This essay explores the nature of the struggle by ethnic minorities in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta for the right to control their natural resources – particularly the petroleum mined from under their lands and waters. Five decades of oil exploitation has left the people severely marginalised and impoverished, facing a life of alienation and dispossession as their lands are taken up and their fragile ecosystem is polluted by the operations of the oil industry. In response, they have since the 1990s waged a local and international struggle to reclaim their right to the land and the resources under it. Predictably, the oil companies have allied with the state in its attempt to crush local resistance through violence. In response, the resistance has evolved into more complex, though still violent, forms.
Since the 1990s, the indigenous peoples or ethnic minorities of the oil-rich Niger Delta have protested against the exploitation and pollution of their lands and waters by international oil companies operating in partnership with the Nigerian state oil company – the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). Notable among the social movements and ethnic minority organisations that embarked upon a national and international campaign against the state-oil partnership in the 1990s was the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), led by the charismatic writer and Ogoni rights activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa. He was hanged on 10 November 1995 along with eight other Ogoni activists on the orders of a military-constituted tribunal that found them guilty of inciting a mob to kill four of the “pro-government” Ogoni elite, after a trial that was described internationally as unfair (CLO 1996).
Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999 both opened up the political space for the campaign for resource control by the ethnic minorities of the Niger Delta, and unfortunately contributed to increased militarization of the Niger Delta. This has also led to the emergence of many armed groups and militias that tapped into existing grievances and politics that has provoked an escalation in the violence in the region from 2003 onwards.
Given the high stakes built into the state-oil linkage in Nigeria, where oil exports account for 95 per cent of exports earnings and over 85 per cent of national revenues, politics continues to be influenced by oil. For those in power, access to oil is the ultimate prize in the political contest – for which they are ready to fight at any cost and by any means. For the out-of-power elite, it gives them everything to fight for, but most importantly, it has contributed to the marginalization of most Nigerian citizens (particularly those from the Niger Delta) from power and from the benefits of the oil economy, in spite of the unprecedented earnings from oil exports since 2000 . The result has been the continuation of the militarization of the conflict between the indigenous population and the Nigerian federal state – which lays claim under the constitution to be the sole owner of all oil in Nigeria – for control of the oil.
Ethnic minorities and the struggle for local autonomy
The history of the struggle for self-determination and local autonomy by the ethnic minorities of the Niger Delta is well-known. What is important to note is that it had its roots in the creation of Nigeria as a colonial state in 1914, an act that relegated the people of the region to minority status in relation to the numerically superior neighbouring ethnic groups, which dominated political life in the old Western and Eastern regions of Nigeria. The successive institutionalization of revenue-sharing and power distribution along regional lines tended to reinforce the politicization of ethnic identity, and its mobilization in the struggle for power. Smaller groups defined as “ethnic minorities” tended to lose out, while the dominant ethnic groups asserted power at both regional and national levels.
The ethnic minorities did not succeed in their quest to establish separate states before Nigeria’s independence in 1960, and opportunities to resolve festering disputes in the following years were squandered. Even before the 1967-1970 civil war there was an abortive attempt by a group of Ijaw ethnic minority youth – the Niger Delta Volunteer Force (NDVF), led by Isaac Boro, to secede from Nigeria, by declaring the Niger Delta Republic in February 1966 in a bid to protect “Ijaw oil” (Obi 2004: 23). Shortly before the eruption of war in 1967 between secessionist Biafra in the Eastern region, the four regions of Nigeria (North, East, West and Midwest) had been abolished and replaced with twelve states, three of which were in the ethnic minority regions of the Niger Delta. From 12 states in 1967, Nigeria currently has 36.
Apart from the state-creation exercise, and the centralization of the control of oil, the method of oil revenue allocation also changed over time. The share of oil revenues allocated to the ethnic minority oil-producing states of the Niger Delta fell from 50 per cent in 1966 to 1.5 per cent in the mid-1990s. It then rose to 13 per cent in 1999, in response to international campaigns and local protests by the minorities and the strategy of the new democratic regime to win legitimacy by attending to the grievances of the oil-producing communities.
The Ogoni campaign for self-determination
The Ogoni are a small ethnic minority group with an estimated population of 500,000 people occupying an area of 404 square miles. They have a long history of resistance to the central government. The pressure on their land was further exacerbated by “the concentration of six oil fields, two oil refineries, a huge fertilizer plant, petrochemical plants and an ocean port” (Naanen 1995). This contributed to the dispossession of many Ogoni of their land and livelihood (farming, fishing and hunting), without any form of redress in terms of social security, compensation or alternative employment.
MOSOP’s campaign for Ogoni rights was encapsulated in the 1990 Ogoni Bill of Rights (OBR) which demanded among other things, “the control of Ogoni resources for Ogoni development, political autonomy, compensation for decades of exploitation of Ogoni oil and oil pollution, and the right to protect the Ogoni environment and ecology from further degradation”. MOSOP deliberately targeted Shell in its globalised campaign against the depredations of the big oil concerns (Obi 2001; Robinson 1996). Shell was chosen because it was the largest onshore oil operator, the biggest oil partner of the Nigerian state and the first oil multinational to start operations in the Niger Delta, with a history dating back to 1938. One of MOSOP’s first ports of call in its international campaign was the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation (UNPO) in The Hague, Netherlands.
