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History and conflict in the Niger Delta

A brief overview of some of the historical events and circumstances leading up to past conflict and present day insecurity in the Niger Delta today

Ken Saro-Wiwa. One of the ‘Ogoni 9’ hanged by the Nigerian military rule of the time, in collusion with the oil industry.

Nigeria became independent from the United Kingdom in 1960, after the discovery of crude oil in Oloibiri (present-day Bayelsa State) in 1956. At the time of independence, the country was divided along broadly ethnic lines in regional administrations. This has contributed to tensions over the allocation of resources—in particular the income generated from the oil industry.

Nigeria’s first Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, was overthrown in a military coup in 1966. The Biafran civil war broke out in 1967, and Nigeria spent extended periods of the next three decades under military rule with frequent coups.

During this period of instability, Nigeria produced substantial revenue from its oil wealth. However, increasing environmental damage, in part, led to social and political unrest in the Niger Delta.

One of the most prominent activists on environmental issues was Ken Saro-Wiwa, leader of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People in the early 1990s. Ken Saro-Wiwa advocated for non-violent resistance to environmental injustice in Ogoniland, an area of the Niger Delta which has suffered from particularly widespread oil spill pollution.

Tragically, Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged by the Nigerian military government, along with eight other activists, in 1995. This led to international condemnation and the expulsion of Nigeria from the Commonwealth.

In 1999, following the death of General Sani Abacha, Nigeria returned to democracy. Since then, it has moved in a positive, if flawed and fragile, democratic trajectory. 2015 was the first time an incumbent president lost and handed over power via the ballot box. Nigeria holds the largest population of any African state, has a thriving tech sector, and there are signs Nigeria may be reducing its very high dependence on the oil and gas industry for government revenue.

However, parts of the country are frequently affected by conflict, and Nigeria is now believed to have the highest number of people living in extreme poverty of any country in the world—approximately 90 million people, and growing.

In the Niger Delta, people’s rights are rarely provided for, and frequently violated. Many of those who live in the region experience very poor living standards. The abundance of natural resource wealth from the region’s oil and gas reserves, coupled with weak governance, has produced the ‘resource curse’ (or ‘paradox of plenty’), maintaining this injustice. The combination of natural resource wealth and weak governance enable those in positions of political and other power to benefit disproportionately from oil money, and the oil and gas industry to operate below international standards. Many historic oil spills have never been cleaned up, and this contributes to severe local health consequences, as well as for local livelihoods: farmland and fishing waters are poisoned when contaminated by oil.

As a result, leaders at all levels often lack accountability to the populations they are supposed to serve. Many aspects of government and public services are mismanaged or function ineffectively, and the Niger Delta—and Nigeria as a whole—has seen little benefit or development from its natural resource wealth, principally oil and gas reserves. The democratic system is undermined by political patronage that uses money and violence to achieve and retain power. This is likely to be a major factor in why elections in the Niger Delta have suffered from major fraud and violence. Even between election cycles, the Niger Delta suffers violence perpetrated by those seeking political power and control over resources, high levels of criminality, and ongoing environmental damage caused by oil spills and gas which is flared, or burnt off, as a by-product of oil production.

From 2004, escalating armed and violent conflict between gangs and towards government and oil company security forces increased the levels of militancy in the region. Particularly well-known militant groups include the The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), and Niger Delta Avengers. In the wider context of underdevelopment, widespread oil pollution, a lack of livelihood options, and a largely unresponsive government, militants targeted oil pipelines and kidnapped foreign oil workers for ransom. This militancy affected oil production to the extent that the price of oil rose above USD$100 per barrel for the first time in world history. In 2009, approximately 26,000 militants agreed to a ceasefire, and the government led an amnesty process that makes payments and offers opportunities to ex-militants, intended to prevent a return to militancy. To this day, the Presidential Amnesty Programme is still operating, and there is relative stability but this is fragile as the original conditions giving rise to the militancy have not been fully addressed. There is also no concrete exit-plan for this hugely expensive Programme.

Despite the relief from militancy, there is still every-day insecurity within areas of the Niger Delta, where cultism, piracy, corrupt security personnel, and destabilising economic activities are rife. 20% of households in the Niger Delta between 2010-2017 were affected by conflict—with 1/20 experiencing a bereavement due to conflict over that period. The fall in militancy has, however, created the space for a vibrant civil society to develop and organisations to come into the Niger Delta to encourage a more sustainable peace, political stability, and economic diversity in Niger Delta.

In the face of these challenges, inhabitants of the Niger Delta have few options to seek redress. The justice system, in areas such as claiming compensation for nearby oil spills, is flawed and hard to access. Furthermore, collective action can be met with a disproportionate and intolerant response from government and other actors, including violence. However, some compensation cases against Shell and its subsidiaries have been taken to England, where Shell is headquartered, with out-of-court settlements that amount to many times what was originally offered to the impacted communities. Although the legal representation required to take this action is available to very few, it may prove to be an alternative avenue to seek justice where the Nigerian processes are inadequate.

The resulting sense of injustice is a major source of conflict, while the unequal ability to influence change is another key feature. For instance, women and young people are almost entirely excluded from formal politics.

International politics and interests also shape the situation in the region. For example, global demand for oil means that the interests of foreign investors in Nigeria can be favoured over its people. Companies wishing to exploit the weak monitoring and enforcement of standards in Nigeria, therefore, can easily do so—as may be the case with the import of dirty fuels from Europe and elsewhere.

At SDN, we produce research on many of these issues, and implement projects to address them. Find out more about our work.

Introduction

The Niger Delta today includes the area occupied by a number of historical city states, in particular the Kingdoms of Benin and Oyo. Apart from these, the Niger Delta includes other areas once controlled by different ethnic and tribal groups.

