AJCR 2007/2

Ethnic Diversity and Conflict in Nigeria

Lessons from the Niger Delta Crisis

Keywords: Ethnicity, Nigeria

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Abstract

This article assesses the viability of ethnicity as an explanation for the worsening orgy of conflict and militarisation in Nigeria’s oil producing region. This is against the background that the Niger Delta crisis, despite being widely portrayed as turning on an ethnic pivot, reveals attributes that should compel a rethink of its assumed social character. Drawing on primary ethnographic data, and on relevant secondary sources, the article highlights methodological and epistemic flaws in the argument that petroleum-related struggles in Nigeria’s oil region are rooted in ‘ethnic competition’. The article draws vital lessons from the Niger Delta crisis, for peace building and societal re-engineering in Nigeria and other African societies saddled with similar diversity- and resource-related challenges.

Some background notes

The contemporary map of conflicts in Africa does not showcase Nigeria – and for a good reason: there are no international peace keeping forces there. The main theatres of conflict on the continent have for the better part of the last two decades been the Great Lakes region, the Horn of Africa, and parts of West Africa. These include countries such as: Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Somalia, Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire. To the Horn of Africa sample must be added Eritrea, which despite having secured independence from Ethiopia, still has unresolved border issues with that country.

However, as far as armed conflicts are concerned, Nigeria does have some experience – if one recalls that between 1967 and 1970, only a few years after gaining independence from Britain (in 1960), the country was engulfed in a bloody civil war. It cannot be reasonably assumed that the Nigerian government and people have done all they should to prevent the tensions and ‘civil disturbances’ which frequently erupt, or have become endemic, in different parts of the country from escalating into ‘bleeding’ conflicts. Such tensions include the restiveness in the Niger Delta (Nigeria’s oil and gas province) – a region that has since the early 1990s witnessed an almost unbroken orgy of violence and militarisation.

The following scenarios might provide a useful basis for pondering the role that ethnic diversity plays in the ‘suppressed war’ that has characterised Nigeria’s Niger Delta region, especially since the 1990s:

Scenario One: A ‘Bill of Rights’ issued by the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP)1 castigates Nigeria’s federalism as arbitrary and constructed to favour the major ethnic nationalities (namely the Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo). A major agitation for the ‘political control of Ogoni affairs’ as well as the ‘control and use of Ogoni economic [notably petroleum2] resources for Ogoni development’ ensues (MOSOP 1992; Wiwa 1992). The struggle denounces centralised state control and management of the country’s oil and mineral resources, and vilifies the transnational oil companies operating in the area for ‘environmental recklessness’ (Wiwa 1992).

Scenario two: Another declaration, the ‘Kaiama Declaration’, is issued by the Ijaw Youth Congress (IYC) and similarly denounces Nigeria’s ‘unbalanced’ federalism and the exploitation of ‘Ijaw resources’ for the benefit of other groups. IYC threatens to disobey all ‘undemocratic decrees that rob our peoples/communities of the right to ownership and control of our lives and resources, which were enacted without our participation and consent…’ IYC launches a struggle – which frequently turns violent – demanding ‘self-determination and justice’ (IYND 1998).

Scenario three: An IYC faction, formed by an erstwhile IYC leader, takes a more militant stance, metamorphosing into a fighting force known as Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF). It seeks greater local control of the Delta’s petroleum resources. With the proliferation of sophisticated weapons in the Niger Delta, different armed groups emerge, and armed confrontations between them and the Nigerian authorities increase.

Africa’s largest oil and gas producer, Nigeria, has attracted negative international attention in recent years mainly because petroleum operations in the Niger Delta have created conditions for the eruption of major ‘civil disturbances’ and other forms of social conflict that threaten the country’s corporate existence. A number of issues foreground the conflict. First, since 1956, when a commercial oil well was struck in the small rural town of Oloibiri (in Bayelsa State) – but particularly since 1958, when the country commenced crude oil export – Nigeria has grown steadily dependent on this resource for its export revenues. For instance, while oil accounted for 57 per cent of total export revenues in 1970, this proportion rose to 96 per cent (1980), 97 per cent (1990), 76 per cent (2000), and 92 per cent (2004) (OPEC 2005). Second, the Niger Delta is composed of minority ethnic nationalities (in a country demographically dominated by three largely non oil-producing ethnic groups, namely Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo). Third, the Niger Delta is one of Nigeria’s most underdeveloped regions. Lastly, the ‘lack of development’ in the Delta belies the fact that the region’s petroleum wealth practically sustains the entire country.

Grassroots discontent in the Niger Delta has found expression not simply in protest marches but in such acts as oil pipeline vandalism, abduction of oil company employees, and reprisals against community subgroups considered by local activists to be sympathetic to the Nigerian government and transnational oil interests. Of late, armed confrontations with the national security forces have become prominent. All this has occurred amidst sustained environmental and civil rights activism spearheaded by local, national and international civil society groups, as well as the mass media. The Nigerian government has estimated the monthly cost of the Niger Delta crisis to be about US$1 billion in lost petro-revenues (The Guardian 2006).

The growing body of literature on the Niger Delta crisis does seem to underline one point: there is an ethnic undertone to the crisis. For one thing, the argument goes, community groups in the Niger Delta regard the non-oil-producing regions (those of the Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo) as the principal beneficiaries of federal petroleum exploitation and revenue sharing policies. Write Agiobenebo and Aribaolanari (2001:455): ‘the ethnic minorities of the Niger Delta are treated as objects (property) owned by the majority groups to be dealt with according to their whims and caprices’. Therefore, however otherwise the Niger Delta crisis disguises itself, there is a feeling in the region about ethnic domination and hence the main target of grievances (and possible future insurrection) must be the non-oil-producing regions. What tends to give credence to this line of argument is that in ethnolinguistic terms, Nigeria is one of the world’s most diverse countries, with some 510 ‘living languages’ spoken across over 300 ethnic groups (Gordon 2005).

