Oil Spill Nigeria

Storytelling the Slow Violence of Environmental Degradation in The Niger Delta

Two works that exemplify storytelling of slow violence in the Niger Delta are Helon Habila’s novel Oil on Water and Samantha Iwowo’s film, Oloibiri.

Oil on Water
Helon Habila
W.W. Norton
Curtis Graham

The Niger Delta has been in crisis since 1956 with the discovery of oil in Oloibiri. The crisis hasn’t been spectacular; it has been slow and constant with major environmental and social consequences. The Niger Delta economy transitioned from local wealth production to dependence on transnational enterprises to extract oil. The transition generated a wealth surplus appropriated by government officials and a few elites who had not contributed to producing this wealth but benefited from it, while people in the villages fell into extreme poverty. At the same time, the oil spills killed the fish, made the water undrinkable, degraded the soil, and made the area economically unproductive.

Despite its severity, the crisis in the Niger Delta does not receive international attention. This is evident in the introduction to scholar Cajetan Iheka’s Naturalizing Africa (2019), where he mentions that his motivation to write the book was the amount of media attention received by the Deepwater Horizon 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill and how quickly the oil companies and the government response was, in contrast with the constant oil spills in the Niger Delta that tend to go unnoticed. Yet, while the international media ignores it, the Niger Delta crisis is consistently represented in Nigerian fiction.

Scholar Rob Nixon defines environmental land and social degradation as forms of slow violence: “a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous, but rather incremental, accretive, its calamitous repercussions playing out across a range of temporal scales.” The crisis in the Niger Delta is a direct form of slow violence because it is a conscious act made by the government and the oil companies to exploit the area with disregard for the land and the population. It is a slow, almost invisible process that has long-term consequences and has made the Niger Delta a region in a constant state of environmental crisis.

Yet, representing the suffering in the form of slow violence becomes increasingly difficult due to its lack of visibility. According to Nixon, “In an age that venerates instant spectacle, slow violence is deficient in the recognizable special effects that fill movie theaters.” While Nixon emphasizes the importance of environmental writer-activists who showcase the crisis, he does not offer a concrete way to make it universal. Therefore, I argue that environmental writer-activists that want to make the crisis in the Niger Delta universal can strategically incorporate bursts of what I call “spectacular violence” – forms of violence like explosions, shootings, and conventional forms of immediate violence – in their work to make the slow violence visible and illicit an affective and emotional response in the audience or reader.

Two works that exemplify conveying slow violence in the Niger Delta are Helon Habila’s 2010 novel Oil on Water and the film Oloibiri (2015) written by scholar Samantha Iwowo and directed by award-winning Curtis Graham. On its surface, Habila’s Oil on Water is about the kidnapping of the wife of an oil executive by a guerrilla group that uses spectacular violence. However, a close reading reveals that the novel’s main interest is portraying the slow degradation of the land. The action-driven plot engages the audience, while the descriptions of the land itself give the text the underlying ecological message. Similarly, Graham’s Oloibiri, at the surface, tells the action-driven narrative of multiple kidnappings by a guerrilla group with constant spectacular violence. Yet, the underlying environmental message quickly becomes the center of the film. 

Scholar Philip Aghoghovwia describes this connection between violence and plot, “the form of sociality that oil energy generates in cultural productions is imagined and inscribed in idioms of violence”. In other words, the oil activity in the Niger Delta can’t be detached from the violence in the region because it causes not only violent reactions from the people who live in the region but also creates slow violence in the environment itself. Violence is intrinsic in the text, and the stories of Oil on Water and Oloibriti can’t be imagined without it.

The Writer Activist and Truth in Oil on Water

Habila’s Oil on Water is written like a highly descriptive non-fiction narrative, which gives it a realistic edge. Yet, he uses violence from the first page to make the text engaging and create a motif for Rufus, his fictional journalist, to write this story: “So, yes, there was an accident, a fire. An explosion in the barn with the oil drums. The fire flew on the wind from house to house, and in a few minutes, half the town was ablaze. Many people died, including John’s father.” Rufus’ life has been destroyed not only by the explosion but also by the overarching crisis. Now his father is in jail, his sister is burnt, and he has no place to go.

The violence in the form of the explosion has turned Rufus into what Nixon calls an environmental writer-activist. While the narrative is telling a specific story, motivated by a specific moment, he is drawing attention to the larger crisis in the Delta, a crisis that would be invisible without the writer-activist.

Rufus’ narrative of the crisis in the Delta is motivated by his relationship with Zaq, another journalist. Rufus models his journalism on his conversation with Zaq: “Remember, the story is not the final goal. — Then what is? —The meaning of the story and only a lucky few ever discover that. But I think you know that instinctively, otherwise you wouldn’t be here.” The writer-activist’s – in this case, Rufus’— goal becomes not only to tell the story but to find the meaning behind it, which in this case is showcasing the degradation of the land and the people as slow violence.

