The contested rights of the Niger delta

Olly Owen
18 November 2005

The tenth anniversary of the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, 10 November 1995, has brought a welcome refocusing of global attention on the ongoing human and environmental disaster in the Niger delta. Of all of the accompanying reflections on what has changed in the past decade, none has struck me as much as a passing comment made recently by the journalist Ibiba Don Pedro, who reports from her home in Port Harcourt, Nigeria’s crowded and crippled oil capital. She told me that: “The Niger delta today cannot be compared to the Niger delta of ten years ago, before the Ogoni struggle, because everyone now is so aware of their rights”.

On closer examination, there’s a lot to be unpacked in that off-the-cuff remark. The rights struggle elevated by Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (Mosop) he and his peers founded has indeed helped a whole spectrum of other delta citizens to appreciate their human rights, and understand how they are being infringed. But it is also time for a more critical examination of what the legacy of the rights struggle in the delta has actually been, in all its manifestations. Where has it got the people of the Niger delta? How has it acted –indeed has it acted – to resolve the region’s complex problems, or has it in some ways made them harder to resolve?

Also on the Niger delta and west Africa’s oil politics in openDemocracy:

Bronwen Manby, “Oil jihad in the Niger delta” (April 2004)

Ken Wiwa and Gayle Smith, “America in Africa: plunderer or partner?” (October 2004)

Olly Owen & Chris Melville, “China in Africa: a new era of “south-south cooperation?” (July 2005)

John Adeleke, “Nigeria’s redevelopment needs: an African perspective” (July 2005)

Dan Hoyle, “’We made it peaceful’: oil politics in the Niger delta” (November 2005)

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Ten years on from General Sani Abacha’s calculated executions, the situation has been transformed, but not in the ways many expected. It may have been hoped that mobilising the discourse of rights would bring practical results: even a holistic solution to problems of oppression, inequality, environmental damage, corruption and social breakdown. But in some respects, it seems that the language of rights has led people up a blind alley.

The execution of the “Ogoni nine” taught all of those who lived through it that peaceful direct action in vocal defence of rights claims brings not only repression of the most brutal kind, but can also – even if only in the long run – spread its message worldwide. The global salience of the Ogoni struggle is now such that (despite continuing periodic attempts at harassment and subversion) it has to be taken seriously at the highest levels of the oil industry and the Nigerian state. But with awareness of this success comes imitators, and these are not just other peaceful community activists. Everyone now frames their demands as “rights claims” – even people who can in some aspects also be regarded as rights abusers.

A question of rights

In some areas of the delta, the problem is one of different and incompatible conceptions of rights being used in the furtherance of different and incompatible interests and goals. Three examples make the point.

The last two years of ethnic conflict in the Warri Southwest area of Delta state has seen Itsekiri communities framing some of their claims to local political dominance as the right to maintain their traditional authorities in areas where they can claim to be historical indigenes, a powerful sentiment which carries popular legitimacy in Nigeria.

Conversely, rivals from neighbouring Ijaw communities frame their claims to access these centres of power in the different conception of rights used in Nigeria’s 1999 constitution – which gives all citizens, regardless of origin, the theoretical right to be represented in political structures in their place of residence.

Elsewhere, youth activist groups espousing an ethno-regional social justice and environmental agenda have been supplanted by a multiplicity of other self-appointed champions who use rights claims in an extremely instrumental and opportunistic manner, essentially as legitimisation for aggressive armed entrepreneurship. This can involve both leveraging perks from oil companies in the name of communities (while simultaneously dominating communities on behalf of such companies and their contractors), and intervening in local chieftaincy disputes in the most destructive manner. These dynamics, unarguably born of real problems with youth unemployment and marginalisation, also involve claims to victimhood that come less credibly when voiced from the ruins of communities whose members have fled to urban areas to avoid turf wars between armed factions.

The result of these trends is a cacophony of competing claims and counterclaims, which is getting nowhere particularly fast. The harder you look, the more difficult it gets to distinguish groups with legitimate grievances from opportunists who hijack such agendas for personal gain. And the more people get frustrated, the more incentive for groups to fracture and for radical elements to turn to violence. The question then arises: does the highly contested language of rights have the capacity to resolve the problems of the Niger delta today?

I’m not saying that all actions made now in defence of rights should be viewed cynically. A good example of how the rights struggle at its most clear-cut is the blockade of Chevron’s HQ in Yenagoa (Bayelsa state) by Ijaw women demanding more time to consider the company’s proposed “global memorandum of understanding” with their communities. The protests seem to have worked: the company and communities have signed a new community relations document, covering environmental and development issues in a form apparently satisfactory to both parties.

But it also gets a lot more complicated. On 15 September the London Metropolitan police – acting on information supplied by Nigeria’s anti-corruption economic and financial crimes commission – arrested Bayelsa state governor Diepreye Alamiesiegha at Heathrow airport en route from Germany. In his London home they found over £1 million in cash, and have charged him with money-laundering. It might be expected that the detention of such a figure in a foreign country, in possession of a large amount of cash whose origin is far from clear, would be greeted with huge acclaim in the delta, where people consistently accuse political elites of filtering money that should be spent on development.

Instead, the loudest voices were those decrying Alamiesiegha’s arrest as an attempt to victimise him for political reasons. That is in part because the governor has been at the forefront of the campaign calling for oil-producing regions to get a greater share of the revenues from their own resources than the 13% they are currently allotted. Here is a situation where a powerful figure can be possibly both an abuser of people’s rights and yet be championed as their defender. The need for further scrutiny of rights claims is apparent.

A change of perspective

So what other ways exist to understand the problems of the Niger delta? Maybe the real change needed is in the terms of the argument, using less exciting forms of knowledge. The past saw a generation of activists awaken a historical consciousness of rights and oppression; perhaps the future needs more objective kinds of discourse that incorporate the accumulated learnings of other discplines like science and accounting.

There is clear room for this fresh approach as a way of resolving the dispute over rights claims. Land and water pollution is a contested issue – but as yet no one has undertaken serious scientific studies to determine how far court actions could help resolve it. This is already done elsewhere: for example, by indigenous communities like the Cofan in Ecuador, who are taking Chevron to court (both in Ecuador and the United States) for damage done to their lands.

Nigeria has huge scope for such innovations, but the work has hardly begun. On 15 November 2005 a Benin City court made a landmark ruling that the flaring of gas produced as a by-product of oil extraction was an abuse of the rights of Nigerian citizens “to life and human dignity”, and ordered an immediate end to the practice. That’s a start, but without firm scientific data to back it up, the decision is likely to be transferred back and forth through the hierarchy of courts until 2008, when flaring gas is due anyway to be halted under an agreement between oil companies and Nigeria’s current president, Olusegun Obasanjo.

Even environmental-impact surveys are an innovation in the Niger delta, and there’s a lot of evidence to show that they are not currently being conducted in a credible way. The global Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (Eiti), to which Nigeria is signatory, does encourage companies to publish what they pay into the accounts of the host state in the public name; but far more needs to be done to allow people seeking social justice to access information to call states to account.

Much more can be done. The Publish What You Pay campaign demands that companies’ home-country governments impose a legal requirement of stock-market listing that companies disclose how they disburse their funds abroad. The rights struggle begun by vocal activists like Ken Saro-Wiwa has won many citizens of oil-producing regions to its banner, but maybe the most fitting and constructive way to take the legacy of the Ogoni struggle forward lies with those practitioners of much more methodical and prosaic disciplines: the scientist and the accountant.

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