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Poetics of cartography: globalism and the “oil enclave” in Ibiwari Ikiriko’s Oily Tears of the Delta



This paper examines the ways in which ideas and discourses generated by global phenomena (such as the Oil Encounter) travel and get reframed in local topographies. It asks how one might reposition hermeneutics appropriate to a particular context without falling into the trap of an epistemology that is purportedly global but representing other interests? The environment in which crude oil is extracted has been termed heterogeneous and international. Amitav Ghosh describes it as one that is “lacking in a sense of place,” while James Ferguson considers it an “insular and socially thin neoliberal landscape of deregulated enterprises.” This paper goes against the grain by challenging the formations that undergird some of these assumptions. It takes the Niger Delta as a landscape in which quotidian life and the oil infrastructure are intimately intertwined and asks what insights might literary depictions of this context give about the form of globalism that operates within the industrial complex through which oil is extracted. Reading Ibiwari Ikiriko’s poetry collection Oily Tears of the Delta, the paper reflects on how the text stages a dialogue with the global by addressing itself to the oil infrastructure in that environment. It discusses Ikiriko’s poetry as one that encourages the reader to think about locality and geopolitics as possible sites of conflict, as sites of understanding power and the kinds of agency that they enable in the environments where oil is extracted to feed global consumption.
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Social Dynamics
A journal of African studies
ISSN: 0253-3952 (Print) 1940-7874 (Online) Journal homepage:
Poetics of cartography: globalism and the “oil
enclave” in Ibiwari Ikiriko’s Oily Tears of the Delta
Philip Aghoghovwia
To cite this article: Philip Aghoghovwia (2017) Poetics of cartography: globalism and the
“oil enclave” in Ibiwari Ikiriko’s Oily Tears of the Delta, Social Dynamics, 43:1, 32-45, DOI:
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VOL. 43, NO. 1, 3245
Poetics of cartography: globalism and the “oil enclave” in
Ibiwari Ikiriko’s Oily Tears of the Delta
Philip Aghoghovwia
Department of English, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa
This paper examines the ways in which ideas and discourses
generated by global phenomena (such as the Oil Encounter) travel
and get reframed in local topographies. It asks how one might
reposition hermeneutics appropriate to a particular context without
falling into the trap of an epistemology that is purportedly global but
representing other interests? The environment in which crude oil is
extracted has been termed heterogeneous and international. Amitav
Ghosh describes it as one that is “lacking in a sense of place,” while
James Ferguson considers it an “insular and socially thin neoliberal
landscape of deregulated enterprises.This paper goes against the
grain by challenging the formations that undergird some of these
assumptions. It takes the Niger Delta as a landscape in which quotidian
life and the oil infrastructure are intimately intertwined and asks what
insights might literary depictions of this context give about the form
of globalism that operates within the industrial complex through
which oil is extracted. Reading Ibiwari Ikiriko’s poetry collection Oily
Tears of the Delta, the paper reects on how the text stages a dialogue
with the global by addressing itself to the oil infrastructure in that
environment. It discusses Ikiriko’s poetry as one that encourages
the reader to think about locality and geopolitics as possible sites
of conict, as sites of understanding power and the kinds of agency
that they enable in the environments where oil is extracted to feed
global consumption.
In our country, geography is destiny.1
Literature, the Oil Encounter and a globalism of non-being in the Niger Delta
Crude oil is a global commodity, which permeates every aspect of quotidian life; it remains
the pre-eminent energy that fuels contemporary civilisation and its proigate cultures. In
much of the global South of which Nigeria’s Niger Delta is part, the sites of oil extraction are
considered neoliberal landscapes of deregulated enterprises, and its environs are deemed
international and heterochthonous.2 I argue in this paper for the imperative of contextual,
The Oil Encounter; neoliberal
globalism; Niger Delta;
environment; justice
© 2017 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
CONTACT Philip Aghoghovwia
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place-based provenances in the representation of human experiences associated with the
Oil Encounter.
e term “Oil Encounter” is introduced by the Indian writer and critic Amitav Ghosh
(2002, 76) in his path-breaking essay, “Petroction: e Oil Encounter and the Novel.” Ghosh
(76) suggests that there is little presence of oil in cultural expression and reects on why the
“Oil Encounter has proved so imaginatively sterile.” He argues that representing something
of such magnitude as the Oil Encounter in literature can only be done adequately through
narratives of epic quality or of signicant historical depth and intellectual seriousness. Ghosh
claims that the absence of a truly satisfactory form that can give the Oil Encounter a literary
expression (79) has made the Oil Encounter suer a representational crisis, not only in the
American literary circuit but also, and even more so in other worlds where oil is extracted,
namely Arabia, Africa, and South America. is essay was originally published in 1992 as a
review of e Cities of Salt Trilogy published in 1989 by the Jordanian writer Abdelrahman
Munif – although the version cited here appears in his book collection, e Imam and the
Indian (2002). Ghosh (79) discusses the environment in which oil is extracted as one that is
“lacking in a sense of place,” insisting that “the experiences associated with oil are lived out
within a space that is no place at all, a world that is intrinsically displaced, heterogeneous,
and international.” He concludes that this peculiar character of the oil ontology is at odds
with the literary form that captures its experiences, the novel, which “luxuriates in a sense
of place.