The question then is: to what extent does ethnicity explain the Niger Delta conflict? Based partly on relevant secondary sources and on ethnographic data obtained by the author in the Niger Delta in 2003, this study attempts to do the following: (a) examine the conventional assumption that ethnicity is at the root of grievance construction in Nigeria’s oil-producing region, (b) ascertain if indeed the target of grievances is the non-oil-producing geo-ethnic regions, and (c) examine the possible implications of an ethnic model of analysis for conflict mitigation and peace building in the Niger Delta.

The Niger Delta conflict: an historical sketch

What has come to be known as the ‘Niger Delta conflict’, and sometimes ‘resistance’, has manifested itself in one form or another since the 1940s, although this brief historical sketch is not concerned with the ‘pre-petroleum’ phase – the phase before 1956. Three broad phases can be identified in the struggle, namely: the pre-independence phase (between 1940 and 1960), the immediate post-independence phase (the 1960s), and what may be termed the ‘phase of rapid internationalisation’ (the 1990s).

Pre-independence struggles (1940-1960)

Nigeria was ‘born’ on January 1, 1914, from the amalgamation by the British colonial authorities of what was initially labelled the Northern and Southern Protectorates of Nigeria. Following the amalgamation, Nigeria was divided into Northern, Southern and Eastern regions,3 each administered by a Lieutenant-Governor, who was responsible to the Governor-General. Lord Frederick Lugard served as the first Governor-General (1912-1919), and is credited with the propagation of ‘indirect rule’, a system and policy whereby Africans were ostensibly ruled through existing indigenous political institutions (Lugard 1965:194), although these were typically manipulated to serve the needs and interests of the colonial authorities (Nelson 1982). Colonial patterns of social formation accentuated and hardened ethnic differences, with ‘superordinate’ and ‘subordinate’ ethnic groups created within and across geo-political territories. In many cases, what had simply been ethnic groups-in-themselves, or what one might call ‘passive diversity’, virtually hardened into ‘active diversity’ or ethnic groups-for-themselves.

Arguably the most authoritative documentation of the Niger Delta struggle during the colonial period is the 1958 Minorities Commission4 Report to Alan Lennox-Boyd, the then Secretary of State for British Colonies. Subject to space constraints, this sketch will closely follow the findings and recommendations of the Commission. Although the struggle gained greater visibility during the late 1950s, when Nigeria made its first export shipment of crude oil, and intensified towards the independence year of 1960, this phase of the struggle began before the discovery of oil in the country. The relevance of the Report to this discussion is that it contains some hidden codes for understanding both that early phase of the struggle and the significance of the struggle’s subsequent mutations. One of the Commission’s aims was to ensure that the country Britain ‘created’ did not, after independence, splinter into chaos.

The Report detailed the ‘fears’ and ‘grievances’ of Nigeria’s Western, Eastern and Northern ‘minorities’. The Eastern ‘minorities’ formed part of what is today known as the Niger Delta (consisting of such nationalities as the Ijaw, Ibibio, Efik and several others). While the Igbo were the major ethnic group in the Eastern region, the Yoruba and the Hausa-Fulani dominated the other two regions.

The Minorities Commission found that although the grievances of the minorities were mainly political, some of these had direct links to local ecological circumstances. For instance, many of the grievances expressed by the Ijaw and other riverine peoples of the Niger Delta were based on fears that a government that was geographically and culturally ‘distant’ from the coastal communities could not effectively address the problems that such areas faced. The Eastern regional government, it must be noted, was headquartered in the inland town of Enugu, about 180 kilometres north of Port Harcourt (the present capital of Rivers State and the Niger Delta’s principal city). The town was even more distant from the deep riverine areas. The demand for the creation of a ‘special area’ in general, and for a ‘Rivers state’ in particular, to cater for the needs of the coastal communities, dates back to the early 1950s. It was felt that the ecological, socio-cultural and economic circumstances of the coastal areas – ‘a territory where communications [were] so difficult, building so expensive and education such a scanty’ (Willink et al 1958:51) – necessitated the creation of a separate state.

The Minorities Commission also found that the Eastern minorities were aggrieved about the extensive influence of the Igbo in the region. From their everyday experiences of the conduct of government, the minorities feared that an Igbo autocracy would emerge in the region at independence – an autocracy that would have an Igbo-dominated civil service. The Eastern minorities particularly resented the economic dominance of the Igbo. There was also the apprehension that a lopsided post-independence economic system would emerge in which the Igbo, on account of their demographic majority and control of the organs of regional government, controlled key socio-economic resources (especially land).

From representations made to the Minorities Commission in the different regions of the country, and the way the communities framed their grievances, there was a good chance that many people in the minority areas saw the creation of a new state (for the minorities) as a solution to the problem of socio-economic development. On the other hand, there was a possibility that even some of those who demanded a separate state did so for reasons that had little to do with development (Boro 1982:67).

Among the major proposals submitted to the Minorities Commission was the dismantling of the regional system of government and the adoption of a (federal) state system, in which there would be ‘smaller states within what is now the Eastern region’ (Willink et al 1958:47).

Interestingly, despite a reported ‘sharp recrudescence of tribal feeling’ in the lead-up to political independence in 1960, The Minorities Commission did not view majority/minority relations as fundamental to Nigeria’s problems, and thus did not endorse the creation of states as a way of ‘allaying the fears’ of the minorities. What the Commission did instead was to make detailed suggestions to instil a measure of fairness in the relations among social groups in the country. For instance, in response to the concerns of the swamp communities of the Delta, the Commission recommended the creation of a ‘Special Area’ to be comprised of the Rivers Province (excluding Ahoada and Port Harcourt) and the Western Ijaw Division (Willink et al 1958).

On the ‘minority question’ as a whole, the Commission recommended the creation of an Advisory Council for certain minorities or clusters of minorities, similar to the one that was already in operation in the Western Region. This council would advise the government on the socio-economic well-being of the areas concerned as well as ‘bring to the notice of the Regional Government any discrimination against the Area’ (Willink et al 1958:104). The Commission also recommended that the impending Independence Constitution should have clear provisions for a wide array of fundamental rights, protections and freedoms.

