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Home » Countries » Nigeria » The Niger Delta Crisis and Nigeria´s future

The Niger Delta crises and Nigeria's future

Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti

The Nigerian government in November 1999 moved some army battalions from Warri in Delta State and Elele in Rivers State into the oil-rich Bayelsa State.
Some days before, seven policemen had been killed in a clash with youths in the Odi area of Bayelsa State. It was part of the face-off between the government and foreign oil companies on one hand, and restive Ijaw youths on the other. The youths, many of whom are unemployed, have consistently demanded that royalty be paid for crude oil obtained from their ancestral lands.

The Government had claimed that it wanted to investigate the clash and bring the offending youths to trial. But rather than send in detectives, security operatives or the police to investigate the incident, identify and arrest the perpetrators, the Government sent in troops. This action of course exposed the real intention of the Government, which is an attempt to intimidate oil-producing areas and pacify them by wiping out a whole town.

When the troops got to the outskirts of Odi town, rather than enter it to "investigate" and "arrest the bandits", they brought mortars and shelled it for two days. By the end of this clearly criminal bombardment, only a few buildings remained standing in the town. Then the army moved in killing all male youths they laid their hands on in Odi town and its environs. In the process they blew up or set more buildings on fire.

This is what the President Olusegun Obasanjo administration did to Odi and its inhabitants; it can only be described as massacre and wanton destruction.

The Campaign for Democracy said of the Odi massacres in a December 2, 1999 statement entitled "The beginning of genocide", "Nothing of this calamity was seen in Northern Ireland where similar killings of law enforcement agents were routinely carried out. Neither did we see it in the United States of America where widespread chaos developed after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King in the 60s. Where we have seen this type of destruction has been during wars between enemies".

The massacres in Odi and the destruction of the town was indeed a message by the Government that it would brook no opposition and would not tolerate any disruption of oil production in the country. Oil is the commodity from which subsequent governments in Nigeria since 1965 have realised over 90 per cent of their income most of which ended up in the pockets of those in power.

For oil, the Nigerian government is prepared to drown the country in blood. This is not the first time blood has been deliberately shed in this country by the government in order to safeguard its exploitation of oil. Indeed, bloodshed has been part of the government's oil policy. In 1995 it hung environmentalist and famous writer, Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other minority rights activists from Ogoni for challenging oil giant Shell's exploitation of oil on Ogoni soil.

In December 1998, the government massacred youths in Yenagoa, capital of Bayelsa State, for demanding control of the oil resources exploited on their ancestral lands. A few months later, it sent in troops to flatten Kaiama, a town in Bayelsa State where youths had weeks before made a declaration demanding the people’s control of their oil resources.

All these massacres and mass destruction have taken place in a small part of the country called the Niger Delta. The Niger Delta is in the South-South portion of Nigeria covering some 70,000 kilometres. Despite its small size in relation to the country, and its neglect, its bowels yield two million barrels of crude oil daily.

The area is perhaps the most under-developed portion of the country despite forty-three years of exploiting its non-renewable oil wealth. It is a region that is at once rich and poor; rich in natural resources and impoverished by the oil companies and the Federal Government which expropriates its entire resources.

With this state of affairs, lack of jobs, non-siting of industries and a near-lack of infrastructure, the Niger Delta has become synonymous with squalor and mass poverty. In a scientific survey published in 1997, the Niger Delta Environmental Survey (NEDES) reported that :
"Poverty is prevalent in the Niger Delta and has been linked to degradation of agricultural lands and fishing waters. Affected people became impoverished. In many cases, they tend either to migrate to become part of the urban poor or to remain in their villages to grapple with the low yielding lands and poor sources of water."

Perhaps no other part of the Niger Delta presents what the future holds for the area more than Oloibiri, the first place where oil was struck in commercial quantities in 1956; it remains at the state of nature. With 75 per cent of the Niger Delta people living in rural areas without pipe borne water, electricity and roads, and their lands devastated by oil exploitation, their waters polluted by almost daily oil spillage and the air poisoned by eternal gas flares, the temper of the people was bound to be short. These are part of the root causes of what has become known as the Niger Delta crisis.

Such a characterisation can be said to fit if you take into consideration the inter-ethnic clashes that have taken place amongst the people, which pitched notable nationalities like the Ijaw and Urhobo against their Itsekiri brothers and sisters. These are bloody clashes amongst the repressed and exploited with the benefactors of oil exploration in the country stoking the fires of ethnic hatred with the hope that these type of diversions would preoccupy the people while the naked exploitation continues.

But within the context of the country and international monopoly capital, the said characterisation will not fit because it is actually a crisis of the Nigerian State. The country depends almost entirely on oil resources; indeed the argument has been made that today, the basis of Nigeria's unity is oil. Since any disruption of the oil business will spell economic disaster for the country, the crisis has become a Nigerian one. It is like a vicious circle; the people protest their condition and the seizure of their natural resources by the central government. These protests sometimes end up disrupting oil production, and the central government sends in armed soldiers and policemen who maul the protesters and oil production continues again until it is disrupted.

