ECOLOGICAL DEGRADATION IN SELECTED NIGER DELTA NOVELS
Ecological degradation, as portrayed in the Niger Delta novels of Okpewho, Agary, Nengi-Ilagha, and Abagha, is as endemic as it is unnerving. Crises occasioned by ecological degradation in the novels’ settings originate from the 1950s, when European businessmen and natural resources prospectors emerge in the place with technological tools and methods of natural resource exploitation. Since then, cultures of crises have replaced the peaceful ambience of the place, giving rise, as it were, to imbalances and disunity in the ecosystem, owing to gross extermination of aquatic and terrestrial organisms. Persistent and intractable actions of wealthy and power-drunk individuals render ineffective efforts by ecoactivists and warriors to rid the place of so much ecological mess. Frictions between these characters lead to ever worsening environmental hazards in the place.
Applying the ecocritical technique of analysing place as it affects persons and cultures, ecological degradation is found to have far more reaching effects than simple despoliation of physical surroundings. It breeds corruption, local and urban squalor, moral perversion, greed, insensitive leadership, and above all, disregard for organic unity of all that exist. As the crises rage in defiance of all solutions, characters remain recalcitrant; accusations and counter accusations are traded. Degradation and every resultant tremor in the place are as natural as their precursory human endeavors in science and technology, hence the final call of this paper for ecostoicism.
Ecological degradation refers to the filth, dilapidation, ruin humiliation and poverty that arise from unwholesome environmental practices. This is a problem, which has, in the last one or two decades, been echoed from different parts of the world. It is an issue that has posed one of the biggest challenges of our world today; probably not second to terrorism, endemic diseases, wars, or even corruption, since each of these, one way or the other, finds its root in degradation of the natural environment. As human beings advance in intellectual knowledge and in technical abilities, their desires grow and expand, far beyond the provision of basic necessities of life, to that of construction of mega structures; not simply, and necessarily for the provision of comforts, but often for mere fantasy and the luxury of aesthetic satisfaction. Mega targets are set for posterity in this same direction; so that from generation to generation, there exists in human beings the reckless urge to overthrow systems, destroy and waste existing structures in order to rebuild; and in every age, humanity does not lack ideologies that form the bases for the satisfaction of this desire to deconstruct as a step towards reconstruction.
The results of such innate desires and activities are dirt, pollution, squalor, etc., in the urban centres; a denuding of the local environment of its woods (and other natural heritage, which form the bulk of the subjects in the 1989 publication – Healing the wounds: The Promise of Ecofeminism that was edited by Judith Plant)
From an age when nature was revered to the modern age of science and technology, humanity has been engaged in the very acts of destruction of physical structures as a step towards reconstruction. For instance, the earth’s surface has to be devastated and even denuded with high-tech instruments in order to achieve sophistication in architecture. Technological methods of prospecting for fossil fuels have led to radical transformation in energy consumption, and the by-product of these activities is the prevailing global pollution of the environment. Dirt, pollution, squalor, and a denuding of the local environment through exploitation of earth and water resources – crude oil, forest trees, and mineral deposits – become a constant reality that humans and non-human natural organism have to grapple with.
Coupled with this is a degradation of the socio-cultural, moral, and economic structures of the physical environment. Evidences from the literary ecological settings of the novels selected for this study show that water navigation and exploitation, for instance, had emerged from the use of simple coracles, canoes and boats to that of large ships, which increase the volume of water masses and the space occupied by them far beyond their natural capacities and boundaries. Besides, there is a continuous washing, into the waters, of substances harmful to the existence of human and non-human organisms. The solid earth surface is not spared. Persons and animals are sacked from their natural habitats or totally annihilated by toxic matters. Support literatures create further consciousness of how urban sophistications and cravings have led to the carting away, from the local environments, resources that are meant for their preservation and the sustenance of global ecological well being.