While all this might sound overwhelmingly ‘tribal’, Ake (2000) would, decades later, adopt a functional view of the struggle, shedding a new light thereon and revealing their hidden lessons. He maintained that the struggles defined for the country what should be the developmental and democratic concerns of Nigeria’s national elite. They also helped to focus the discourse of the pre-independence movement on the ‘internal political relations of Africans themselves’ at a time when the national elite (who had become ethno-cultural and political entrepreneurs of sorts) seemed preoccupied with resisting the coloniser, winning political independence and fighting one another (Ake 2000:45-46). An insight such as this (to which this author returns later) is crucial if one is to go beyond essentialist discourses in interrogating the contemporary Niger Delta conflict. The reader will notice particularly how Ake’s epistemology debunks the apparent ‘tribalism’.

Immediate post-independence struggles (1960s)

The emergence of crude oil during the early 1960s as a principal export product introduced a new dimension to the Niger Delta conflict. People in the riverine communities who had hitherto seen the government as being ‘too distant’ to address their ecological concerns now began to see the petroleum industry as offering them economic opportunities. Not much was known in the region at this time about the fact that petroleum production brought in its train severe social and ecological hazards (Akpan 2006a).

By the mid-1960s, the Niger Delta had become an important arena of petroleum business, oil having been discovered in several communities. With the increasing importance of oil in the Nigerian economy, its utilisation began to emerge as a major grassroots mobilisation theme. Some people in the area felt that the existing framework for exploiting this new ‘driver of growth’ would not foster the development of the oil-producing areas.

Of the various expressions of discontent during the mid-1960s, those of Isaac Adaka Boro, Sam Owonaro and Nottingham Dick (all Ijaw activists) stood out, principally because of the militant form the resistance took and the language with which it was framed. All parts of Nigeria, it must be pointed out, were immersed in intense political conflict at this time (Nelson 1982). The three men sensed in the immediate post-independence political structures in Nigeria indications that the oil region was ‘blatantly denied development and the common necessities of life’ and tried to rally the local people behind their cause (Boro 1982:66). They revived the campaign for a Niger Delta state – except that now they wanted an independent ‘Niger Delta Republic’.

To actualise their vision, Boro (a 28-year-old ex-policeman at the time), Owonaro and Dick established an armed group, the ‘Niger Delta Volunteer Force’ (NDVF), and vowed to excise the Niger Delta region from Nigeria. They felt that Nigeria’s ‘political party system orbited around three major tribes, Hausa, Yoruba and Ibo’ (Boro 1986:72-735, Nelson 1982).

On 22 February 1966, NDVF launched an armed revolt against the Nigerian government. The ensuing battle was one that Boro himself, who was the NDVF leader and commander, was not totally convinced he could win, judging by some of his pronouncements. In his address to combatants before they took their positions in a grove in the town of Kaiama (in today’s Bayelsa state), he had emphasised the need for the combatants to maintain a high level of moral discipline and bear in mind that they were fighting for, among other things, their petroleum (Boro 1986). For their part the federal forces, superior in both numerical strength and military hardware, enlisted local informants who helped them to penetrate the Delta’s jungles and creeks. People who supported the creation of a Niger Delta state (let alone Niger Delta Republic) were intimidated.

Twelve days into actual combat with federal troops, NDVF was defeated, which is why Boro’s rebellion is popularly referred to as the Twelve Day Revolution. Boro, Owonaru and Dick were charged with treason, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in May 1967. Boro’s dreams of a ‘Niger Delta Republic’ and of himself as founding president were thus terminated. However, on 4 August 1967, barely a month into the Nigerian Civil War (sometimes called the ‘Biafran War’), the federal government granted the three men amnesty (Boro 1982), arguably because it found that the men could be an asset in preventing Biafra from taking the Niger Delta with it in its bid to break away from Nigeria. The pardon could also have been a tactical move to placate the Ijaw and other minorities in the region, thus dissuading them from supporting the Biafran secessionists. As expected, the pardoned men fought on the Nigerian side.

Boro’s failed dream of an independent Niger Delta Republic was fulfilled in a different way, though. Following the two military coups in Nigeria in 1966 and the outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War in 1967, the regime of General Yakubu Gowon (the man who was made head of state as a result of the second coup) created a 12-state federal structure for Nigeria on 27 May 1967, which obviously brought the national government somewhat closer to the people. The Eastern Region was broken into three states, namely Rivers State (the present Rivers and Bayelsa States), East Central State (the present Imo, Abia, Ebonyi, Anambra and Ebonyi States) and South Eastern State (the present-day Cross River and Akwa Ibom States). Boro, who fought on the federal side in the three-year civil war, was killed on 20 April 1968 (Tebekaemi 1986). A theme park and streets in Port Harcourt have since been named in his memory.

The period of internationalisation (1990s)

After the Nigerian Civil War (1967-70) – which some believe was fuelled in part by oil politics (Giwa, 1985) – public attention shifted (at least in the immediate post-war years) from oil-related grassroots grievances that continued to build up in the Niger Delta, to issues such as national reconciliation, rehabilitation and reconstruction. These were the key federal initiatives to heal the wounds the war inflicted on the national psyche. In the meantime, the military government consolidated its control of petroleum resources through several decrees, including the ground-breaking Decree 51 (now Petroleum Act) of 1969, which ended direct British control of petroleum resources in Nigeria. In 1971 Nigeria joined the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and, in keeping with OPEC’s guidelines, established a parastatal named Nigerian National Oil Corporation (NNOC) – renamed Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) in 1977 – to represent its business interests in the petroleum industry.

By the 1980s, many communities had become relatively better informed about the environmental hazards of petroleum operations, having experienced some of those hazards directly. Even so, community protests against the activities of the oil companies would bring many people face-to-face with issues such as the security arrangements that formed part of an apparently ‘anti-people’ relationship between the federal military government and the oil companies (HRW 1999; Turcotte 2002).

Petroleum-related community discontent and protests in the Niger Delta began to gain prominence in the international media from around 1990. One of that year’s major incidents was the killing of 80 people and burning down of over 490 houses in the town of Umuechem (in Rivers State) by anti-riot police. The police were sent to the town by the military government to quell public protests over the lack of electricity, pipe-borne water and other social amenities, as well as direct compensation for oil pollution of farmlands and water sources. Local residents felt that on account of their town’s contribution to the national economy they deserved these entitlements. Umuechem at the time had 56 oil wells and hosted two flow stations operated by Shell (HRW 1999).