Since the publication of that classic essay, literary depictions emanating from these other
worlds show that the oil encounter exceeds Ghoshs framing – that there isn’t just one
Oil Encounter which is marked by the arrival of the American oilmen in the Arab world
(although that is an important beginning of oil capitalism). Rather, recent literary narratives
have tended to explore other historical contexts – geopolitical and environmental – that
constellate around the production of oil and the petro-modernity that it brings into being.
ese concatenating forms of relations have in turn shaped the literature – both its form
and its subject matter – that captures the experiences associated with the Oil Encounter.
Reading the Nigerian poet Ibiwari Ikiriko’s Oily Tears of the Delta (2000), there is a geo-
political discourse of cartography that is imbricated in the internationally constituted oil
infrastructure in the Niger Delta. is cartographic trope is a material one in the form of
signposts put up by the government in conjunction with the oil multinational companies
to indicate right of way for the pipelines underground. Ikirikos poetry dialogues with these
signposts, engaging the images, and messages they communicate as ones that carry signif-
icant power, which operate to govern everyday life and to control local subjectivity at the
sites of oil extraction. It is this concrete texture of power, to which the poetry is addressed
that shapes the literary form of his work.
In the Niger Delta, the oil enterprise inscribes within its sphere of operations a form
of globalism akin to a preceding (and, perhaps, continuing) history of European colonial
expropriation on the African continent; indeed, contemporary neoliberalism travels along
the routes gouged out by colonialism. In the last chapter of his inuential book Global
Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order (2006), James Ferguson provides a fascinating
analysis of the nature of neoliberal capital investments in Africa, noting their overwhelm-
ing inuence on, and yet insular presence in, the landscapes of Africa’s mineral resources.
Ferguson (195) proposes the notion of oil as an “enclave commodity” to discuss the ways in
which the politics of neoliberalism and economic exigencies of mineral extraction converge
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to insulate and occlude oil’s political economy from the national economy and sociopolit-
ical ecology of its local hosting communities. In what he calls “Extractive Neoliberalism,
Ferguson argues that the peculiar nature of oil production – its extraction and circulation
allows it to be insulated from local crisis, internal politics, and more importantly, from
the local economy of the hosting communities or countries.3 In discussing the extractive
industry of oil in Angola and Nigeria, Ferguson observes that the oil industry is disentangled
from national level social, environmental, and political entanglements, facilitated by new
forms of spatial exibility that are made possible by neoliberal conventions of deregulated
markets allowing free movement of capital across “broken borders” (205).
According to Ferguson, there are at least two types of enclave in the oil industry in Africa.
e rst one is marked by the fact of geological provenance by way of the oshore location
of oil production, as in the case of Angola. e only connection that this type of enclave
has with its surrounding context is through the sheer fact of its installation in the territorial
waters (that is, within the boundaries of the littoral zones) of the host nation and, in this
particular case, the close relationship between the industry and the MPLA4 Government
of Eduardo dos Santos. e second type of oil enclave is illustrated by the case of Nigeria,
where most oil production installations are located onshore in inhabited environments.
ese involve what Ferguson (2006, 203) describes as “the spatial enclaving of production
sites with the use of foreign crews of skilled workers and private security forces” to protect
foreign investment, and safeguard the essentially global commodity of oil from local inter-
ference. Ferguson identies this particular type of oil enclave as a vestige of colonial-era
extraction and indirect governance, where “private companies with their own private armies
(from King Leopold’s Congo to the British South Africa Company) pioneered methods for
securing economic extraction in the absence of modern state institutions” (207). Ferguson
concludes that this absence of state regulations has enabled “exible and opportunistic
forms of deregulated enterprises to ourish in Africa” (210). us, for the local populace
at the extraction sites, claims to autochthony and, by implication, indigenous rights are
suspended for the oil commodity to ow without hindrance to the international markets.
Such is the case for the Niger Delta.
