The case of Rumuekpe Community, Niger Delta, narrates the wretched human consequences of oil exploration. A community left without development, despite its resource riches, plagued by poverty and in-fighting. Petroleum royalties handed out by extractors to community leaders, who then failed to redistribute these resources to their struggling populous, caused insurmountable tensions in Rumuekpe. Embittered and desperate, the community descended into bloody conflict, leaving hundreds dead and destroying the local infrastructure.
By 2011, Nigerian oil revenues had totalled $50.3 billion. The three core oil producing states of the Niger Delta, Rivers, Delta and Baylesa combined budgets in 2010 were $4,761,857,941. This wealth, if utilised effectively, could go a long way to ensuring a peaceful and prosperous Niger Delta. Even if 30% was utilised effectively, the Niger Delta region would at least achieve the minimal benchmark set by the Millennium Development Goals.
Rumuekpe Community, Rivers State hosts the biggest manifold of the Shell Petroleum Development Company’s (SPDC) Eastern Division, processing between 10,000 and 15,000 barrels of oil per day. Additionally, 100,000 barrels of oil flow through the pipelines running through Rumuekpe, amounting to 10% of Shell’s daily production levels. As well as Shell, companies Total, Elf and Niger Delta Petroleum Resources (NDPR) operate in the area.
Yet the community has not flourished as a result of its vast resource wealth; instead it has been torn apart by warring communities. Inescapable poverty and widespread lack of employment opportunities have led to feelings of powerlessness, frustration and resentment across the villages Rumuekpe.
Broiling community tensions resulted in cycles of violent conflict between 2005 and 2008, and led to the deaths of 100 Rumuekpeans, 18,000 people displaced and extensive damage to local infrastructure.
A central element fuelling the rivalries in Rumuekpe have been the royalties handed out by oil companies to community leaders of towns within which they operate. These cash injections into Rumuekpe quickly became a major source of contention for otherwise resourceless communities already suffering at the hands of the oil industry due to pollution and subsequent loss of livelihood.
In response to local leaders failing to redistribute funds into the communities and instead keeping them for the benefit of themselves and their families, impoverished community members and restless youths formed themselves into gangs and militia groups seeking to displace leaders and access the funds themselves. In other words, Rumuekpe witnessed the emergence of an “every man for himself” culture, wherein violence became seen, accurately unfortunately, as the most effective way to acquire funds.
Over the course of the violence, three consecutive community leaders – Solomon Obio, Friday Edu and SK Agbala – were overthrown and killed by their successors as a result of the unequal power and financial relations in the community. The sheer brutality of the conflict is highlighted by the case of Obio; not only was he killed and the large home he had built destroyed, but his brothers and his wife who had fled were tracked down and killed in Port Harcourt.
SPDC further exacerbated tensions in Rumuekpe by continuing to hand out these royalties, this time to the most powerful gangs in the region. In a bid to secure the protection of their pipelines in the midst of local chaos, SPDC fuelled the continuation of conflict without consideration for the human cost of oil exploration.