The Niger delta: how to lift the oil curse?

Timothy Sowula
18 October 2006

Africa is again a prize to be won. As the United States seeks to diversify its energy supplies, and China searches for resources to feed its rampant economic development, the statesmen, businessmen, generals and diplomats of Africa are finding themselves more popular on the world's stage than ever.

The competition is particularly fierce in west Africa, where the Gulf of Guinea is beginning to rival the Persian Gulf as a key region of economic competition between the great powers and their corporate national champions. Nowhere too are these swirling global currents felt so strongly as in Nigeria.

It is now half a century since oil was first struck in the Niger delta. The discovery transformed the country and the region in turn, and now impacts on the geopolitical climate of the world.

It should be good news. It is not, for the potential of this great wealth to ease the burdens and improve the lives of millions of is not being realised. A fifty-year history of mismanagement, exploitation, political corruption and violence from the Nigerian state has meant that few of the benefits that the vast oil wealth has brought to foreign companies and a rich elite in the country itself have reached everyday Nigerian citizens.

A United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report in mid-2006 reveals the statistic behind the story. The Niger delta - where Nigeria's oil comes from - scores 0.564 on the human-development index (HDI). This rating puts the delta at a slightly higher level than the country's overall HDI of 0.453, but it remains far below countries or regions with similar oil and gas resources. The HDI for Saudi Arabia in 2000, for example, stood at 0.800; the 2003 figures for the United Arab Emirates (0.849), Kuwait (0.844), Libya (0.799), Venezuela (0.772) and Indonesia (o.697) offer a similar contrast.

Behind the statistics is human misery. A large majority of people in the communities of the Niger delta live in survive in conditions of abject poverty, in a blighted environment, with little hope for peaceful improvement. Nigeria is nominally a democracy, and the forms of such a system are observed - from the routine jockeying for position between rival parties and political bosses to the announcement (on 18 October 2006) of a timetable for the 2007 presidential election. But democracy cannot function in the absence of legitimate authority, free choice, respected institutions and clean government. All are sorely lacking in the delta. It is no wonder that in these conditions, some at least of the region's inhabitants choose guns over the ballot-box as their preferred vehicle of change.

The United Nations has estimated that in the first half of 2006, an average of more than four hostages were seized each month in the Niger delta - an unprecedented rate of kidnappings since the first stirrings of violent protest in the early 1990s. Many of these were oil workers seized by a new group of armed militants calling itself the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend). This group has claimed responsibility for much of the hostage-taking, bombings and intimidation against state forces and the oil sector in the last year.

The effect on oil production in the region has been drastic. Many onshore operations in the western part of the delta, half of the entire oil region, have been shut down. The effect has been to cut Nigeria's daily exports of 2.5 million barrels by 20%. The Niger delta is the world's seventh largest oil exporter, and the instability there has greatly contributed to the record high oil prices on global markets in 2006.

Timothy Sowula has worked at Human Rights Watch and Platform London, and now works in Sylhet, Bangladesh as a programme officer for an indigenous community-rights organisation

Also by Timothy Sowula in openDemocracy:

"The Helsinki process and the death of communism"
(1 August 2005)

The backdrop to violence

Why has this situation emerged? It is now widely acknowledged that the actions of the oil companies in Nigeria have been a major contributor to the poverty and deprivation. In December 2003, a report by the consultants WAC, commissioned by Shell - by far the biggest and most significant major oil company operating in the region - actually identified Shell as part of the problem. The report concluded that the way Shell operated "creates, feeds into, or exacerbates conflict" and that Shell had become an "integral part of the Niger Delta conflict system".

In 2002, a preliminary report of the Oputa panel, set up by President Olusegun Obasanjo to investigate human-rights abuses by the military, concluded that "oil, one of the greatest blessings God has showered on our nation, has turned out to be a curse". It had become an instrument "sounding the death-knell of such key principles of good governance as democracy, federalism, transparency, accountability and national-growth'.

As a result of consistent, systemic failures of the Nigerian state to address the severe problems in the delta, there is a void of social provision and mass detachment from the state. But in the enduring absence of a viable social contract in Nigeria, the oil companies have by default filled the void and have emerged as quasi-states in their own right. The problem is that their development programmes have been tied to short-term business needs rather than long-term social progress, creating the counter-effect of exacerbating intra-community or inter-community tensions as the scramble (legal or illegal) for oil money continues.