In a recent essay, Mbembe (2014) takes up the notion of oshoring in Africa to discuss
the ways in which global capital eschews any form of control by government or meddling
by local communities, and works within the parameters of its own codes, ones that enable
and ensure the disconnect between local communities and the enclaves of global nance
capital in Africa. He suggests that what are for Ferguson two dierent kinds of enclaves are
a single, unied form of oshoring, even though the one is geographically located onshore.
Mbembe names this “o-shore” an “evocative metaphor of placeless-ness,” noting that while
necessarily a “geographic location,” the oshore is also a “set of socio-material practices
that make it possible for the production of prot to “evade or minimise contestation” (2014,
143). e political economy of oil extraction works to orchestrate a disconnection between
resources claimed by the state, increasingly an agent of the free market, and resources of local
communities – “not even to mention the intrinsic value of nature” (Bassey 2012, 11), which
can never be reduced to the functionality of resources. is modality of neoliberalism, which
disconnects its sphere of prot-making ventures from local communities, is not unique to
the oil industry alone; it underscores the very tenets by which global capital has come to
reinvent itself in this post-industrial world of what is called, ironically, the free market.
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Two important points can be construed from the foregoing. e rst is that, when it
comes to the natural environment, what counts as exploitable resource for capitalist extrac-
tion is inconsistent with what is perceived as a usable resource by local communities. is
is precisely because, for the latter, the ideal natural resource is an environment which is
liveable, one that is able to support both human and the non-human life. e second point
is that, outside the purview of extractive capitalism, nature’s capacity to sustain ecological
life imbues it with an intrinsic value, which can neither be reduced nor subjected to crass
instrumentality. An important intervention that this paper seeks to make, therefore, is
to bring into focus these two points, which have been obscured by the extractive logic of
global capital.
In the landscape of the Niger Delta, oil extraction can be seen as both the product of and
the condition for the sustenance of globalism. e Nigerian poet Ifowodo (2005, 5) names
the global circuit within which oil circulates a “chain of ease.” But what about its ancillary
eects on those that exist outside the political economy of this globalism – the indigenous
locals? In a sense, the form of globalism that the oil enterprise creates for the non-partici-
pating locals may be described, following Bhabha (1994, 12), as “the chains of circumstance
that incarcerate” at the sites of (oil) extraction. e form of globalism that one encounters
in the oil enterprise of the Niger Delta operates to undermine local pressure. It substitutes
local subjectivity for pluralistic nonbeing, so long as this pluralism enables unhindered ow
of prot from the internationally constituted political economy of oil extraction. is is why
literary depictions so oen show that everyday life is negotiated almost exclusively under
the sign of the marginalised; they call into question the containment of local subjectivity in
a boundary that exists alongside but excluded from the asymmetrically internationalised
infrastructure of oil. e Niger Delta is maintained as an island of oil extraction ostensibly
devoid of local intrusion, that is to say, devoid of the inherent deprivations inicted on the
locals and their corollary demands of recompense.
e literature that captures quotidian reality and gives expression to local experiences
of the Oil Encounter in the Niger Delta is thus at odds with the intrinsically internation-
alist character of oil: it issues from a place-based consciousness that is vernacular and
autochthonous. is is precisely because, whilst necessarily a global phenomenon, the Oil
Encounter in the Niger Delta is an encounter with the side eects of its production on the
local ecology. What are then portrayed as the markers of this (oil) encounter are the oil
spills and gas ares, which pollute farmlands and water bodies, and the presence of the oil
infrastructure in the host communities, which constrains human mobility and conditions
local subjectivity. All of these combine to intrude on everyday life and to disrupt notions
of ecological wellbeing.
Geopolitical injustice and the imperative of historiography in Ikiriko’s poetry
Ibiwari Ikiriko was born in 1954 in Kano, a city in northern Nigeria, but he grew up in
Okrika, an inner city suburb of Port Harcourt – the largest city in the Niger Delta and the
commercial capital of the petroleum industry in Nigeria. He unfortunately died soon aer
his rst and only poetry collection, Oily Tears of the Delta, was published in 2000. Oyeniyi
Okunoye (2008, 416) notes that, “[i] n spite of his very short career as a poet, Ibiwari Ikirikos
work is probably the most representative of contemporary Niger Delta poetry in the sense
that it primarily articulates a regional consciousness.” is regional consciousness consists
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of cartographic and geopolitical tropes, ones with which Ikiriko engages oil production and
its protocol of globalism. His poetry encourages the reader to think of cartography, in the
form of signposts and boundaries, as the visible markers of the ways in which neoliberal
globalisation establishes and operates oil enclaves in the Niger Delta. e poet critiques these
infrastructures as sites of understanding power and the kinds of agency that are enabled or,
indeed, stied in places where oil is extracted to feed global consumption.
