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Home Discussion Papers Conflict & Terrorism Niger Delta region: What is behind the oil conflict?
Niger Delta region: What is behind the oil conflict?
Written by Petra Pavšič (1) Friday, 02 November 2012 08:14

Africa is home to some of the best-known resource-related conflicts in the world today. Most natural conflicts occur due to the disagreements about the way in which these resources are extracted, the distribution of revenues from exploitation and the level of involvement of the local population in the development decisions. Some studies have concluded that the majority of the conflicts are related to oil and the large amounts of money related to it.(2)

As such, this paper discusses the oil conflict currently ongoing in the Niger Delta in Nigeria. The paper first describes the importance of oil for Nigeria and presents the long history of oil conflict in the Niger Delta. Furthermore, it discusses the economic and environmental reasons that spur the conflict, and provides possible solutions. 

The Niger Delta

Conflict in the oil-rich Niger Delta in Nigeria is one of the examples of a resource-related conflict. Nigeria extracts about 93.1 metric tons of oil annually, accounting for around 2.9% of total world production.(3) Consequently, Nigeria is a major player in the world energy market.(4) In 2010, the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency placed it 10th on the list of the world’s largest oil producers.(5) Nigeria largely depends on oil rents, taxes and royalties paid by transnational oil companies and on profits gained from its equity stakes in those companies’ investments.(6) Oil products account for 80% of Nigerian Government revenues, 95% of export receipts and 90% of foreign exchange earnings.(7) The Niger Delta alone accounts for over 90% of Nigeria’s oil revenue.(8) It hosts a dozen oil companies. The first oil was successfully drilled from the region by the Anglo Dutch Shell Petroleum Development Company in 1956.(9) This company still holds the biggest share in the region and produces 42.2% of the country’s daily output.(10) Later on, other multinational oil companies like Mobil, Elf Aquitane, Chevron, and Agip started operating in the region. Nigeria’s oil is called Bonny Light, and is highly appreciated since it is low in sulphur content and is consequently more environmentally friendly.(11)

But the richness of the region does not reflect in the richness of its inhabitants. The Niger Delta region is the most underdeveloped region in Nigeria,(12) and for decades oil has been at the centre of the violent conflict between ethnic minorities, the Government and the oil companies. Oil has placed the region on the hot spot map of the world.(13)

Long history of violent uprisings in the Niger Delta region

By the 1970s and 1980s, a number of ethnic communities living in the Delta region had begun to mobilise against the so-called ‘slick alliance’ between the oil companies, the Nigerian state and the military.(14) The foundational role in the movement was played by the Ogoni people and their leader, Ken Saro-Wiwa, in the 1990s. But soon other communities spread across the Niger Delta region joined the movement. Among the most active were the Ijawi, who issued the Kaima Declaration in December 1998 and harangued the federal Government and oil companies to leave Ijawland by the beginning of the next year.(15) “Oil, blood and fire” were words with which an elderly resident of the Ogoni town in Bora described the situation in the Niger Delta in 1995. He referred to the tensions between Shell, which was backed by Nigeria’s military rulers, and the Ogoni.(16) All rebellions were violent, many people were killed or fled from their homes and violence posed a threat to the state’s stability. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that during the Ogoni rebellion at the beginning of the 1990s, around 5,400 refugees fled from the region.(17) The execution of nine Ogoni rights activists, including Ken Sar-Wiwa, who was accused after a mock trial, only unleashed further conflicts between the state, oil companies and ethnic communities across the delta region. Oil production in the region was completely paralysed between 1996 and 1998. Rebels, mostly angry youths, seized oil wells, terminals and flow stations that belonged to the oil companies and took hostages for whom they demanded ransom. Their objective was to stop the oil production if they could not get their ‘fair share’ from it.(18) The state answer encompassed different forms of violence. It harassed Ogoni leaders through arrests, detention and surveillance. Ogoni leaders had become regular victims of the state’s security and intelligence agencies. They were arrested and detained without being charged. Moreover, the state encouraged violent conflicts between the Ogoni and their neighbours and tried to make them look like purely ethnic conflicts. Finally, the state used armed forces and the police to suppress Ogoni movements. It made use of extra-judicial killings, floggings, torture, rapes, lootings and extortions. An Internal Security Task Force was established with the purpose of the systematic use of violence and murders against the Ogoni. The Government backed those acts with the adoption of the Decree Against Treason in 1993. It stipulated the death penalty for anybody who organised war against Nigeria or intimidated the President of the Governors.(19)

In May 1999, Nigeria returned to democratic rule. It was expected that the democratic regime would lead to the demilitarisation of the region and would reduce tensions between ethnic communities, the Government and oil companies. Yet, after the 1999 elections, Government security forces remained in the Niger Delta and tensions continued. When an Odi criminal gang, operating from an oil-producing community in Bayelsa state, killed some police officers, the Nigerian army invaded the town, razed the entire community and left thousands injured, homeless and dead.(20)

