Author Talk: January 16, 2009
January 16, 2009
Richard North Patterson has made a name for himself in the suspense/thriller and legal fiction genres by centering his novels on contemporary controversial topics, such as the death penalty, gun control legislation and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The events that take place in his latest release, ECLIPSE, loosely parallel the real-life experiences of a Nigerian activist caught in the middle of a corrupt government and the world's reliance on oil. In this interview, Patterson recounts Ken Saro-Wiwa's tragic story and discusses both the political and social ramifications caused by the current worldwide energy crisis. He also describes the dangers he encountered while visiting the city of Lagos for research, and shares his thoughts on alternative energy sources and minimizing America's dependence on foreign oil.
Question: You acknowledge in your afterword that ECLIPSE is based loosely upon the life and death of Ken Saro-Wiwa, Nigeria’s courageous human rights and environmental activist who was hung by the country’s brutal dictator fifteen years ago. For those of us who don’t remember that story, please tell us a bit about him and why he remains an important figure.
Richard North Patterson: Ken Saro-Wiwa was a gifted novelist who created a force unique to Nigeria: a mass nonviolent movement among his ethnic group, the Ogoni, to fight the environmental and human rights abuses caused by the alliance between the oil industry and Nigeria’s corrupt autocracy. While the extraction of oil from the Niger delta enriched the government and the oil companies, it left the delta’s people more impoverished and their lands and water despoiled. Saro-Wiwa’s defiance ultimately led to his execution in 1994 by the country’s kleptocratic dictator, General Suni Abacha, after a trial based on dubious charges that Saro-Wiwa had instigated the death of several Ogoni chiefs. A tragic coda is that although Saro-Wiwa was widely admired in the West, the oil-dependent democracies that profess their devotion to human rights did little to save him.
The tragedy of Saro-Wiwa is piercingly salient today. In the years since his death, the industrialized nations have become more desperate for oil to preserve their own power and wealth. Central to my story is that the oil-rich Niger delta is ever more despoiled, and the protest movement of Saro-Wiwa has been replaced by predatory militia who steal oil and siphon it to the black market, while spreading violence throughout the region and maintaining corrupt but shadowy alliances with the government. And our addiction to oil wholly marginalizes any concern we have with the injustices Saro-Wiwa sacrificed his life to fight.
Finally, the courtroom drama that climaxes ECLIPSE is based on the show trial in which Saro-Wiwa was condemned --- a Kafkaesque perversion of the forms of justice.
Q: As America grapples with an energy and oil crisis, ECLIPSE could not be more timely. Here is the vivid story of our lust for oil and its impact on one of the most unstable oil-producing regions of the world --- the Nigerian delta. Why is the delta so important to us, what are the unique circumstances of oil production in Nigeria, and what are the larger geopolitical ramifications?
RNP: Saro-Wiwa’s death, 9/11, the quagmire in Iraq, and the hostility of oil-producing nations like Iran has increased America’s dependence on oil and our preoccupation with securing access to new supplies of oil. Nigeria has become a principal focus of this need, even as a state of semi-anarchy has prevailed in the delta. Pervasive theft and sabotage by militia groups like MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, the prototype for FREE in ECLIPSE) have drastically cut the delta’s oil production, further contributing to the rising price of petroleum.
In the delta, the conditions I portray in ECLIPSE are very real: violence, greed, corruption, kidnapping, and massive oil theft practiced in the name of the causes advanced by Saro-Wiwa --- environmental reparations and a redistribution of oil wealth. And this toxic environment directly affects our way of life. ECLIPSE uses the stories of Bobby Okari, Marissa Brand Okari, and Damon Pierce to dramatize what it feels like to risk one’s life in such a treacherous place.
Q: As part of your research for the book, you went to Nigeria. What were your experiences? How do the American oil companies persuade anyone to go work for them over there?
RNP: While the Nigerian people are astonishingly bright, resourceful, and engaging, many aspects of their lives are close to dystopian. Kidnapping and armed robbery are genuine concerns. On the urging of experts, I hired a security firm: on my arrival in Lagos, the country’s principal city, my security term recruited four police to get me forty kilometers from the airport to the hotel, sirens blaring, weaving through anarchic traffic in a chaotic trip akin to a chase scene in a movie. One of the concerns of my security team was to never stop in traffic which, they warned, would expose us to armed robbers. The hotel was also selected for its security --- in the month prior to arrival there had been seventeen armed robberies in Lagos hotels.
