'We made it peaceful': oil politics in the Niger delta

Dan Hoyle
10 November 2005

Ten years after Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight fellow Ogoni activists were hanged, oil still dominates the political landscape of the Niger delta. But what is Saro-Wiwa’s real legacy, and are renewed campaigns for justice and equity directed at the right targets? Dan Hoyle reports from southern Nigeria.

“No say be so, you make blood a business.” Gaddafi sings the lyrics into my ear to make sure I understand: “No say be so you make blood for money.” He tells me that “for forty years we don’t know where our money is going. We see it going out, but we don’t know where it’s going.” The money Gaddafi is referring to is oil money, which has been the lifeblood of the Nigerian state since the 1970s.

As a Fulbright scholar who came to Nigeria to study “oil politics and conflicts between communities and oil companies” it has taken a while to unwrap the onion of the country’s complicated oil politics. Talking to guys like Gaddafi is an education in itself.

It’s Sunday morning in The Ghetto, the hut where boys smoke weed and dance, in Kongho community, one of nineteen villages that make up the Akassa kingdom in the Niger delta. A few years earlier, the boys around me had roared off in a dozen speedboats, singing war songs and slapping their machetes on the water until they were sufficiently psyched up to lay waste to the neighbouring community of Colama, in retaliation for Colama’s invasion and occupation of Fishtown. They butchered people with their machetes, took chainsaws to their trees and telephone poles, and burned their houses.

Also in openDemocracy on Nigeria’s oil politics:

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

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

“There is also quite substantial support in the Niger delta for the articulation of self-determination as a violent struggle. The ‘elected’ politicians of the delta have zero credibility or support except among those who can expect to gain from their kleptocracy. Even the very modest hopes that people had of the civilian government installed in 1999 have been dashed, and the experience of 2003 is that the ballot-box is useless as a way of removing the politicians who have performed so poorly. For many, violence is the next logical step.”

Gaddafi served as general of that attack, as he has for all five battles in which he’s fought. But in addition to being the merciless commander of the Akassa army, Gaddafi is a fearless and charismatic community leader, a smart negotiator, and an overwhelmingly charming guy, a less-stoned Bob Marley with latent General Sherman tendencies. This morning, he is the centrepiece of an impromptu party session in The Ghetto, joyously rolling a joint while bouncing to the music. It is hard to imagine any of the guys now stumbling to the music doing anything violent.

But The Ghetto’s laidback atmosphere is not the Delta norm. Even in the bars in other communities there is an ongoing tension. I ask Gaddafi why Akassa is so peaceful. He pauses in his joint-rolling. “Akassa wasn’t all that peaceful”, he says, unblinking, “We made it peaceful.”

“Youth” vs the oil companies

For years, oil companies in the Niger delta have anointed local villages with “host community” status. They gave cash directly to the communities, as well as lucrative contracts to local contractors to build school buildings or water-tanks. Ostensibly, it was a way to compensate communities for the vast profits they reaped from the oil that comes from the people’s land. But Colama invaded Fishtown because it was a host community for Texaco (which has since been taken over by Chevron), and wasn’t sharing its money. It was also next to Sangana, another host community that gets even more oil money than Fishtown.

The problem is that technically the land belongs to the government. This was made so by government decree in 1978, then enshrined in the 1979 constitution when Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s current civilian president, was military head of state. The Nigerian government, through the state-run Nigeria National Petroleum Company, receives 60% of every extracted barrel, plus taxes and royalties that push their take of the profit to 80%.

But in Akassa there is no evidence of a Nigerian government, no sense that the money is being used to help the region’s residents. The local government chairman lives in Yenagoa, three hours away, by speedboat. When the people of Akassa see their money going out, it is going out through pipes laid by Shell, Chevron, Agip, and others, not by the government. And until six years ago, Nigeria had been governed almost continuously by a military dictatorship, so most people tried to avoid the government anyway.

Harassing oil-companies has exploded as an industry in the delta. As one chief told me: “when you don’t have soup and your neighbour has soup you ask him for some, and he gives it to you.” The oil companies have more than soup. They have twenty-four-hour electricity, pipe-borne water, a fleet of powerboats and helicopters (the helicopters came after oil workers commuting by boat were regularly kidnapped and held for ransom payments).

The Niger delta is the biggest oil-producing area in the Gulf of Guinea, which extends from Nigeria down to Angola and includes an eclectic collection of kleptocracies such as Equitorial Guinea, Gabon and, coming soon, Sao Tome & Principe. The region is one of the keys to United States energy policy. Both Democrats and Republicans seek to diversify US energy supply from the middle east and dependence on Saudi oil. Nigeria is already the fifth largest supplier of oil to the US; the Bush administration has announced that by 2015 it hopes to source as much as 25% of the country’s foreign oil from the Gulf of Guinea.