While Oil on Water has bursts of spectacular violence, it is grounded in the search for meaning. Rufus is writing his account to give meaning to his personal crisis, as well as the crisis in the region. By immersing himself in the crisis, living with the guerrillas, the military, and in the people of the peaceful town of Ikerfefe, Rufus can understand the complexity of the story and then write the account with a realistic perspective. This results in Rufus being both a character and the writer-activist that guides the public into the crisis from several perspectives.

The complexity of the slow violence in the form of land degradation is difficult to represent in a novel. However, Habila uses highly descriptive journalism to convey environmental destruction. The text is written in first person, immediately making it feel like a realistic descriptive conversation. This is evident when Rufus writes, “The atmosphere grew heavy with the suspended stench of dead matter. We followed a bend in the river and in front of us we saw dead birds draped over tree branches, their outstretched wings black and slick with oil; dead fish bobbed white-bellied between tree roots.” By making the description almost visceral, it creates effect, and the effects of slow violence become palpable and complex. For example, the repetitive use of a common word like “dead” and its relationship to violence produces the effect in the scene, while the descriptive image of the dead birds and dead fish creates an instance of immediate spectacular violence.

Furthermore, Oil on Water showcases how the West ignores the slow violence caused by the oil companies and forces spectacular violence as a response. In Zaq’s conversation with Floode, the oil executive whose wife has been kidnapped by the guerrilla group, he explains it:

“But I don’t blame them for wanting to get some benefit out of the pipelines that have brought nothing but suffering to their lives, leaking into the rivers and wells, killing the fish and poisoning the farmlands. And all they are told by the oil companies and the government is that the pipelines are there for their own good, that they hold great potential for their country, their future. These people endure the worst conditions of any oil-producing community on earth, the government knows it but doesn’t have the will to stop it, the oil companies know it, but because the government doesn’t care, they also don’t care”. The hopelessness in the passage results from the slow violence and forces people in the villages towards illegality. The tension in the conversation isn’t about the act of spectacular violence – in this case, the kidnapping of Floode’s wife—but over Floode’s lack of awareness or empathy on the situation of the local communities caused by the oil companies, which works as an analogy for the West as a whole ignoring the crisis. 

The role of the writer-activist is defined in the novel by The Professor, who is the leader of the environmental guerrillas, when he tells Rufus: “Write only the truth. Tell them about the flares you see at night, and the oil on the water. And the soldiers forcing us to escalate the violence every day. Tell them how we are hounded daily in our own land. Where do they want us to go, tell me, where? Tell them we are going nowhere. This land belongs to us. That is the truth, remember that.”

The Professor wants Rufus to write about the elements that make the slow violence visible, which makes Rufus contemplate the idea of spectacular violence as a way of ending the slow violence. Yet, that is not the case, as Rufus mentions, the flares are still sending smoke up, the kidnapping didn’t end the crisis, and overall, the spectacular violence hasn’t generated enough effect for people in power to stop the crisis. Yet, the task of the writer-activist is to keep writing about the crisis, hoping to generate enough effect at some point to generate a pro-active response. 

Oloibiri‘s Formalistic Activism

Because film is a collaborative art form, instead of an activist-writer, the text becomes the one doing the social work in the form of an activist film. Like Oil on Water, Oloibiri revolves around the kidnapping of a person from the West, in this case, the American oil executive Powell (William R. Moses) and his family, who the environmental guerrillas kidnap to get a new oil drilling project canceled. The film showcases slow violence by using documentary-like features. Yet, to generate spectacular violence, it indulges in excessive aggression at points, both to bring attention to the slow violence and make it an entertaining action film.

Sophia McClennen, in her article “From the Aesthetics of Hunger to the Cosmetics of Hunger”, argues for “cosmetics of hunger”. By bringing together “aesthetics of hunger” as raw footage of suffering (Rocha) with First Cinema aesthetics, an action film can bring attention to a specific issue while engaging a wider audience than a film that, say, focuses on the “aesthetics of hunger” would. Oloibiri combines the social consciousness of the aesthetics of hunger with Hollywood aesthetics to create an activist film that universalizes the crisis in the Niger Delta. 

This activist film uses the cosmetics of hunger to demonstrate the complexity of the slow violence inflicted on the land in the Niger Delta. Oloibiri was shot on location in the town of Oloibiri, like a documentary. Using flashbacks, the film shows how people in Oloibiri first saw the oil drillings as something positive that would bring jobs and prosperity, in line with Nixon’s argument that “[Slow violence] is not viewed as violence at all.” However, the slow impact is evident from the film’s first shots, which reveal smokestacks fuming over the Delta, a dark dusky sky, and a river full of dead fish. The shots highlight the results of the slow violence, from a thriving ecosystem, into a death zone.