As shown presently, it is the events of the 1990s that deepened public interest in petroleum-related community issues in the Niger Delta and entrenched those issues on the campaign agenda of international environmental and human rights groups. Arguably, the 1990s witnessed unprecedented growth in the number of groups opposed to what Ekeh (2001) calls ‘Abuja’s struggles against the Nigerian nation’, and made the Niger Delta conflict one of the more noticeable signifiers of popular disenchantment with the character of politics and governance in Nigeria since independence.

Central to the massive internationalisation of the Niger Delta struggles in the 1990s was the campaign led by Ken Saro Wiwa, author, activist and leader of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP). It should be mentioned that much scholarly analysis of the Niger Delta conflict and grassroots struggles has been based on the activities of MOSOP and similar groups, rather than on the narratives of ordinary village people (the subsistence farmers, fishermen and petty traders), outside the context of formal activist groups. The weakness of this methodological approach will become clearer in the course of this discussion.

The ‘Ogoni Bill of Rights’, to which reference has earlier been made, denounced centralised state control and management of the country’s oil and mineral resources, and vilified the multinational oil companies operating in the area for what MOSOP activists described as environmental recklessness (Wiwa 1992). Above all, it demanded ‘political control of Ogoni affairs by Ogoni people’ and the ‘control and use of Ogoni economic resources for Ogoni development’ (MOSOP 1992; Wiwa 1992).

One line of argument pursued by the Ogoni activists was that three decades of ‘reckless’ and ‘predatory’ oil exploitation had brought about widespread poverty through the destruction of the local environment and indigenous occupational systems. Capitalising on the fact that oil operations in Ogoniland were predominantly onshore (that is, land-based), with oil pipelines snaking through people’s farms and homesteads, MOSOP considered that the effectiveness of its mobilisation would depend in large part on its ability to make its campaign Ogoni-specific, rather than seek alliances with other areas that suffered similar adverse impacts.

On 4 January 1993, MOSOP launched a critical phase of its campaign. An estimated 300,000 protesters marched on the streets of the Ogoni town of Bori, denouncing Nigeria’s ‘unjust’ federalism, the Federal government’s oil extraction policies and the activities of Shell, demanding the company’s withdrawal from Ogoniland. Shell, it should be pointed out, is the oldest and biggest oil operator in Nigeria, having been involved in oil prospecting in Nigeria since the 1930s. The company possesses to date the ‘best’ oilfields in the country, and (in partnership with NNPC) controls most of the country’s crude oil reserves and production. This dominant (mainly onshore) position has proved rather ominous in recent years, though, as youths in the oil region have at different times since the early 1990s threatened to expel (and in some places have succeeded in expelling) the company from their territory because of what they perceive as Shell’s anti-community and manipulative operational ethos (Akpan 2006a; Akpan 2005). Possibly as a result of increasing hostility, much of the company’s new investment in the Niger Delta since the mid-1990s has been in the deep offshore.

The military authorities met the Ogoni protests with arrests, torture, harassments and detentions. Ken Saro Wiwa and other MOSOP leaders remained special targets of the clampdown (Trade and Environment Database 1997). The government also deployed a strategy of isolating the Ogoni community from the rest of the Niger Delta and Nigeria, and of turning the Ogoni community against itself. Thus, it was not long before MOSOP began to ‘sound’ like a separatist group, its demands began to appear as lacking in internal consensus, and its entire struggle seemed doomed to fail.

The above account must not give the erroneous impression that the internal politics of MOSOP was one of complete consensus. The leadership squabbles within MOSOP have been documented (see Ibeanu 2000), and so shall not be dealt with in any detail here. Suffice it to say that it was against the backdrop of the group’s factional in-fighting, as well as bloody inter-community conflicts between the Ogoni and their neighbours, that the repression of MOSOP and the eventual hanging of Ken Saro Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists by the military authorities were orchestrated. Two prominent Ogoni factions became visible towards the mid-1990s, one repudiating the radical tactics of the Saro Wiwa-led faction and offering itself to the Ogoni community as a more viable alternative to the mainstream MOSOP movement.

With invidious tensions raging within Ogoni, a picture of insecurity of life and property became apparent. These and other local vulnerabilities were exploited by the military authorities to justify its criminalisation of MOSOP and its leaders. MOSOP responded to this threat by labelling the local chiefs and other prominent Ogoni indigenes in the ‘moderate’ faction ‘sell-outs’, ‘traitors’ and ‘vultures’. The ‘moderates’ were now among the (internal) ‘repressive’ forces that MOSOP must deal with. A gathering of this group in the Ogoni town of Giokoo on May 21, 1994 drew the ire of MOSOP and its powerful youth segment, who raided the gathering, amidst resistance by police and soldiers. The fracas led to the killing of four of the prominent Ogoni leaders who had been the brains behind the ‘moderate’ group, namely Chief Edward Kobani, Chief Albert Badey, Chief Samuel Orage and Chief Theophilus Orage.

Following this incident, Ken Saro Wiwa and several other leading MOSOP activists were arrested, detained and charged with the murder of the four men. On 31 October 1995, under the regime of General Sani Abacha, a military tribunal pronounced a guilty verdict on Wiwa and eight of his colleagues. On 10 November 1995 the men were hanged.

In the course of the 1990s, struggles similar to those of MOSOP took place in many Niger Delta communities – attracting familiar patterns of government response: arrests, detentions, sacking of villages, killings, and (quite possibly) the instigation of divisions within and across communities. Among such struggles were those led by the Ijaw Youth Congress (IYC). With the proliferation of activist groups, weapons, and high levels of military presence, the Niger Delta has become highly volatile.

Grassroots struggles – disguised ethnicity?

