Nigeria At 58 : Niger Delta In The Eye Of The Storm

An oil spill site

As Nigeria marks 58 years of nationhood today, 58 years she gained independence and emancipation from British colonial rule, keen observers of the political development of the country would agree that it is not yet uhuru for the people of the Niger Delta.
It would be recalled that the British Union Jack was lowered in Nigeria on October 1, 1960, and the country’s green-white-green flag was hoisted in its place, thus, heralding the nation’s political independence.
Independence for the country was, indeed, a defining moment, a new beginning and a new dawn for the country and her people. This was because it came with it high hopes and great expectations, especially as the indigenous people were for the first time vested with the full authority to run the affairs of the country, and take their destinies in their own hands.
The jubilant Nigerians, both at home in the Diaspora, foresaw then, a great future ahead of them, a future of a great country, consisting of great people, with great dreams, great aspirations and potentials, a common destiny, unfettered love and unity, inspite of their diversities in language and religion. They, therefore, clinked glasses and exchanged banters gleefully. But the celebration was short-lived.
Because it did not take quite long, before cleavages, conflicts that engendered mistrust and hate, started manifesting. Resentment, discontent and disillusionment became pervasive, and ostensibly dampened the initial enthusiasm of the people for self rule. An ominous dark cloud hung in the horizon. The first test was an avoidable Civil War which lasted for almost three years and claimed thousands of lives.
As if that was not enough, the ghost of disenchantment, accentuated by bad governance and corruption continued to hover in the air. The cries of injustice, marginalization and exploitation became deafening. Nigerians across various divides caught the bug. Widespread agitations, which have continued up till this day, 58 years after independence became trenchant. The fear of domination, among the minorities by the major ethnic nationalities like the Hausa/Fulani, Igbo and Yoruba, which informed the setting up of the Willink Commission of 1957, refused to abate.
It is within this context that one can conveniently situate the Niger Delta region, the Treasure Base of the country, the home of hydrocarbon, oil and gas deposits, Nigeria’s economic mainstay.
The core Niger Delta region comprises Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Cross River, Delta and Edo States, which are located within the South-South geo-political zone of the country. However, Abia, Imo and Ondo States were later co-opted into it as oil producing states.
The Niger Delta question is as interesting as it is intriguing, going by the important place the region occupies in the country’s historical and economic calculus. The Niger Delta encompasses about 8 percent of Nigeria’s land mass and is the largest wetlands region in the African continent. In 1956, oil was discovered in commercial quantity in Oloibiri, a sleepy community in today’s Bayelsa State.
This singular incident apparently altered the political-cum economic equation of the country to the extent that issues concerning the Niger Delta have continued to occupy the front burner of national discourse for over four decades now. The discovery of oil equally re-shaped the course of events both in the region and the country at large. There is a widely held view that the basis of Nigeria’s unity today is oil. But the bigger question is: have the people of the Niger Delta benefitted maximally from this unity? Unfortunately, the general consensus is that the discovery of oil has rather been a curse than a blessing to the people of the Niger Delta.
Nigeria, after over four decades of oil production, had by the early 1980s become almost completely economically dependent on petroleum extraction which at the time generated 25 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This rose to 60 percent as at 2008.
Despite the vast wealth created by petroleum, the benefits have been slow in trickling down to the people, who since 1960s have been forced to abandon their traditional agricultural practices. While many skilled and well-paid Nigerians have been employed by oil companies within the region, the majority of Nigerians and most especially the people of the Niger Delta States have become poorer since the 1960s.
Besides, the issue of derivation has been contentious. Whereas the derivation formula for regions that were contributing resources to the Federation Account in the First Republic was 50 percent , oil producing States in the current dispensation are given a paltry 13 percent as derivation. Though this is an improvement from the initial zero percent, one percent and later 3 percent earmarked for them, it is still seen to be grossly inadequate going by their contributions to the national coffers.
In the 1950s, before the discovery of oil in the Niger Delta, the three largest ethnic nationalities in the country provided Nigeria’s major resources. The North dominated by the Hausa/Fulani produced groundnut, hides and skin while the West populated by the Yorubas was famous for cocoa production and the East controlled by the Igbos produced palm oil and kernel.
It is worthy of note that the Niger Delta region has streadily growing population estimated at more than 30 million people in 2005 and accounts for more than 23 percent of Nigeria’s total population. The population density is also among the highest in the world, with 265 people per square kilometre, and it is expanding at a rapid rate, particularly in the oil rich Port Harcourt, the capital of Rivers State, among other large towns and cities within the Niger Delta enclave.
Major Isaac Adaka Boro who was born in Oloibiri in 1938 was one of the early people who began the struggle for the emancipation of the Niger Delta. He challenged the exploitation and deprivation of the region, as the oil resources from the region were channeled to develop other regions of the country.
