Reading Soiled Palms Michael Peel’s ‘A Swamp Full of Dollars’

In A Swamp Full of Dollars Michael Peel connects the oil pollution rapidly devouring the livelihoods of the Niger Delta indigenes to the monstrosity of corruption spreading its tentacles throughout Nigeria’s systems.

If the Nigerian state were an oil well, Michael Peel provides a bold, deep dive through its crude content in A Swamp Full of Dollars. In the book spanning three parts across nine chapters, Peel set out with two key objectives in mind: first, to present Nigeria as a case study for any group of people hoping for fortune on finding oil; second, to distinguish, by way of trying to understand, the voices of the Niger Delta people, muffled over the years by prolonged violence, from the disorder of that violence itself.

In achieving both objectives, Peel draws from a series of interviews with many of the key players involved in the political economy of oil in the Niger Delta; a region, he explains, ‘whose fundamental problem was not precisely mass poverty, but the marginal richness that oil brings.’

An initial eye-opener is the nuanced water-world Peel presents of Alhaji Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, an audacious warlord, and his followership of Egbesu-deifying militants tucked away in the creeks across Abonema town in Port Harcourt, Rivers State. The militia, from here, targets the government and oil multinational companies in agitation for control over the oil pumped from and regardless of their land.

While Peel points out the excesses of this militia and similar groups that frequent the waterways of the Niger Delta, he is careful to comprehensively note the substance of their agitation. Peele recounts: ‘Between mouthfuls, Asari reflected on the essence of his struggle. What the world saw as oil did not belong to the Nigerian state, he said. The oil was the people’s and had been taken – illegitimately – into government control.’

In expounding on the devastating impacts of oil in Nigeria, Peel connects the oil pollution rapidly devouring the livelihoods of the Niger Delta indigenes to the monstrosity of corruption spreading its tentacles throughout Nigeria’s systems. He discusses Lagos, for instance, through the activities of street chief, Adekunle Talabi, the beach pimp, Kenneth Eze, the divisive unions of the okada riders and the danfo buses moving through the daily highway queues of state and non-state pickpockets, ‘emblematic of the destructive influence of Nigeria’s oil economy.’

Peel especially succeeds at depicting some essence of the Niger Delta’s problem in the opening and closing chapters. In those chapters, he is able to present the gun-toting, expatriate-kidnapping militants in all their humanity and their activities as the cry of a people pushed too far against the wall and wielding their guns as gongs. ‘I became a militant because of the spoiling of my people,’ Peel learns from one combatant. ‘We have oil but no development,’ the combatant says. ‘That is why I have said I will fight until my last bullet.’ Here, Peel provides the premise for an argument he eventually closes the book with: that while oil has proven to be the life blood of Nigeria’s economy, it is nothing to the average Delta resident but lubricant for the wheels of poverty.

There is ample room for objective readership through Peel’s reportorial style of writing that almost completely shuts readers from his personal thoughts and leaves them to make their own judgements. He pauses to confess at some point: ‘As a white incomer, I often have the sense of playing dual, even contradictory role. I am a potential messenger for people’s frustration and at the same time a symbol of the very privileges they say they resent.’

What Peel lacks in conciseness he makes up for in brutal honesty. Whether in the dodgy replies of the stalwarts he exhaustively interviews or in the snobbishness of the locals he interrogates, there is an unmistakable presence of the coherence of facts and an absence of any coerced narrative throughout the book. The combined efficiency of these approaches provides the authenticity that the book rides on.

Another invaluable approach Peel employs in Swamp Full of Dollars is the absence of complex theorizing. In doing so, Peel brings to mind the efforts of Western journalists reporting on Africa, such as Richard Dowden. But where Dowden in his Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, looked at an entire African continent bamboozled by the exploitative tendencies of the West, Peel homes in on the Niger Delta, providing more focused and, ultimately, more revealing narratives. His method, ultimately like Dowden’s, is an appreciable mix of journalism, history and ethnography.

However, despite the gains of his unassuming reportage, Peel cannot help falling into the same trap as many foreign journalists have: the temptation to prescribe hope for an African state and with vague terms. In his epilogue, Peel recalls a fisticuff on a Lagos highway and the deftness with which his okada rider breaks through the maze to emerge on a cleared stretch of tar. Surprisingly, he suggests this incident alludes to the brightness of Nigeria’s prospects. It is necessary to know that Nigeria’s woes stem from the flaws of its institutions. As such, any attempt at proffering a solution must either be consciously tactical or at least more dignifying than the maneuvering skill of any biker.

In the wisdom of Chinua Achebe, who Peel lavishly quotes in the book, African stories are like plugs to the gaping vertical holes in the bookshelf of world literature. A Swamp Full of Dollars, no doubt, covers a multitude of such holes and in a scarcely broached topic

A Swamp Full of Dollars
Pipelines and Paramilitaries at Nigeria’s Oil Frontier
Michael Peel
220 pp. Lawrence Hill Books, Chicago Review Press July 2010

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