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Nigeria staggers on

FOR the first time since I was a year old I have spent my birthday in the country of my birth.

My enduring memory of the day is a man wearing, if you will forgive the pun, his birthday suit.
I was born in Lagos, then the capital of Nigeria, in 1957, three years before the country became independent.
We left when I was just 18 months old, and I have only been back once, for a very brief filming trip.
But my grandparents on both sides lived there and my parents met there, and Nigeria loomed large in family conversation during my childhood.
My wife was born in Lagos too — in the same hospital as me, as it happens —  and her father spent much of his career there — first as a colonial District Officer and later as a civil servant to the newly independent Nigerian government.
With all that baggage this trip was bound to be a little more than duty.
My birthday fell on the day we had set aside to track down and interview some of the oil bandits who operate in the Niger Delta, the home of Nigeria’s all-important oil industry.
The scale of theft from oil installations in the Delta is awe-inspiring –– some estimates put it as high as 100 000 barrels a day.
Bunkering, as it is known, involves cutting into pipes and siphoning off the oil through makeshift valves. The crude is either shipped out through the creeks and channels of the Delta and sold to waiting tankers, or processed locally in informal refineries hidden away in the swamps. The one we visited was like a 21st century vision of Hades. There were three “plants” — crudely assembled tangles of pipes and tanks — set alongside a small creek.
Some of the wooden longboats the bunkerers use to ship in their crude were moored just offshore, their hulls glossily reflected in the slick of oil that covered the surface of the water.
The ground was sodden with the stuff, and the trees were blackened with smoke.
Refining oil in this way is extremely dangerous, and to avoid the risk of a conflagration the bunkerers work without any clothes.
The refinery we saw had stopped production for the day (they had had a tip-off that the security services were on the lookout for smoke) but there was a man washing himself down with a bucket after his shift, naked in the sunshine.
It brought home the exoticism and the poignancy of the scene –– the bunkerers are not just outside the law, they are living beyond the realm of any experience that most of us can imagine.
The big oil companies have to contend with political sabotage as well as theft.
Last year the government offered an amnesty to the groups that have been fighting for — they say — a fairer share of the oil wealth, and some 17 000 militants turned themselves in.
But in recent weeks some of them have been drifting back to their camps in the creeks, and when you fly over the Delta (Shell, the company with the biggest operation there, gave us a helicopter ride), the scale of the untracked jungle and waterways makes you wonder whether it could ever be policed.
I arrived in Nigeria hoping to work out why a country with so much going for it had missed so many opportunities. I left wondering how it manages to stagger on at all.
Sometimes it seems the only link between different parts of the country is that trouble in one place can spark trouble somewhere else. In Port Harcourt, in the Delta, they worried that an upsurge of violence locally might inflame feelings in the volatile city of Jos, in central Nigeria. In Jos they said their own troubles might spill over to Pork Harcourt.
Jos has been plagued by communal violence between Muslims and Christians since 2001.
The fighting has claimed thousands of lives, and the scars of the most recent outbreak — in January this year — are all too evident.
In a Muslim area on the outskirts of the city I met a group of refugees living in pitiful conditions –– they were driven from their homes in the January fighting, and told stories of friends and family shot or burnt to death.
I heard precisely the same kind of stories from a group of Christian refugees who showed me around the shells of their homes, which were torched and ransacked during the same orgy of destruction.
Christian and Muslim leaders seem equally frustrated that they cannot stop the killing, and everyone is waiting for another eruption of what they call “the crisis”.
At a Sunday mass I heard the Archbishop of Jos, Ignatius Kaigama, lecture his flock on the wickedness of violence.
The mass was an exuberant and joyful event, which lasted a full four and a half hours — it was chilling to reflect that the congregation almost certainly included some with blood on their hands. — BBCOnline.

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