Boro declared the Niger Delta Republic on February 23, 1966 but was jailed for treason by the Federal Government under General Thomas Aguiyi Ironsi.
Having a father who was constantly being transferred from one school to another as headmaster, Boro followed his education keenly and even entered the University of Nigeria, Nsukka where he was studying Chemistry and later rose to become the Student Union President.
Being in the Eastern Region under which the Niger Delta was grouped, he was exposed first hand to what he viewed as exploitation of his people, where the oil money gotten from the Niger Delta was being enjoyed by the Federal Government and nothing was given to the Niger Delta people, who were already being subjected to various environmental hazards resulting from oil spillage.
In fact, he believed that the people of the region deserved a fairer share of proceeds of the oil wealth and therefore, formed the Niger Delta Volunteer Force, which attacked a police station in Yenagoa, raided the armoury and kidnapped some police officers.
Boro and his armed militia Ijaw brothers also blew up oil pipelines and gallantly battled the federal forces for 12 days but were finally subdued by the superior federal might. This made the Aguiyi-Ironsi regime to arrest him and his men and were tried for treason and condemned to death.
Though they were granted amnesty by the General Yakubu Gowon administration and were enlisted into the Nigerian Army, Boro died on May 16, 1968 under mysterious circumstances while fighting on the side of the Federal Government during the Civil War.
The modern day conflict in the Niger Delta first arose in the early 1990s over tensions between oil companies like Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron and a number of minority ethnic groups in the region which felt that they were being exploited, particularly the Ogonis and the Ijaws.
Ethnic and political unrest in the Niger Delta has continued till this day though it has reduced to the barest minimum in recent times. There is no denying the fact that the people of the region are still aggrieved and agitated today. Competition for oil wealth had fuelled violence between ethnic groups, thereby causing the militarisation of nearly the entire region by ethnic militia groups, the military and the police, thus, leading to serious energy supply crisis, which culminated in the vandalisation of oil installations and facilities. This discouraged foreign investment in new power generation plants in the region.
In 2004, violence also hit the oil industry with piracy and kidnappings becoming the order of the day. This trend continued until the Federal Government under the watch of late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua put in place the Presidential Amnesty Programme in 2009, which has been providing support and training for ex-militants.
When it comes to agitation for improved conditions for the people of the Niger Delta, the case of the Ogonis in Rivers State occupies a central place.
Petroleum was discovered in Ogoniland in 1957, one year after the discovery of Nigeria’s first commercial oil deposits. Incidentally, Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron Corporation in particular had established their base in Ogoniland for exploration activities for over 20 years. Shell started drilling oil in Nigeria in 1956. The Ogoni people and other ethnic nationalities in the Niger Delta would agree that at that time, the government began forcing them to abandon their land for the oil companies which offered them negligible compensation for such lands.
The 1979 constitutional amendment which gave the Federal Government full ownership and rights to all Nigerian territory lent credence to the short-changing of the people. Moreover, the amendment also provided that eminent domain compensation for “seized land would be based on the value of the crops on the land at the time of its acquisition, not on the value of the land itself”.
This meant that the government had the authority to distribute the land to the oil companies as it deemed fit. This practice still applies today.
The 1970s and 1980s saw the dwindling of the benefits which the Federal Government had promised the Niger Delta people, with the Ogonis in particular, growing increasingly disenchanted, coupled with their rapidly deteriorating environmental, social and economic conditions. This led to the formation of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP) in 1992 with Ogoni playwright and author, Ken Saro-Wiwa as the pointman. MOSOP became the major organisation representing the Ogoni people in their struggle for ethnic and environmental rights.
As time went on, the conflict between the Ogonis and the oil companies rose to a level of greater intensity, resulting in MOSOP issuing an ultimatum to Shell, Chevron and NNPC, and demanded the payment of $10 million as accumulated royalties, damages and compensation.
This did not go down well with the Federal Government and so, it responded in a most rapacious manner. The murder of four prominent Ogoni sons in 1994 was apparently the excuse the government was waiting for. The Gen. Sani Abacha military junta hurriedly swung into action, arrested Ken Saro-Wiwa and several of his kinsmen, and before anyone could raise a voice, it went ahead and executed the environmentalist and eight other Ogoni sons.
In retaliation, the Ogonis, therefore, barred Shell from doing business in their territory.
The Ogoni debacle was closely followed by the Ijaw unrest. The all Ijaw Youths Conference of December, 1998 crystallized the Ijaws’s struggle for petroleum resource control with the formation of the Ijaw Youth Congress (IYC) and the issuing of the Kaima Declaration, wherein the concerns about the loss of control of the Ijaws’ homeland and their lives to the oil companies were encapsulated. In it, they made a commitment to direct action and called on the oil companies to suspend their operations and withdraw from their territory.