Foreign investors and companies have no legal responsibility to contribute to the development of countries in which they operate, nor is it the role of foreign companies to take on the social responsibilities of a state. However, the oil majors have a duty to compensate those whose livelihoods have been affected by their operations, and they certainly have a moral obligation to compensate those whose livelihoods and culture their operations have destroyed.

In the absence of other sustainable forms of economic generation, those who once gain access to oil and its revenues are never prepared to surrender it. The absence of a meaningful political and social contract reinforces the contest for power and wealth at the heart of social life. In the face of the overweening power the state and its supporters can command, the groups seeking to create their own spaces of control have been busy importing small arms and developing new tactics of struggle.

The way the political dynamics in the Niger delta have changed in the last decade is also the story of how the legacy of Ken Saro-Wiwa has been ignored.

The renowned author and journalist Saro-Wiwa was the leader of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (Mosop). This movement's dynamism, leadership and dedication to non-violent protest made it so successful that it forced Shell to cease operating in Ogoniland, a relatively small area of the Niger delta, in 1993 - to which the company has yet to return. Saro-Wiwa led protests involving tens of thousands of people. The cost to the oil industry, and therefore the Nigerian elite, was too great. His and Mosop's campaigning was too effective and popular to be allowed to continue.

Nigeria's military rulers launched a campaign of terror and devastation against the Ogoni in 1994-95. The commander at the time, Lieutenant-colonel Okuntimo (whom Shell later have admitted paying to cover military field allowances) wrote a memo in May 1994 stating that "‘Shell operations still impossible unless ruthless military operations are undertaken for smooth economic activity to commence".

In 1995 the military arrested Saro-Wiwa and eight others, falsely charging them with responsibility for the deaths of four Ogoni elders whom a mob had attacked and killed. On 10 November 1995, to a chorus of global condemnation negated by global inaction, Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues were hanged. With them died a shining example of what non-violent protest could achieve.

The more recent, violent actions of Mend and other militants have certainly caused great disruption to the Nigerian oil industry and consequently the global economy, but they haven't achieved anything like the positive effects of Mosop and Ken Saro-Wiwa. How Saro-Wiwa would have acted under the current "democratic" regime can never be known for sure, but it is certain that he would have resisted the urge to use violence to counteract the violence sponsored by Nigeria's current statesmen.

Mosop, led by Saro-Wiwa's colleague Ledum Mittee, remains active in the delta. Mittee has observed that the crisis of 2006 owes much to frustration that the politics of democracy and diplomacy has proved null as the rule of violence has overcome that of law. For unemployed youths with no apparent escape-route from poverty - and little or no memory of Saro-Wiwa or his strategy to guide them - engaging in violent protests in an attempt to gain the world's attention is at least understandable.

The peaceful alternative

Britain has been at the heart of the exploitation of the Gulf of Guinea for nearly 350 years. Much of the nation's wealth and many of its great institutions were built on profits from the slave trade. As a global oil capital, a large part of the health of London's financial, political and social institutions still depends on the black gold beneath the Niger delta. John Major, Britain's then prime minister, condemned the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa as "judicial murder"; but a foreign-office civil servant remarked soon after that "whatever we think of the military regime - choke, spit - trade goes on". A week after the execution there was a two-day trade conference in the Nigerian capital Abuja, with American, British, French, German and Japanese businessmen present.

As the delta's mineral resources become ever more desirable to thirsty world powers, it is critical that interest and concern for the region from the global community, especially from countries that have profited most from it, is increased. Shell and other oil companies must be held to account for their impact on the delta, and in particular should accept the jurisdiction and pay the fines that the Nigerian courts are beginning to levy on them. International pressure must be exerted to ensure that the 2007 Nigerian elections are as free and fair as possible, and if they are not, that must be openly stated. The very least that the people of the delta deserve is an end to deceit by elites inside and outside Nigeria.  

At the same time, there are other forms of engagement to be made. Oil consumers in the west, tangled in a web of carbon, owe it to the peoples of the Niger delta - the Ogoni, the Ijaw and others - that dialogue and cultural links with the region are maintained, even as efforts to decrease dependency on its oil continue. Milan Kundera famously stated that the struggle of humanity against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. One alternative to violent protest is to remember the struggle of men such as Ken Saro-Wiwa, and to act in his non-violent spirit  to keep alive the promise of a better future for all the peoples responsible for the Niger delta's tragedy.  




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