Even from the atavistic tone of the names of organisations championing the Niger Delta struggles since independence, the mobilisation efforts sketched above present a challenge for analysts, many of whom have simply interpreted the motivations and agendas of grassroots struggles in the Niger Delta as primordial, exclusionist and particularistic; in other words, as fundamentally ethnic and capable of undermining national renaissance. For the purposes of this article, ‘ethnic group’ refers to the social identity built on the mythomoteur of language, history, cultural practices, myths, symbols and (in the case of Nigeria also) geographic location (Armstrong 1982). This working definition in no way endorses primordialist ideas of frozen or fossilised identities, and does certainly take account of the constructivist notion of changeability and manipulability. It does not accept extreme constructivist ideas of ‘ethnic group’ as something entirely invented or fabricated (Anderson 1983, see also Ake 2001).

A notable scholarly attempt to dissect the Niger Delta struggle and similar tendencies in other parts of Nigeria is Ikelegbe’s (2001) work, which contains case analyses of the mobilisation activities of the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), Oodua People’s Congress (OPC), and Arewa People’s Congress (APC). Ikelegbe tries to show how, contrary to popular notions of ‘civil society’ as ‘the beacon of freedom, the fountain for the protection of civil rights and of resistance against state repression’, the ‘objectives, methods and roles’ of ‘civil society’ organisations could undermine the democratic project (Ikelegbe 2001:1-2). The IYC, which as earlier indicated, has been involved in the Niger Delta mobilisation since the 1990s, is portrayed as only speaking ‘the minds of the Ijaws and at least parts of the Niger Delta’ – a prime example of what the author terms ‘perverse’ civil society. Accordingly, the author offers an insight into what the term ‘ethnic’ could mean, by contrasting it with ‘civic’ or ‘ideal’. He argues that ‘ethnic’ mobilisation tends to be ‘sectional’, ‘criminal’, ‘anarchic’, ‘parochial’ and ‘centrifugal’. The three organisations in his analysis are therefore ethnic movements ‘masquerad[ing] as civil society’ (Ikelegbe 2001:22). This focus on the activities of formal activist organisations, rather than on the narratives and lived worlds of the ordinary people the organisations ‘represent’, presents analytical difficulties of its own, as shown later. For one thing, it makes it easy to cast local struggles as ‘sectional’ and ‘parochial’.

The organisations are also portrayed as ‘criminal’ and ‘anarchic’ on account of their protest methodology. Their key protest strategy is believed to be ‘violence’. The ‘tendency for aggrieved groups to take up arms in their encounters with the state and other groups’ and the support the groups enjoy from ‘civil groups of elders and political leaders’ are deplored (Ikelegbe 2001:19). This is despite sociological arguments that violence is sometimes a ‘smoke from the fire’ of unjust public institutions, state policies and the political process, or injustices in the corporate and transnational spheres (Keane 1998; Churchill 2005).

Cesarz et al (2003) also hint that the Niger Delta mobilisation could be disguised ethnicity. For them ‘interethnic violence is a longstanding feature of the oil-rich Niger Delta’ (Cesarz et al 2003:2), and Ijaw militancy in particular is viewed as a risk to international oil interests and to Nigeria’s future as a united and stable polity. Local groups, the authors suggest, are no longer to be seen as ‘a loosely organised ethnic, sporadic movement’: they are now an ‘armed ethnic militia’ capable of derailing Nigeria’s new-found democracy’ (Cesarz et al 2003:2).

Reacting to that line of analysis are Douglas et al (2003), who challenge the use of the term ‘ethnic militia’ to describe local activist groups. Such a depiction, they argue, misrepresents the essence of the Niger Delta struggle (cf Watts & Okonta 2003). However, whether the two groups of analysts are operating from different epistemic platforms is another matter entirely. For one thing, Douglas et al view the emerging coalition-building efforts among community groups in the Niger Delta as constituting a ‘bulwark against the ethnic majorities’ (Douglas et al 2003:3). What is the empirical basis for suggesting that ordinary people in the Delta as mobilising against the ‘ethnic majorities’, and how is this view different from Cesarz et al’s suggestion that the local activists are involved in a disguised ‘ethnic’ warfare?

There is also the argument that while local struggles might stem from economic and political disparities in Nigeria, they might fundamentally be attributable to ‘communal pressures that have characterized the Niger Delta and many other parts of Nigeria’ (Welch 1995:636). Welch calls these ‘communal pressures’ ‘matters of ethnic self-determination’, maintaining that economic and political change in a multi-ethnic milieu like Nigeria invariably triggers ethnic conflict. Short of portraying Nigeria’s ethnic nationalities as fundamentally incompatible social groupings, he posits that Nigeria as an entity ‘came into being long before a substantial number of its residents felt themselves to be “Nigerians”‘ (Welch 1995:637). While Welch uses this essentialist analysis to interrogate the concept of individual rights and to make a contribution to the ‘group rights’ debate, concerns might be raised as to whether his argument does not in fact distort the complexity of the Niger Delta crisis. A more nuanced insight into the Niger Delta conflict might be gained from Bangura’s (1999:4) ‘three crises’ of post-colonial African state – those of ‘capacity’,’governance’and’security’.

The works of Osadolor (2002), Agbola and Alabi (2003), Agiobenebo and Aribaolanari (2001) and Uga (2001), among others, are more explicit in ‘revealing’ what it is that engenders disaffection between the oil-producing region and the major ethnic nationalities. They argue that it is the ‘majority groups’ that determine the framework for petroleum exploitation (as well as interethnic relations and political governance) in Nigeria and unfairly profit from it. As Agiobenebo and Aribaolanari (2001:455) put it: ‘the ethnic minorities of the Niger Delta are treated as objects (property) owned by the majority groups to be dealt with according to their whims and caprices’. There is even an implicit (but erroneous) assumption by these analysts that it is on behalf of their own people that the major ethnic groups ‘control’ political power in Nigeria and suppress socio-economic development in the Niger Delta.6

It is noteworthy that Obi (2005) places the protests and demands of Niger Delta groups such as MOSOP within the rubric of grassroots struggles for broader societal transformation. He suggests that the Niger Delta conflict must be seen in terms of its connection to ‘broader popular social struggles for empowerment and democracy’ (Obi 2005:iii). This line of analysis, which forms part of what Idemudia and Ite (2006a) call an ‘integrated explanation’, and which speaks directly to the conflict’s deeper social character, has been obscured in so much of the literature.