Evidences abound to suggest that human beings are at the verge of losing their coveted pride of place in nature as a result of their greed and insatiable quest for exploitation of natural resources at a pace faster than they are being renewed. Bina Nengi-Ilagha’s Condolences, for instance, captures this problem, with one of its grave consequences – death and mourning. Crisis, insurrections and counter-insurrections are the products of thoughtless exploitation and degradation of the natural ecosystem in Isidore Okpewho’s Tides. The issue of recklessness in the exploitat on of crude oil resources and the attendant degradation of Niger Delta ecosystem is further captured in this lamentation by one of the characters: “With the rivers polluted and the delicate ecosystem damaged, fishing had become unattractive. What could be happening?” (Condolences 153). Characters in that environment and setting of the novels are as bewildered as many of the environmental writers and critics whose voices make tremendous additions to the volume of this thesis. Owing to the global nature of the problem, many of such voices are echoed from different parts the world.
The way in which one local environment is affected differs from the way others are affected. As such, different perspectives to ecological cry were sought and documented. The cry, which had been so loudly echoed in such diverse fields of study as geography, ecology, biology and the rest of the physical and behavioural sciences are discovered to have, in the last decade and a half, gained momentum in literary studies and writings. Bits and pieces of these are reflected in this thesis as each contributes to an understanding of issues in the novels. The literary ecological cry, faintly heard in different parts of the world culminated in the 1996 collection and publication of The Ecocritical Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology (edited by Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm); views from various American
ecocritics that set forth some of the basic philosophies and principles for the study of works of literature in this age of degradation of the physical environment. Prior to this publication was the 1989 ecofeminist approach of Judith Plant and other contributors to Healing the Wounds: the Promise of Ecofeminism, all of which contributed to the formation of the philosophical and theoretical base of this study.
Apart from the Western approaches, tremendous efforts have also been made by African literary scholars, writers and critics, especially in this twenty-first century, to put up defense or support for the global environmental call for the preservation of the natural ecosystem. Equally great are efforts by many critics to give ecological readings to many of Africa’s literary works that have existed long before now, all i a bid to establish the ternal interrelatedness of human beings to every other creature in the ecosystem and to demonstrate the relevance of ecocriticism as an embodiment of both theory and practice of the literary art. As in literatures from across the globe, degradation of the literary environment of the works set in Delta area has equally brought about major issues bordering on ineptitude of
many of those in leadership positions to actually deal with the problems. Many of the characters and events portrayed in these works at first appear, on the surface level, to be natural, and the challenges they go through are just some of those unavoidable challenges of daily living. But a closer study reveals that they are not simply natural, and are in fact avoidable. Some others, like oil spillage and gas flaring, appear to be mere ‘unintended consequences of exploitation of natural resources’, which is in the interest of everyone.
But, the key underlying issues in the novels selected for this study, and which are equally fundamental in many of the literatures reviewed in the course of the study, are the twin cultures of subjugation and subversion; the insensitive desires to conquer, subdue and subjugate; and then to rebel, to overthrow and to destroy that inform much of the degradations in the ecosystem. Degradations are not ‘unintended consequences’ a natural activity. They are the result of intentional activities of a select few to perpetually impoverish and enslave others in order to remain on top. They are the result of insensitive desire to destroy a people’s cultural means of living and create a mono-economic system controlled by a few powerful persons in a capitalist government and business environment. These have become the bane of the physical environment and have necessitated the current global call for a renegotiation of our environmental ideals and to weigh the consequences so far of the actions of human beings on the environment and on other creatures. At the core of each novel is environmental degradation resulting from willful
activities of characters that lead to a privation of the oikos, house or home of the teaming number of the flora and fauna in the delta.
Though not too apparent but present in these works also is the ethical question of overexploitation of a silenced, subjugated group and the converse reality of obnoxious consequences of a counter insurgency. In each of the novels studied, though not in the deepest sense of it, portraits of nature as a ‘silenced object’, to borrow Christopher Manes’ idea, are embedded, so that exploitation and degradation of the ecosystem develop progressively from the point of exposition through series of environmentally unhealthy activities and counter activities that culminate eventually in tragic climaxes and uneasy resolutions. When nature decides to talk in each of the novels, the result was untold hardship for human and non-human natures in the area. The ‘talking nature’ is therefore to be understood to mean all things – human, material, and inanimate entities – imbued with forces that make for the dynamism of the place. The activism of Bickerbug,
a central figure in Okpewho’s Tides, and the chaotic ending of the story is a vivid example of what becomes of humanity when nature decides to speak.