Oily Te a r s orchestrates a cross-current of voices, competing to be heard, and calling
attention to themselves in insurrectionist enactments of geopolitical articulations and the
performance of a regional identity. In considering the poetics of cartography that Ikiriko
articulates in this collection, my reading therefore proceeds based on the following assump-
tion: that there is an expressive impulse of a socially charged interaction in the text. It is one
that expresses, following literary theorist Bakhtin (1994, 113), certain “dialogised interac-
tion” with meaning-bearing signs and power-enforcing symbols which circulate in the local
sites of the oil installations. e signs are put up by the government in conjunction with the
oil multinationals to indicate the right of way for the oil pipelines underground, but these
signposts actually inscribe images that suggest a possession of the land on which they stand.
In the discussion of Ikiriko’s Oi l y Tear s below, I will show how his poetry is addressed to
these signposts by way of deconstructing the forms of power and control that they perform
in the public spaces of habitation in the Niger Delta. e poet sets out to re-appropriate
these inscriptions in order to place their true signicance in stark relief.
Bakhtins notions of the social event of speech interaction and heteroglossia allow one
to unpack the expressive impulses of Ikiriko in this poetry, particularly the ways in which
the poet uses language as instrument of mediation between the text and contexts to project
a form of dialogised interaction. Although Bakhtin is well-known as a major theorist in
novelistic discourse (he argues for dialogism as a particular kind of novelistic discourse),
his ideas of social heteroglossia are well-suited to understand Ikirikos poetry. In “Literary
Stylistics: the Construction of the Utterance” (1987), Bakhtin explains how language is
constitutive of the social space within which it functions, as a continually evolving category:
Language is most certainly not a dead, frozen product of social life: it is in constant ux, its
development following that of social life. is forward movement in language is realised in
the process of human communication not only in connection with production, but also in the
course of speech communication […] Speech communication […] is no more than one among
the many forms in the development (coming-to-be) of the social group in which speech inter-
action takes place between people participating in social life. Hence it would be a futile waste
of eort to try to understand the construction of utterances, which make up the element of
discourse, without any reference to the actual social environment (situation) which has evoked
them. [T] he true essence of language is the social event of speech interaction, manifest by one
or several utterances. (Bakhtin 1987, 114–115)
Bakhtin (118–119) argues that all forms of utterances are constitutive and derivative of an
inherently “sociological character of the human consciousness [of] experiences and their
Bakhtin describes the term “heteroglossia” as deriving from the word heterogeneous,
which means socially diverse and linguistically constituted multiplicity of being, in this
case, the presence of voices. e sociality of these voices is underwritten by their ability to
deploy language as an interactive tool of exchange through dialogue. Heteroglossia may
be seen, therefore, as the social texture that gives concrete expression to discourse, the
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multiple voices that call attention to ideological standpoints, and give meaning to social
consciousness. In his own words, Bakhtin (1981, 75) says that:
Every concrete utterance of a speaking subject serves as a point where centrifugal as well as
centripetal forces are brought to bear. e process of centralization and decentralization, of
unication and disunication, intersect in the utterance; the utterance not only answers the
requirements of its own language as an individualized embodiment of a speech act, but it
answers the requirements of heteroglossia as well; it is in fact an active participant in such
speech diversity. And this active participation of every utterance in living heteroglossia deter-
mines the linguistic prole and style of the utterance to no less degree than its inclusion in
any normative-centralizing system of a unitary language. Every utterance participates in the
“unitary language” (in its centripetal forces and tendencies) and at the same time partakes of
social and historical heteroglossia. (the centrifugal, stratifying forces)
What I draw from Bakhtins concept of social heteroglossia and will bring to bear in dis-
cussing Ikirikos O ily Te a r s is the primacy of language as the connection between text and
context – language as the mediating agent by which interaction between the text and the
reader are organised and performed in the poetry. Indeed, Ikiriko’s poetry can be read as a
text that nds expression in Bakhtins notion of heteroglossia, in the sense that it tends to
feed from and engage with the public domain of quotidian sociality in the Niger Delta, a
sociality that is conceived in its real, material textures.
e site of oil extraction, the Niger Delta, is rendered a heteroglot space in this collec-
tion. Beginning with the rst poem in the collection, “Evening Already,” there appears to
be an enactment of a certain dialogic protocol taking place in the mind of the poet persona:
I had listened
To the voices within me
To the voices around me
at I am a time-bomb.
Now I realise
at I am only a landmine.
I had listened
To the voices within me
To the voices around me
at I am an oil bean seed
Now I realise
at I am only a coconut!
