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PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria—The governor is at his ease, as always. Even in the 5 a.m. glare of the vast white tiled waiting room in Abuja Airport, he is immaculately dressed in a blue three-piece suit offset by a red silk tie. Assistants, drivers, security personnel, and advisers hover around in suspended animation, hanging on every word of the oga, or boss.
The oga is Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, governor of Nigeria’s Rivers State, the man who sits atop most of the more than 37 billion barrels of proven oil reserves that lie under the serpentine waterways of the Niger Delta. At 48, he is a tall, well-built man, every inch the statesman from his gold-faced watch to his measured charm. We wait for his private jet to be readied for the flight to Port Harcourt, the seat of his government and the hub of the delta’s oil industry.
An official portrait of Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan in his signature black fedora—his visage appears in nearly every public space in the country—glowers down at us. It has reason to: On Nov. 26, Amaechi and four other governors defected from the president’s ruling People’s Democratic Party to the opposition All Progressives Congress in one of the biggest upsets in Nigerian politics in recent years.
The feud between Jonathan and Amaechi has been building for the past few years, dominating newspaper headlines in Nigeria. What the “rebel governors” stand for, aside from opposing Jonathan, is unclear. As one commentator lamented, “Mainstream Nigerian politics continues to be an almost ideology-free and policy-free zone.”
Ideology or no, Amaechi is a politician to the bone. In 2007, he won his party’s primary and saw himself as rightful heir to the governorship of Rivers State after his mentor Peter Odili stepped down. On the eve of elections, however, allegations surfaced that Amaechi had amassed a personal fortune of $150 million through graft and corruption while he was speaker of the state government. His name was taken off the ballot. Furious, he formed a new alliance of convenience with alleged militant groups and had the election results overturned in court. He has been in power ever since.
As the governor of one the country’s wealthiest regions, it’s not surprising that Amaechi’s ambitions are the subject of much speculation. Many suspect that he is angling for the vice presidency in the 2015 national elections. His aspirations, along with his leadership of the coalition of rebel governors, make him a bellwether for the political and financial fortunes of Africa’s second largest economy.
“Are you scared?” Amaechi asks as we walk out onto the tarmac. All Nigerians seem to take pleasure in poking fun at outsiders’ perceptions of Nigeria as a uniformly terrifying place, but Amaechi enjoys it more than most. The question becomes a recurring joke over the course of the next few days. Am I scared now? How about now?
Each time I say no. My emphatic denial seems to amuse him. “All foreigners are scared,” he declares, as he climbs the steps and settles himself into a leather armchair in the plane’s wood-paneled interior. “But they do not know the facts,” he continues. “You are perfectly safe.”
Port Harcourt and the delta’s reputation as a dangerous place is well founded: The troubled region is one of the kidnapping centers of the world. Abductions by militant groups are a massive industry. Between 2006 and 2008 alone, ransom payments in the country exceeded $100 million. In November, two American crewmembers seized off a cargo ship were released after their capture a month earlier in an attack claimed by militant group MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta). A reported $2 million ransom changed hands, mostly paid by Nigerian officials.
Amaechi is tight-lipped when it comes to discussing the ongoing militancy in the region. At the height of the crisis in 2009, close to 1,000 abductions were reported in Nigeria according to leading kidnap and ransom insurance specialists AKE Group. By 2011, AKE claims the average number of kidnappings per month had dropped to one or two. Each time I broach the subject, Amaechi succinctly acknowledges the issue before attempting to steer the conversation toward his more photogenic development agenda. “In Port Harcourt city yesterday about 6 or 7 p.m., [I saw] a white man who was jogging. No security, nothing, but he was just jogging,” he recounts with a winning smile.
As we fly over the delta, the lush green of the wetlands is studded by orange pinpricks; fiery gas flares, rearing from the oil wells below, before tapering into thick, black smoke. A haze of burn-off hangs on the horizon on all but the breeziest days.
The delta’s oil has enriched Nigeria, Africa’s largest producer, to the point that its economy is on track to surpass South Africa’s as the largest in sub-Saharan Africa within the next few years. However, the vast majority of its 175 million people remain poor. Even as the economy expanded by an impressive average of 7.2 percent a year between 2004 and 2010, an additional 43.7 million people fell below the poverty line. The delta’s persistent security problems are a direct reflection of the depths of Nigeria’s inequality.
An hour later, we land in Port Harcourt. The governor’s entourage includes a half dozen heavily armed police officers, plainclothes security personnel, and five bulletproof Range Rovers. But Amaechi likes to show he is a man of the people when in his home state by driving himself around Port Harcourt—albeit led by a group of gun-wielding police officers in a jeep.
Port Harcourt is an unremarkable, midsize city, its streets teeming with ordinary bustle. Crowds throng street corners, wash clothes in the river’s mudflats, and wait for buses under large blue and yellow–painted awnings. Multistory buildings mix with tin-roofed shacks and shantytowns. An incomplete elevated train track snakes its way across the center of the city.
Only the occasional roving military vehicle acts as a reminder of the constant threat from militants. When years of revenue from the oil industry failed to trickle down to local populations, unrest exploded into insurgency. Beginning in 2004, groups such as MEND declared war on the government, clashing with security forces, sabotaging oil industry facilities, and blowing up pipelines. MEND is a shifting alliance of subsidiary factions, not a single group. Other independent militant groups include the Niger Delta Vigilantes—who are rumored to receive political support from Amaechi—and the People’s Liberation Front.