The conflicts in the Niger Delta region were closely monitored by the United States of America. In 2000, the US Department of State, in its annual encyclopaedia of global terrorism, identified the Niger Delta as a breeding ground for militant ‘impoverished ethnic groups’, which made use of abductions, kidnappings and judicial killings. The encyclopaedia described them as terrorist acts.(21) In 2006, the wave of violence against the large foreign oil companies operating in the oil-rich Niger Delta continued. Militants known as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) kidnapped four foreign Shell employees. They blew up pipelines, killed Nigerian soldiers, kidnapped and ransomed oil workers. MEND also demanded restitution for the environmental damage wrought by the oil industry, greater control over oil revenues for local Government, and development aid to improve living conditions in the delta.(22) Between 2005 and 2009, about 25-40% of Nigerian’s oil production and exports were forcedly shut down.(23) The Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism has profiled MEND as “an active terrorist group that uses violent means to support the rights of the ethnic Ijaw people in the Niger Delta.”(24)

Why do ethnic communities rebel?

Ever since 1914 and the Mineral Act, sovereignty rights over oil resources within the country belonged to the central power of the state and it had the power to distribute its revenues. Shortly before Nigeria won its independence in 1960, the Raisman Commission of 1958 set the rule that the oil revenue shall be split as follows: 50% for the state, 20% to the federal Government and 30% for the Distributive Pool, where regions of oil origin were represented.

A dispute over the oil ownership appeared for the first time during the civil war between 1967 and 1970, when leaders of the attempted secessionist Eastern region demanded rents, royalties and taxes for the newly declared Republic of Biafra. The state imposed a naval blockade on the two main eternal outlets for oil, but nothing serious happened. The Biafra surrendered and the civil war ended. Throughout the years, the importance of oil for national revenue has been steeply rising. In 1965, it accounted for only 5%, but rose up to 80% by 1980. In 1976, the federal Government passed the Constitution Decree No. 6 of 1975, which increased the share of oil revenue going to the Distributive Pool to 80%, and reduced the revenue that went to the states of derivation to 20%. Moreover, the 1979 constitution decided that the federal Government owned all mineral resources, both onshore and offshore.(25)

Revenues stopped being allocated on the basis of the derivation principle. Communities in the Delta region were given little compensation for the oil that was pumped in their region. Moreover, oil companies hired work forces from outside the host communities for filling their employment roster and did not try to decrease the unemployment in the region. Consequently, at the beginning of the 1990s, ethnic communities made ownership claims to the rich resources that were derived from their land. They rebelled and rose against the state and oil-producing companies. As mentioned, the Ognoni, an ethnic community that inhabits a small part of the region, started the rebel movement. “They demanded a stop to the environmental degradation of Ogoniland, then payment of oil royalties, compensation for damage already done, and respect for the rights of the Ogoni people.”(26)

Environmental degradation as the cause of the Niger Delta region conflict

The unsuccessful demand for financial compensation was not the only reason for the violent rebellions. Another cause of political and social rebellion was environmental degradation of the Niger Delta region.(27) A third of the region is covered by a fragile mangrove forest, one of the largest in the world. Moreover, the biodiversity of the Niger Delta region has traditionally been very high. Diverse plant and animal species, including many exotic and unique flowers and birds live there.(28) Yet, in recent years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change identified Nigeria as a climate change ‘hot spot’. They predicted that Nigeria would face growing shifts in temperature, rainfall, storms and sea levels in the twenty-first century.(29) They warned that the introduction of oil exploration and drilling in such a fragile environment would have devastating effects.(30) The Niger Delta is currently described as one of the five most petroleum-polluted environments in the world.(31)

The region became extremely polluted after a few decades of intensive oil exploration.(32) Gas flaring, oil and water pollution, bush burnings and the emission of carbon monoxide are all the results of oil exploration endeavours. Gas flaring is one of the fundamental problems and contributes to climate change and the environmental degradation in the region. The problem is not adequately being dealt with and is even rising in its extent. Nigeria annually flares about 24 billion cubic metres of oil and almost 70% of the oil fields in the Niger Delta flare their gas on a daily basis and produce huge amounts of carbon dioxide.(33) Constant flares affect wildlife and human beings negatively. The extremely high temperatures that gas flares produce make living in many communities nearly impossible.(34) The second big problem is oil spillage. Oil exploration and exploitation have also caused the alteration of habitats, biodiversity loss and deforestation (35) and shortages in the land and water supply. And since farming is the main activity of the communities living in the Niger Delta region, with nearly 60% of the population dependant on the natural environment for its livelihood, oil-generated environmental pollution, which affects farming and fishing, makes it extremely difficult for the inhabitants to earn a living.(36) What is more, poor responses to resource shortages also bring other negative secondary effects such as sickness and hunger, fewer jobs and even poorer economic situations, to the inhabitants of the Niger Delta region.(37)

