The fire burned strong for 45 days and 45 nights, blanketing the village with ash and torching the young cassava plants in Ada Baniba's...

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KEGBARA DERE, Nigeria — The fire burned strong for 45 days and 45 nights, blanketing the village with ash and torching the young cassava plants in Ada Baniba’s field. As she weeded, the flames flared out of the leaking oil pipeline behind her.

It wasn’t that no one could put the fire out. It was that no one would — not the oil company that owned the pipeline, not the government and not the villagers breathing the fumes.

The tale of Kegbara Dere’s fire shows just how desperate the long-neglected communities of Nigeria’s oil-rich river delta have become.

The average Nigerian still survives on less than $2 a day, despite the country’s $20 billion rise in oil exports to the United States over the past five years.

And so villagers saw the fire less as an environmental crisis than as a negotiating tool — risking their health, land and even lives to grab their bit of the spoils from the multinational oil companies that rule the region.

Blazes not rare

Such fires are common. Royal Dutch Shell said it had more than 16 fires in Nigeria between last August and this June. At least six of those fires were on the Trans-Niger pipeline, which runs underneath Kegbara Dere.

Pipeline explosions have killed hundreds in past years, including more than 400 last year in the main city of Lagos.

Oil firms blame criminals who tap the line to steal crude, while villagers argue that aged pipes rupture on their own.

But in Kegbara Dere, it was village youths who confessed to sabotaging the line, and it was village leaders who refused to let the fire be extinguished without a payout.

This was one of the first places foreign companies drilled for oil in the 1950s, and they left the land riddled with polluted waterways and half-cleaned-up spills. No one can plant cassava any more in a large field soaked with oil from a 1972 wellhead explosion.

Oil companies continue production in the rest of the delta, making Nigeria the fifth-largest supplier of oil to the U.S. But here in Ogoniland, residents ran Shell out in 1993, leaving behind the pipeline and the pollution.

The story of the latest fire in Kegbara Dere goes back to early May, when 40 young men closed off pipe valves for six days to extract money from Shell. The closure cut output by about 170,000 barrels a day. The pressure from the stepped-up pipes was so intense that the ground shook.

The rest of the village banded together to reopen the valves. Shell, in its turn, invited the youth involved to a training session on environmental cleanup in a fancy hotel. They expected lucrative cleanup contracts to follow. None did.

So the young men, calling themselves “Militant/Commando 2000,” wrote to Shell in June warning “the situation would be bad” if the company failed to give them contracts. When no contracts came, the fire started.

Money sought

Youth leader Amstel Gbrakpor said it was wrong to cut the pipes. But he said villagers now wanted 5 million naira (about $40,000) to let Shell put out the fire and repair the leak, as reparation for their earlier work on the valves.

And so the fire raged on, and took the cassava, the yam, the coconut, and finally, Barikuma Sunday’s 75-year-old father.

He was near the line when it exploded. He developed a cough that never got better and died a few weeks ago.

“This fire killed my father,” Sunday spat out, as he watched the smoke near the blackened orange tree. “It burned all the things we had planted.”

Sunday, 30, and his mother and younger siblings stopped sleeping in their house at night because the smoke was too overwhelming.

Far from the black smoke, in Lagos, the fire was still a problem for Shell. An oil company in Nigeria doesn’t need any more bad blood.

The oil companies say it’s not their job to pave roads or build schools. The Nigerian government owns 55 percent of Shell’s venture in Nigeria.

Shell says it can’t be held responsible for corruption that keeps the money from reaching villages like Kegbara Dere.

Yet oil workers in the volatile delta are regularly kidnapped by militants demanding a greater share of oil wealth or straight-out criminal gangs demanding ransoms.

And Ogoniland still remembers the government’s execution of activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and seven others in 1995, which led to international outcry.

Marvin Yobana, a young man from Ogoniland, runs a contracting company that helps get oil companies into villages to clean up spills — the type of deals the Kegbara Dere youth were after.

But he said he won’t work in Ogoniland any more because of accusations that he profits off his people’s misery.

Yobana said Shell needed to do what others do — pay 15 to 30 men about 1,000 naira a day ($8) to guard the pipeline, a pittance compared with what they’d have to pay for a broken pipe.

“It’s not a bribe,” said Yobana. “We’re thinking about the environmental impact.”

A few weeks into the standoff, the government ordered the village to let Shell fix the pipeline. The state’s environmental commissioner visited impoverished Kegbara Dere in an air-conditioned black sedan.

But nothing changed.

Adolphus Nweke, director of inspection for the environment ministry, said oil spills or fires in villages always take a bit of negotiating, because of disputes over who’s to blame and a history of mistrust. He added the real problem was companies that approached cleanups from the cheapest angle rather than the best.

“We would like them to use the methods that they use in Houston here,” he said.

When the Nigerian government told oil companies to stop flaring gas from drilling in local communities, many simply paid fines instead. And there are no proper waste-treatment plants.

Young men in Kegbara Dere talk of using buckets to scoop up spilled sludge that they bury in a hole, or dump in a truck that takes it somewhere else, perhaps to a hole farther away.

Activist Ledum Mitee, head of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People, said the government should force Shell to shut off the pipeline if the company cannot control fires that break out — a move Shell said would solve nothing.

“Our people are dying, it’s only when oil stops that they take notice,” Mitee said.

About two weeks ago, Shell paid the village youth 100,000 naira ($800) to let the cleaners in. The men came with five big trucks to wrestle down the fire and suffocate the life out of it with spray. The fire was snuffed out as the people watched.

In two nearby villages, smoke continues to fill the air — from pipeline fires that haven’t yet been negotiated out.