Amaechi arrives three hours late to a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new water purification system in Eleme district on the outskirts of the city. Oil multinational Royal Dutch Shell, which has been accused a legal battle that made its way all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 of polluting groundwater in the area with toxic benzene, has sponsored the cleanup as part of its corporate social responsibility campaign.
Despite the late arrival, the streets are thronged with Amaechi’s supporters, still enthusiastic in the muggy heat. As the convoy pulls in, the supporters wave placards bearing slogans not about water issues or Shell, but in support of Amaechi himself: “Amaechi is a symbol of a true statesman,” “Come rain or shine Amaechi can sleep with two eyes closed!,” “Eleme people are behind all his aspirations.” I sense that along with the local news media, I’m being given a show.
The governor uses an oversized pair of scissors to cut a blue ribbon festooned around the new water tap. A bewildered child is produced from somewhere in the crowd, given a cup of water, and told to drink. Amaechi goes next, taking an exaggerated sip. “Tastes like … nothing!” he says dramatically with a twinkle to the cameras. The crowd cheers. To be sure, cleaning up the poisoned groundwater in Eleme is an important achievement—yet this project will only reach about 20 percent of those affected. Shell’s representative, meanwhile, wants it made absolutely clear that the company’s involvement is a mark of the company’s benevolence, not an admission of guilt.
Projects like this are but one part of the governor’s wide-ranging development agenda, which Amaechi trumpets constantly. Under his government, money has been directed into creating an industrial zone and programs to train and supply farmers. New schools dot the district, easily identified by their mustard-yellow buildings and green tin roofs. India’s largest education contractor, Educomp Solutions Limited, has been hired to run 24 model secondary schools around the state.
When we visit one such school, the governor lounges with a proprietary air in a plush red seat in the new 1,000-person capacity auditorium. Educomp Africa’s CEO Shantaram Hegdekatte is present and eager to impress his benefactor. “This will be the most advanced school in Nigeria, probably even Africa,” he assures us as we are ushered through the well-appointed science labs and teaching rooms equipped with laptops and digital projectors. Amaechi jokes he will rescind Educomp’s contract if the school doesn’t also produce the highest test scores. Everyone laughs, but nobody doubts he means it. Contracts here are like favors—easily granted and easily withdrawn.
The governor is keen to pitch his development agenda as the main approach to fighting militancy. Unemployment and underdevelopment outside of the oil sector remain a problem, leading many desperate young men to turn to a life of violence and crime. “The solution is social security,” Amaechi asserts. “We take on poverty by creating employment.”
The bullish poverty line is a constant Amaechi refrain, but the fact that he stands accused of pocketing $150 million undercuts his credibility as a champion of social welfare. While his projects certainly look impressive, measuring their impact on development is difficult. Nigerian statistics at the federal level are notoriously patchy and inaccurate, and independent assessments of Rivers State from development agencies are non-existent. It’s simply too dangerous for nongovernmental organizations to operate there.
The kidnapping situation in the delta has improved since the height of the crisis in 2009. That year, former President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua instituted a blanket amnesty program for militants. In exchange for laying down their arms, ex-militants received a government stipend of more than $400 per month—a substantial sum in Nigeria. The program is still in place today, but many don’t see it as a sustainable solution. Amaechi opposes the program, pitting him against the federal government and Jonathan.
“I have been against [the program] from the beginning,” he says. “You don’t reward crime. You punish crime. These gentleman have not been found guilty by any court, so you can’t even call them criminals.”
While Amaechi and his advisers are keen to play up a drop in kidnappings, Port Harcourt’s security problems are far from resolved. Oil theft has become the new focus for criminal networks. A 2013 Chatham House study shows that Nigeria loses 100,000 barrels a day, or nearly 5 percent of its total output, to theft. Militants and criminal gangs tap pipelines in the marshy creeks of the delta, siphon off oil into boats, and then load it onto tankers once it reaches the coast. The operation is so large and so elaborate that the Chatham House study concluded that “top Nigerian officials” as well as “corrupt members of the security forces were actively involved.”
When asked about theft, the governor is keen to shift blame onto his adversaries in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. “The federal government is supposed to protect the pipelines, and protect oil. That is a federal mandate,” he declares.
But theft isn’t only a problem for oil profits: The holes criminal groups punch in the pipelines are left open, allowing crude to seep out and contaminate the surrounding areas. And while politicians equivocate on the responsibility, the human and environmental costs of pipeline leaks are very real.
Local residents detailed to me the consequences of drinking and bathing in benzine-spiked water over the years: skin conditions, birth deformities, cancers. “Because of the gas flares in the area, you cannot breathe good air and the water is also polluted,” Kaizer, a 90-year-old community leader, tells me. I came to a street where new filtered tap lines—sponsored by Shell—haven’t been installed. Two girls wash and collect water from a pump. The smell of benzine wafts up from the water trough.
The last time I see the governor is out the window of his study after our final interview. Our time is cut short. He has to leave to catch a plane to Abuja, then on to Europe to join his wife and family. The gravel courtyard below crawls with attendants and security officers milling among the half dozen black Land Rovers. Oga comes charging out the front door, his suit as immaculate as ever. Within seconds the convoy pulls out, leaving behind a cloud of dust in a vast, gray expanse.
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