived in Oporoza, we were greeted by the entire population of the village and a flotilla of canoes decorated with banners proclaiming “Community Not Conflict,” filled with women singing and dancing. At the welcoming ceremony, I noticed a large group of young men. They looked to be in their early twenties and were incongruously dressed in DKNY, Calvin Klein and True Religion jeans. Their t-shirts identified them as members of the student group. I had a quick intuition they might be involved in activities beyond their studies and fundraising for a library roof. I suspected they were there in part to provide protection for us while we were in the “creeks,” an area considered dangerous and seldom visited by outsiders.
I would later learn that all of this and much more was true.
As a filmmaker, I had documented in Northern Ireland, Central America and South Africa. My instincts had been honed in places and situations in taut suspension between war and peace, or newly on one side or the other. I know when I’m not in Kansas anymore. I had come to film the building of a library in a small African village. But I had unwittingly arrived at the headquarters of armed resistance militancy in the Niger Delta – at the exact moment in time the militants were about to embark on a campaign of kidnapping oil workers to get media attention for their struggle.
I returned home and the more I thought about it, the more stunned I was: How could this story be playing out in the most populous country in Africa, the world’s seventh largest oil exporter and arguably a strategic lynchpin in the stability of all of Western Africa – and not make the front page of every international newspaper? How would it be that this country, with its highly visible history of the Biafran War and the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, was building toward full-on armed struggle – invisible to most of the world? How is a volatile region that provides up to 20 percent of U.S. oil imports in a given year missing from discussions of foreign policy priorities? Sure, GOs have been reporting on environmental damage and humanitarian issues in the Delta for years. But no one was really paying attention. The egregious gas flaring in the Delta was even noted in Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.” But the importance of this material had not been recognized or explored.
The resistance began taking hostages. They were known by the name MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta). I knew them as students turned militants. Their activities attracted some media coverage, but most of it was sensationalist and lacked depth about the complex issues and what could be done to address them. I thought about the urgency of the situation and its substantial implications for Nigeria, Africa and the world. I thought about the village kids we had met and what would happen to them if the violence escalated.
I knew that in this pregnant moment, the low level intensity struggle could either break into war or could veer toward the best case scenario – real peace talks. And I knew I had met the key players. I knew I had to make a documentary and make it immediately.
I packed my bags again.
We filmed in Nigeria for a month. We interviewed most of the region’s stakeholders. Among the many things we learned was that the one thing the militancy would stand down for was the hope of true peace talks with a thirdparty presence to give them teeth. Suddenly the stakes were raised, my role as a filmmaker expanded. Could telling this story actually impact whether this war started? If we threw a high beam spotlight on this moment and froze it for the world to see…what then? Could the people in a position to make a difference be moved to act?
I held my breath wondering if this time, just maybe, an African tragedy could be averted. Questions abound about the Delta. But for me the one that rises to the top continually is, Could we change it just by looking with a humane gaze? Documentary photographer James Natchwey has said, “If war is an attempt to negate humanity, then photography can be perceived as the opposite of war and, if it is used well, it can be a powerful ingredient in the antidote to war.” I set out to make a movie about this place in this moment lured by this possibly quixotic hope.
—SANDY CIOFFI, JANUARY 2007
The Sweet Crude film crew made four trips to the Niger Delta. In April 2008, while traveling by boat on their way to a shoot, they and their Nigerian colleague were detained by the Nigerian military. They were imprisoned for a week and finally released after an international outcry, including a letter to the Nigerian president signed by 14 U.S. lawmakers. The footage from that last trip remains in the hands of the Nigerian government.