But as long as “youth” are occupying platforms and threatening to blow up pipelines, it will be difficult to increase production, or even to keep the oil flowing at a predictable rate, as the oil companies require. “Youth” – a term that can describe anyone under 50 years old who is unmarried and usually unemployed – now also refers to anyone carrying a gun and demanding compensation. Forming gangs and militias known as “cults”, the “youth” are increasingly influential. As one expatriate oil worker who requested anonymity put it: “The youths are very powerful. They rampage and burn things down.”

Ken Saro-Wiwa’s legacy

Ten years ago today, on 10 November 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged along with eight other activists from the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (Mosop). It was the brutal climax to a drama in the delta that Ken Saro-Wiwa had brought to international attention. Saro-Wiwa’s storytelling genius (he first gained fame as the writer of the novel Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English and of the hit sitcom Basi and Co.) brought aboard Amnesty International, Greenpeace and the Body Shop. The western “alternative” media told a story westerners and activists could understand: Big Oil (namely Shell), after exploiting and oppressing the people of the Niger delta for forty years, watches passively as one of Nigeria’s leading intellectuals is executed.

While western activists couldn’t topple the deeply corrupt and repressive Sani Abacha regime (1993-98), they could certainly have a good go at Shell, and so Big Oil in the Niger delta became one of the earliest campaigns of what became known as the anti-corporate globalisation movement.

Indeed the drama of Saro-Wiwa’s death still propels many discussions of “third world” development. Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now!, the popular leftwing radio show in the United States, dedicated a chapter of her book The Exception to the Rulers to the crisis. Her narrative, entitled “Drilling and Killing”, is notable for the absence of any visits to villages to see how the interaction between communities and companies plays out. Instead, she takes quotes from NGOs wholesale, without a pinch of the scrutiny or scepticism for which she is famous.

Another high-profile media figure, Naomi Klein, asserts in a recent column in The Nation that “Africa is poor because its investors and its creditors are so unspeakably rich.” It is tempting to the left to make sense of things this way for two reasons:

  • Africa’s short but savage colonial experience was centred almost exclusively on resource extraction, and the west’s interaction with Africa was a particularly brutal pillaging perpetrated by large foreign companies, so it is easy to see Shell and Chevron as a continuation of that relationship
  • it fits into the über-ideology of anti-corporate globalisation activists who see the new world order as one in which a ruling corporate elite wields unprecedented power over a teeming mass of oppressed people in the “third world”

But as tempting as it is to paint Shell as the neo-colonialist monster, it is only one player in a tragedy that is distinctly African. Naomi Klein states that Shell has pumped “roughly $30 billion worth of oil since the 1950s” in Nigeria. Fine, but given that the Nigerian government receives upwards of 80% of every barrel, how much have Nigeria’s leaders pocketed? Yes, the Niger delta, like most of Africa, is still poor. Shell, an oil company, is rich. Nigeria could be as well, if all the money that has flowed into Nigerian government coffers since the 1950s was invested in infrastructure and education.

Saro-Wiwa’s courageous campaign targeted both Shell and Nigeria’s corrupt leadership. But his legacy has spawned protest aimed almost exclusively at oil companies, ignoring the men most directly responsible for Nigeria’s version of the “African nightmare.” “I do not fear being executed. I expect it”, Saro-Wiwa told Newsweek reporter Joshua Hammer in May 1995. “The men we are dealing with are responsible for the African nightmare, afraid as they are of ideas and men of ideas. They are daylight robbers who kill for money.”

Dan Hoyle is a writer and actor who has written and performed two one-man shows, Florida 2004: The Big Bummer and Circumnavigator. He now lives in Port Harcourt, Nigeria studying oil politics on a Fulbright Scholarship. His website is here

Among his articles is “Academic Mercenaries” (AlterNet, August 2005)

A web of corruption

While Shell’s conduct in Nigeria had been awful by international corporate responsibility standards – villagers tell stories of Shell dropping bottles of rum from airplanes and using caged rabbits to test the environmental impact of their gas flaring – it is not the cause of Nigeria’s poverty. As Chinua Achebe so eloquently states in his 1983 manifesto The Trouble with Nigeria: “The trouble with Nigeria is leadership.” His analysis is as blunt and accurate now as it was then. Africa’s main problem, forty years after the end of colonialism, is that its leaders are selfish, corrupt, shortsighted and greedy.

But activism in the Niger delta continues to target the oil companies for a far simpler reason: it pays. Well. Saro-Wiwa’s execution helped generate a sub-industry in Nigeria’s petro-economy: “community relations”. In 2003, according to its website, Shell spent $30.8 million in community development money, in addition to the $55 million it paid to the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC – the government body set up to invest in and develop the Niger delta). Since 1994, Chevron claims to have put $117 million into its “host communities”. For villages where income per capita is less than $400 a year, that’s a huge amount of money.