The novels provide some of the most dreadful conditions that are antithetical to the survival, growth and development of species in the area. The conditions of living organisms in the area, and the seemingly endless misery experienced by persons have dominated discussions in the media and the wider Nigerian communities. Global outcries regarding activities in the Niger Delta area have equally reached an alarming proportion, so that this endeavour is but a minute supplement to already enlarged species. Equally apparent in the novels (Tides by Isidore Okpewho; Yellow-Yellow by Kaine Agary; Condolences by Bina Nengi-Ilagha; and The Children of Oloibiri by Anthony Abagha) is the reality of a high level of privation in the area. Hardships experienced by many of the characters turn some of them subversive in their activities and the result is further hardships. This is the ironical consequence of ecoactivism that Bickerbug mentioned above represents. In this regard are a number of issues discovered to have been responsible for subversive activities, which in turn facilitate the enthronement of a culture
of anarchy that eventually lead to the degradation and destruction of the Delta setting of the novels. Challenges in forms of insecurity of lives and property, destruction of terrestrial and aquatic lives, poverty, moral degeneration and social unrests are some of those that the characters contend with.
Methods aimed at containment and subsequent defeat of the problems only lead to further degradations, hardships, poverty and suffering by the people. Other out-of-theway causative factors such as greed, counter activities of self-styled ecowarriors and activists, insensitivity of the leadership class, and corrupt practices in forms of nepotism, abuse of privileges and negligence of duties are some of those espied in the novels. Closer investigations equally reveal that within the Niger Delta setting of the novels are elements susceptible to the self-destruct as a result of ignorance. Ignorant of the harmful effect of their actions, many of the characters engage in harmful ecological practices, thereby endangering their existence and those of other organisms in the environment. A
number of the characters, for instance, live their normal, natural lives oblivious of harmful consequences on the environment of the exploitation of natural resources around them – felling of trees, damming of the river, oil prospecting and exploitation. Outside the novels’ Niger Delta setting, besides subversive activities that mark the struggle for political, social and economic emancipation, concern for the earth are proven
preoccupations of African Literature, even in the decades preceding ecocriticism as a literary theory; so has the question of man’s survival in the face of so much hardship in his environment.
Views from African writers and critics regarding literary ecological studies, as noted earlier, proves that African literature, critics, and criticisms have not
always been insensitive to or unconcerned about human beings and their relationship with nature, or of ecological issues, although the term ecocriticism may not have been popular before the nineteen nineties. Some of the ideas behind that literary method of study are however not new. Equally discovered not to be new is the growing challenge to world peace posed by persistent abuse of the physical environment, although this has only recently necessitated joint and interdisciplinary literary activities aimed at eradication or diminution of the challenges to the physical/ecological environment. Obviously new however is the much vocal and vigorous confrontation of institutions and values that undermine peace and harmony in the ecosystem. These confrontations and counter reactions form a major part of issues addressed in the novels, particularly in Tides.
Nevertheless, of more importance to this study is the apparent need to test the assumption that ecological challenges facing human beings and the question of survival of the human and other species on the planet earth are two ends of a natural thread, which must run unbroken until they have run their full course. It is an assumption borne out of the hardships, struggles and all forms of vices prevalent in the selected Niger Delta novels. These conditions and occurrences are portrayed as inevitable, although they appear to be unintended consequences of man’s relationships with, and exploitation of the physical environment. They are portrayed moreover as reprisals for consistent and subversive pauperisation of the “peripheral world” (Nwagbara, 2010) to gratify the greed of the world’s industrialized cities. This notion of exploitation and retributive consequences are to a large extent portrayed in Nengi-Ilagha’s Condolences and a lesser
degree equally present in the other novels. Among other discoveries made, contrary to assumptions from views of some critics, are that so much recognition is accorded issues of man and the environment, especially issues of environmental degradation by African writers and critics no less than their counterparts elsewhere.
