Niger Delta And Resource Control: A Post-Script



Ben Naanen


The time was during Obasanjo’s presidency. We read a small non-headline story in the media. It was about an official engagement between the President and the state governors. After the meeting came the usual  convivial banters. The President drew attention to the difference in the physique of two governors standing close to each other. One, a governor of one of the northern states who had nature’s gift of slimness. The other a Niger Delta governor with a robust appearance in his etibo and matching Niger Delta hat. In his trademark caustic humour the President exclaimed, “resource control”. In other words, resource control was responsible for the apparently affluent and overfed look of the Niger Delta governor and the presumed deprivation and hunger of his northern counterpart.

This allegory summarises the divergent interpretations of the term resource control in Nigeria’s post military political lexicon. To many Niger Delta politician it means personal enjoyment of the benefits of the black gold with which the region is endowed even at the expense of his constituents that he claims to represent. To the militant activist it means recovering by force of arms the control of the petroleum resources that had been allegedly expropriated by the country’s power elite through political manipulation. To many people outside the Niger Delta it means denying to the rest of Nigeria the benefits of federalism by insisting on the control and enjoyment of a natural resource which should be the patrimony of all Nigerians. To the masses in the Niger Delta it means environmental degradation, poverty and hunger in the midst of plenty. To the fashion industry it means a particular style featuring the etibo or senator, a matching hat with or without a walking stick accentuated by a touch of affluence and confident swagger.

Let us unveil the true identity of the controversial resource control issue. Irrespective of the multifarious interpretations the issue is intimately connected to the ethnic minority movement in Nigeria. The movement originally revolved around self-determination expressed in state creation as a means of empowering minorities and giving them a sense of belonging in the Nigerian polity. It predates Nigeria’s independence in 1960 and can rightly be traced to the immediate post- World-War II years.  The minorities’ demand for the creation of states was rooted in the rise of ethnic nationalism in the country following the growing consolidation of the Nigerian colonial state, the introduction of regionalism under a federalist constitution in 1954 which gave residual powers to the regions, and the growth of political parties which seemed identifiable with the dominant ethnic community in each of the three regions. As independence drew nearer the fear of ethnic domination and exclusion among minorities in a post-colonial Nigeria grew stronger. State agitation intensified.

In the Niger Delta the first major gain of the ethnic minority movement was the creation in 1947 of Rivers Province from the Owerri and Calabar provinces. The new province comprised Ahoada, Brass, Degema and Ogoni Divisions with Port Harcourt as headquarters. From the 1950s three major state movements emerged among the Nigerian minorities. These were the Middle Belt state, The Calabar-Ogoja-Rivers (COR) state, and a mainstream Rivers State movement. Minority fears and agitation eventually led to the setting up in 1958 by the British authorities of the Minorities Commission, popularly called the Willink Commission. To the disappointment of the minorities the Commission did not recommend states creation on the ground that yielding to state demands could lead to endless agitation for states and the eventual balkanization of Nigeria. The Commission instead recommended the designation of the Niger Delta as a “Special Area”  and the creation of the Niger Delta Development Board to address the special development challenge of the area.

State creation agitation intensified in the immediate post-independence years. When states were eventually created in 1967 it was not only for the minorities in the Niger Delta and the Middle Belt but the whole country was restructured into twelve states. The timing of the restructuring by the then Head of State, Lt Col Yakubu Gowon, was designed to serve a political expediency more than anything else. It was primarily to wean the eastern minorities from Lt Col Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu’s threatened secession of the Eastern Region. Regardless, Ojukwu went ahead to declare the Republic of Biafra and the ensuing thirty-month civil war “to keep Nigeria one” ended with the surrender and collapse of Biafra in January 1970.

All through this period the ethnic minority movement did not espouse any specific agenda in respect of the control of resources or an economic programme. The resource control agitation can be traced to three critical developments. These were the shift in the centre of gravity of the Nigerian economy from an agricultural export economy to an extractive economy based on oil, the political centralization of the Nigerian state away from the principle of federalism, and the revenue allocation controversy.