Europeans first arrived in the 15th century, and began trading slaves, textiles, spices, and other products. In the 19th century the Niger Delta came under British rule, and began to export palm oil, driven by demand for machine lubrication as part of the industrial revolution.

Discovery of oil and the end of direct colonial rule

Nigeria became independent from the United Kingdom in 1960, after the discovery of crude oil in Oloibiri (present-day Bayelsa State) in 1956. At the time of independence, the country was divided along broadly ethnic lines in regional administrations. This has contributed to tensions over the allocation of resources—in particular the income generated from the oil industry.
Nigeria’s first Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, was overthrown in a military coup in 1966. The Biafran civil war broke out in 1967, and Nigeria spent extended periods of the next three decades under military rule with frequent coups.

Environmental damage and resistance

During this period of instability, Nigeria produced substantial revenue from its oil wealth. However, increasing environmental damage, in part, led to social and political unrest in the Niger Delta.

One of the most prominent activists on environmental issues was Ken Saro-Wiwa, leader of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People in the early 1990s. Ken Saro-Wiwa advocated for non-violent resistance to environmental injustice in Ogoniland, an area of the Niger Delta which has suffered from particularly widespread oil spill pollution.

Tragically, Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged by the Nigerian military government, along with eight other activists, in 1995. This led to international condemnation and the expulsion of Nigeria from the Commonwealth.

Steps towards democracy

In 1999, following the death of General Sani Abacha, Nigeria returned to democracy. Since then, it has moved in a positive, if flawed and fragile, democratic trajectory. 2015 was the first time an incumbent president lost and handed over power via the ballot box. Nigeria holds the largest population of any African state, has a thriving tech sector, and there are signs Nigeria may be reducing its very high dependence on the oil and gas industry for government revenue.

However, parts of the country are frequently affected by conflict, and Nigeria is now believed to have the highest number of people living in extreme poverty of any country in the world—approximately 90 million people, and growing.

The resource curse

In the Niger Delta, people’s rights are rarely provided for, and frequently violated. Many of those who live in the region experience very poor living standards. The abundance of natural resource wealth from the region’s oil and gas reserves, coupled with weak governance, has produced the ‘resource curse’ (or ‘paradox of plenty’), maintaining this injustice. The combination of natural resource wealth and weak governance enable those in positions of political and other power to benefit disproportionately from oil money, and the oil and gas industry to operate below international standards. Many historic oil spills have never been cleaned up, and this contributes to severe local health consequences, as well as for local livelihoods: farmland and fishing waters are poisoned when contaminated by oil.

Lack of accountability

As a result, leaders at all levels often lack accountability to the populations they are supposed to serve. Many aspects of government and public services are mismanaged or function ineffectively, and the Niger Delta—and Nigeria as a whole—has seen little benefit or development from its natural resource wealth, principally oil and gas reserves. The democratic system is undermined by political patronage that uses money and violence to achieve and retain power. This is likely to be a major factor in why elections in the Niger Delta have suffered from major fraud and violence. Even between election cycles, the Niger Delta suffers violence perpetrated by those seeking political power and control over resources, high levels of criminality, and ongoing environmental damage caused by oil spills and gas which is flared, or burnt off, as a by-product of oil production.

The rise and fall in militancy

From 2004, escalating armed and violent conflict between gangs and towards government and oil company security forces increased the levels of militancy in the region. Particularly well-known militant groups include the The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), and Niger Delta Avengers. In the wider context of underdevelopment, widespread oil pollution, a lack of livelihood options, and a largely unresponsive government, militants targeted oil pipelines and kidnapped foreign oil workers for ransom. This militancy affected oil production to the extent that the price of oil rose above USD$100 per barrel for the first time in world history. In 2009, approximately 26,000 militants agreed to a ceasefire, and the government led an amnesty process that makes payments and offers opportunities to ex-militants, intended to prevent a return to militancy. To this day, the Presidential Amnesty Programme is still operating, and there is relative stability but this is fragile as the original conditions giving rise to the militancy have not been fully addressed. There is also no concrete exit-plan for this hugely expensive Programme.

Despite the relief from militancy, there is still every-day insecurity within areas of the Niger Delta, where cultism, piracy, corrupt security personnel, and destabilising economic activities are rife. 20% of households in the Niger Delta between 2010-2017 were affected by conflict—with 1/20 experiencing a bereavement due to conflict over that period. The fall in militancy has, however, created the space for a vibrant civil society to develop and organisations to come into the Niger Delta to encourage a more sustainable peace, political stability, and economic diversity in Niger Delta.

Attempts to improve the system

In the face of these challenges, inhabitants of the Niger Delta have few options to seek redress. The justice system, in areas such as claiming compensation for nearby oil spills, is flawed and hard to access. Furthermore, collective action can be met with a disproportionate and intolerant response from government and other actors, including violence. However, some compensation cases against Shell and its subsidiaries have been taken to England, where Shell is headquartered, with out-of-court settlements that amount to many times what was originally offered to the impacted communities. Although the legal representation required to take this action is available to very few, it may prove to be an alternative avenue to seek justice where the Nigerian processes are inadequate.

The resulting sense of injustice is a major source of conflict, while the unequal ability to influence change is another key feature. For instance, women and young people are almost entirely excluded from formal politics.

International politics and interests also shape the situation in the region. For example, global demand for oil means that the interests of foreign investors in Nigeria can be favoured over its people. Companies wishing to exploit the weak monitoring and enforcement of standards in Nigeria, therefore, can easily do so—as may be the case with the import of dirty fuels from Europe and elsewhere.

At SDN, we produce research on many of these issues, and implement projects to address them. Find out more about our work.

Published: 07.10.2020