Accusations of scepticism on the part of African literary writers and critics in lending their voices to the global ecocritical call notwithstanding, it has
been discovered that in the last decade, more and more African writers and critics have taken up the challenge to address the global issue. So much concern for the preservation of creatures other than man in the ecosystem is expressed by several Nigerian and African ecocritical writers. Concern regarding the over-all impact that lack of anxiety over misuse of the environment has caused and is causing the global human was volubly expressed. There is, however, not proportionate attention paid to one key underlying idea in the novels and in a number of support literatures. This is the idea that ecological disasters and other aberrations in the novels’ settings are inescapable retribution, which is for a purpose and for a season. Privation and subversive activities are shown to have persisted despite efforts, sincere and otherwise, to curtail them. It has taken so long, cost humanity so much in terms of devastations of the earth, loss of thousands of human and other creatures, before the realisation of the harm that is done to the ecosystem. It is only in the nineties that concern for the earth began to be taken seriously, at least by literary scholars, for a despoliation that had persisted for decades earlier. Even then, in the midst of much harm done to the
natural environment, debates over who should be concerned and who should not be continue to form part of discussions.
“Whites have more time, energy, and wealth for appreciating and aestheticizing nature and the environment … Whites should mount a global campaign to preserve what gives them pleasure …” is a view still expressed by some critics at a period when concern should be with the eradication of ecological mess
created in the process of industrialization and urbanization, and with the restoration of a clean and healthy environment. Such an argument only proves to be part of the embers that fuel the natural course of hardships that mankind must endure in reparation for the atrocious use of land, air and water at the expense of the natural environment and other creatures in it. Some of the issues prevalent in the selected Niger Delta literatures border also on the question of scepticism on the part of many of the privileged, affluent and influential persons to contain the excessive squalor and degradations arising from oil exploration and other forms of rape of the ecology of the novels’ settings and the consequences of such negligence. The ecological experiences of the characters, the flora and fauna, in these works are shown to be metaphors for the global ecological conditions of the twenty-first century and probably beyond.
This study is therefore an x-ray of greed, negligence and subversive activities by human beings, which have led to a total privation of a natural environment – the Niger Delta environment – a microcosm of the larger global environment. It successfully reveals that current upheavals, disasters and ecological imbalances, which are attributed to man’s harmful bio-activities, are but the natural and necessary pains that must accompany the greed, carelessness, and anthropocentric stance of humans in their utilization of the physical environment. It has revealed (and is successfully argued in addition) that environmental stoicism marched with dogged efforts at revamping the ecosystem would restore the glory of the earth. The affluent few who control governance, the military, business and industrial worlds hold the key to elimination the of ecological degradation and imbalances. Significant parts of energies and wealth dissipated in the global and regional utcries/campaigns concerning environmental related problems, in the media and elsewhere, should be redirected towards advocating a stoic endurance of all adverse conditions in the environment while sincere, conscious and sustained activities are carried out in the direction of standardisation of methods employed in exploiting natural resources.
The views expressed above are based entirely on events and the experiences of characters in the selected Niger Delta novels, and are approaches, which should lead to valuable reflections by the world’s leaders and all its concerned citizens. They are views that should lead to humbler and less anthropocentric view of human beings of themselves, and to their just treatment of other organisms, for as long as all persist on this earth’s pilgrimage. The chief concerns of the research are further explained in the first chapter of this thesis. The timeliness of the research is equally unambiguously articulated. In addition, a delimitation of the study, establishment of its aims, identification of its theoretical framework, and the procedure by which it is carried out are all clearly articulated therein. Moreover, since no research work is without a limitation, a lucid identification of factors, which constitute a limitation to the study, has been stated. A number of terminologies
contained in the topic of the research and others that are frequently referred to are also explained.
