Oil was discovered in the Niger Delta in the 1950s. Since then, Nigeria has become the largest oil producer in Africa and the 11th largest producer globally. Oil has generated billions of dollars in profits, but these revenues have barely touched the local population.
In many cases, rural communities where crude oil is produced face severe environmental degradation. They lack access to safe drinking water, electricity and roads. Struggles over the resources generated by the oil operations have led to conflict within and between communities, conflict between the population and the oil companies, and fights between armed groups and the oil companies as well as Nigerian security forces.
The situation in the Niger delta shows how the unjust sharing of resources and the unrestrained exploitation of the environment reinforce poverty and conflict.
Transforming the bitter waters of Marah
Reflection by the Rev. Canon Dr Ezekiel Babatunde
Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the Desert of Shur. For three days they traveled in the desert without finding water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter. That is why the place is called Marah. So the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What are we to drink?” He cried out to the Lord; and the Lord showed him a piece of wood; he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet.
(Exodus 15, 22-25)
Since primordial times, people have struggled for basic natural resources, including water which is such a crucial element of life. We find examples of this struggle throughout the Bible. For instance, the biblical story in Exodus 15:22-27 tells how the Israelites searched for clean water to be able to survive after crossing the Red Sea into the wilderness. They arrive at a place called Marah – Hebrew for “bitterness” – where they find water but discover that it is not fit for drinking.
The name of the place “Marah” can be interpreted simply as a literal reference to the “bitter” water. But we can also read it as a figurative description of the situation and of the mood of the people. Fleeing from the Egyptians and crossing the desert without water, the Israelites find themselves in a difficult moment. Their grumbling against Moses is also an expression of an inner bitterness, one that may be borne of feelings of fear, frustration, hopelessness, and, it seems, a lack or temporary loss of faith.
Today, in the Niger Delta area people are also thirsty, searching for clean water in order to survive, similar to the Israelites in Exodus. Their situation is “bitter” – despite an abundance of water around them, they have no water to drink. Searching for clean and drinkable water is a herculean task particularly for women and children who often walk more than three kilometers to get water for their families. Like many other blessed nations situated in sub-Saharan Africa, Nigeria has abundant natural resources, particularly oil, which has made it attractive to multinationals scrambling for its resources. Three decades of oil exploitation have caused ecological devastation in the region. Water provided by various rivers in the area has been polluted, making it undrinkable.
Most of the people are very poor and, as much as they struggle, cannot escape from this poverty. They are constantly humiliated and mistreated by local leaders while only demanding clean and good sanitation for the area. In Exodus the Israelites were humiliated by the Pharaoh during their stay in Egypt. Corruption and injustice create conflicts and violence.
The Niger delta seems to be indeed a place of bitterness. Yet its inhabitants have not lost their hope and faith. They cry out for justice every day. In Exodus, the Israelites were guided by Moses, God’s chosen prophet, who leads the Israelites to salvation from the hold of the Pharaoh – a journey which begins with clean water being turned to blood in the first plague (Exodus 7, 20-21): “He raised his staff in the presence of Pharaoh and his officials and struck the water of the Nile, and all the water was changed into blood. The fish in the Nile died, and the river smelled so bad that the Egyptians could not drink its water.”
Moses stood before those in power, the Pharaoh and his officials, challenging them to open their eyes and hearts, to stop the oppression of the Israel people. He led them to freedom. In Marah, he threw a tree into the bitter water and purified it.
The Nigerian people need such leaders, leaders who can liberate them, who can bring justice to the innocent men, women and children who have been mistreated, and to those to whom access to good drinkable water and a good life have been denied. Leaders who will, like Moses, not only purify water but heal the people and restore their trust.
Like the Israelites in the desert, the children of God in the Niger delta and elsewhere depend on drinkable water to live; such water is a sign of God’s purpose to provide every good thing for life, so that we can all fulfill the purpose for which we were created. To deny access to water, to pollute and destroy natural sources of water is to be Pharaoh: refusing to listen to God, and God’s will for humanity and all living beings. With Moses, we are all called to confront such Pharaohs in our different global contexts. When we are indifferent to the suffering of others, or in a way participate in economic or political structures that deny water to those who thirst, we must confront the Pharaoh within ourselves.
When the “Marah” is removed from our hearts—the inner bitterness, borne of feelings of fear, frustration, hopelessness, and lack of faith—only then can we, with Moses at Marah, use that part of the tree of life which has been entrusted to us, and make access to drinkable water for all a reality. Then we hear the words of Jesus in a new way: “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward” (Matthew 10.42)
Rev. Canon Dr. Ezekiel Olusegun Babatunde is a theologian from Immanuel College of Theology and director of the Institute of Church and Society of the Christian Council of Nigeria. He is priest and vicar of Christ Anglican Church, Kotami, Ojoo, in the Ibadan North Anglican Diocese, Nigeria.
Opinions expressed in Biblical reflections do not necessarily reflect EWN and WCC policy. This material may be reprinted freely, providing credit is given to the author.
Background and resources
Oil, water, and conflict in the Niger Delta
Overview on “Oil, water, and conflict in the Niger Delta” with links to further information, prepared by the Christian Council of Nigeria (CCN) and the EWN.
Africa is not for sale! Extractive Industries and Civil Society
A dossier by Brot für die Welt: The issue of access to and control of resources as one of the major causes of conflict within societies and between states in Africa. With an introductory statement by Agnes Abuom, member of the Executive Committee of the World Council of Churches.
The documentary film Sweet Crude tells the story of Nigeria’s Niger Delta. Already available for lease for educational institutions in the USA, it is soon to be released on DVD. Find out more at www.sweetcrudemovie.com.
The Dilemma of Restorative Justice When ‘All Are Guilty’
A Case Study of the Conflicts in the Niger Delta Region of Nigeria
This article examines the applicability of restorative justice principles to the conflict in the oil-rich Niger Delta region of Nigeria. It argues that the mere application of restorative justice principles does not guarantee success. For outcomes to be restorative, there must be a committed pool of facilitators, advocates and restorative justice enthusiasts – both externally and internally.
© 2007 African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD)