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Local activist detained by Nigerian military

Joel Bisina of Langley and four filmmakers were detained by Nigerian military authorities early Saturday morning on the Niger Delta. - Cynthia Woolbright / Record file
Joel Bisina of Langley and four filmmakers were detained by Nigerian military authorities early Saturday morning on the Niger Delta.
— image credit: Cynthia Woolbright / Record file

A well-known Langley-based activist has been detained with four filmmakers in Nigeria and is currently being held by Nigerian authorities.

Joel Bisina, a former resident of the Niger Delta who has led humanitarian efforts in Nigeria, was arrested early Saturday by the Nigerian military along with a Seattle-based film crew.

Sandy Cioffi, the director of the documentary “Sweet Crude,” was detained at a

military outpost along with

fellow filmmakers Tammi Sims, Cliff Worsham and Sean Porter and then transported in the dark nearly 300 miles to the Nigerian capital of Abuja.

“There is no word about when they will be released,” said Louise Rafkin, spokeswoman for the film crew.

“They have not been charged nor have they been allowed to speak with legal representation. We are trying to go through diplomatic and legal channels to get them released,” she said.

Bisina spends half his time in Langley with his wife Mary Ella Keblusek, and the other half in the Niger Delta town of Warri. There, he runs an organization that fosters community development and peaceful conflict resolution.

The movie crew was visiting Nigeria to film more interviews for the documentary “Sweet Crude.”

The incomplete movie had been showcased as Whidbey Institute’s kick-off film for its Reflective Reels series in October, and featured Bisina and Nigerian militants who were attempting to gain international attention of their fight against oil companies in the region. Bisina has long tried to draw public attention to the exploitation of the Niger Delta by those seeking profits in the oil industry.

After notifying authorities of their visit, the film crew arrived in Nigeria on April 5 to conduct interviews and to spend time at the local library that Bisina and others had helped build.

Bisina’s wife said the group had its paperwork in order before the group arrived on Nigerian soil.

It was an important detail no one had overlooked, because American and German filmmakers Judith Burdin Asuni, Florian Alexander Opitz and Andy Lehmann had been jailed for several months last year for spying.

It served as a lesson, Keblusek said, and the group knew they needed documents that openly identified the film crew’s mission in the African country.

“Everything was in the visa paperwork. So it was very clear what we were doing,” Keblusek said. “Because of the tensions in the country, we had to absolutely disclose everything we did.”

“It’s been out there since February exactly what our intentions were going to be,” she said. “We thought that if we showed all this paperwork to the military, they would understand that there was no subterfuge happening.”

After Keblusek got word that the group had been detained, she prepared a second set of the documents to send to Nigeria. She hoped that would end the dilemma, but it didn’t.

“It turned out they decided to delegate it up the ladder and they moved them to the country capital of Abuja late overnight Saturday,” she said. “I was most afraid when they were being transported in the middle of the night to Abuja.”

She was not afraid of the military but the dangers posed by the potholes in the roads, holes that are large enough to swallow cars and kill people in the daytime.

“That is a six- or seven-hour road trip in the day. At night it’s longer and the roads are really bad. You never drive at night,” she said. “I was really concerned that that kind of very fast decision to move them at night, not even to wait until Sunday morning in daytime, that scared me. I wasn’t sure why they would make such a decision when they could have just as easily had them spend the night in Warri and then go.”

The arrest by the military came as a surprise despite the increased tensions within Nigeria, she said.

“We weren’t expecting this. Joel had taken Americans into the creek frequently over the last three years and we’ve never had a problem before like this,” Keblusek said.

Keblusek and others within Cioffi’s film company have since discovered that the detention was likely caused by an over-reaction by military members who had gotten word that a militant had threatened to blow up an oil installation.

“They just have a hard time believing that Americans would travel in the delta without a full security escort; four people with machine guns,” she said.

“The military first thought Joel was kidnapping them,” Keblusek added. “They had to convince the military that no, this was not a kidnapping.”

The military then thought the group was engaged in an act of espionage.

What stymied the military at that point was a lack of guns or drugs, she said.

“So finally, they said they had to have a permit. And there is no law requiring a permit,” she added.

The message of “Sweet Crude” — that the environment of the Niger Delta is being exploited and damaged by oil companies — had nothing to do with the detention, Keblusek said.

“This was a group of uneducated guys out in the sticks that just didn’t know what they were looking at,” she said. “They weren’t expecting to see four Americans with cameras and a Nigerian without police escorts and they freaked out and took them in.”

The arrests have become an international diplomacy issue for Nigeria’s government. Under the country’s constitution, the five detainees should have been released within 48 hours unless they were charged with a crime, she said.

“Joel is really well-known for all the important work he’s done. People there know he is a man of integrity and that he’s a high-profile person who’s mediated a lot of important battles, crises and eruptions,” she said.

There is also potential political fallout for the nation’s leadership if the five are not released quickly, Keblusek said.

“The government is trying to put together a Niger Delta summit in the near future. If they don’t handle this properly, they would also be seen as undermining the success of the summit,” she said.

“But you never know how these things are going to work out. Pretty soon, they have to make a decision about what they are going to do.”

Meanwhile, a U.S. Embassy staff member visited the group on Monday, said Rafkin, spokeswoman for the film crew.

“The report said they were not ill-treated,” she said.

Keblusek is hoping for more information and news of their release.

“I am hoping they got a free ride to Abuja and visibility that we could not have possibly paid for and now to interview people who might not have known what we’re about and would be willing to talk,” she said.

“I really hope things turn around tomorrow and they are released.”

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