Conclusion

Four decades of ecological devastation and economic neglect have left much of the Niger Delta desolate, uninhabitable and poor. No one, neither corrupted state officials nor the oil companies took responsibility for the enormous environmental and social damage caused by crude oil production (38) and have not begun working toward solving the issue.(39) Local communities often blame the Government and oil business for the escalation of the conflict. The local populace is portrayed as greedy and unpatriotic. The fact, however, is that the Niger Delta contributes significantly to the national public treasury, yet, in return it is becoming only more impoverished and neglected.(40) Despite Nigeria’s rich natural resources, the country is ranked amongst the 15 poorest nations in the world.(41) The country’s oil revenues are not distributed fairly. The majority of Nigerians still scrape by on less than a dollar a day.(42)

None benefit from this conflict. Ethnic communities are leaving their homes or are being killed. The conflict has a huge effect on the national economy. For example, in 1997 alone, after the Ogoni rebellion, it was estimated that the oil industry lost 117 working days. In the first eight months of 1998, Shell lost about 11 billion barrels of crude oil. Told differently, it lost US$ 1.32 billion and consequently could not satisfy overseas demand. As a result of the temporary closure of the Niger Delta region for oil extractions, the Nigerian Government’s foreign exchange earnings sharply declined.(43)

Drastic measures are needed in order to solve the conflict. Preferably, parties involved in the conflict should start talking. Responsibility for the conflict should be taken and economic conditions, favourable for all involved, should be set. From a strictly economic perspective, no party involved can actually lose if the oil money is distributed in a fairer manner. The current situation is a lose-lose one. Fair distribution of oil revenues would satisfy ethnic minorities and give them the possibility of decent lives. They would not attack oil premises anymore. Oil companies would work without disturbance and earn more money, part of which could be invested in environmental protection of the Niger Delta. The Government would also get its share. Yet, the long history of oil conflict in the region implies that this scenario is not likely to happen. Therefore, a more decisive stand in the conflict should be taken by the African Union. If unsuccessful, it should look for help from the international community, which has been largely ignorant about the conflict so far.   

NOTES:

