Joel Bisina was living the good life in Lagos, the capital city of Nigeria, when he realized that he must return to the difficult world of his childhood, his home village in the Niger Delta.
Bisina had achieved an education, working his way through a college degree, despite frequent interruptions—from elementary school onward, he repeatedly dropped out of school to earn money so a brother or sister could have a turn in the classroom. Degree finally in hand, he’d secured a good job at a bank and earned promotion to middle management, always sending money home to support his parents and siblings. He had set himself up well.
But he was needed back in the Delta. International oil companies were extracting vast quantities of oil, but instead of bringing prosperity to villages like Bisina’s, oil extraction was causing environmental devastation, worsening poverty, and terrible violence. The fertile land and water of Bisina’s childhood were no longer able to feed the people—land, water and even the air, were now poisoned. The Nigerian government took ownership of any land where oil was found, with no payment to families that had lived there forever. All the profits from selling the oil were split between the government and the oil companies—nothing went to the people of the Delta.
The tribes of the region began fighting over the little land that could still produce food. The government sent troops to intervene. When people in the Delta asked that some of the oil profits be used to build schools, roads and clinics, there in the Delta, government troops killed 50,000 people. Twenty communities were simply erased. And thousands of men armed themselves to fight back.
The good life was no longer enough for Bisina. He knew there had to be hope for the people of the Delta or they would have no reason to lay down their arms and trust in a peaceful future. And he believes in peaceful solutions to conflicts, to sitting down and reasoning the way to peace and justice.
Bisina went home and started talking. He brought tribal leaders together to resolve their grievances with each other. He trained women, young people, anyone he could gather, in the skills of peaceful negotiation. He brought the case of the Delta’s people to the Nigerian government. He brought health workers in to talk to people about protecting themselves from the dangers of the region.
As founder of the nonprofit Niger Delta Professionals for Development (NIDPRODEV), Bisina also spoke out to the press, calling for an understanding of why people in the Delta were so desperate that they had taken up weapons.
“It doesn’t help humanity,” Bisina told a reporter, “to leap to conclusions when issues are calling for attention, and the biggest mistake the world can make is to just label the situation in the Niger Delta as terrorism and respond with military might. You will just kill a generation of innocent people who are asking for a better living condition because you are taking so much from their land.”
NIDPRODEV has formed a partnership with the American nonprofit organization Global Citizen Journey, and in 2005, the two organizations collaborated to build a library in the Delta community of Oporoza. This community was one of only two in that part of the Delta to have a school, but there were no libraries at all. Determined to have information and knowledge come to their region, Oporozans hired an architect to design the library they wanted. A team of 20 Americans and 20 Nigerians came together to build it. Full of light, books, films and Web-connected computers, the library has opened for all the people of the region, no matter what tribe they belong to.
Bisina’s main focus now is on telling the Niger Delta story to the world. A film called Sweet Crude, about the area, the conflict, and the possible solutions is making its way through US film festivals.
Bisina hopes you’ll see the film, or come to the Delta to see the situation for yourself. Once you understand what’s happening, he’s sure you’ll become an “apostle for the people of the Niger Delta.” Joel Bisina hopes you’ll tell your legislators that much of the oil used in the US comes from a place few outsiders know, the Niger Delta, and the Delta’s people mustn’t be sacrificed for that oil.