I cannot detonate
Without external pressure
I cannot disperse
Without external agency. (2000, 11)
We notice that the persona seems to be engaged in a soliloquy, dialoguing within (as well
as between) the self and an ostensibly material event of social discourse symbolised in “the
voices around me” over what later emerges as “cares,” a recurring referent throughout the
poem with which the persona explores a number of concerns that irritate his sensibilities.
e persona breaks into a dramatic monologue as though he has been contemplating these
concerns for a while. We do not quite know what he is getting impatient about, but he has
apparently lost his calm and become restless with the “cares” around him. e persona is
pressed for time as we glean in the urgency of his tone:
And before me
I see day’s light
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Changing from gold
Past silver,
With shadows lengthening.
Yet I am resolved
Not to be wasted by time
And I know why I live
To say these things are still to do.
Clamping weight of cares… (2000, 11–12)
e reader hears the webbed words echoing in the mind’s ear, of one possessed with the
muse to excoriate, yet burdened by the concerns he speaks about. e persona seems to
be scornful of his self-indulgence in waiting patiently at a cost he can no longer aord. We
are only introduced to what his complaints are about in the second stanza of the poem. He
seems to imagine himself as embodying a personied subject of a geographical landscape,
and as such, he is no longer willing to bear the burden of external agency, one that seems
to exploit the persona’s hospitality, a sacrice that amounts to nothing:
Cares crowd around me
Like wretched huts around
An only Queen House
On a land-starved island
Fed upon by the encroaching sea
at oers dicult terrain excuses
For majority policies to keep it so
Enshrouded Beauty failing to exude.
I am immersed in cares
Like a cock in crude oil,
Jugular glutted, glottis jaded.
Time crier belated. (2000, 13)
Here, his engagement with the politics of enclaving and oshoring rst surfaces. He calls the
Delta a “land-starved island” fed upon by externalities, which he describes as an “encroach-
ing sea” that gives unconvincing reasons of “dicult terrain” for not developing the hosting
entity, the Delta – an area that bears the wealth for the nation. Although situated within
a specic locale of the Niger Delta, the poem (and perhaps the entire collection) activates
a dialogue with the global by addressing itself to this oil industry situated in that locality.
His narrative stages a dissident act in which ethnic identity is performed to undermine the
placeless ethos of the oil infrastructure. e continuous allusion by the poet persona to the
geography of the Niger Delta and its cartography as one that is locked or trapped within
the territorial operations of oil extraction make the images read not as metaphors but as
material referents.
Ikiriko’s poetry performs an interrogatory act against the signposts that communicate
certain ideology embedded messages and authorising instructions in the spaces of oil instal-
lations. One encounters these inscriptions and the boundaries they mark o as forms of
intrusion that not only legitimise the activities of resource extraction by the corporations,
but also disavow local subjectivity in at least two ways. On the one hand, they reinforce
notions of the Niger Delta as a quintessential oil site, which is heterogeneous, interna-
tional, and readily available for the exploitation of its oil resources. On the other hand,
they legitimise the national government’s actions and inactions in the Niger Delta. us,
the poet undertakes to re-appropriate these signs and images which, to him, hold powerful
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inuence on the psyche of the local populace, undertaking to invoke these local signpost
and meaning-bearing images to function as “dialogizing backgrounds” (Bakhtin 1981, xvii)
to his poesy.
e above point is powerfully illustrated in the poem “Under Pressure,” where Ikiriko
conjures up these signs, symbols and images to challenge the mechanisms of power at work
at the environment of oil extraction, especially the oil transporting pipelines that populate
the region. e poet questions the manner in which these signs and images operate to
control and contain local communities in their everyday lives:
High pressure oil pipeline – keep o!
Don’t anchor!
High tension gas pipeline – keep clear!
No shing!
High pressure pipes – keep away!
No berthing! (2000, 51)
e poem articulates a particular process of systematic intrusion that the signposts per-
form in the Niger Delta. At least three levels of this intrusion may be construed and they
all operate to alienate the human population from the oil ecology of the Niger Delta. e
rst identiable level is that of physical, spatial intrusion. is impedes and destabilises
the very physical space of human existence. It operates to govern agency, local agency, in
that it restricts human presence and freedom. It inscribes and constitutes for itself, within
itself, a spatial demarcation, a form of physical segregation between the oil resource and
the local population. is distinction is clearly delineated by the fact of the announcement
of the physical presence of the pipelines. Even when the pipelines are underground, the
inscriptions announce their malicious presence through the signposts by their instruction
to the public to “keep o!” and steer clear. is form of intrusion operates to restrict the
daily physical movement and mobility of the local populace. It dictates to the local human
subjects that inhabit this landscape where to venture, when and how to move and loiter,
and where not to.