ECOLOGICAL DEGRADATION IN SELECTED NIGER DELTA NOVELS
1.2 Background of the Study
The significance of a study of the novels from the background of the stories is underscored by the position of Uzoechi Nwagbara that it is “imperative to factor in social facts in works of art so as to illuminate people’s path to a proper understanding of the goings-on in their society” (Dec, 2008). To this end, realities of the problems associated with degradation of the environment, with its attendant hardships, as expressed in the works of – Isidore Okpewho, Kaine Agary, Bina Nengi-Ilagha, Anthony Abagha and several other writers – are studied as present-day issues in the fictional Niger Delta settings of the novels. Nevertheless, it reveals much about the actual Niger Delta environment that has become the subject of modern Nigerian literatures and criticisms. They are essentially realities of destruction of the natural environment as a result of exploitation, principally, of crude oil; a practice that has persisted for decades, from the 1950s and 1960s when oil deposits were discovered in large quantities in the area. This culminated in the erosion of the people’s value system as characters become insensitive and highly exploitative of not just the environment but of their fellow human beings. It is as much issues of concern to this study, as they are to all global, modern eco-critical thinkers, writers and critics.
They are the realities of the destruction of the physical and psychological environments, of serious hardships, and of struggles for survival, struggles to overcome what Nwagbara Uzoechi refers to as “ecological imperialism … the systematic and strategic re-shaping, exploitation, and destruction of the local eco-systems of the peripheral worlds for the economic, political, cultural and ideological benefit of the centre” (2010). They are realities of ecological degradation. The desire for a study of the literary Niger Delta environments was borne out of long standing interaction with persons from that environment as well as with fictive and nonfictive
literatures set in the delta. It was moreover borne, in part, out of interest to establish from the novels the role of subversion, the tendency to dominate and subjugate others in the over all socio-economic and political dynamics of the place, and to relate these to degradation of the area.
The desire for the study is in part equally predicated upon evidences from the novels of willful tendencies to destroy in order to build, as opposed to the view of degradations as unintended consequences of exploitation of natural resources. Yellow-Yellow for example, opens with this background of the reality
of the problems of degradation of the place: During my second and last year in secondary school, one of the crude oil pipes that ran through my village broke and spilled oil over several hectares of land, my mother’s farm included (3). Embedded beneath the surface structure of the above excerpts, is the reality of subversion, an overturning of the status-quo, and a willful destruction of the place. ‘The crude oil pipes’ do not just run through the village. Implicit from the passage is the fact
that they are planted in the soil. Equally not vividly stated here but implied is that the breaking of the pipes and the spillage could have been avoided. The ‘several hectares of land’, with its habitat could also have been saved. Failure to save them is therefore a clear indication of the tendency of man to destroy that is subversive of the ecological culture that is further discussed in subsequent chapters.
The pipes are planted all over the villages, for purposes and needs that are obviously diametrically opposed to those of the intents and immediate needs of the villagers. It is an overthrow of the ecological principle of beneficial coexistence and interaction with the earth. The villagers have no benefit from the pipes; neither do they have any from the content of the pipes. Many would rather earn their living through a symbiotic relationship with the natural elements, one ofwhich Nengi-Ilagha captures below: [I”d] like to become a hunter. Society and the government are too unstable. I want something that is constant. Hunting is by far a more
permanent occupation. My father was a hunter all his life, and the changes in government did not affect him in any way. People still like their bush
meat, whether they are civilians or military (141). The above expression of Zeki’s career choice is a voluble assertion of interdependence of species, one on the other, and an expression of the human will and freedom. It is an expression of a culture transmitted from generation to generation, until it gets abruptly
interrupted by an alien invasion of the environment: I saw it in the forest where I went hunting today. The oil is spreading very fast with the swift current and fishes are already floating with their bellies up. Even the farm lands are not left out. There is going to be another famine this year, I’m afraid (142).
The individual’s freedom of choice is destroyed. The environment is devastated and dire consequence awaits the people. This is the background of the study. It is the reality of the erosion of environmental values by forces alien to that environment. These issues apparently run through all four novels selected for this study.
