The coverage of the oil pipeline explosion which claimed the lives of 269 people in Abule-Egba area of Lagos in 2006 remain a turning point in the career of photojournalist Akintunde Akinleye. It became a reference for his numerous works on the oil industry where he has done extensive reports on the social, political and environmental issues in the Niger-Delta for over 15 years. His last exhibition “The Delta Bush Refineries” at Omenka Gallery, brought another visual insight to the news story of the Delta region.
After spending twenty-one days in the Niger Delta creeks on assignment for a different personal project, Akinleye turned his lens on the less reported side of the bush refineries story, that is, the illegal refiners of the creeks. Rather than disapprove of their activities, he raised questions that are until now unanswered, one of which is, why is the problem in the Niger Delta still unresolved? The bush refiners justify their illegal structure on the grounds that they have rights to refine oil that is being produced on their land. This same sentiment is reflected across the oil-producing region, pushing the bulk of the problem to the failure of the federal and state governments’ promise to develop the Niger Delta.
Although the situation in the Delta region is only a part of the complex narrative of Nigeria’s problem, it is however, a big one and a window to a myriad of other problems such as the Boko Haram situation in the North, Fulani herdsmen killing, corruption, bad governance, high rate of unemployment and so on. Akinleye’s photographs are definitely conversation starters that extend to the above-mentioned problems and other sad socio-political and economic problems.
Through 75 overwhelming images, five different photo documentary series shot over the past decade were brought alive. In the series Varnishing Wetlands, oil spillage and environmental pollution are brought up again like we have seen in the photographs of another Nigerian photographer, George Oshodi.
In another series called Life in the Delta, the lens was on the refiners, their daily activities, and life on the edge in the swamps. A human face is brought to the oil thieves and their makeshift refineries.Theirs is a life of continuous contrast in the midst of crude oil and poverty. As the military taskforce destroy their oil refining business, they find a way to set up new ones in other locations or are forced to become militants. There is no employment so they create one. In the published journal “Oil Politics“, over 600 illegal refineries were destroyed in 2009. The JTF is constantly raiding the swamps but as recent reports show, it has not been a successful task.
The last series in the exhibition, Politics of Oil, had photographs that gave two sides of a situation, a contrast between the reality of the people and the promises made to them by the government, the international community, and oil corporations. It becomes apparent that the villagers are merely pawns to be used and discarded in the oil game.