is second form of intrusion performed by the signposts orchestrates an economic,
as well as a cultural, interruption. It meddles with, disrupts, and controls the territorial
economy. It declares (2000, 51): “DEATH! / High tension gas pipeline – keep clear!” is
inscription decrees where, how and what daily vocations should be conducted. It forbids
the local populace from their practice of maritime economy in the form of shing, sailing,
berthing, and wharng. In fact, all essential preoccupations of the local communities, given
the nature of the terrain are suspended so that the global commodity of oil can be trans-
ported without hitch or hindrance to its point of consumption. e pipelines that crisscross
the Delta, piping away the oil to other climes, are captured here as a societal menace, bent
on wrecking the land and the people. While these pipes eece the natural resource from
under their feet, they also pose danger and frighten the local populace, deterring them from
going about their domestic businesses. e local communities are thus excluded from their
means of livelihood and their alternative means of survival is denied as the signposts warn
them against berthing their sea-going vessels, while also threatening them with “DEATH”
if they venture to sh in the waters.
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e third and nal form of intrusion is one that operates at the psychic level. According
to the inscription’s signication:
Tresspassers will be compressed.
Roasted. Melted.
O what a full tide of pressure
Brim they over our land and persons. (2000, 51)
By announcing this deterrence against whose caution evisceration is probable, the inscrip-
tions thus perform a kind of power whose legitimacy possesses the right to inict violence if
necessary. is is a logic that operates to powerful eect in the local communities where the
oil infrastructure is sited. Indeed, having restricted human movements and denied the locals
from their alternative means of livelihood, this third level of intrusion banishes them from
the landscape by declaring them “trespassers”: a category of outsiders, invaders, that can be
crushed at will. is, in one sense, enforces a form of intrusion with a legal instrument that
has a superior force to disarm, threaten, and strip them of any claim to autochthony that
would have served as the basis for resisting such psychological violence. It is an intrusion
that operates eectively within the tenets of neoliberalism. e writer and environmental
activist Nnimmo Bassey (2012, 12) notes that, in the protocol of capital’s resource extraction,
“[c] ommunities are dislocated from their material means of production, separated from
their systems of sustainable livelihood and made to become bystanders on the dusty byways.
I want to suggest that the choice of words and punctuation in the poem functions to
incite the reader to act in a manner that is resistant to injustice and oppression. In a sense,
the poem utilises a structure that brings into sharp focus the material texture of the oil’s
presence in the local communities. us, the words in block letters: “DANGER!,” “DEATH!,
“WARNING!,” and the wrong spelling of the word “trespassers” are meant to evoke this
manifestation. However, they also indicate an intention by the poet to stir up a particular
reaction in the reader, an intentional provocation to (re)act against perceived threats of
annihilation in the locality. Every word in the opening stanzas is made to account for itself
and to point in the direction of a transgressive reaction that the poem and its analogous
context of the signposts are meant to stoke. is incitation to transgress resonates with the
realpolitik of the Niger Delta, a region where protests against the oil industry and the federal
government are a daily political exercise. Moreover, whilst Ikiriko appears to be reticent
about this imminent outcome, his choice of punctuation is suggestive of that possibility.
Taken together, the poem functions, following Terry Eagleton (2007, 21), as “something
which is done to us, not just said to us; the meaning of its words is closely bound up with
the experience of them.
In the poem “Devalued,” the same streak of incitation is conveyed in a narrative that
throws the conditions of violence, with all its historical and systematic valences, into clar-
ifying relief:
Our yesterdays
Have been diluted
With debased deeds
Our todays, devalued
Are no more weighty
an a dollar bill
And our tomorrows
Are mortgaged by
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Home brokers to foreign clubs
So, nish we are
Unless we gather in concert
To break these brokers. (2000, 56)
e poem gives expression to some ethno-regional tensions that continue to dene Nigerias
postcolonial history, particularly the issue of Resource Control – a knotty geopolitical con-
testation over scal federalism. Hence, the Niger Delta is gured to be the goose that lays
the golden egg, but le to starve and denied a share in the wealth it produces just because
it lacks the political clout to sway state policies around oil governance in its favour. e
poem conveys a rallying summons for the revaluation of such scal policies, and reveals the
manner in which the rights to equal citizenship within the larger Nigerian state are denied
to the Niger Delta, portrayed as “mini, minor, minority man.” is perception emerges
from a shared sense of marginality which the political status of the Niger Delta (as so-called
minority) historically bequeaths to its local (human) subjects. us, the persona laments a
deep sense of repression, of burden, of being crushed under the weight of limited agency,
one that is determined by number. In rectifying this discrepancy between wealth generation
and wealth sharing, a rethinking of the geopolitical history of national relation is impera-
tive, for it constitutes the basis upon which the national political process is imagined and
performed. Hence, Ikiriko undertakes to reject that history by questioning its foundational
politics of exclusion, where the majority takes all at the expense of the so-called minority,
conceived as defeated vassals.