The above review also shows that while some analysts have acknowledged that the issues in the Niger Delta struggle transcend ‘local concerns’ (Cesarz et al 2003; Watts 2000), and that the struggle makes a strong statement on the pains that a ‘distant state’ has inflicted on the Nigerian society as a whole (Welch 1995:636), the failure of governance at the national level is not given the explanatory status it deserves. This begs the question as to why the search for empirical information on grassroots struggles such as those in the Niger Delta almost inevitably proceeds from an ethnic frame of reference. Could it be, as Mamdani (1996:187) has conjectured concerning conflicts in Africa, ‘that the bifurcated nature of the state shaped under colonialism, and of the politics it shaped in turn, had now appeared in the theory that tried to explain it?’ The next section sheds some light on this question.

Some of the aforementioned analyses, especially the strand that suggests that the Niger Delta struggle is a way of ‘striking back’ at, or at least resisting, the major ethnic nationalities, who appropriate the ‘lion’s share’ of Nigeria’s petroleum revenues at the expense of the oil-producing region (Agbola & Alabi 2003:270), have all the ingredients of the ‘competition thesis’ of ethnic mobilisation. This thesis holds that where state policies appear to disproportionately benefit some regions of a multi-ethnic society, heightened ethnic awareness and collective ethnic action across the society become common tendencies in the society in question. As Feagin (1988:1132) puts it, ‘[c]ompetition occurs when two or more ethnic groups attempt to secure the same resources’; besides, ‘ethnic competition destabilizes group relations’.

Seen from such a perspective, the geologic fact of petroleum not being evenly distributed across Nigeria can be a basis for ethnic competition. However, the competition becomes exacerbated and produces invidious socio-political outcomes for the entire polity where state policies driving the utilisation of resources seem to favour some geo-ethnic groups while disadvantaging the others. The works of Osadolor (2002), Agbola and Alabi (2003), Agiobenebo and Aribaolanari (2001) and Uga (2001) generally make this point. Since groups in the Niger Delta could not be mobilising simply for the sake of doing so, the insight that these analysts attempt to proffer is that the Niger Delta mobilisation must be for the maximisation of sectional interests, with the non-producing ethnic groups a target of their grievance. It would, of course, not be correct to assume that the ‘unfair’ appropriation of national resources by some leaders from the major ethnic groups has been fundamentally for the ‘greater good’ of ordinary people in their geo-ethnic regions (see Akpan 2006b).

Since, as earlier stated, the author’s attempt to understand the role of ethnicity as a basis of grievance construction in the Niger Delta, is partly based on primary data, a few brief remarks on how the data were obtained might be appropriate at this juncture.

Some methodological notes

The ethnographic study was conducted over a four-month period in 2003, at Oloibiri, Ebubu and Iko, three small, rural oil-producing communities (in Bayelsa, Rivers and Akwa Ibom states respectively). Among other reasons, they were selected on account of: (a) their relative historical importance (Oloibiri being Nigeria’s first oil town, and the Ebubu oilfield also being among the earliest batch, discovered in 1956); and (b) their relative experience with petroleum production-related grassroots activism. For instance, at the time of the study, production activities at the Ebubu oilfield had been halted due to the conflict between the Ogoni and Shell Petroleum described in the second part of this article. Ebubu is part of Ogoniland. The three communities had all the hallmarks of poverty, rurality and neglect in Nigeria, namely: unemployment (the main economic activities were subsistence farming, fishing and petty trading), deplorable or non-existent community infrastructure (there were no functional health clinics, pipe-borne water and electricity, and no properly resourced schools or markets), and communal anger – especially towards the petroleum industry and the Nigerian state.

Besides observation and ‘social immersion’ in the communities – the strategies through which an ethnographer gains deeper insight into, in this case, local people’s narratives, discontent, and understandings of conflict and grievance construction – 30 semi-structured in-depth interviews were conducted in each of the three communities. Respondents included authority figures (such as the chiefs of the three towns), youth leaders and other respondents (both male and female) selected in a non-probabilistic way.

It was important to focus the inquiry on the everyday narratives of local residents, rather than on the activities of formal activist organisations such as those referred to earlier in this chapter. The reason was to depart from a methodological orthodoxy that often presents the sentiments, protest strategies, logistical concerns and ideological inclinations of formal activist organisations and their leaderships as necessarily representing the nuances of discourses and grievances among people on the ground.

The in-depth conversations were guided by questions such as: (a) ‘What if the non-oil-producing areas of the country feel the Niger Delta region is asking for too much and that the region does not want to share the region’s oil wealth with the rest of the country?’ (b) ‘Would you want to see Nigeria restructured in any way – and if so, what should a ‘restructured’ Nigeria look like?’ (c) ‘Do you think the problems in the Niger Delta would be better resolved if Nigeria were “restructured”‘? (d) ‘Do you feel any concern about the possibility of Nigeria breaking up due to the Niger Delta’s quest for resource control?’ (e) ‘What does Nigeria as a whole stand to gain from the Niger Delta struggle – and are you seeing any such gains already?’ (f) ‘Would you blame the non oil-producing regions for the development problems in the Niger Delta?’ These were in addition to the author making himself intimately familiar, through observation and a reasonable degree of ‘social immersion’, with the lived worlds of people in the communities and with the ways in which their everyday ‘grammar’ of discontent intersected with popularly reported socio-political discontents of ordinary Nigerians in the wider national community.

Extensive semi-structured in-depth interviews were conducted with key informants at the Port Harcourt offices of Shell Petroleum (the major oil operator in the three study communities), as well as at one of the regional offices of Nigeria’s oil industry regulator, the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR). This helped the author to have a glimpse of how these establishments perceived and/or responded to community problems associated with petroleum operations.

It must be emphasised that because of the qualitative nature of the inquiry, the primary data generated could not be a basis for firm generalisations. The analysis based on the primary data from the three study communities must, thus, be viewed as only illustrative of the bases of grievance construction in the Niger Delta.