To the Niger Delta people, the Federal Government is like a one-armed bandit which makes laws seizing their lands and waters, oil and other natural resources and sends in armed men to kill them. They believe that the cause of their exploitation is primarily because they are a minority within the country. They point out that before oil was discovered in commercial quantities, derivation was the basis of resource sharing and allocation. Under the Bins Commission in the 1950s, 100 per cent of resource allocation went to the region where the resource is derived. This later became 50%. Under the 1960 Independence Constitution and the 1963 Republican Constitution, 50% of resource allocation went to the region where the resource is derived, 30% to all the regions including the one which has had the 50% derivation, and 20% to he Central government.

This was at a time when the three largest ethnic nationalities in the country provided the country's major resources. The north dominated by the Hausa-Fulani produced groundnut, hides and skin, the West peopled by the Yorubas were famous for cocoa production and the East controlled by the Igbos had cola and palm oil. However, with oil becoming dominant, derivation was reduced from 50% to zero per cent. This partly led to an uprising by the Ijaws led by a former student leader, Issac Adaka Boro. That revolt was put down in twelve days.
The Nigeria Civil War that raged from 1967 to 1970 had the fight for control of the Niger Delta oil wealth as part of its causes. Agitation after the war led to a one percent, then three per cent derivation formula. Then a 13% derivation system was introduced by the military but the money was put in an Oil Minerals Producing Development Commission (OMPADEC) controlled entirely by the military from the centre.

A very small community called Ogoni fired off the on-going movement of protest by the Niger Delta people. The Ogonis, who were led by the famous playwright, and writer, Ken Saro-Wiwa felt that with oil exploitation, pollution and neglect, they were facing extinction. They linked up with other indigenous people’s organisations in the world and used mass peaceful protests and civil disobedience to tackle Shell the oil giant, its subsidiaries like the American Wilbros and the Federal Government. The government's response was to occupy Ogoniland using the Northern-dominated army.

Following a controversial clash in the Gokana part of Ogoniland where four prominent Ogoni sons suspected of collaborating with the government were killed, hundreds of Ogonis including Saro-Wiwa were detained. A kangaroo Military Tribunal was set up before which the Ogoni detainees were hauled. Nine of them including Saro-Wiwa and a top government official were sentenced to death, and despite international warnings and pleas including those from the Commonwealth, the Ogoni activists were hanged.

This led to the suspension of Nigeria from the Commonwealth and some international isolation. Rather than the hanging serving as a deterrent to the Niger Delta people, they saw it as a challenge. First, the Ijaws who are perhaps the largest ethnic nationality in the Niger Delta not only continued the struggle, but resorted to guerrilla armed struggle. In December 1998, Ijaw Youths met and issued what has become known as the KAIAMA DECLARATION in which they declared "We agreed to remain within Nigeria but demand and work for self-government and resource control for the Ijaw people". They also demanded an end to the unitary form of government in favour of a federal system.

As part of their protests, the Ijaws began shutting down some of the oil installations on their ancestral land. This led to massive troop movements and the occupation of the area in January 1999. This occupation continues with lots of bloodshed and summary executions of Ijaw youths by the security forces. Since then other nationalities in the Niger Delta have adopted one form of Declaration or Bill of Rights or another. The Urhobo declaration states that the Urhobo land has yielded over $25.7 billion of oil "with nothing to show for it" On resource allocation, the Urhobos demanded the replacement of "the principle of derivation, with complete ownership and control of oil and gas wealth in our domain as the only way out of 40 years of marginalisation and deprivation."

The latest ethnic nationality to produce a Bill of Rights is the Oron people who met on June 25, 1999. Part of the Declaration read: "Most agonising is the continued pollution of our coastal waters, rivers, creeks and streams through the dumping of poisonous substances in our deep ocean trenches. Without mincing words, such acts have placed our ocean's abundant wealth in jeopardy, causing gross impoverishment of many fishers and disrupting lives of coastal habitats and fish nursery grounds … We live on the sea, die on the sea and as we have come to see it today, the prospects are dangerously grim and worsening by the day".

On May 29, 1999, the country transited from Military autocracy to civil governance. The new government headed by General Olusegun Obasanjo promised changes in the lives of the people including the inhabitants of the Niger Delta. But five months later these remain mere declarations. President Obasanjo had sent a Niger Delta Development Commission Bill to the National Assembly. This bill has been rejected by the Niger Delta people on the basis that it is a mere repackaging of the Military's OMPADEC government commission completely controlled by government.

The Niger Delta crisis cannot be resolved outside the Nigerian crises. The Nigerian crises include the people’s feeling of alienation, lack of an acceptable constitution, absence of mass participation in governance and refusal of the politicians and the military hierarchy to carry out the needed geographical and political restructuring of the country.

Part of the solution to the crises is the restructuring of the armed forces and security services and allowing resource control by all ethnic nationalities. For these, and to ensure peaceful resolution of the crises, there is the need for the convocation of a Sovereign National Conference where all Nigerians or their representatives can sit down and discuss the country's future.

Niger Delta Environmental Survey. Phase 1 Report. Vol. I-IV,
Environmental Resources Management Lagos. Sept. 1999.
The Human Ecosystems of the Niger Delta: An ERA Handbook Kraft Books. Ibadan.
Nigeria: Report of the Commission appointed to enquire into the fears  of Minorities and the means of allaying them. (Willink Commission Report) Her Majesty's Stationery Office. London.
1960 Independence Constitution.
1963 Republican Constitution.
The Ogoni Bill of Rights
The Kaiama (Ijaw) Declaration
Resolutions of the First Urhobo Economic Summit.
Bill of Rights of the Oron People.