Home A History of the Niger Delta

A History of the Niger Delta


To fully understand and appreciate the current context we must take ourselves back through Niger Delta history to the region’s first formation of city states, the Oyo and Benin Kingdoms, circa 11th Century. These kingdoms grew quickly in terms of political and economic prowess, becoming an independent trading power and controlling the coastal ports along what is now known as the Niger Delta. Political and religious authority resided in the “Oba” (King). The kingdom of Benin grew to an approximate size of 100,000 inhabitants, this urbanization being accompanied by artistic, cultural and commercial development including terracotta, ivory sculpture and metal casting (please note that Benin City is now the capital of Edo State, a south western region of the Niger Delta, not to be confused with the country bordering the west coast of Nigeria). Outside of Benin, the Niger Delta was a collection of regions controlled by different tribes and Kings, for example, Urhobo, Delta Igbos, Isoko, Itsekiri, Oron and Ijaw (note that the Ijaw have always been the ethnic majority group in the Delta). These communities traded with each other before the arrival of the Europeans in the late 15th Century.

In 1471, the quest for glory and profit brought Portuguese navigators to the Niger Delta and established contact with the local people. However, it was 10 years later that the first royal emissary visited the court of the Oba of Benin. The relationship between both sides was cordial with early reports of the Portuguese being allowed to speak in the Oba’s court. The relationship was formed over mutually beneficial trade, exchanges which saw the Oba offer peppers, ivory and slaves in exchange for coral beads, textiles and other products from a more developed European markets. As the relationship was sustained, secondary economies grew that provided services to slave traders, creating self-sustaining economic conditions.

The growing slave trade into Europe saw the breakdown of the inter-community trade relationships, not due to conflict, but due to the more lucrative opportunity from the European demand for slaves to the Americas.

The economic and social inflows into the region saw an emergence of new cities and states, built as internal and external markets developed. Interestingly, even before the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, the region’s reliance on the Slave Trade dwindled due to an even more lucrative opportunity in the palm oil trade. Demand for the native palm oil ran in parallel to the Industrial Revolution in Europe as the demand for factory machine lubricant increased exponentially. In addition, as the European population and wealth grew, secondary demands for palm oil based products e.g. soaps and margarine grew increasing the demand for the natural oil.

Towards the end of the 19th Century the British began to explore and charter the regions territory and river systems in preparation for potential trade. One man in particular, George Goldie (1846 – 1925) formed the United African Company, modeled on the former East India Company, a typical international British trade (and unincorporated) organization of the time. The motive behind these companies was control, ownership and profit with little regard for the native communities in the region, such was the arrogance of the British and Europeans alike. Goldie partnered with other organizations trading in the same area and effectively took control of the Lower Niger River, an obviously key trade route in and out of the region. Within two years Goldie and his agents had signed treaties with tribal leaders along the major Benue and Niger Rivers whilst also penetrating into the mainland, against verbal agreements that had been made to restrict the organisation’s activities to coastal regions. The company name changed to “The National Africa Company” which in 1886 was granted a royal charter (equivalent of incorporation at the time) authorizing the company to administer the Niger Delta and the country on the banks of the Benue and Niger Rivers. The now chartered company was once again renamed “The Royal Niger Company”.

As the trading relationships developed, a certain degree of agitation grew amongst the Niger Delta middle men, who had forged a successful and prosperous association with the European traders. As these middle men were from different regions and tribes, the commercial competition between them grew as the European traders were able to choose the intermediate that offered the best opportunity and therefore the greater profit for the European traders. Tensions rose to a point where the first major conflict occurred, the rebellion of King William Koko of Nembe, who from 1894-1895 resisted the Royal Niger Company’s attempts to shut out the Nembe people from the lucrative trade in palm oil.

This was a major event and is particularly note worthy as it marks the feeling of imposition that the residents of the Niger Delta have felt since the 19th Century.

The self imposed British control over the region was insufficient to stop the growing role in the area of the state sponsored protectorates of France and Germany who also craved hegemony, as well as growing tensions from native tribes that required the use of Gun Boats from the Royal Navy to protect British interests. Consequently in 1899, the Royal Niger Company sold its interest to the British Government for £865,000, the equivalent today of approximately £87,000,000. The interests were merged with the Niger Coast Protectorate of Brass, Bonny, Oporobo, Aobh and Old Calabar excluding Lagos. This formed the Southern Nigerian Protectorate under the control of the British Colonial Office.

Oil: The Curse Begins

To put it into context, the onset of colonial rule in Nigeria coincided with the expansion of oil exploration to many areas of the world. The development of the combustion engine in the 1890’s opened up new uses for oil and other lubricant based products. With increasing reliance on mechanized industry, Britain’s demand for oil outstripped its mediocre supply of shale gas off the north coast of Scotland. In addition, the increased need of military ships, protecting the island during and following World War I substantially increased this demand from which the British government concluded that the satisfaction of this demand had to come from other areas of the globe that may potentially hold oil reserves. The first of which to “rightfully” explore were their colonies.

Nigeria, being one of those colonies was explored first for bitumen, coal and oil. This was evoked after the 1914 ordinance which ordered that any oil and mineral under Nigerian soil was rightfully property of the crown. Several explorative ventures occurred between 1903-1935, however, it was the joint venture of Shell and the Anglo Iranian Oil Company (now BP), known at the time as the Shell-D’Arcy Exploration Parties (SDEP) that lead the way of exploration performing many geological surveys of the Niger Delta (and other regions of the Nigeria). In 1956 the first oil well was struck in commercial quantities at Oloibiri in Bayelsa State.

This period was also extremely significant in the broader Nigerian context. The creation of three regional administrative divisions along majority ethnic lines, the Hausa Fulani of the north, Igbos of the east and Yorubas of the west, vast ethnic minorities in the central south of Nigeria, particularly the Ijaws were ostracized from mainstream majority agendas. Tensions grew as the people of the Niger Delta were not able to participate with the major groups which lead to significantly reduced economic, political and social opportunity which in turn lead to inequality and resentment.


Following World War II, Nigerian nationalism and demands for independence grew and the British Government moved Nigeria toward self-government on a representative and increasingly federal basis. During this period, a broad sweeping demand for independence was happening across Africa. Nigeria became independent on 1 October 1960 with Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa leading a coalition government.

Compounding these parallel events of oil discovery and independence, this laid another foundation for conflict as many Niger Deltan’s saw themselves as second class citizens in an independent Nigeria they had assisted the British in creating.

The struggle for power and share of the oil wealth between rival political and military factions lead to Balewa being killed in a military coup that lead to the militarization of government whose controversial census fuelled regional and ethnic tensions. The economy faltered under military rule, leading to worsening tensions and increasing violence between different ethnic and political groups which culminated in one the regions, Biafra, declaring itself an independent republican state in 1967. This sparked one of the worst and most bloody civil wars that Africa has ever seen, killing one million civilians either through fighting or the resulting famine in the region. Although the causes of the war were diverse, it has been noted that the involvement of the British, Dutch, French and Italian oil companies started and protracted the war. Another example of how external imperial interests have resulted in violent instability in the region. The Biafran leaders were overpowered and surrendered in 1970 after which the Biafran region was reintegrated back into Nigeria. The replacement leader, Brigadier Murtala Ramat Mohammed began the process of moving the federal capital to Abuja. Brigadier Mohammed was assassinated in 1976 and replaced by his deputy Lieutenant-General Olusegun Obasanjo whom helped introduce an American-style presidential constitution. However, election and vote rigging was commonplace which lead to a series of coups with different members of the military fighting for power and wealth whilst implementing their own dictatorial regimes over the nation.

Taking a step back and reflecting on the civilian population of the Delta during the years from the Biafra war, there was an increasing rise in tension over the unfair distribution of the wealth created by the drilling and extraction of oil on their land. The resistance of the Government and Extractive Companies to address this unfair distribution lead to the mobilization of the radical armed militia, the Niger Delta Volunteer Force (NDVF) lead by Isaac Boro. The NDVF fought the Nigerian military for 12 days and even attempted to emancipate the region as the Niger Delta Republic, however, Boro and his accomplices were captured and sentenced to jail for treason. Although unsuccessful, Isaac Boro’s attempt to fight injustice paved the way for other like-minded activists, campaigning for the same cause. Once of the most prominent of these activists was Ken Saro Wiwa, the leader of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People or MOSOP who advocated a non-violent approach to reconciliation of the injustices felt by the Ogoni people (people living in Ogoniland, a large area of the Delta) from the actions of foreign extractive enterprises, namely Shell, on their land. The death by hanging of Ken Saro Wiwa in 1995 was one of the most poignant events in recent Nigeria history and highlights the deep sense of injustice felt by many in the Niger Delta.


In 1999, following the death of General Abacha, the military regime ended with Nigeria’s first civilian democratic parliamentary and presidential elections began with Olusegun Obasanjo sworn in as president.

During the period from Ken Saro Wiwa’s death, further activist groups have arisen, moving away from the non-violent approach endorsed by Ken Saro Wiwa. These groups have unfortunately taken arms and formed rebel groups fighting against the international oil companies and Government through gang violence, pipeline destruction and oil bunkering, kidnappings and piracy spurring a wave of criminality through the Delta.

From 2004 escalating armed and violent conflict between gangs in Port Harcourt increased the levels of militancy in the region. Fuelled by rage borne through the deep sense of injustice of inequality, government corruption, international criminality, political grievance and the dire need of many young unemployed men to feed their families, the militants attacked oil pipelines and kidnapped foreign oil workers sending the price of oil above $100 per barrel for the first time in world history. In 2009, approximately 26,000 militants agreed to a ceasefire and a government led Amnesty Process. To this day, the Amnesty Process is ongoing, however the peace is fragile as the deep roots of the injustice have not been fully addressed.

On a positive note, the Amnesty has created the space for civil society to develop and organizations to come into the Niger Delta to encourage the reconciliation of these injustices leading to a more peaceful, politically stable and economically diverse Niger Delta. The next few years are crucial to creating irreversible change, moving away from past atrocities fuelled by the resource curse and correcting the balance of inequality felt and lived in by millions in the region.