Again, the Federal Government saw this as an affront and a threat to the country’s economic interest, and mobilised forces against the Niger Delta people. Two war ships and about 15,000 troops were quickly deployed to Bayelsa and Delta States.
And on the morning of December 30, 2000, youths carried out a procession through Yenagoa, the Bayelsa State capital, dressed in black, singing and dancing. Soldiers opened fire on them with rifles, machine guns and tear gas, killing in the process at least three protesters and arresting 25 of them. The soldiers also repelled the youths again who demanded during a protest march the release of those arrested and shot three more dead. The military declared a state of emergency throughout Bayelsa State, imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew, and banned meetings. The soldiers were also alleged to have molested, detained the local residents at roadblocks and also terrorised women and girls with rape at night.
On January 4, 1999, about 100 soldiers from the military base at Chevron’s Escravos facility attacked Opia and Ikiyan, two Ijaw communities in Delta State. The soliders reportedly shot several of the Ijaws including a traditional leader. Four people were found dead and 62 others were still missing months after the attack. The soldiers were also said to have set the villages ablaze, destroyed canoes and fishing equipment as well as killed livestock and destroyed churches and religious shrines.
Nonetheless, the youths’ Operation Climate Change continued, and disrupted oil supplies through much of 1999 as they turned off oil valves in Ijaw territory. It was in the course of this face-off between the Ijaws and the Federal Government that the military carried out the Odi massacre, killing scores if not hundreds of Ijaws.
The creation of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) by the President Olusegun Obansanjo administration in 2000 was intended to calm frayed nerves of the Niger Delta people and develop the oil rich region. And since its inauguration, the NDDC has focused on the development of social and physical infrastructures, ecological, environmental remediation and human development. But in all these, there are environmental and economic challenges still staring the people in the face. NDDC itself is still grappling with challenges of poor funding, mismanagement of funds and corruption.
Nonetheless, the Niger Delta region had between 2003 and 2007 witnessed the emergence of armed groups like the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF) led by Mujahid Asari-Dokubo and the Niger Delta Vigilantes (NDV) led by Ateke Tom, among others which again heightened tension in the region, particularly in Rivers State.
Subsequent violence occurred chiefly in riverine villages and in Port Harcourt, with the two groups fighting for control of bunkering routes. The conflagration spurred violent acts against the local population, resulting in numerous deaths and widespread displacement and destruction of property. Civilian life was daily disrupted, and even forcing schools and economic activities to shut down.
The activities of multinationals like Shell have caused environmental degradation of the Niger Delta. At a time, Nigeria was the world’s tenth largest oil exporter. The abundant oil reserves resulted in widespread exploitation. The negative consequences are the result of thousands of oil spills and environmental destruction.
According to a report, over one and a half million tons of oil has been discharged into farms, forests and rivers in the Niger Delta since the drilling of oil began in 1956. Hundreds of kilometres of rain forest have been destroyed by oil spills. When petroleum is discharged into the soil, the soil becomes acidic, disrupts photosynthesis and kills trees because their roots are not able to get oxygen. The fish population has also been affected negatively. The region is home to over 250 different fish species and 20 of these species are found nowhere else in the world. Experts believe that if oil spills continue at this rate, the entire species will become extinct and the entire fishing industry in the country will be decimated.
This is coupled with the fact that the region daily witnesses high incidence of piracy and kidnappings. Starting in October, 2012, Nigeria experienced a large spike in piracy off its coast and this escalated in the early 2013, as the country was rated the second most-pirated nation in Africa, after Somalia. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta was alleged to have spearheaded most of the attacks. Since October, 2012, MEND was reported to have hijacked 12 ships, kidnapped 33 sailors and killed several oil workers.
Since 2006, militant groups in the Niger Delta, especially MEND had resorted to taking foreign employees of oil companies hostage and over 200 of such foreigners have been kidnapped since 2006, though most were released unharmed.
However, in August, 2018, the Federal Government unleased a massive military crackdown on the militants in the region whereby a Joint Task Force patrolled the coastal waters, hunting for the MEND militants. It also searched all civilian boats for weapons and raided numerous militant hideouts, forcing thousands of local residents to flee their homes and villages. Hundreds of people may have died as a result of a similar offensive launched on May 15, 2009.
Pipeline attacks had become common place during the insurgency in the Niger Delta but ended after the government on June 26, 2009 announced that it would grant amnesty and an unconditional pardon to militants in the region.
The Presidential Amnesty Programme ensured that militants led their groups to surrender weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades, guns, explosives and ammunition. Even gunboats were also surrendered to the government. Over 30,000 ex-agitators signed up between October, 2009 and May 2011 in exchange for monthly payments and in some cases lucrative contracts to secure pipelines. The amnesty office has worked towards reintegrating the fighters into the society, primarily by placing and sponsoring them in vocational and higher education courses in Nigeria and abroad.
The Muhammadu Buhari administration has managed to sustain the amnesty programme as the programme has proved to be a success with violence and kidnappings including the destruction of pipelines decreasing sharply. Petroleum production and exports have increased.
However, the programme is costly, as chronic poverty and catastrophic oil pollution which fuelled the earlier rebellion remain largely unaddressed. There are threats by the militants hovering the air here and there to re-launch their attacks in the region. The Federal Government’s Operation Crocodile Smiles which left on its trail death and destruction is still fresh in our memory. Tension keeps on building up in the area from time to time. In February, 2016, an explosion ripped through a pipeline operated by Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), a Royal Dutch Shell subsidiary to the Shell Forcades export terminal and halted both production and imports. Speculations were rife that militants were behind the act. This reduced oil production by 300,000 barrels a day.
Shell again shut its Bonny oil facility on May 11, 2016 as three soldiers guarding the installation were killed in an attack. A week earlier, a bomb had closed down Chevron’s Escravos GTF facility. And on May 19, Exxon Mobil’s Qua Iboe was shut down and workers evacuated due to militant threats.
Another militant group in the Niger Delta, the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) publicly announced its existence in March, 2016, thus, fuelling anxiety and apprehension among the populace. Subsequently, the NDA attacked oil producing facilities in the region and caused the shutdown of oil terminals and a fall in Nigeria’s oil production to its lowest level in 20 years. Unfortunately, the attacks caused the country to fall behind Angola as Africa’s largest oil producer.
Though the avengers declared a ceasefire and agreed to negotiate with the Federal Government in late August, 2016, another militant group, Niger Delta Greenland Justice Mandate emerged and threatened to destroy Port Harcourt and Warri Refineries as well as a gas plant within 48 hours. The group reportedly carried out its threat by blowing up a major oil pipeline operated by the NNPC in Isoko in Delta State. It also blew up pipelines belonging to NDDC in the state, among other atrocities.
In spite of bolstering of the country’s revenue base through oil production, the Niger Delta region remains grossly undeveloped. Poor infrastructure, particularly bad road networks are still noticeable in the area. Federal roads are neglected by the Federal Government. The Oyigbo axis of the Port Harcourt-Aba Road in Rivers State is a typical example. The deplorable state of the road has given both motorists and commuters serious concern.
Apart from the Port Harcourt International Airport, Omagwa, which is currently in a terrible state of disrepair, there are no other international airports of repute in the whole region.
PHIA suffers from systemic neglect by the Federal Government today. Facilities at the airport are nothing to write home about. This is to the exent that it was recently ranked as one of the worst in the world.
Poverty occasioned by massive unemployment has become the lot of the Niger Delta people.
Democracy does not seem to have changed anything. Unaccountable politics and lack of capacity of institutions to deliver development, protect justice, ensure due process and security have resulted in collective public frustration that at times contribute to cycles of violent conflicts in the Niger Delta. The current Federal Government is a major culprit in this regard. Its policies and programmes have grossly left the Niger Delta people agitated as there are still pockets of armed robbery, kidnappings, illegal oil bunkering and other social vices here and there in the region.
The people also contend with the devastating effects of oil spills and gas flaring on a daily basis. This is a culmination of poor operating practices, weak law enforcement and an active illegal oil economy which have themselves contributed to hundreds of oil spills in the region. This environmental disaster destroys traditional livelihoods of the people and breeds mistrust and resentment among them.
Not even the intervention of the government in this direction appears to have provided a solution in sight for the people. The ongoing remediation of impacted oil sites in Ogoniland in Rivers State by the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation project (HYPREP) established for this purpose, is still slow.
The Ogoni people are eager to see tangible results and the restoration of their livelihoods beyond the current rhetorics. It is true that there are efforts to implement the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Report on Ogoniland and in other Niger Delta communities, but the people of the region want to see more commitment on the part of government, international oil companies and other stakeholders.
According to research, gas flared everyday in the Niger Delta is equivalent to the daily gas consumption in Brazil. Inspite of repeated assurances by the Federal Government to stop gas flaring in the country, the trend has continued. The multi-billion dollar waste associated with gas flaring not only leaves communities without effective energy solutions, but is also the single, biggest contributor to carbondioxide (Co2) emissions in the whole of Africa. This is despite the fact that the utilisation of waste associated gas has the potential to address Nigeria’s acute domestic energy crisis and stimulate economic diversification and growth in the Niger Delta.
Ironically, inspite of its contributions to the commonwealth, the story of the Niger Delta is the story of pain, anguish, frustration, tears and blood, occasioned by several years of exploitation, injustice and under-development. When will the narrative change? Only time will tell.


Donatus Ebi