Oloibri also uses flashbacks shot in black and white like a documentary to show the before and after effects upon the land. The minor-keyed piano soundtrack also indicates the sadness and pain caused by the environmental destruction and its impact on the community. The decaying buildings showcase the impact of slow violence on the community and the land. In the flashbacks, the architecture looks strong, modern, and new, yet the same buildings are degraded, dirty, and old when the film returns to the present. 

Oloibri claims that the beginning of the slow violence in the Delta is because of the failure of the old generation to protect the land from the oil companies, which creates tension between the older and the younger generation. The film’s first scene is a black-and-white shot of a funeral, where we hear crying, and two bodies are carried for burial. The camera stays static and reveals Timipre (Olu Jacobs), the representative of the older generation. He is heard yelling “murderers”, and there is anger and pain in his eyes, showing the rawness of the aesthetics of hunger. The funeral is for Timipre’s brother and mother, highlighting how the oil exploitation has affected Timipre personally throughout his life, in what Nixon would define as “calamities that are slow and long-lasting, calamities that patiently dispense their devastation.”

This is also made evident by the aesthetics of hunger, which show the raw devastation from the slow violence in Timipre, and how it has degraded him from a village leader into a sad old man. In the present day, Timipre is seeking psychological help to deal with the trauma of the death of his family. His failure to protect the land and the people haunts him.

The spectacular violence is represented by the younger generation, the environmental guerrillas, while the slow violence results from the government and the older generation’s greed. Iheka makes the argument that the younger generation is drawn into violence because “with the failure of the state and the oil companies to create the necessary sociopolitical conditions for Delta communities to thrive[…] the young people end up unemployed, poor, and bereft of any form of social capital will resort to violence”.

Similar to the character of The Professor, another character named Gunpowder (Richard Mofe-Damijo), the leader of the environmental guerrillas, justifies violence because of lack of opportunities. However, Gunpowder places the blame directly on the older generation when he tells Timipre that the violence is his fault because he failed to protect the land. Gunpowder is pushed into militancy because of the slow violence, and the film makes it evident. In other words, Gunpowder will end the slow violence with spectacular violence because the older generation failed him. 

In contrast with the book – where the guerrilla group’s violence doesn’t solve anything— the film argues that the kidnapping of Powell succeeds as a form of spectacular violence to bring attention to the slow violence because the oil company and the Nigerian government agreed to cancel the project. The film’s ending is an acknowledgment by the older generation and the oil company of their culpability in bringing the slow violence in the first place. Powell and Timipre shake hands with Timipre’s son and the psychologist looking on.

Powell: “I am sorry, I should have known more than I did. And I am sorry.

Timipre: “I’m sorry too.”

According to Iheka, cultural productions depicting the crisis in the Niger Delta promote violence. For philosopher Frantz Fanon, colonialism is a violent phenomenon that should be resisted with equal violence. Yet, the depictions of violent resistance in these two texts also complicate Fanon’s theory because they show the negative parts of responding with spectacular violence. In Oil on Water, the oil bunkering in the first scene that results in the explosion is seen by Rufus’ father as a way to get back at the state and the oil companies. However, the results are disastrous: Rufus’ father ends up in jail, his friend John dead, and Rufus’ sister is badly burnt.

Iheka says critics tend to celebrate these acts of resistance, yet Habila seems to take a stance against them. By strategically showing the damage of both the slow violence and the spectacular violence, as well as the damage done by the oil companies and the resistance, the writer-activist shows the complexity of the crisis. Habila demonstrates the limits of human agency while still condemning the actions of larger agents such as the government and the oil companies. 

Works Cited

Aghoghovwia, Phillip. “Nigeria”. Fueling Culture: 101 Words for Energy and Environment, by Imre Szeman et al. Fordham University Press. 2017.

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Grove Press. 1968. 

Habila, Helon. Oil on Water. Penguin. 2011 (

Iheka, Cajetan. Naturalizing Africa: Ecological Violence, Agency, and Postcolonial Resistance in African Literature. Cambridge University Press. 2017.

Iwowo, Samantha. Oloibiri. 2015. Netflix.

Mbembe, Achille. On the Postcolony. 1st ed. University of California Press. 2001. 

McClennen, Sophia A. “From the Aesthetics of Hunger to the Cosmetics of Hunger in Brazilian Cinema: Meirelles City of God”. Symplokē. vol. 19, no. 1-2, 2011. JSTOR.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard University Press. 2013.

Nixon, Rob. “Slow Violence”. The Chronicle of Higher Education. 2011.

Rocha, Glauber. “Aesthetics of Hunger.” 1965. JSTOR.