Helon Habila examines the corruption, greed, and violence choking the Niger delta in his new novel, Oil on Water.
Your novels are about political circumstances largely unknown in the West. As a former journalist, do you feel compelled to inform your audience?
I just want to entertain them. It just happens that, because my stories are set in a certain country, and because the country has a kind of troubled history, I can't avoid the political background creeping into the story and sometimes dominating the story. To do anything else would be lying, escaping reality. And if it happens to inform people of political situations, then it is all good.
Oil on Water has some very cinematic moments. Were you influenced by film?
Actually, the book started as a movie script. I was invited by a company to write a movie script. I did a first draft, which they didn't like, and we parted ways. So I decided to turn it into a novel because that's what I do, because I had all this research and all this material, and because I feel really fiercely about the subject matter.
Can you explain?
It's one of the biggest wetlands in the whole world, the Niger delta. It's a really beautiful place, and it's systematically being destroyed by the activities of this oil company. It's such a waste, such a shame that it's happening. And for what? It's for money, it's for oil. It is the duty of the government to protect the country and the environment, and they are not doing that because they get money from the oil companies.
Do you have personal experience with the communities depicted in the novel?
I'm not from that part of the country; I'm from the north. I've been to that part of the country just once or twice. But it's in the news all the time, and I did a lot of research as well.
Do you feel personally invested in this region?
I care about the environment and I care about Nigeria, my country. People are taking up arms to fight the government over the land. You find that because of the activities of some of them, there is a tendency to dismiss all of them as criminals and thugs. Even if there are criminals there doing criminal things, what of the land? There was a bomb blast just last year on October 1, Independence Day, in Abuja. It was connected to the activities of the Niger delta militants. That's what violence does; it grows. And before you know it, the entire country will be affected.
Government corruption and overreliance on the oil-based economy are at the periphery of your story. But you focus on the militants and soldiers, pawns in this larger political dynamic. Why did you frame the story this way?
I did not want to make it too much of a political novel. I wanted to carry the reader into this landscape that's being destroyed and show the people who are also being destroyed. The big people—the oil companies and the government—they are in the background. You have a sense that they are there, always pulling the strings. But I wanted to draw attention to the environment and the people who are living on that land and who are really suffering.