Okunoye (2008, 418) suggests that, “[b] y inserting the idiom of the North/South dichot-
omy into the context of Nigerian political discourse as a tool for clarifying power relations,
Ikiriko nds a binary mode of cognition relevant.” Okunoye further insists that “[a] t the
heart of this discourse of otherness [in Ikiriko’s poetry] is an insinuation of internal coloni-
alism” (418). is oers a fascinating frame for reading this collection; it perhaps explains
why the poet tends to personalise the Niger Delta as though it is an extended “self” of the
persona. Here, we encounter Ikiriko’s preoccupation with minority rights articulated with
an aesthetic of geopolitics, one in which the notion of relational complementarity and a
sense of belonging in the larger Nigerian project are disavowed and regional otherness is
inscribed as the veritable identity marker for the Niger Delta subject. is becomes the
subversive strategy by means of which the poet stakes a claim to the oil resource which
the region bears, and in which he projects an anti-globalism. Ikiriko takes poetic liberty
garnished with a political rhetoric of ethnic, regional consciousness. He creates a narrative
of “mythologised victims” in which he stages what Huggan (2004, 704) elsewhere describes
as a “personal moral crusade against the tyrannies” of global capital on local communities.
In “Oily Rivers,” Ikiriko draws on geographic metaphors about the Nigerian map to enact
a poetic engagement with this subnational consciousness. He intimates:
I come from the bottom of
the Amalgam, the base Delta,
where things are made base,
and beings become base,
leesed by powered policies
crude as petroleum.
I am of the Oil Rivers,
where rivers are oily
and can neither quench my thirst nor
anoint my head. (2000, 20)
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e poem conceives the larger Nigerian geographic entity as literally sitting on the Delta
at the “base” on the Nigerian map. is lexical item, “base,” is imbued with a subversive
aesthetic, which prevails throughout the poem. is is rst indicated in the preface to this
collection, titled “Foreline” (2000, 6), in which Ikiriko gives insight:
Take a look, dear reader, at the map of Nigeria and behold how the giant country sits, sup-
pressing the Delta which serves it the functions of support and sustenance. As it is on the
geographical expression, so it is in the political, social and economic expressions.
us, by alluding to the Niger Delta as “the bottom of the amalgam,5 where everyday life is
debased” by facts of geography and geopolitics, Ikiriko nds inspiration in the cartographic
logic that expresses the economic condition of the region. In the workings of cartography,
the maps (and boundaries) that are produced can, in a counterintuitive way, become nodes
for interpreting reality, political reality; they allow one to envision that which is not evident,
giving concrete expression to what is otherwise elided.6 e poet’s increasing focus on, and
obsession with, the particularly “debased” state of the Niger Delta, can be gleaned further in
the poem “Top Upon Bottom” (2000, 44), in which he frames the geographical constitution
of the South as weakened by the fact of its natural terrain and by virtue of its geopolitical
status, that is, its inability to inuence policies, even ones that directly aect its sociopolitical
and economic fortunes. By natural terrain as a fact of the regions weakness is meant that
the remoteness of the landscape is a hindrance to development. e Niger Delta consists
of mangroves and swamps, with networks of estuaries, labyrinthine creeks, and tributaries.
is countryside is further aicted by the “resource curse,7 in that the enormous wealth
generated from oil extraction has not beneted local livelihood, except that the environment
is blighted by oil euents. Ikiriko tropes on this weakness using images of both “tapering”
and “feeble” which are further reinforced by the poet’s claim that “we,” in the south have the
tendency to be ontologically timid in the sense that “we wobble…/ in associations.” Implicit
in this poem is the way that the natural location of the Niger Delta impacts on its will to
sociality, its will to act politically; that is why “we wobble in decisions / and in associations.
If the fact of the Delta’s geographical location and natural terrain is responsible for its
underdevelopment and provinciality, the poet appears to suggest that the region’s relation-
ship to its Northerly counterparts is disproportionately uneven. He likens that relationship to
that of a giant with unsteady, “feeble feet.” His poetry reveals the ways in which two intricate
categories of natural and geopolitical concepts, in the form of the natural and the global,
combine to dene the constitution of the Southern in the operation of extraction inspired
globalism. us, he signies the Niger Delta as a place, laying low on the map, constituted
to be subservient and antipodal to the global North, and therefore, diametrically opposite
in all things, especially in human development and progress.
I have discussed the Niger Delta as a landscape in which an insidious form of globalism
operates within the oil industry, and have shown how Ikiriko’s poetry challenges the ways in
which the logic of a globalised oil infrastructure undermines the daily life of local commu-
nities. His narrative stages a dissident act in which ethnic identity is performed to unsettle
the notion of placeless-ness as a dening characteristic of the sites in which oil is extracted.
