Journey to the Niger Delta with Helon Habila’s paper boat, Oil on Water

This entry is part 1 of 12 in the series Reviews season two

Last Updated on June 2, 2018 by Memorila

Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy writes that Helon Habila’s Oil on Water exposes the decay, poverty exploitation, and oppression that have pervaded the Niger-Delta since the discovery and exploration of crude oil in the region.

Most people outside the Nigeria region known as the Niger Delta area know very little of the oil politics, environmental degradation, and war between the Niger Delta militants and the Federal Government over the issue of resource control. When we sit in the comfort of our homes in the evening and see headline news like: “Militants Vandalise another Oil Pipeline!” we are wont to get annoyed at the wanton destruction of public property by these Niger Delta militants. We immediately label them criminal elements, vandals, thugs, rebels, militants, kidnappers etc.

However, very few of us have ever bothered to investigate the motive behind their actions; very few have bothered about the long history of struggling against injustice and oppression that has become the lot of the people of the Niger Delta. Perhaps, the unavailability of written materials to provide us the much needed information about the region and their agitations has left many listening to what Adichie might term “a single story” from the government. Now, here comes Helon Habila with “a paper boat” which he calls Oil on Water to take us on a journey through the brackish waters of the Niger Delta region where we would get in contact with all stakeholders in the conflict.

It turns out that Isabel, a Briton and wife to James who is a top British management officer of a foreign oil-company based in Port-Harcourt, has just been kidnapped by militants and the news is splashed in bold prints on every local and international media outlets. Requests for weighty ransoms from various militant group has reached James and he is ready to negotiate in order to get back his wife but he wants to be careful and be sure that he is negotiating with the right group of militants, the ones who have his wife in custody. So he approaches Zaq, a one-time popular Nigerian journalist, and some other journalists from various media houses in Port Harcourt to assist in meeting the right group of militants, confirm that they have his wife as hostage and commence negotiations with them.

Rufus, the narrator and a rookie journalist working as a photographer for The Reporter, volunteers to join the team of reporters going to meet the militants after the notice had been placed in their office without anyone picking interest in it; two reporters who had gone on the same journey weeks back ended up dead so it is understandable that no one wants to put his or her life at risk. Rufus volunteers to go on the journey not because he wants to exhibit a foolish bravado but because Zaq, his idol in the world of journalism, will be there and he really wants to meet Zaq again.

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However, the attempt to meet the militants at the appointed tryst is foiled by the intervention of the soldiers who in the hope of rescuing the hostage had gathered intelligence about this meeting and where it is scheduled to hold. The soldiers had arrived before the journalists and left the place in rubbles with several militants killed, few wounded, and others either escaped or gone into hiding in the forest. While other reporters took pictures of the carnage and prepared for a return journey to Port Harcourt, Zaq and Rufus decide to stay and find out more about what had transpired before their arrival. The search for answers would lead them into travelling in murky waters to meet Chief Ibiram, a local chief whose ancestral land has been wrestled from him by the combined forces of the oil companies and the Federal Government. They would also meet a sadistic military Major and his troops who derive joy in doing nothing better than killing and dehumanising the militants and anyone connected to them. Lastly, Rufus, as Zaq becomes seriously ill and later dies, alone would meet Isabel trying to make an escape which is foiled by the militants and this would bring Rufus to meet with Professor, leader of the militant camp who has Isabel in custody. Professor gives his message to the world and to Isabel’s husband in Port Harcourt. Most importantly he urges Rufus to “write only the truth!”

– 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. You can go. (p. 221)

The story is deftly written and no one should doubt the position of Helon Habila as a great writer. His style of writing is different and reminds one of the great Irish writer, James Joyce. The fragmentation of the story and the use of flashback as a narrative tool to link various parts of the story are superb, what one would expect of Joyce. Also, I do remember that Joyce also experimented with a style of representing dialogue without the use of the necessary quotation marks. Perhaps Joyce, like the popular Victorian English playwright, George Bernard Shaw, think they usurp the beauty of the prints, so he uses a long dash to indicate dialogue, same style Helon Habila employs in his novel to show quoted speech. The resultant effect of employing this style is that the words usually attached to the quoted speech and which helps to explain who is speaking and what other actions they are performing such as: “What is the time?” JOHN ASKED WHILE SQUINTING, are entirely missing which is perhaps good as they help to checkmate redundancies and permit us to move faster with the story.

Helon Habila tells a beautiful tale in a way it has never before been told and I wonder what you have been reading that has kept you from perusing this book! Well, whatever it is you choose to do, do not die till you have perused Helon Habila’s Oil on Water.