But much of this money is stolen. “We call them half contractors”, jokes Joki, the secretary of the Kongho community youth group of which Gaddafi is the general. Any host community in the Niger delta bares the scars of this corruption: lots of buildings with no roofs, lots of taps that connect to no well. Behind every unfinished project is a calculated series of pay-offs, coordinated by the contractor, who works with the community relations officer in the oil company (who makes sure he gets a kickback) to pay off anyone who presents a threat – that is, chiefs and youth groups. Both Joki and Gaddafi have been on the payroll of these half-contractors. At times youth are actually hired to do labour, but often they are paid just to be peaceful: it’s called “standby pay”.

Oil companies make sure they cover their tracks, creating fake companies to receive sub-contracts. Gaddafi is currently paid 50,000 Naira a month as the head of security for Conoil, out of which he pays salaries to ten workers. Other guys are listed as “pipeline surveillance” or “camp labourer.” In any community, every youth knows the different titles and salaries available, and who is getting what. In one community, the youth group secretary listed eight “companies” that were doing business with the youth. This doesn’t include the contracts awarded for “environmental assessment” in case of an incidence, or an alleged incidence, of an oil spill, or the contracts awarded for environmental cleanup and compensation for damages if the assessment calls for it. So while Shell’s annual report states that of 221 oil spills, 68% were due to sabotage, it’s impossible to know how many of those acts of “sabotage” involved some level of cooperation between the company and certain members of its host community.

openDemocracy’s analysis of African events and issues includes:

Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe, “Ban arms sales to Africa – nothing else required” (June 2005)

Chukwu Emeka-Chikezie, “African agency vs the aid business” (July 2005)

Wangari Maathai, “Africans can do it for themselves” (July 2005)

John Adeleke, “Africa’s re-development needs: a Nigerian perspective” (July 2005)

Richard Dowden, “What’s wrong with Africa” (July 2005)

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

Community relations officers and other related staff in the oil companies are more than happy to make these payouts: for every contract they dole out, they can be sure to get a sizeable kickback. The “conflicts between communities and oil companies” are usually the result of poor management of this payout system. Sometimes a community relations officer hasn’t made all the right people happy; perhaps he’s paid one group too much; sometimes one community feels it’s getting less of a sweet deal than the next; or sometimes a company doesn’t have a plan for making payouts early enough in advance.

The next explosion

Odioma, a small community in Bayelsa state, is the most recent victim of this mix of desperation and greed where the oil companies’ disastrous attempts at development have spurred local and international outcry. It began when Shell surveyors visited a piece of land between the neighbouring communities of Odioma and Basambiri. Anticipating a new source of “community development” money, an enterprising man named Osie Clever led an attack on Basambiri to stake a claim on the territory, killing eight people, including four government chairman and a pregnant woman.

The federal government declared an “Operation Restore Hope” and assigned a “joint task force” to pacify the area. The force, which jokingly refers to itself as “Operation Destroy Hope”, opened fire upon arrival, killing eighteen people and burning the place to the ground. Three months after the fact, Odioma was a pile of charred tin. A 7-year-old boy wandered through the wreckage, unable to speak, perhaps out of shock, but most likely out of fear that the joint task force men stationed at the beach would see him and rough him up for speaking to foreigners.

The joint task force was proud of their work. Lounging and playing checkers in the midday sun, the mostly Hausa soldiers from northern Nigeria expressed disappointment that they were authorised to destroy only one village. Ijaw youth such as Gaddafi are doubly outraged by these attacks, as they are almost always carried out by notherners, whom they see as the sole beneficiaries of the oil money (in fact the average northerner is poorer, less educated, and more often malnourished than southerners, but the bulk of the oil profits have indeed gone to a handful of northern military leaders and their families.)

This tenth anniversary of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s execution occurs against the background of a Niger delta where violence has subsided somewhat from a few years ago but whose political and human dramas have grown even darker. The culture of settlement has engulfed the entire region, as potential heroes are bought off. The arrest of “Mujahid” Asari Dokubo, the charismatic and media-savvy warlord who was an essential (and obliging) interview subject for every international journalist on their jaunt to the delta, is emblematic of the deteriorating situation in the region.

Asari has been a loud and clear voice of opposition in a society with, for a democracy, a dearth of anti-government activism, but his methods – the arming of angry, uneducated youth, making threats against the government and oil companies laced with anti-colonial rhetoric, then waiting for hush money from the government – were not exactly the stuff of a freedom-fighter.

Taking no chances, the Nigerian federal government arrested him last month on charges of treason, a crime punishable by death. November 2005 could yet bring another landmark execution in the delta, setting off a spree of violence from Asari’s boys, which will no doubt be put down heavy-handedly by the Nigerian military. It’s doubtful though that this time the international community will mourn.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData