Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The Niger Delta, a lush region of mangrove swamps, rainforest and swampland, is home to several million people. Delta minority groups include Andoni, Brass, Dioubu, Etche, Ijaw, Kalibari, Nembe, Ogoni and Okrika.
The Niger Delta is the main oil-producing region of Nigeria, which is the largest oil producer in Africa and produces one-tenth of the world’s crude oil. Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution gives the central government ownership of the country’s natural resources; the Nigerian federal government is the prime beneficiary of the revenue earned from selling the crude oil abroad. However, a large portion of the revenue is routinely lost to corruption. As a result little of the wealth created by oil is distributed within the Niger Delta, or to the Nigerian people as a whole. Economic and social rights, such as the right to health and the right to an adequate standard of living, remain unfulfilled for many Nigerians. When the international oil prices have risen, the state’s share of the total oil revenue have increased under a formula with companies but the federal government has invested little of these resources in the Niger Delta. Poverty in this area is widespread; transport infrastructure is poor, electricity provision is low and water and sanitation poor. Oil exploitation has left large areas of the Niger Delta contaminated by gas flares, spills and leakages and unusable for farming.
By 1990 Delta minority communities that had remained in poverty for years decided to take action against the exploitation of their resources which had left a legacy of polluted soil and water, rusting pipelines criss-crossing farmland, oil spillages and continual gas flares. In that year people of the Etche group demonstrated peacefully against Shell Oil in the village of Umuechen. Shell called for police protection in case of further action. The Mobile Police Force proceeded to massacre 80 people and destroy 495 homes. Although an inquiry blamed the police, local people held Shell responsible for not negotiating. Since then, protesters have met with similar and sometimes more severe brutality. Over the course of the 1990s, opposition to the federal government and oil companies became increasingly radicalized and militant.
The Ogoni, who live in the north-eastern fringes of the Delta, began a campaign calling for the cleanup of environmental damage, greater revenue from oil production and political autonomy. Their Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) issued an Ogoni Bill of Rights, which demanded immediate compensation for ecological damage from Shell and self-determination for Ogoniland. MOSOP was originally an umbrella organization that united traditional chiefs and intellectuals, such as writer, entrepreneur and former cabinet minister of Rivers State Ken Saro-Wiwa. It came under severe pressure from the military government, and its leaders were detained and harassed.
When elections were being discussed in May 1994 for representatives to a national constitutional conference, splits in the Ogoni community erupted. Four chiefs, including a former vice-president of MOSOP, were murdered. The military regime charged Saro-Wiwa with murder, although clear evidence indicated a solid alibi. The military claimed that he, along with eight other Ogoni activists, incited the killers. The authority which confirmed the conviction was Sani Abacha’s Provisional Ruling Council, the ruling junta. Nigeria received international condemnation following the execution of Saro-Wiwa and the other eight activists on 10 November 1995 after a show trial. Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth and given two years to restore democracy or face total expulsion.
The easy availability of small arms in the region made the situation more serious. Security forces in the Delta region regularly engaged in torture, killings and confiscation of property. At the same time, the region was characterized by increasing insecurity, including attacks by militants on oil installations in early 2006. In April, President Olusegun Obasanjo proposed a ‘Marshall Plan’ for the Delta, but only with involvement of corrupt local officials and exclusion of many civil society organisations that enjoy credibility in the region. Following further attacks, in August 2006 Obasanjo ordered a crackdown on militants while still pursuing negotiations. Kidnappings of local and international oil workers also rose steadily, with the militias even resorting to the kidnapping of children. The grip of the militants on the area was illustrated in August 2007, when fighting rocked Port Harcourt – Nigeria’s main oil city. There were running battles in the street after government troops tried to arrest a prominent Delta militia leader. Criminality is alleged on the side of the military too – with accusations that local military officials are involved with much of the oil sold to Eastern Europe in exchange for weapons.
In this context, President Umaru Yar’Adua appointed Goodluck Jonathan – an Ijaw – as his deputy. The government meanwhile released the detained leader of Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force, Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, and the vice-president embarked upon a series of meetings with leaders of the different communities in the Delta. The main militant group in the Niger Delta, Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) which claims to represent the interests of the Ijaw community, called a ceasefire which held for a few months from June. But by the end of 2007 the group had resumed attacks.
The long-running dispute between local communities and Shell in the Niger Delta ended on 4 June 2008, when the Nigerian government took a decision to replace Shell as operator of oil concessions in Ogoni areas. Initial enthusiasm was dampened when the government announced that the concession would be taken over by the Nigerian Petroleum Development Company (NPDC), the upstream subsidiary of the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). The Ogoni saw this development as yet another denial of their rights as local stakeholders. Guerrilla activity by MEND, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, stepped up in September 2008 when the group released a statement saying that their militants had launched an ‘oil war’ throughout the Niger Delta against pipelines and oil production facilities, and the Nigerian soldiers that protect them. Both MEND and the Nigerian government claimed to have inflicted heavy casualties on one another.
May 2009 saw clashes between the Joint Task Force (JTF) set up by the Nigerian government to combat kidnappings by armed groups in Delta State and militia groups, including reported land and air strikes by the JTF on militia camps and communities across the Warri South and South-west local government areas. Following a virtual occupation of the area by the JTF for several months, residents returned to find their houses destroyed, despite previous government assurances that no evictions would take place. There were reports that some state officials asked for bribes to protect villagers’ property from demolitions.
An August 2009 amnesty brought a pause in the conflict. However, MEND claimed responsibility for two car bombs in Abuja during celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of Nigerian independence, though some members disputed its involvement. At least ten people were killed. By year’s end sabotage of pipelines and kidnappings of workers had resumed. The Nigerian army said that six civilians were killed in mid-December when it attacked a suspected militant base near the Niger Delta community of Ayakoromo; local groups said the number was higher.
A 2011 report published by United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) found that oil contamination in Ogoniland was widespread and severely affecting the environment. It found that, given that oil exploitation began in the late 1950s in the area, most residents had lived with chronic oil pollution throughout their lives, with grave impact on the traditional livelihoods of farming and fishing. It called for emergency action in response to high levels of contaminants, including benzene, a known carcinogen, in communities’ drinking water, and detailed the impact of oil pollution on soil, groundwater, surface water and vegetation.
In 2015 the UN Special Rapporteur for minority issues, visiting Nigeria, expressed concern at the ongoing impact of pollution from oil spills, particularly in Ogoniland. A sign of progress during the year, however, was the announcement by Buhari’s government in August 2015 of the creation of a trust fund for affected communities to provide the estimated US$1 billion required to decontaminate the area, though concerns remained about the willingness of Shell and partner companies to contribute their necessary share; the project was launched in 2016. However, in 2016 armed groups carried out renewed attacks on the oil industry, demanding a greater share of national oil revenues for the region. Sadly, in June 2017, a court in London heard why the clean-up operation had still not begun. Violence and threats against Shell staff was cited by the company as one reason, and continued legal claims brought against it was another. The UK law firm representing affected communities expressed concern that Shell could simply walk away.
Updated January 2018