MOSOP adopted a strategy of welding its local grievances onto local and global discourse on the rights of indigenous peoples and minority rights, environmental and human rights, and self-determination. MOSOP activists expected that once Shell’s involvement in human rights and environmental abuses in the Niger Delta was exposed in Europe, the United States and the rest of the world, the movement would gain the international leverage to force Shell and the Nigerian government to respect Ogoni rights, and that other oil multinationals would then follow suit. Subsequent events however did not match such expectations, as the state-oil partnership, alarmed at the effectiveness of MOSOP’s campaign abroad, hit back. MOSOP was forced to retreat after the 1995 hangings and the military siege of Ogoniland (Obi 2005).
The Ijaw campaign for resource control
Following MOSOP’s retreat, the space for protest and resistance was taken up by other ethnic minority groups in the Niger Delta. In 1997, the Ijaw adopted a twin-pronged strategy – both based on their right as an “oil-producing” ethnic minority, and as an indigenous people in an oil-rich, but impoverished region. The first prong hinged on the generational factor, with youths taking up the mantle of the struggle and demanding for the right of Ijaws to control the oil resources under their land and waters, just as the Ogoni had demanded. The second was led by the Ijaw elite, which felt that they had been unfairly excluded from the benefits from the oil produced by their region. While the former led to the emergence of an organisation called the Ijaw Youth Congress in 1998, the latter remained within the Ijaw National Congress (INC). In some sense, the IYC was a generational critique levelled against the perceived ineffectiveness of the mainstream INC.
The IYC was formed following the meeting of the All-Ijaw Youth Conference of representatives from over 40 Ijaw clans located across the Niger Delta in Kaiama, Bayelsa state. On the basis of the Kaiama Declaration, the IYC demanded that all international oil companies should leave the Niger Delta by 30 December 1998. It mobilised the Ijaw people under the slogan of “Operation Climate Change” using rallies and cultural processions known locally as Ogele, while also appealing to the local deity and Ijaw god of war and justice, Egbesu, to bless their cause.
Rather than respond to their demands or invite them for dialogue, the military state governor declared a state of emergency and federal soldiers, navy personnel and riot police were brought in. Lives were lost, many were injured and property destroyed. The IYC-led protest was crushed by the state, but it could not extinguish the quest by the Ijaw and many other indigenous minority groups for the control of their land and the oil under it – through a campaign which, after Nigeria returned to democratic rule in May 1999, became known as the “struggle for resource control”.
Deepened tensions in the Niger delta
Growing youth unemployment, extreme poverty, perceived discriminatory employment practices against indigenes by oil companies and socio-economic grievances have deepened the existing tensions in the Niger Delta. The agitation of ethnic minorities was partly because the economic crises and reforms had deepened the exploitation and impoverishment of the Niger Delta, while the democratic institutions had failed to address the roots of the widespread grievances in the region.
Even worse was the ambivalence and greed
of the local elite and political class, that sought to harness the anger at the grassroots level to put pressure on the Federal State for increased oil revenue allocations, but at the same time removing support from genuinely popular groups and social movements. They also co-opted armed groups into their personal political ambitions by using such militia to rig elections and intimidate voters and the opposition. The region witnessed unprecedented violence from both the military and the armed youth militia – all of it linked to oil (International Crisis Group 2006; Kemedi 2006; Obi 2007).
Of note is the metamorphosis of the rights struggle of the indigenous Ijaw into a markedly violent phase since late 2005. Extreme armed elements such as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), which shocked the world with its globally publicized kidnappings of expatriate oil workers and its bombing of the offshore EA oil field on 11 January 2006, have emerged both as a response to and an offshoot of the zero-sum approach to inequitable power and social relations. MEND followed this action with further spectacular bomb attacks on oil installations and has kidnapped expatriate oil workers as a way of attracting international attention to its cause. Since 2006 over one hundred foreign oil workers have been kidnapped (and later released) in the Niger Delta.
MEND’s militant insurgency draws upon ethnic minority Ijaw identity, a deep sense of grievance, and is buoyed by support from various sources and the “righteousness of the cause”. According to its spokesperson, Jomo Gbomo, “We are asking for justice. We want our land, and the Nigerian government to transfer all its involvement in the oil industry to host communities” (Saharareporters 2007). Some recent sources estimate that there are thousands of well-armed militants in the Niger Delta. These militants have been able to force a 27 per cent cut in Nigeria’s oil exports, sending shockwaves through the global oil market that is already under immense pressure from the crisis in the Middle East and the Gulf, growing demand, and concerns about “peak oil” and energy security.
