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Omolade Adunbi, Enclaves of Exception: Special Economic Zones and Extractive Practices in Nigeria

Date:15 February 2023

How does oil extraction drain the Niger Delta environment of its life-bearing vitality, turning it into a site of social death? On 8 February 2023, Professor Omolade Adunbi (University of Michigan) discussed his recent book Enclaves of Exception: Special Economic Zones and Extractive Practices in Nigeria (Indiana University Press, 2022) with the AFREXTRACT team in an incisive Q&A session. The book highlights the parallels between multinational oil extraction, special economic zones, artisanal oil refineries, and liquor distillation in the creeks of the Niger Delta. Adunbi powerfully shows that the violent struggles over oil revenues cannot be understood without being attentive to knowledge production, local cosmologies, and long histories of inequality and disenfranchisement. 

Layers of vulnerability in oil disaster zones

Building on his 2015 book Oil Wealth and Insurgency in Nigeria, Adunbi illustrated how techniques of crude capture and recapture have produced different layers of vulnerability in Nigeria’s oil producing communities. His work reveals the multivalent meanings oil can hold: while oil can be sweet for the state and corporations through the profits and power it generates, its effects are often bitter for oil communities who grapple with degraded environments and social contestation. Relying on long-term ethnography, which he pairs with historical, discourse, and social media analysis, Adunbi lays bare the complex and situated understandings of oil in the Niger Delta. 

Adunbi’s new research project will be a social media analysis of climate change in Nigeria. Revealing how environmental politics are being mediated today, he showed us online commentaries of soot (sulfurous fine particle pollution) from the Niger Delta. Various people blamed the government, multinational oil corporations, and local artisanal refineries for the highly toxic soot issue in places such as Port Harcourt. These critiques are based on changing techniques of energy practices, but jointly they all contribute to the ‘social death of the environment.’ 

While the environment was once a site of profit and developmental promises - it yielded not only oil, but also plentiful fish, crops, and communal vitality - when commercial oil exploitation started in the late 1950s, the environment was sentenced to social death for the purpose of profit maximisation. As oil and the environment were converted to commodities of capital, the environment ceased to be a bearer of future life. The Niger Delta’s creeks turned from a source of survival into sacrifice zones, where three forms of death coalesced: environmental death, physical death, and the loss of livelihoods resulting in social death. Paradoxically, today’s artisanal oil refineries merely aggravate the social death of the environment as they regularly empty oil into the creeks and they produce more pollution due to their less sophisticated technologies than multinational corporations do. The environment is defined and redefined by these constant struggles over its control.

Politics, power, and protest

The presence of oil in the Niger Delta produces crude effects, in terms of politics and power. Militant groups, such as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, seek to redistribute profits from oil extraction through violent means. The practice of artisanal oil refining is equally an attempt to partake in oil’s benefits. Yet government tactics against these ‘illegal’ refineries are often as crude as oil itself. The burning of artisanal refineries devastates and incapacitates people, communities, and environments. Still, refinery operators remain resilient, in part due to their ability to negotiate with the state, military powers, and oil corporations. Sadly, these practices tend to aggravate the social death of the environment: artisanal refineries dispose of oil into the creeks, while government crackdowns cause environmental devastation by setting refineries ablaze. 

Adunbi underlined the importance of taking a historical perspective to understand struggles over oil management today. In this respect, it is crucial to consider the histories of the palm oil trade and oil prospecting in the Niger Delta, which preempted oil extraction. Yet although extractive practices might appear to add up to a ‘global fossil fuel empire’ (as one of our audience members phrased it), Adunbi very carefully unpacked the diversity of the Niger Delta and the specificity of each oil enclave. Through its research practices, the AFREXTRACT team hopes to document some of this diversity over the next few years.


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