Title: Sweet Crude Odyssey
Author: Lawrence Amaeshi
Length: 340 pages
Genre: Fiction, African Literature, African Crime Thriller.
Publisher / Year: Kachifo Independent Publishing (Prestige)/2016
Where it Can Be Found: Barnes and Noble, Amazon and Okadabooks.
Sweet crude oil is the low sulphur-content oil that flows in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, and for decades, it’s been the cause of poverty in the area that is largely blessed with this natural resource– the resultant effect being war and bloodshed, and extensive jostle by youths, women and children alike to get their hands on the oil which they sell on the black market. In this new and exciting debut, Sweet Crude Odyssey, Lawrence Amaeshi, a student of novel writing in Stanford University, USA takes us on an odyssey deep into the meandering creeks of the Niger Delta where sounds of machine gun fire and blood on water mean little to the inhabitants.
In a style reminiscent of Lee Child’s, Lawrence writes about Bruce Abel Telema, a young Nigerian who having lost his job now works selling technical filter replacement kits to oil companies based in the Niger Delta. While Bruce and his lover, Daisy travel around the region selling their product and having fun, everything turns about so fast and climaxes the night Bruce Telema is approached by Steve, a British representative of a high calibre network of oil criminals, skilled in siphoning oil from government pipelines. Conspiring with the armed militants, they sell the stolen oil to ‘the highest bidder’ in the international market. Bruce is offered the opportunity to represent the interest of this organization based in London – he is to be their point man, with the responsibility of travelling to the creeks to negotiate for oil from the militants and villagers, who have scooped oil from burst pipes, various local illegal refineries, and helping the network deliver these products to their clients around the world. Bruce Telema is promised ‘wealth beyond his wildest imagination’. In a series of action packed, thriller style narrative, Bruce takes the reader into this business and begins to make lots of money, living an exotic, ‘fast life’ but soon, rival militant groups, security operatives and even his own network place a price tag on his head.
The truth is, never in the history of African literature has any extensive and believable work of fiction been put forward on militancy and war in the Niger Delta as is shown in Sweet Crude Odyssey. Helon Habila’s Oil on Water tried but failed somewhat to penetrate the creeks of the Niger Delta and what Oil on Water couldn’t do in terms of in-depth narrative, engaging powers of dialogue and strong research, Sweet Crude Odyssey brings to the table.
The story is told through the eyes of Bruce Telema and the author is able to pull off getting the reader’s attention by making the novel character-driven rather than making it a plot-driven one. Lawrence Amaeshi’s attention to detail comes to the fore as we get to fall in love with Bruce even though he is basically a criminal. We are introduced to Vargas, the boss in London who initiates and sanctions all oil-theft contracts in Nigeria, while sitting in the comfort of his secured home in the UK. We fear and love Steve, the intermediary between Bruce Telema and Vargas – the man who approached Bruce and offered him the chance ‘to change his life forever’ and the man who would do everything to protect his family that which happens to be his weakness and which Bruce would use as the ace in his game. When Bruce meets Excellent Commander, the organisation’s point man in Nigeria and their contact with the militants in the creeks, we are reminded of Alan Mabackou’s novel, Tomorrow I’ll Be Twenty and its opening lines, ‘In this country, a boss should always be bald and have a big belly’. Excellent Commander meets all classification of the boss as described by Mabackou and his character guides Bruce throughout the novel, but his greed would be the turning point in the adventure and whence everything would begin to crumble.
The author’s love for detail doesn’t just end with the way the characters’ are introduced but in the narrative. In page 34 the author writes:
‘Our canoe stopped suddenly, and all lights extinguished without explanations. Rough hands pushed me to the bottom of the canoe. A navy gunboat whizzed past in the opposite direction. There was no indication that the navy personnel noticed us. Just when I was about to thank my stars, a massive water snake glided majestically past the canoe. I’m sure if I reached out I would have touched it. It swam away in that fascinating, elegant way only snakes do in water’.
The beautiful narrative continues,
‘we had to thread carefully to avoid mudskippers and big black catfish in shallow, murky water . . . oil slicks of a strange darkish tinge stained the soil, interspersed with puddles of water, coated with rainbow-coloured oil slicks and clumps of crude residue. Abandoned jerry cans littered the oil spill sites. Bush rats scampered for cover as we cut through the desolate wetland, and a guinea fowl, soaked in crude oil, lay by the wayside, in the final throes of death’.
There is hardly a mention of militancy in the Nigerian Niger Delta without a mention of the crimes and brutality of its self acclaimed ‘generals’. In the case of Sweet Crude Odyssey, General One-Hand Jojo leads the pack – Vargas and Steve in London commissions a project whenever a foreign company wanted vessels of oil worth millions of dollars, and Bruce travels to the creek to live with the General for weeks until they are able to secure the oil and transport the consignment through international waters. The brutality of General One-Hand Jojo reminds one of the kidnapping and mayhem that goes on day after day in the Niger Delta and also brings to the fore the decay in Nigeria’s security system, its political instability and massive failure to cater for its own people, allowing its youths to degenerate into evil and chaos. We learn of young, educated people living in creeks, sharing spaces with wild animals and mosquitoes to be able to break open pipelines, scoop oil and refine them locally without the government agents knowing. In page 40, Bruce experiences with General One-Hand Jojo and his men a very fascinating incidence:
‘The sound of a chopper in the distance startled everybody, and the sentries came alive. Wooden benches disappeared, lamps snuffed, branches quickly dragged out to cover the open space. Everyone retreated into the creeks, with its awning foliage their weapons loaded and cocked . . . my heartbeat so loud I was sure the helicopter pilot heard it’.
Sweet Crude Odyssey is a book full of tension and the author is adept at gripping the reader so that dropping the book is incredibly difficult. For instance, just when the story seems to get more and more interesting, as Bruce has to confront security agencies now trailing him, Baba T is introduced – a ruthless militant who commands fear in the creeks. His men kidnap Bruce and after his escape, Baba T continues to trail Bruce in a way that keeps the readers sitting on the edge of their seats.
But the story gets confusing when the author fails to maintain a particular narrative style. The reader follows the story through the eyes of Bruce Telema, but along the story when the Interpol and FBI begin to follow Bruce and investigate him, the story moves to third person point of view – this happens anytime the scene changes to the investigation. There is also the mistake of trying to pack in so much information and sub-narratives into the story, making the novel unnecessarily long – something a good editor would easily have noticed and expunged. In page 181, there is a digression as Bruce remembers how he joined cultism as a university student in UNIBEN, and that story drags along unnecessarily, adding no flesh to the main narrative. This digression shouldn’t have been introduced. There is also the penchant for concluding for the reader in an effort to introduce morality. In page 120, we read:
‘I hopped out of his car. As I strolled towards the terminal building, if I could do such a callous thing to poor Mr Ibe’s chickens at that tender age, I probably had a mean streak lurking in me all along’. The story of Mr. Ibe’s chickens forming part of the irrelevant narratives that the author shouldn’t have introduced.
In general, I’d like to highlight importantly that Sweet Crude Odyssey has set the standard for writings about the Niger Delta – for new writers intending to set their stories on the war torn region would now have to research as extensively as Lawrence Amaeshi has, and take the reader to the region like he has done, following his giant steps. In Sweet Crude Odyssey, I found myself learning more about a people’s suffering for a resources discovered on their lands and the government’s reluctance to come to their rescue, I learned of fear and hatred and greed for wealth and its resultant outcomes. I learned that whatever decision we take has consequences. And most importantly, I found that one can fall in love with a bad person, if they are painted as angels – in this case, though Bruce Telema and General One-Hand Jojo, like many scattered about everywhere in the world, are terrible people, the author weaves their personality in such an objective way, that we forever wish no harm come to them. We pray they live. We cry and laugh when they do – and we fall in love.