Nigeria’s return to democracy
It is not possible to understand the dynamics of the struggles of the popular movements of the indigenous ethnic minorities of the Niger Delta outside of the struggle for the democratisation of the Nigerian state. A quest for democracy underlines the desire for local autonomy and the control of oil in the Niger Delta. It also reflects in the social character of the struggle, in which movements organised around ethnic identities and solidarities, using a history of struggle, traditional indigenous metaphors and symbols, protest against and resist transnational oil exploitation. The key issues are the demands for local autonomy, and the control of oil for the benefit of the people of the Niger Delta.
The discussion above provides a framework for understanding the centrality of oil politics to the spiralling violence and its far-reaching international ramifications. But more fundamentally, oil is the whetstone of Nigerian politics – the object and target of the zero-sum struggles between the various factions of the Nigerian elite, that seek to capture and retain power at any cost, as a guarantee for monopoly control of vast oil resources, personal wealth, patronage and access to the global political economy. Any challenge to federal monopoly control of oil has been rebuffed, often with force, and since the return to civilian rule in 1999, initially peaceful calls for a re-negotiation of federal control of oil and resistance against the continued exercise of that control has assumed more militant forms, particularly after the failure of the 2005 constitutional conference to address the demands of representatives of the Niger Delta region for a 25 per cent share of the proceeds from the oil.
Conclusion: Indignity, democracy and citizenship
The foregoing shows the complex linkages between oil and the politics of the indigenous ethnic minorities of the people of the Niger Delta. The root of the conflict is the alienation of the people from the proceeds and full benefits of the oil produced from under their land and waters by the Nigerian federal state – to which they belong. The bone of contention therefore is the inequality of access to oil, the denial of full citizenship rights (equality of access, social justice, opportunity and political representation) and the alienation of the oil-producing region from its oil, which is controlled by a distant federal government (based in Abuja), dominated by elites from the (non-oil producing) ethnic majority groups. Yet there are contradictions within the Niger Delta elite and the ranks of the indigenous people of the region. However, the crux of the matter lies in the dangerous conjuncture of the highly centralized control of oil by a transnational and trans-local partnership and its wanton subversion of democracy since 1999, that has eviscerated all efforts towards the expression and imposition of the democratic will of the people, including the representation of the interests of their communities and the democratization of the inequitable social relations of oil production.
The way ahead for Nigeria lies in a return to the principles of true democracy and a more decentralised form of Nigerian federalism. There is also a need to address the high levels of youth unemployment and the poor state of social infrastructure, education and access to basic services, particularly in relation to clean water, health, and transportation. There also has to be a thorough process of building trust and a de-militarization of Niger Delta society at all levels. An important aspect of sustainable peace is the need for international oil companies to change their ethos of placing profits before people, to abide by international standards for environmental sustainability and financial transparency, and to refrain from the use of the military in their oil operations in the Niger Delta. Ultimately, it is only when the democratic and citizenship rights of the indigenes of the Niger Delta are underpinned by a socially just and participatory social contract between them and a popular democratic Nigerian nation state that sustainable peace will return to the region.
Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO). 1996. Ogoni: Trials and Travails, Lagos: CLO.
International Crisis Group (ICG) 2006. The Swamps of Insurgency: Nigeria’s Delta Unrest, Africa Report No. 115-3, August.
Kemedi, von Dimieari 2006. “Fuelling the Violence: Non-State Armed Actors (Militia, Cults, and Gangs) in the Niger Delta”, Institute of International Studies, University of California, Berkeley, The United States Institute for Peace, Washington DC, or Niger Delta, Port Harcourt: Niger Delta Economies of Violence Working Paper no. 10.
Naanen, B. 1995. “Oil producing Minorities and the Restructuring of Nigerian Federalism: The Case of Ogoni People”, Journal of Commonwealth and Comparative Politics, Issue 33.1.
Obi, C. 2001. The Changing Forms of Identity Politics in Nigeria Under Economic Adjustment: The Case of the Oil Minorities Movement of the Niger Delta, research report no. 119, Uppsala: Nordic Africa Institute.
Obi, C. 2004. The Oil Paradox: Reflections on the Violent Dynamics of Petro-Politics and (Mis) Governance in Nigeria’s Niger Delta, Pretoria: African Institute Occasional Paper no. 73.
Obi, C. 2005. Environmental Movements in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Political Ecology of Power and Conflict, Civil Society and Social Movements Paper no. 15, Geneva: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD).
Obi, C. 2007. “The Struggle for Resource Control in a Petro-state: A Perspective from Nigeria”, in P. Bowles, et al; National Perspectives on Globalisation, Hampshire and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Robinson, D. 1996. Ogoni: The Struggle Continues, Geneva and Nairobi: World Council of Churches and All-Africa Conference of Churches.
Saharareporters 2007. “Interview with Jomo Gbomo: We will Soon Stop Nigerian Oil Exports”, August 1, http://saharareporters.com/www/interview
Saro-Wiwa, K. 1995. A Month and a Day, London: Penguin Books.