Interview | From activist to victim to consultant.

Two months ago, on 4 May, Dutch resident and Nigerian anti-big oil activist, ‘Comrade’ Sunny Ofehe was kidnapped in the Niger Delta together with a fellow Nigerian-Dutch camera man and three Dutch supporters. They had visited the creeks of the Delta on the invitation of Sunny Ofehe’s friend, local businessman Berry Negerese, to observe the bad state of a local hospital and support a fundraising campaign to improve it.  Whilst travelling the waterways, they were accosted by local youths in speedboats, who took away the three ‘white men’ and held them for a week.

Trying to 'help' the community led to his own kidnapping

They also, very briefly, held the two expat Nigerians, but released them within 24 hours. The Dutch documentary maker later reported that a ransom had been paid to secure the release of his group, whilst Sunny Ofehe has denied this.

You were kidnapped in the Niger Delta whilst in the care of your host, business tycoon Berry Negerese. The ‘bad boys’ in that area are usually sponsored by a local ‘big man’. Could their sponsor have been your own host?

The boys who kidnapped us must have had a ‘big man’ sponsor, because they had nice speedboats, had sophisticated weapons and they were smoking drugs, which are also expensive. They could not have had these things without a rich person in the background. But I don’t believe it was Berry. I trust Berry 100%. It could have been somebody from Berry’s camp, though. I did not know who to trust [among his company, CM] because sometimes when Berry comes, about twenty community people are following. There could be somebody who is pretending to be sympathetic but selling off to somebody else.

Still, Berry Negerese had the information regarding where you were and how you would be travelling. Then he later also negotiated the release. And then he gave an account of the story that differs greatly from your own (see ‘The Rise of the Big Men in the Niger Delta’ ). Now he is refusing to answer any more questions.

He was probably forced by the dynamics of power in the Delta to say nice things about the police.

Your own kidnap was also different from the kidnap from the three ‘white’ Dutch people with whom you travelled. You were freed after one day. By that Monday afternoon the police already told reporters that you were safe and ‘kept in an undisclosed location for security reasons’, which is a phrase usually used when someone is in the care of the security forces. The person who wrote that report is your own magazine’s Niger Delta correspondent, Joe Ogbodu.

Joe Ogbodu was not with us when he wrote that and I don’t want to comment.

Did Berry Negerese really need you and the others from the Netherlands to come and support his hospital project? He owns an oil services company and seven ships that he contracts out to multinationals. He also holds a governing party position. Surely he has access to funds and capacity to manage that hospital?

Reports of Berry’s wealth are exaggerated. He is just a successful businessman. He at least tries to do something for his community. That governing party position doesn’t give him any executive power or influence.

Okay, let’s leave Berry alone. But the kingpins in the kidnapping industry are said to be local ‘big men’, who combine business interests, rebel allegiances, and political authority.

Yes. The people who are benefiting from our oil wealth now are people who at one time have carried guns against the oil companies, which is a shame. Some of the companies have contracted such individuals, who are now multimillionaires. Some of these have become minister for oil, or governor of one of the Delta states. But you don’t see them helping their community. There is a guy called Dan Etete for instance, from Odi. He owned an oil field, called the Malabu; he sold it for 1.1 billion dollars. But his community is suffering and there is no impact of a man who obtained this amount of money from an oil field that he never drilled.

Also, some of these ‘big men’ command gangs who vandalise the companies and then extort reparations from the same companies.

It’s difficult for an oil company to operate in the Niger Delta; I must be honest about that. Sometimes when there is an oil spill and the company is ready to remediate the spill, someone in the community will say: “Now I am going get a contract to clean up that spill.” Then another one will say “No, I want that contract.” So they are now starting to fight among themselves on who should clean up the spills. Meanwhile, that spill that should have been contained within the first 48 hours is spilling now for 3 months. You also get situations where the community itself sabotages the oil company, the pipelines, just because they want a remediation cleaning process. 

Companies may move out because of such things?

Yes, and people are not going to be happy when that happens. Shell has moved out of Warri for instance and now there are complaints: “Oohh, Shell has moved out, that is difficult for us. We used to have Shell workers come to buy some things in our restaurant!”

Yet you always seem to blame the oil companies for everything that is wrong in the Delta.

What the companies have done wrong is to find one person in each community to work with. So that person benefits from the oil company, he gets the contracts and the positions and the projects. And that is the wrong policy, because you only suppress the anger within the community for a short time. We have seen many clashes because an oil company has chosen just one person to make it easy for them to drill. Instead, you should spread what you have been giving to that one person evenly among the whole population.

But surely distribution of wealth and services is a government job? Or is it Shell’s?

There are things that Shell could do better. They could employ more locals. Now they employ mostly people from the capital, especially in top management. They could make vandalising more difficult by burying pipes underground, and replace corroded pipes more speedily. They could have done more for communities. But I agree that that is the job of the government, and that government has failed.  It gets the biggest share of the joint venture income and it gets taxes and royalties too, but they don’t provide services to the people of the Delta. The corrupt state and local government leaders eat all that money.  But the poor people, who are suffering, don’t even have the means to challenge the government. Are you going to court? Can you pay legal fees? No. That is why the oil companies have a duty to also question the effective distribution or usage of what they pay. But Shell is not my enemy. In my magazine I have highlighted positive things that Shell does.

When you went to the Delta last month, your delegation again generally blamed Shell for the pollution and you asked Shell to support the community you visited.

We wanted to make everyone including the Nigerian government take responsibility for what we saw as government failure there. You don’t just give funds for a project; you also have to maintain the project, to ensure that things are replaced and that salaries get paid. But they just put it there and then everybody goes away. We asked Shell because Shell has definitely failed that community. Shell hasn't done anything there.

You have said that unemployed youth are cannon fodder for gangs who vandalise and kidnap. Surely the government is to blame for the unemployment, the lack of services, and the rule of criminals?

Yes. I can see the amnesty programme [for former militants, CC] failing because there are no plans for training, capacity building, employment.  For now, these boys sit and wait every month for the message on their phone that their amnesty grant has been paid into their account. In 2015 the programme ends and they will stop getting that money. Then they’ll go back in the creek and blow pipelines.

So what should be done?

There are ways to create proper employment. There are two thousand illegal refineries in the region, where boys are hacking pipelines, stealing crude oil, refine it to diesel, petrol and kerosene. That is now a multibillion-industry in Nigeria. It is killing our environment much more than what the companies are doing. You could transform that industry and make it safe. But the government doesn’t act because politicians at the top are involved.

You are critical of companies, government and local leaders alike. But at the same time your magazine carries positive stories about all parties. In the latest issue, there is a positive story about Shell, a positive story about ex-governor Timipre Sylva, a positive story about your contact businessman Berry Negerese, and a positive story about ‘big man’ former rebel Boyloaf. Is there still an enemy? Are these advertorials?

"Publishing advertorials for all parties in the Niger Delta helps to 'engage with all stakeholders"

Yes, we do advertorials. But these are checked. There must not be untruths in them. So we tell the people that we can do your story for you, based on facts. Don’t take credit for a project that you don’t really want to do. If you consent to that, we take you on. I want to engage with all the stakeholders.

Would you accept if Shell offered you a consultancy?

Yes, of course I would do that. I would like to make them understand the dynamics of the Niger Delta.

Christina Månsson is an Amsterdam-based freelance researcher and reporter.

Read more about the businessmen behind the kidnappings in the Niger Delta in The Rise of the Big Men.