Research findings

The study found that oil-polluted fishing grounds and drinking water sources (especially at Oloibiri and Iko), excessively invasive oil pipeline facilities (such as the ones in some Ebubu neighbourhoods), and gas flaring (and the badly damaged rooftops of dwelling places in one ward at Iko), were among the adverse socio-environmental imprints of petroleum production in the three study communities. Through conversations with community members, formal interviews with selected respondents and the author’s observations, there was a strong indication that these environmental problems had negative effects on people’s lives and on indigenous occupational systems. In all three communities, people spoke angrily about what they ‘suffered’ as a result of ‘sharing’ their socio-ecologic and cultural neighbourhoods with petroleum operators.

At the offices of Shell, the author obtained a document detailing the compensation rates adopted by the oil companies for the purposes of land acquisition, reparation for damaged crops, vegetation and heritage objects and general alteration to local land use (Akpan 2005). At the DPR, the author learnt about the activities, achievements and challenges of the regulatory agency vis-í -vis its mission (as stated on its website) of making sure ‘national goals and aspirations are not thwarted, and that oil companies carry out their operations according to international oil industry standards and practices’. From a critical review of these it seemed evident that the Nigerian petroleum industry was riddled with contradictions and that at every turn, the community was at the receiving end. The industry operated along patterns whereby economics seemed to define ecology, commerce took pre-eminence over community interests, and social upliftment lagged behind oil sales statistics. Those respondents who seemed knowledgeable about the compensational practices of the oil companies and DPR’s weakness felt ‘abandoned’ by the state and made subject to the whims of the companies. DPR was accused of serving the interest of the oil companies rather than the interest of ‘the people’ (a problem probably more recognisable among researchers as ‘regulatory capture’). Local residents accused government of making Nigeria ‘a colony of Shell’. The remark ‘Shell is government and government is Shell’ was a common expression of this resentment. There was a virtual ‘absence’ of statutory arrangements that compelled petroleum operators to forge genuine developmental partnerships with their ‘host’ communities and adhere to specific community service obligations and compensation benchmarks.

A comment made by one respondent at Iko captured the sentiments expressed in the three communities:

These are very tiny communities; even if [an oil] company, or whoever, were to embark on an all-out investment in social infra-structure and human capital development here – just to compensate the community for the resources they’re extracting from here, they would still have spent a pittance from their total revenue. But they are not doing that.7

Another respondent, an elderly authority figure, from the same community stated:

Each time we demand social amenities and jobs from the government as a reward for the oil they are extracting from here, they say: ‘We have asked the oil companies to develop your area; if they are not doing it, you should get them to do it’. You look around this town and tell me if we deserve a quality of life such as this.

Arguably, these are the sorts of discontents and local narratives that feed into the overt resistance of many activist organisations in the Niger Delta.

A close observation of social amenities in the communities (such as a concrete landing jetty and a water project at Oloibiri, a water project at Ebubu, and a borehole and a health clinic at Iko), a review of the processes through which they had been delivered, and an examination of the intra-community squabbles and discontents attending their delivery revealed the communities as classical cases of failed community development, chaotic and opportunistic development intermediation, and community fragmentation (Akpan 2006a).

Respondents blamed the state, and in some cases (such as at Ebubu and Iko) political leaders representing their communities at different levels of government, over the lack of broadbased consensus on ‘fairness’ and ‘equity’ in the distribution and utilisation of petroleum revenues. There was deep discontent in the communities over the absence of democratic, grassroots participation in decision making affecting the petroleum industry. At Iko, one authority figure and a youth leader pointed out that this was also one of the major reasons why ‘not a single indigene of this town’ has found employment in an oil company.

While respondents felt at ease attacking the Nigerian state, ‘the powers that be’, their local political representatives, the oil companies, and (in the case of a segment of youths at Oloibiri) their chiefs (who in turn denounced some of their youths as ‘trouble-makers’), respondents’ remarks seemed strikingly devoid of bitterness towards the non-oil-producing ethnic nationalities. As one respondent at Ebubu put it:

Ours is not a sectional struggle; we’re not fighting the other [ethnic] nationalities, nor are we fighting for ourselves only. We are trying to let government understand that wherever you [extract natural wealth from] you owe that place a gift of development. You must give something back. We are trying to teach the political leadership that your work is to build the community, not to destroy it. Ours is a test case of how government shouldn’t treat the goose that lays the golden egg. If government does us good, why should they treat another community differently if they find a resource there? You can’t call this an Ogoni or Ijaw struggle!

Even when many respondents felt Nigeria should be ‘restructured’ to ensure greater local or regional control of resources, the view seemed to be that this would promote overall national development, since everyone would ‘sit up’ rather than wait for ‘transfer revenues’ accruing from resources exploited from ‘other’ regions. Equally noteworthy, the response from many respondents, such as the one quoted above, echoed a popularly reported trend in contemporary Nigeria whereby ordinary citizens in the different geopolitical regions are becoming part of a ‘new’ ‘social justice’ activism in which the state (and in some cases business) is urged to ‘give something back’ for localised natural resources exploited for the benefit of the entire country. In some of the impoverished, rural dam communities in Kogi, Kwara and Kebbi states (in central Nigeria), for example, local people have embarked on a Niger Delta-like mobilisation to pressure the Nigerian state for roads, schools, electricity and other forms of ‘just compensation’ for the Kainji, Shiroro and Jebba dams, which utilise ‘their’ water resources (Ya’u 2002).

In an important sense, the deplorable social conditions in the three study communities – and the associated community discontent – appeared to coincide with the neglects, and grassroots grievances, in other parts of Nigeria (Akpan 2005). Thus, the results of the ethnographic research at Ebubu Oloibiri and Iko left the author wondering if grievance construction in these communities – and grievance constructions in similarly neglected communities elsewhere in Nigeria – were not in themselves indicative of ordinary people’s imaginings of ‘fairness’, broad-based grassroots participation in governance processes, and broader societal emancipation (see Shils 1992:1-15).