His poetry stakes place-specic claims to the environment of the Niger Delta in spite of the
internationally constituted infrastructure of the oil industry in that locality. is strategy
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of representing the Oil Encounter complicates Ghosh’s thesis of the oil experience as one
that is “lived out within a space that is no place at all, […an] intrinsically displaced” world
(2002, 79). Ikiriko’s poetry also undermines the logic of the internationally constituted infra-
structure of oil production as an enclave unto itself, a formation that Ferguson insightfully
critiques. My discussion of Ikiriko’s O ily Tear s shows how, unlike most other oil landscapes,
the oil infrastructure in the Niger Delta is intimately intertwined with quotidian local
existence at the sites of extraction. But, in staging this act of what I have called a poetics of
cartography, there is a disintegration of language in the way Ikiriko deploys word playfulness
to make nonsense of the reality that confronts his creative vision. In a sense, the poet is
cognisant of the complex nature of his own positioning: that in the ersatz form of globali-
sation which the Oil Encounter brings into being, the odds are overwhelmingly stacked
against local communities whose experiences are completely elided in its representations.
Nevertheless, I read Ikiriko’s poetry as a modest contribution to the political, imaginative,
and ethical attempts to hold extractive capitalism and its free market ethos of open (or in
fact, broken) borders into account.
Given the conscious intention to intervene in the political economy of oil extraction in
the Niger Delta, Ikiriko’s poetry is rendered in the service of that marginalised society and
its blighted environment. Deploying multiple voices, it is socially charged and politically
determined. e poetry collection operates on a transgressive impulse to contaminate a
daunting experience of the real with counter-currents of the might be – the “could be” – in
order to make his art carry the burden of his radical intentions. Perhaps this explains John
Brannigan’s claim in a dierent context that poetry is “not a passive vehicle of ideological
meaning. It generates and multiplies meaning, and therefore, must be accounted for as an
active participant in the process of fashioning and interpreting society, culture and history”
(quoted in Egya 2011, 350). Taken together, Oily Tears of the Delta may then be conceived as
a poetry of dialogic version and subversion, which springs from, responds to and critiques
the form of globalism that constitutes the sites of oil extraction. Indeed, the poetry collec-
tion may be read as a cultural artefact primarily produced to subvert the eects of those
power-bearing signs that circulate both in the mainstream idiom of geopolitical discourse,
and in the local spaces where oil installations are situated.
1. El-Rufai (2013, 150).
2. Heterochthonous refers to entities that are foreign or non-indigenous despite their location
within the territorial borders of a nation-state; an illustrative example is the United Nations
building in New York, which is not subject to the control of the United States government.
3. Comparing the Zambian Copper Mining industry to that of oil in Angola and Nigeria,
Ferguson names the one “socially thick” and the other “socially thin” (2006, 197–198). e
reason, according to him, is that the presence of the copper mining industry in Zambia
at independence was “thoroughly bound up with national-level social and political needs.
Ferguson (199) notes that the industry had over the years assembled an array of highly skilled,
unionised, and politically-vibrant local work force that wielded national inuence which had
political and social ramications.
4. MPLA is the acronym for Movimento Popularde Libertação de Angola (or Popular Movement
for the Liberation of Angola), the ruling party of Angola.
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5. Amalgam here refers to the historical creation of Nigeria into a modern principality by
colonial Britain in 1914 with the amalgamation of Southern and Northern Protectorates into
a unied colonial realm.
6. See, for instance, Franco Moretti’s Atlas of the European Novel (1999).
7. See Michael Watts (2004).
is article has beneted from research grants by Programme for Enhancement of Research Capacity
(PERC), University of Cape Town. Many thanks to Meg Samuelson for making this project come to
fruition. e study also forms part of a book project on Petroculture in the Niger Delta, with support
from the African Humanities Program of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) and
funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
Disclosure statement
No potential conict of interest was reported by the author.
is work was supported by the African Humanities Program of the American Council of Learned
Societies (ACLS); funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
Notes on contributor
Philip Aghoghovwia holds a PhD in English from Stellenbosch University, and teaches English and
Cultural Studies at University of the Free State, South Africa. A fellow of African Humanities Program
of the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), he is completing a book manuscript titled
“Reading Petroculture in Nigerias Niger Delta.
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To Cook a Continent: Destructive Extraction and the Climate Crisis in Africa
  • N Bassey
Bassey, N. 2012. To Cook a Continent: Destructive Extraction and the Climate Crisis in Africa. Cape Town: Pambazuka Press.