ECOLOGICAL DEGRADATION IN SELECTED NIGER DELTA NOVELS
1.3 Statement of the Problem
In his natural environment, man appears to have always desired and assumed overall control of creatures in the ecosystem. But degradations of the earth and its citizens, apparent in the Niger Delta novels, prove that human beings have not only lost control over activities in the biosphere but of the human persons as well. Devastation of land, water and air, as well as creatures within them, and the impact these destructions have on nature and organisms are of serious concern. The oil explorers, government agents and highly placed indigenes of the place fail to combat the menace of pollution; making hardships experienced in the area appear like inescapable punishment that must run its full course. In the words of Ledum Mitee: “the fundamental problem of the Niger Delta … remains the challenge posed by the very harsh environment which made development most challenging” (Mitee 2009). But perhaps more problematic is portraiture, in the novels, of
realities of near total neglect of problems in the area by government authorities and agents of oil exploration. The environment, with the challenging situation of persistent pollution and destruction of the ecosystem, and the nonchalant postures of affluent individual characters concerning the problem are thus of essence.
Furthermore, the opinion held in certain African literary circles regarding involvement of African writers and critics in the fight to ensure ‘a cleaner environment’ is quite worrisome. It is perhaps in this regard that the ecological merits of the Niger Delta novels have not been adequately exposed by critics.
The four novels selected for this study, though set in the Niger Delta, and deeply concerned with issues of the environment and degradation, have received little or no ecocritical attention from readers and critics. yellow-Yellow, for instance has received much feminist reading, but not ecological. Uzoechi Nwagbara has an extensive ecocritical reading of Tanure Ojaide’s The Activist. But no such reading is accorded Okpewho’s Tides or any of the other two novels – Nengi-Ilagha’s Condolences and Abagha’s The Children of Oloibiri. Last but not the least is the issue of Africa’s literary ecological criticism. How much awareness of modern thoughts regarding global ecological changes has been created by the novelists? Have the ecocritical principles of the study of literature been applied in the
making of the novels; and can they then be adopted as materials for criticisms of Niger Delta ecological environment? Events in the novels by Isidore Okpewho, Ndubuisi Abagha, Kaine Agary, Bina Nengi- Ilagha and a host of others reveal a world in which human beings are engaged in constant counterproductive wars for survival, and struggles that only lead to further degradation of the ecosystem, and jeopardize man’s existence and the existence of other creatures, rather
than ameliorate the situation.
The result of the struggles to revamp the ecosystem (where that happens) only leads to further hardships and degradations of the environment, resulting in instabilities in the polity, instabilities in socio- economic relationships, as well as degeneration of morals. Eco-degradation, with its attendant subversive acts, silent and voluble, and measures taken by authorities to contain them as portrayed in Niger Delta literatures, constitute the
major concern of this research. It is even more of a concern as the situations only lead to greater suffering and hardships. We are worried, in addition, that the decadence and destruction of the natural order of the ecology experienced in the selected works are retributive. Evidences from the novels actually reveal them to be so. As such, the sufferings and all clamour, violence and struggle to re-establish the natural order are but futile exercises until the retributive course is fulfilled.
This has lead to a recommendation of eco-stoicism – resilience in the face of all ecological challenge, but with a positive outlook and conscious effort to remedy the situation. Concern over the conditions of flora and fauna in the physical environment of the novels, which are characterized by severe hardship and marred by depravity and endless violence has led to a view of ecological and other disasters in the time and geographical settings of the novels (Tides, Yellow-Yellow, The Children of Oloibiri and Condolences) as the result of man’s irresponsibility in his relationship with other creatures in the ecosystem. Flood, oil pipe vandalisation, oil spillage, pipe – oil fire, etc., with their attendant consequences are the result of man’s irresponsibility in the ways he utilizes his natural endowments and
not merely unintended consequences of innocent exploitation of the natural resources.
Subversive acts of vandalism, kidnapping, killing, prostitution, hardships and other decadences prevalent in the literatures set in the Niger Delta are retributions on man for his misuse of his natural endowments. These are problems, from environmental and ecocritical perspectives, that are considered not confined to the little Niger Delta area of Nigeria, but one of a universal nature. Kumari Shikha’s ecocritical study of Indian literatures, works by the Netherlander literary scholars Bracke and Marguerite, the Oregon based professor of literature and a host of others from around the world prove the universal nature of the problem and the necessity for its study, especially in the four Niger Delta novels on which adequate critical study has not been done in the manner accomplished in this thesis.
ECOLOGICAL DEGRADATION IN SELECTED NIGER DELTA NOVELS