Dystopian enterprise

Pub date May 27, 2009
WriterSarah Phelan
SectionArts & CultureSectionLiterature

Best-selling author Richard North Patterson stays out of the local limelight, but he’s a San Francisco resident — and we caught up with him May 21st to talk about his new book, Eclipse, and the role that U.S. oil companies play in Nigeria.

Before Nigerian environmental activist (and Goldman Environmental Prize winner) Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged in 1995, PEN, the international writers’ group, wrote letters and organized protests against the execution. "I was very impressed by Saro-Wiwa," says Patterson, who was on the board of PEN at the time. He notes that Saro-Wiwa was a nonviolence advocate who succeeded in building a grassroots movement among the Ogoni in the Nigerian delta — all in the face of a ruthless dictator, and at great risk to his wife.

As Patterson recalls, despite the protests, several Western governments voicing their concerns, and then-President Bill Clinton’s hour-long conversation with Nigeria’s military dictator Gen. Sani Abacha, "They unceremoniously hung Saro-Wiwa. It was a lesson in a number of things, beginning with the degree to which oil makes autocrats feel impervious."

Post- 9/11, oil "security" became a bigger concern. Patterson began to realize that amid the U.S. failures in the Middle East, the disaster in Iraq, and the growing fear of al Qaeda, everyone was looking at Nigeria as an even more important source of oil.

"Meanwhile Nigeria’s environment was that much more ruined, its political leadership hopelessly corrupt, a semi-official militia that claimed to be acting in Saro-Wiwa’s name was killing each other and stealing oil, and everyone had a fee," says Patterson. "It was a classic example of how a natural resource makes its extractors and the rulers rich, but only serves as a source of misery for people standing on the ground. I already felt that Saro-Wiwa was a remarkable man who should be remembered. But now he was becoming even more relevant."

Patterson began researching Saro-Wiwa’s life, a quest that involved one trip to Nigeria and many conversations with lots of related experts. "Nigeria is not a place to go back and forth to — you’d think I was trying to break into Las Vegas," he says, noting that he hired security during his trip. "I’m not unknown, so there was a concern I’d be a high-value target. But I loved the Nigerians I met. They were a bright enterprising bunch in a dystopian setting, and to the extent I couldn’t go places, I did all I could by talking to people, reading articles, and watching films."

The name of Eclipse‘s protagonist is Bobby Okari. Was Patterson making reference to President Barack Obama? "If I was, it was subliminal," he says.

So what can Americans do to improve the plight of everyday Nigerians? "Increasing our independence from oil and increasing our foreign aid to Nigeria would be helpful," Patterson says. "The real problem is the extent to which human rights are trumped by self-interest. When we fill up our tanks, half of us don’t know that there’s oil in Nigeria. So first we need to become aware of the impact of the commodities we need. But I’m not sanguine about how easy this is. Saro-Wiwa was hung and 14 years later, where are we? The same place, and that’s a disgrace."

While Patterson does not excuse what he calls "the callousness of the U.S. oil companies," he believes that first we must address the Nigerian government.

"The history of the oil industry in Nigeria is pretty ignoble, but [without the industry] they can’t maintain the schools, roads, hospitals, and clinics," he says. "If the government doesn’t give a damn, it’s hard to make a quasi-government out of an oil company. When we get angry at the oil companies, it begs the question, What is the government doing? If it isn’t encouraging economic development and environmental protection, how can the oil companies? Shell and Chevron didn’t invent corruption. This is in no way to defend them. [But] there is a disconnect between Nigeria’s miserable government and its citizens. One of my central aspirations is to tell an entertaining story — and also to convey an awareness of a real problem."