Mobilising for what? Re-assessing the ethnic discourse

While ethnic competition theory does help to highlight some facets of Nigeria’s developmental challenges – not least the ‘unwholesome’ roles played by some political, cultural and civic leaders (Akpan 2006b) – Ake’s (2000) insights underscore the need to go beyond an ethnic model of analysis and focus on the ’emancipatory’ significance of struggles occurring in certain sections of an multi-ethnic society. It worries Ake that despite the overwhelming historical evidence of battles by ‘ordinary’ Africans against oppressors (such as slave traders, missionaries, colonisers, homegrown dictators, and foreign imperialists), analysts still find it difficult to ‘[accord] the status of democratic struggles’ to such efforts. What could be more ’emancipatory’ and ‘civic’ than a striving by ordinary people ‘for access, fairness, equal opportunity, political expression and participation in the collective enterprise of a political community’ (Ake 2000:132)? On the question of excessive reliance on ethnicity as an ‘explanation’ for African conflicts, Ake points out that it is incidental that ‘the interest which appropriates and privatises state power wears the ethnic mask, which [is what] detracts us from seeing that what is being opposed is not ethnicity but something else which is hiding behind ethnicity’:

the seeming ethnic opposition [from grassroots groups] is conjunctural and deceptive because it is constituted, not by ethnics wanting to oppose holders of state power, but by holders of state power trying to conceal injustices and undemocratic tendencies (Ake 2000:44).

Ake’s point can be stated thus: to understand the underlying basis of grievance construction in local communities or appreciate the complexity of grassroots struggles and draw vital lessons from them for purposes of peace making and broader societal reengineering, essentialist prisms (which typically magnify identity differences and cast those differences as root causes of conflict) have limited utility (see also Feagin 1988). The key policy challenge is to look beyond the activities of ethnic and political entrepreneurs, who sometimes deliberately or unwittingly help to transform immanent, ‘passive’ contradictions in a society into ‘active’ tensions and conflicts. There is also a need to understand the infrastructure of social oppression that such struggles have the potential of revealing. This is because struggles often hastily labelled ‘tribal’, ‘sectional’ or ‘ethnic’ could very well be ’emancipatory’ struggles aiming to make social justice a reality in politics and governance in a given country. In the case of Oloibiri, Ebubu and Iko, grassroots narratives fundamentally reveal that it is the state, petroleum companies and local political representatives – and not necessary the ‘other ethnic groups’, who appropriate the ‘lion’s share’ of Nigeria’s petroleum resources – that must reassess their relationships with ordinary people.

Conclusion

What the foregoing analysis has shown is that in trying to understand or explain the worsening orgy of violence and militarisation in the Niger Delta, a somewhat excessive emphasis seems to have been paid to the issue of Nigeria’s ethnic diversity and ethnic competition. While analysts have not entirely ignored the fact that grassroots struggles (even frequent eruptions of lawlessness) in the region transcend particularistic, ethnic concerns, there has been a tendency to treat such transcendence as merely ‘tangential’ to ‘the more fundamental’ issue of ethnicity. What has also been shown, especially from the ethnographic data reported in the previous section, is that a focus on the lived experiences and everyday narratives of ordinary men and women in specific oil-producing communities, rather than on organisations acting ‘on their behalf ‘, makes it easier to apprehend the true social character of, or at least the complex tapestry of forces shaping, such struggles. This obviously echoes Idemudia and Ite’s (2006a) call for an ‘integrated explanation’ of the Niger Delta conflict. As Ake has argued, an ethnic reading of local struggles might cast such struggles as primitive, uncivil and retrogressive, but ‘it does not eradicate their democratic significance’ (Ake 2000:44). While not denying the fact that under particular conditions ethnic diversity could give expressions to civic tensions, one must agree with Ake (2000) that conflict is not necessarily the defining fabric of ethnic groups, as ethnic groups are no different from other social groupings.

One lesson that can be drawn from this is that under certain conditions – such as conditions of large-scale and prolonged social justice deficits – so-called ‘sectionally-based’ struggles could help to define for a ‘deprived’ region and for the wider society a more socially sensitive development and democratisation trajectory. In other words, it is only through a rigorous interrogation of the lived worlds, narratives and discontents of people on the ground that it will become clear what the authentic drivers of ‘sectionally-based’ struggles are. It is diversionary simply to closet such struggles in the dominant (essentialist) narratives.

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Notes

  1. MOSOP is a major umbrella organisation of the Ogoni, a minority ethnic nationality in the Niger Delta.
  2. Ogoni communities (in Rivers State) were among Nigeria’s earliest oil-producing sites. Commercial deposits were struck at Afam in 1956, not long after similarly lucrative wells had been struck at Oloibiri, Nigeria’s first oil producing town (in the present-day Bayelsa State). By 1960, the Ogoni communities of Bomu, Korokoro and Ebubu had been confirmed as ‘highly productive’ oilfields (Abe & Ayodele 1986:87). For a detailed discussion of the history of petroleum operations in Nigeria, see Akpan 2005.
  3. The regional (confederal) arrangement gave way to a 12-state federal structure in 1967. The number of states has steadily grown over the years. As of 2006, the country had 36 states and a federal capital territory. Each state is headed by a governor.
  4. The Minorities Commission, also known as the Willink Commission (after its Chair, Henry Willink), was formed as part of the political processes instituted by the British colonial authorities to prepare Nigeria for self-rule.
  5. Isaac Boro was killed in 1968. His book, The Twelve-Day Revolution (edited by Tony Tebekaemi) was published posthumously in 1982.
  6. The fact is that of Nigeria’s 36 states, the poorest ten (Jigawa, Kebbi, Kogi, Bauchi, Kwara, Yobe, Zamfara, Gombe, Sokoto and Adamawa) are in the northern sector, a region that has produced all but two of Nigeria’s Heads of State since independence in 1960 and remains, politically speaking, Nigeria’s most influential region (The Guardian, 11 January 2007). The region however has a handful of business tycoons and very rich civilian and military politicians. This can only mean one thing: Nigeria’s ethnopolitical entrepreneurs do not necessarily control political power on behalf of ordinary people in their geo-ethnic regions.
  7. For a more elaborate insight into corporate-community relations in the Nigerian petroleum industry, see Idemudia and Ite (2006b) and Akpan (2006).
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