On the character and characterisation, let me say I like the characters but if asked to make a choice between the narrator, Rufus, and Zaq, I would pick Zaq any day, anytime. Zaq seems to be the kind of journalist with a flair for adventurism, all great ideas in the story comes from Zaq, he it is who made Rufus stay, he it is who brought the idea of digging the supposed grave of the British hostage, he it is who thought up the idea of being locked up with militants so as to hear their stories, and it is Zaq who designs an escape plan for Rufus after the soldiers bombarded Irikefe. Rufus on the other hand is docile, dull, and simple; he is hardly the kind of character that lights up an adventure tale. Perhaps, the only time he impressed me in the story is when he volunteered himself as a reporter hostage in place of Tamuno’s (the boat man) son who was about to be taken after Isabel was found with Chief Ibiram and his people who were en route Port Harcourt. When, as usual, Rufus approaches Zaq for ideas on how to save Tamuno and his son from the anguish the Major was putting them through, Zaq reply is:

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Nothing , my young friend. I wish it were that easy to intervene and change the course of things. It isn’t. We’ll observe and then we’ll write about it when we can. (p. 60)

I do believe that if Zaq had witnessed the dehumanisation of Tamuno and co by the Major, he would have been compelled to act without considering the consequences. Besides, from what we know about Zaq’s modus operandi in the novel, when he says there is nothing to be done, he could as well mean, “Hey relax, I have an idea of what we ought to do.” My perception however is that Habila need not have forced the narrator to take the non-alignment stance he took by being content with meeting the stakeholders and reporting events only, I was expecting him to take part in some of the action and by this I do not mean that the story should become a Marxist one. The objectivity just bothers me, especially for one who has himself suffered the hazard of oil pipeline explosion which killed his parents and left the left side of his younger sister’s (Boma) face permanently mutilated and ugly.

Still on character and characterisation, characters in the novel can be placed in six categories: the exploiters, the oppressed, the militants, the oppressors, the neutral ones, and the journalists. With the exception of the last, the others are stakeholders in the oil conflict. The exploiters are the foreign oil companies whose greed for oil exploration continues to edge them towards claiming ancestral lands of the indigenes. This group is represented by James whose exploitation does not stop at stealing people’s land for the crude oil; he also snatches the “wife-to-be” of his driver and impregnates her. These oil companies and their stooges are responsible for the environmental degradation and pollution in the Niger Delta. The oppressed are represented by Tamuno, Chief Ibiram and his people, those in this group do not wish to fight back; they just keep moving from place to place in search of a means of survival. The militants also belong to the group of the oppressed but differ in certain ways because they have chosen to fight back rather than move off the lands for the oil companies, they are prepared to shed their blood as well as that of others to redeem what belongs to them. The oppressors are the government represented by the soldiers who are hell bent on destroying all militants and those connected to them. With this group comes issue of human abuse, brutality and dehumanisation. The neutral ones just want to be left alone in peace, they want nothing of the militants or any relationship with the soldiers; these are represented by the group of sun and water worshippers in Irikefe. The last group is the journalists, represented by Zaq and Rufus, content with reporting the state of events without supporting any side of the fray.

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Again, I will not say that the writing of this novel has not benefitted immensely from Habila’s experience as a journalist, this is evident in the physical outlook of the story for the first sentence of every chapter and scene begin with bold prints, it is also evident in the style of writing for aside from being an account of the Niger Delta experience by two journalists (Rufus and Zaq), its style of writing is undeniably journalistic. Consider the idea of using interrogation to elicit stories, stories which provide the missing links and give us a vivid picture of the various aspects of the main story. Consider the account from Chief Ibiram of how his people became vagrants, the account given by the militants in Major’s custody, the account given by Dr. Mark Dagogo on the devastating effects of the oil flares on the populace of the region, and that provided by Beke Johnson (Zaq’s editor) among several others formulate the body of the work.

However, even without compelling his narrator to take sides, Helon Habila has been able to expose the decay, poverty exploitation, and oppression that have pervaded the Niger-Delta since the discovery and exploration of crude oil in the region. He has also troubled our thoughts with images of environmental degradation and pollution caused by oil spillage and gas flares affecting even animals like bats. We may remember nothing or very little about the novel but the horrid images of poverty, dead fishes floating on water and the “oil on the water” will forever continue to haunt our conscience till something is done to ameliorate the sufferings of the people of the Niger-Delta and its environment.

Helon Habila tells a beautiful tale in a way it has never before been told and I wonder what you have been reading that has kept you from perusing this book! Well, whatever it is you choose to do, do not die till you have perused Helon Habila’s Oil on Water.

© Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy 2018

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Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy

Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy holds a degree in English language and literary studies. He is a short story writer, copy editor, book reviewer, literary critic, poet, and essayist. He teaches English as a Foreign Language in Hargeisa, Somaliland.

4 thoughts on “Journey to the Niger Delta with Helon Habila’s paper boat, Oil on Water

  • April 8, 2018 at 9:50 pm

    I should get this story! Compelling review!

    • April 10, 2018 at 10:26 pm

      Yeah @Rujeko. You need to add it your library… Kudos to Eazy. E no easy!

  • April 8, 2018 at 11:12 pm

    ✔️✔️✔️ Literature pa?

    • April 10, 2018 at 10:27 pm

      Thanks Juliet for the comment. Eazy is really doing a great job…


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