Life, Oil and Ghosts in the delta of the river Niger

March 22, 2015 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Sweet and light – crude oil from the delta of the river Niger is the major Nigerian commodity and European and American companies export it for a profit. The bitter and dark side of the sweet and light oil is corruption, poverty and a multitude of disenfranchised young men.

Nigeria –the Giant of Africa

Nigeria, the ” Giant of Africa ” is the most populous country of the continent and also the one with the largest economy [2]. Its approximately 177 million inhabitants make it the seventh most populous country globally, as well as the country with one of the largest youth cohorts in the world [3]. In 2014, with GDP of $502 billion, Nigeria’s economy became Africa’s largest , ranking globally 21st [4]. Yet, in this seemingly prosperous country poverty still remains very significant – over 62% of the Nigerians live in extreme poverty, as reported by the World CIA Factbook.

Nigerian Oil and the TNCs

Nigeria’s oil reserves make the country the tenth petroleum-rich nation in the world; the petroleum industry being the country’s largest. Six large Trans-National Companies (TNC) operate in the country: Royal Dutch Shell, Shevron, Exxon-Mobil, Agip, Total and Texaco. However, the competition for oil profits has resulted in terror and strife, as the economic benefits resultant from the oil profits have not been distributed fairly. Corruption has been widespread with the most corrupt institutions being listed as the Nigerian police, political parties, and government.

Squeezed between corrupt public officials and the TNC are the local communities. Human Rights Watch summarizes their predicament: ‘Despite a massive army, navy and police presence in the area, local communities remain vulnerable to attack by the militias, criminal gangs and security forces. Oil companies rarely speak out publicly about such abuses; indeed, some of their own practices have contributed to the conflict ,’ (HRW, 2005: 145-146) [5].

Life – traditions and social fellowship

In Nigeria modern forms of economics and politics interact with traditional social practices, such as masked dances and rituals. Masked dances are an important part of social experiences – such as the famous masquerade in the city of Calabar – these dances are related to significant events in community life. The agaba groups, their members being only young men, have complex identities: they are urban dance societies, secret cults, masquerade clubs, urban street gangs and more (Pratten, 2007: 87) [6].

Drawing on the richness of their traditions and in spite of the poverty, the Nigerian communities and social fellowships have developed rich and multi-faceted identities. This has given them the capacity to adapt to and possibly even change their circumstances, as well as to forge social resilience, even while facing overwhelming odds.

The men behind the mask

A glimpse of the men behind the masks was possible thanks to the talk of Professor David Pratten (University of Oxford), given at the University of Cambridge [7]. Dr. Pratten’s brief account of his anthropological and ethnographic work in Nigeria followed the fortunes of several young men, members of an agaba group. The talk explored the creative ways in which poor disenfranchised young Nigerian men deal with the social exclusion and poverty and the pivotal role of masks, dances and rituals for creating strong bonds, friendship and fellowship of support. The men participate in informal gathering and dances.

A report by Human Rights Watch gives a glimpse into the difficulties faced by the young men: ‘Despite repeated promises of reform by senior government and police officials, extra-judicial killings, torture, ill treatment, arbitrary arrests and extortion remain the hallmarks of the Nigerian police,’ (HRW, 2005: 146) [8].

Prof. Pratten shared stories of arbitrary detention and police harrassment of the young men . In one particularly striking case a young man called ‘Warrior’ was incarcerated by the police for three weeks. ‘Warrior’ told the Oxford ethnographer that he was kept in cell, which was so full of detainees, that he had to stand for the whole three weeks . Some of the young men in the prison cell were taken out and shot, confided the young man to Dr. Pratten. The agaba responds to police brutality with a song:

Police, eh wetin I do, eh?
You carry Luger follow me,’ [Luger – a kind of hand-held gun]
Author Unknown, (Pratten, 2007: 96) [9]


In spite of the harsh life-circumstances, the rituals that the young men perform are full of exuberance, imagination and creativity . The agaba dances are both an expression of their vibrant relations with the world and also a social commentary and criticism of the social mores and roles. The songs, which the young men compose, speak of their dreams and aspirations – e.g. in one song a young men aspires to buy a ‘Pafinder’ – Nissan Path-finder. Yet for many of them, their dreams come to naught. The Oxford scientist finished his lecture by sharing that most of these young men are now dead. Death is a familiar subject to the agaba group, who sings about it:

agaba, Ikot Udo Obobo, 2004, Photo: Dr. David Pratten

‘Somebody got wound eh eh
Body got wound
Na burial be dat oh oh
We no dey pity person oh’
Author Unknown, (Pratten, 2007: 95) [10]

Ethnographers have argued that groups such as the agaba also perform ‘a militant theater ‘ of protest seeking to mobilize members of the community into common action. Yet, in this case the performances of the agaba group were not militant war-dances, but means of sharing and support, building a fragile fellowship of friendship in a social environment, which has denied all opportunities to the disenfranchised young men. Sadly, in spite of their youth, now many of the participants in the ethnographic study of Dr. Patten will only live on as ‘ ghost dancers ‘ and ‘ ghost singers ;’ his fragile recording being the only means by which people outside the immediate agaba community will learn about life and death in the delta of the river Niger , in one of the richest African countries.


Those, who would not be troubled by the ghosts of the agaba boys should remember that three of the six oil companies operating in Nigeria are European and three are American. Royal Dutch Shell, for example, had 421 billion USD in revenue in 2014. Yet in spite of the tremendous oil wealth, there has been ‘ no pity person oh ‘ for the agaba. Several photos and video recordings have made a fragile claim to an ‘eternal and transient’ digital celebration of the life in the delta of the river Niger. Those of us, who live outside Africa, are we afraid of these digital ghosts? We should be.


Dr. David Prattern (University of Oxford) is gratefully acknowledged as this blog draws upon his lecture ‘Militant Masks: Youth and Insecurity in the Niger Delta,’ delivered at the University of Cambridge on the 9th of March, 2015. Dr. Pratten is also acknowledged with gratitude for his kind permission to use his original photos.

The peer review, comments and suggestions of Dr. Richard Oriji, member of the University of Cambridge Nigerian Society are also gratefully acknowledged.


[1] David Pratten, 2007, The rugged life: youth and violence in South Nigeria, In ‘Violence and Non-Violence in Africa,’ eds. Pal Ahluwalia, Louise Bethlehem, and Ruth Ginio, (Routledge: Oxford), pp. 84-104, p. 94.

[2] Itibari M. Zulu, 2009, The Journal of Pan African Studies, vol.3, no.3, pp. 1-2.

[3] Nigeria, CIA World Factbook,

[4]. Ibid.

[5] Human Rights Watch, World Report, 2005. Accessed at:; Henceforth abbreviated as HRW.

[6] Pratten, 2007, p.87.

[7] David Pratten, 9 March 2015, ‘Militant Masks: Youth and Insecurity in the Niger Delta,’ Guest lecture, University of Cambridge.

[8] HRW, 2005, p. 146.

[9] Pratten, 2007, p. 96.

[10] Pratten, 2007, p. 95.


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This post was written by Tina Schivatcheva

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