The discovery of oil in the Niger Delta from the 1950s engendered the shift to a petro-economy which naturally raised the question of revenue sharing. From 1946 to the eve of independence in 1959 derivation dominated the revenue allocation formula. This was the period of post-world War II commodity boom when cocoa was king in the Nigerian economy, enabling the cocoa-producing Western Region under the progressive leadership of Obafemi Awolowo to undertake major social development ahead of the other regions. The derivation principle began to decline progressively in the post-independence years as petroleum rose steadily to dominate the national economy.

The decline of the derivation principle was accompanied by the clamour for the creation of more states all over the country. Before independence the various regional governments opposed the creation of states. This was mainly because states creation was perceived by these regional governments controlled by the dominant ethnic groups as capable of weakening their control. The oil boom was now seen as the proverbial national cake whose distribution was based on states. The principle of economic viability was ignored in the creation of states as the dominant ethnic groups continued to multiply their states for the purpose of sharing oil revenue. Villages became state capitals which were transformed into modern cities by oil money. By 1995 the country had 36 states plus the Federal Capital Territory, 36 state bureaucracies and 774 local government councils, all financed with oil proceeds. Without oil money most of these unproductive states cannot survive. This is the negative side of state creation motivated mainly by political and redistributive considerations.

The amazing paradox was while non-oil-producing parts of the federation were agitating and getting more states hence increasing their share of national revenues, the oil-producing states were resisting being divided into more states. A case in point was the old Rivers State were successive governments in Port Harcourt resisted the creation of more states. By the time they realised the folly of their resistance resulting in the creation of Bayelsa State in 1995 other parts of the country had already fattened themselves on hassle-free national cake from the Niger Delta.

The proliferation of states, decline of the derivation principle, increasing centralization of the polity by the military dictatorship which continued to strengthen the dominance of the major ethnic groups, oil-based environmental degradation, monumental looting of oil money by the elite, and the perceived exclusion of the Niger Delta from the benefits of the oil economy, combined to heighten new definitions and strategies of resource control. To some resource control now meant the predominance of the derivation principle in the revenue allocation formula, ranging from the current 13 percent to 50 percent. At the extreme were proponents who advocated total control over the natural resources of their communities. The new phase of resource control agitation accompanied growing resistance in the Niger Delta and the demand for varying degrees of autonomy by the local ethno-linguistic groups.

The Ogoni people under MOSOP were to pioneer the new phase of agitation and empowerment with a new methodology of mass movement. While demanding for local autonomy, the Ogoni Bill of Rights issued in 1990 defined the Ogoni’s conception of resource control as “the right to the control and use of a fair proportion of the Ogoni economic resources for Ogoni development.” The 1998 Kaiama Declaration by the Ijaw youths adopted a more radical stance by declaring that the Ijaw have agreed to remain a part of Nigeria but will “demand and work for self-government and resource control for the Ijaw people.”

Anger and resistance in the Niger Delta was building up rapidly. While the Ogoni adopted a non-violent approach, anchoring their struggle on the support of the international community, other groups were not so patient with the slow-yielding non-violent method and opted for direct action. The situation made the Abacha dictatorship to concede the 13 percent derivation principle in the 1999 Constitution. The derivation issue became one of the hottest issues at the 2005 still-born Political Reform Conference initiated by President Obasanjo.

Not done yet, the Niger Delta struggle for resource control entered a militant phase with the inauguration of the current civilian dispensation in 1999. Groups such as MEND and sundry warlords intensified armed resistance, resulting in the kidnaping and death of foreign oil workers and drastic reduction in oil production. By 2010 a heightened combination of politically-motivated and criminally-inspired violence which was crippling the oil industry had forced the late President Umaru Yar’ Adua to initiate the Amnesty Programme to end the internal war in the Niger Delta.  Today the struggle has to all intents and purposes been hijacked by a deadly criminal fringe which makes no pretension about the political factors that originally motivated the armed resistance in the Niger Delta.

At this point we may need to reflect on the gains and losses of the resource control struggle. The 13 percent derivation fund without doubt has been a significant gain for oil-producing states. In 2002 Delta State was the largest oil producing state in Nigeria. By 2007 it was Rivers State, which was in turn overtaken by Akwa Ibom State in 2012. What are the benefits to the people of Niger Delta of this huge infusion of cash from the derivation fund? Clearly there has been considerable infrastructural development in these states but the same cannot be said of social development as all the indices of such development remain unimpressively low.