(1) Contact Petra Pavšič through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Conflict and Terrorism Unit ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ).
(2) Halleson, D.N., 2009. An analysis of natural resources related conflicts in Central Africa and the Gulf of Guinea. Cameroon Journal on Democracy and Human Rights, 3(1), pp. 47-70. 
(3) Ejobowah, J.B., 2000. Who owns the oil?: The politics of ethnicity in the Niger Delta of Nigeria. Africa Today, 47(1), pp. 28-47. 
(4) Ikelegbe, A., 2005. The economy of conflict in the oil rich Niger Delta region of Nigeria. Nordic Journal of African Studies, 14(2), pp. 208-234. 
(5) ‘Country Comparison: Oil Production’, CIA World Factbook, https://www.cia.gov
(6) Omeje, K., 2005. Oil conflict in Nigeria: Contending issues and perspectives of the local Niger Delta people. New Political Economy, 10(3), pp. 321-334.
(7) Watts, M., 2004. Resource curse? Governmentality, oil and power in the Niger Delta, Nigeria. Geopolitics, 9(1), pp. 50-80. 
(8) Halleson, D.N., 2009. An analysis of natural resources related conflicts in Central Africa and the Gulf of Guinea’. Cameroon Journal on Democracy and Human Rights, 3(1), pp. 47-70.
(9) Schwartz, J., ‘Globalisation and the battle for Nigerian oil’, PiCA, 2009, http://www.thepicaproject.org.
(10) Ejobowah, J.B., 2000. Who owns the oil?: The politics of ethnicity in the Niger Delta of Nigeria. Africa Today, 47(1), pp. 28-47.  
(11) Ibeanu, O., 2000. Oiling the friction: Environmental conflict management in the Niger Delta, Nigeria. Environmental Change & Security Report 6, pp. 19-32.
(12) Halleson, D.N., 2009. An analysis of natural resources related conflicts in Central Africa and the Gulf of Guinea. Cameroon Journal on Democracy and Human Rights, 3(1), pp. 47-70. 
(13) Ejobowah, J.B., 2000. Who owns the oil?: The politics of ethnicity in the Niger Delta of Nigeria. Africa Today, 47(1), pp. 28-47. 
(14) Watts, M., 2004. Resource curse? Governmentality, oil and power in the Niger Delta, Nigeria. Geopolitics, 9(1), pp. 50-80. 
(15) Ejobowah, J.B., 2000. Who owns the oil?: The politics of ethnicity in the Niger Delta of Nigeria. Africa Today, 47(1), pp. 28-47.
(16) Ibeanu, O., 2000. Oiling the friction: Environmental conflict management in the Niger Delta, Nigeria. Environmental Change & Security Report 6, pp. 19-32.
(17) Ejobowah, J.B., 2000. Who owns the oil?: The politics of ethnicity in the Niger Delta of Nigeria. Africa Today, 47(1), pp. 28-47.
(18) Ikelegbe, A., 2005. The economy of conflict in the oil Rich Niger Delta region of Nigeria. Nordic Journal of African Studies, 14(2), pp. 208-234.
(19) Ibeanu, O., 2000. Oiling the friction: Environmental conflict management in the Niger Delta, Nigeria. Environmental Change & Security Report 6, pp. 19-32.
(20) Obi, C.I., 2010. Oil extraction, dispossession, resistance, and conflict in Nigeria's oil rich Niger Delta. Canadian Journal of Development Studies, 30(1-2), pp. 219-236.
(21) Watts, M., 2004. Resource curse? Governmentality, oil and power in the Niger Delta, Nigeria. Geopolitics, 9(1), pp. 50-80. 
(22) Omeje, K., 2005. Oil conflict and accumulation politics in Nigeria. New Political Economy, 10(3), pp. 321-334.
(23) Obi, C.I., 2010. Oil extraction, dispossession, resistance, and conflict in Nigeria's oil rich Niger Delta. Canadian Journal of Development Studies, 30 (1-2), pp. 219-236; Junger, S., ‘Blood Oil’, Vanity Fair, February 2007, http://www.vanityfair.com.
(24) Obi, C.I., 2010. Oil extraction, dispossession, resistance, and conflict in Nigeria's oil rich Niger Delta. Canadian Journal of Development Studies, 30 (1-2), pp. 219-236.
(25) Ibid.
(26) Ibid.   
(27) Ejobowah, J.B., 2000. Who owns the oil?: The politics of ethnicity in the Niger Delta of Nigeria. Africa Today, 47(1), pp. 28-47.
(28) Ibeanu, O., 2000. Oiling the friction: Environmental conflict management in the Niger Delta, Nigeria. Environmental Change & Security Report 6, pp. 19-32.
(29) Sayne, A.,‘Climate Change Adaptation and Conflict in Nigeria’, United States Institute of Peace Special Repor, http://www.usip.org.
(30) Ibeanu, O., 2000. Oiling the friction: Environmental conflict management in the Niger Delta, Nigeria. Environmental Change & Security Report 6, pp. 19-32.
(31) Obi, C.I., 2010. Oil extraction, dispossession, resistance, and conflict in Nigeria's oil rich Niger Delta. Canadian Journal of Development Studies, 30(1-2), pp. 219-236.
(32) Ejobowah, J.B., 2000. Who owns the oil?: The politics of ethnicity in the Niger Delta of Nigeria. Africa Today, 47(1), pp. 28-47.
(33) Mwiturubanu, D.A. and van Wyk, J. A., ‘Climate Change and Natural Resources Conflicts in Africa’, Institute for Security Studies,  2010, http://www.issafrica.orrg.
(34) Ibeanu, O., 2000. ‘Oiling the friction: Environmental conflict management in the Niger Delta, Nigeria. Environmental Change & Security Report 6, pp. 19-32.
(35) Mwiturubanu, D.A. and van Wyk, J. A., ‘Climate Change and Natural Resources Conflicts in Africa’, Institute for Security Studies,  2010, http://www.issafrica.orrg.
(36) Halleson, D.N., 2009. An analysis of natural resources related conflicts in Central Africa and the Gulf of Guinea. Cameroon Journal on Democracy and Human Rights, 3(1), pp. 47-70. 
(37) Sayne, A., ‘Climate Change Adaptation and Conflict in Nigeria’, United States Institute of Peace Special Report, http://www.usip.org.
(38) Ibeanu, O., 2000. Oiling the friction: Environmental conflict management in the Niger Delta, Nigeria. Environmental Change & Security Report 6, pp. 19-32.
(39) Harsch, E., 2007. Conflict resources: from curse to blessing. African Renewal, 20(4).
(40) Ibeanu, O., 2000. Oiling the friction: Environmental conflict management in the Niger Delta, Nigeria. Environmental Change & Security Report 6, pp. 19-32.
(41) Martin, X.S. and Subramanian A., 2003. 'How can Nigeria address the natural resource curse?', IMF Working Paper, May 2003, http://www.imf.org.  
(42) Handley, M., 'The Violence in Nigeria: What's behind the conflict?', Time World, 10 March 2010, http://www.time.com; Harsch, E., 2007. Conflict resources: From curse to blessing, African Renewal, 20 (4).
(43) Ejobowah, J.B., 2000. Who owns the oil?: The politics of ethnicity in the Niger Delta of Nigeria. Africa Today, 47(1), pp. 28-47.

 

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