As part of my itinerary, I had arranged to meet an expatriate American --- living in the Niger delta --- a longtime Nigerian citizen who, among other things, could take me into the maze of creeks to meet armed military groups. Shortly before my arrival, my security advisers implored me not to go, asserting that conditions in the delta were violent and anarchic; that they could not protect me from kidnapping, a virtual industry that focuses on oil company employees; and that the Nigerian Security Services might view my mission with suspicion. After some argument, I acquiesced. Two weeks later, those security services arrested my putative guide with two German documentary filmmakers, all of whom were jailed. After three months in a Nigerian prison, my contact was expelled from the country.
Lagos itself defies easy description. A city built on islands, its uncontrolled growth has raised its population to more than 15 million. Several million residents live in makeshift boats, floating slums without electricity or potable water that fester with crime, disease, and prostitution. Traffic is so congested that one can be trapped for hours. The roads are rutted, often marked by open sewers, and pass by homes surrounded by walls topped with barbed wire or embedded shards of glass to repel intruders. For the Nigerian people, survival is a daily struggle.
Nonetheless, one can sympathize with the oil industry and its employees. Preyed on by a government that delivers few meaningful services to the people of the delta, the oil companies cannot, by themselves, build or maintain schools, hospitals, treatment plants, or roads. The government, insulated by oil wealth from the necessity to please its people, too often exists to serve itself --- reformers in Nigeria face a road blocked by treachery and corruption. As for the employees of oil companies, they often live in gated compounds, fearful of their surroundings, serving out their time for excess pay. In the end, this environment lessens Nigerians and foreigners alike.
Q: Do Nigerians benefit in any way from all of the profits being made there from oil?
RNP: The vast majority do not. The government is a kleptocracy, stealing or distributing oil revenues among its members --- the chief incentive to seek political power. Years of uncontrolled oil exploration have led to the ruin of land and water, destroying agriculture, fishing, and sources of drinking water. An aging system of above-ground pipes hemorrhages oil and facilitates a system of oil theft by "militias" sustained by a blatant web of bribery that includes the army, navy, customs officers, state and federal officials, and oil company employees who often facilitate the theft.
In short, oil has shriveled the promise and stained the soul of an entire country, empowering autocrats who disdain human rights and are oblivious to the misery of its people.
Q: ECLIPSE draws attention to the humanitarian and security concerns --- as well as moral choices --- that American oil executives must address in a country like Nigeria. What is an oil company’s role in a foreign country, whose laws do they follow, and how much influence do they have?
RNP: It is easy to disdain the oil companies, which for many years trashed the environment while enabling the corruption of the government. It is far harder to argue that they are chiefly responsible for Nigeria’s decline. The chief agent of human misery is the state, which alone has the power to protect the environment, build an infrastructure, and address the health, nutrition, and educational needs of its people. Indeed, the corruption of the government is a moral and physical hazard for oil companies and their employees, exposing them to dangers while forcing them into complicity in governmental corruption.
ECLIPSE focuses on one aspect of this: the dependence of oil companies for protection on a military and police which are often brutal and corrupt, setting themselves up as mercenaries for hire. The central question that arises is the degree to which oil companies, helpless to protect themselves, are responsible for the violence perpetrated by military forces they are compelled to pay and equip but do not fully control.
Q: In ECLIPSE, your hero, Bobby Okari, tries to speak out against the brutal dictator and the oil companies, only to be arrested and ultimately executed. Is there anyone in Nigeria today giving voice to the needs of the people and standing up for their rights?
RNP: Nigeria has a vital human rights community, including reformers, journalists, educators, and others who speak out against injustice, abetted by Americans and Europeans impelled by humanitarian concerns to come to Nigeria. But I am aware of no major nonviolent movement like the Ogoni Movement led by Saro-Wiwa. Instead, MEND and other militia groups have appropriated Saro-Wiwa’s cause to promote a program of kidnappings, theft, and violence which most observers see as a criminal enterprise cloaked in popular grievances. Though Nigeria is now technically a "democracy," the last national election was blatantly rigged through violence, intimidation, bribery, and wholesale fraud --- a tradition in Nigeria. Thus the execution of Saro-Wiwa, like the facts of my fictional Bobby Okari, may have marked a sad crossroads in national history.
Q: No one can read ECLIPSE and not wish for Americans to become independent from foreign oil. What, in your mind, are the best alternatives?
RNP: We need a national Marshall Plan: a concerted effort to gradually replace petroleum with power sources such as wind, solar, natural gas, and biofuels, while reinvigorating our mass transit, reengineering our vehicles to cut oil consumption, and placing conservation practices at the center of our consciousness. This is a daunting task that will take decades, and requires a long-term focus for which our impatient country is not noted (which is why politicians endorse the idea that more drilling will fix our problems). But the alternative is to doom our economy, erode our security, and insure our national decline.
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