It could be said that more attention has been paid to infrastructure projects largely because these are more physical manifestation of oil money than relatively invisible poverty reduction initiatives that would benefit the masses. Moreover, the award of infrastructure contracts represent opportunities for personal enrichment. Every unaccountable government always has projects to siphon money, so have been many of these contracts. This is prebendal politics, which focuses on personal gains for public office holders and their supporters rather than collective development. The phenomenon is best captured in Richard Joseph’s 1987 seminal book, Democracy and Prebendal Politics in Nigeria: The Rise and Fall of the Second Republic.

Resource control-inspired armed resistance has given way to vicious criminality in the Niger Delta. Sundry criminals who made a living out of armed robbery and varieties of extortionism have taken to kidnaping for ransom which is more lucrative. Capturing an innocent high value individual yields more cash than several risky armed robbery operations combined. And the relatively inaccessible creeks have offered save havens for these criminals to ply their inglorious trade. Many commanders and foot soldiers of resource control militancy organized in cult groups became mercenaries for desperate politicians in the violent electoral contestations that have characterized the Niger Delta since 1999.

Significantly, the Goodluck Jonathan’s Presidency was seen as a reward for the Niger Delta struggle. The administration therefore enjoyed tremendous goodwill across the Niger Delta at its inception. Sooner than later sections of the Niger Delta began to feel excluded ostensibly on account of the overtly ethnic colouration of those from the region who were benefitting the most from their closeness to the presidency. Nothing symbolises more graphically the uncertain legacy of the Jonathan presidency in respect of the Niger Delta than the uncompleted East-West Road, the virtually abandoned highway linking Yenegoa and Ogbia which connects Jonathan’s LGA, and the failure to implement the UNEP Report on Ogoni.

Meanwhile, the environmental pollution of the Niger Delta continues. The oil companies do not see any sense in replacing corroded pipelines installed fifty years ago. These have become pipelines to hell as they leak and spill huge amounts of oil into the creeks and agricultural land. These horrendous lapses are conveniently labelled by the oil companies as “equipment” or “operational failure”. In Nigeria oil companies get away with murder because our laws do not protect the rights of citizens against corporate recklessness. Thriving fishing ports of yesteryears have today been turned into economic wilderness inhabited by illegal bunkering and refining denizens. Destitution has become the way of life for local inhabitants who in the past made livelihood of fishing and farming. .

As a corollary to resource control, the question has often been quietly asked whether Nigeria would have remained the single entity it is today if the oil that is sustaining the country was located in any of the dominant ethnic areas. Let us assume the oil was found in Lake Chad area, the North-West or South-West geopolitical zones. Many respondents may readily answer in the negative. Perhaps there would have been in existence today a Bornu Republic, a Republic of the Caliphate or an Oduduwa Republic. The luck that Nigeria has is that the petroleum resource which has been the single most important force that has glued the country together, is located in the Niger Delta, a region occupied by minorities who have no strong desire and capability to assert a sovereign existence. In spite of all their proclaimed aspirations of autonomy and resource control, what the Niger communities want are a political space, a voice in a united Nigeria, and improved living standard, not a separate country.

In conclusion, robbed by their governments, impoverished by oil production and besieged by hostage-taking violent criminality, the inhabitants of the Niger Delta appear prostrate and helpless. The “resource curse” should be reversed. These are some of the critical issues which the next phase of the resource control movement must address.


Ben Naanen is a Professor of Economic History at the University of Port Harcourt. He was a former General Secretary of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP) between 1992-1999, and later became the chairman, Provisional Council of MOSOP in 2012. He has been at different  times, Resident  Senior Fellow and Consultant, World Resources, Washington DC, USA; Consultant, UN Research Institute for Social Development, Geneva, Switzerland, and Director, Emerald Energy Institute of Petroleum Economics Policy and Strategic Studies, University of Port Harcourt, member, Multi-Stakeholder Committee for the Implementation of UNEP Report on Ogoni set up by the Federal Government and Member, Governing Council of Nigeria Institute of International Affairs (NIIA). He is a copious writer, researcher, analyst and consummate scholar.