Degradation in the Niger Delta
The violence of the
last ten years in the Niger Delta has brought to the front burner the issue of
the environment, and its implication on regional peace and security. For four
decades, ecological devastation on the one hand, and neglect arising from crude
oil production on the other hand, have left much of the Niger Delta desolate,
uninhabitable, and poor. The unholy contraception, or “joint venture
partnership”, fraudulently contrived between the Nigerian state and the oil
multinationals to the criminal exclusion of the inhabitants of the region
presents a case study for now and the generations unborn.
Ours is a case of
the goose that lays the golden egg. The Delta holds the bulk of the economic
resources that sustains the public treasury in Nigeria. Yet, years of neglect
and ecological devastation have left much of the Niger Delta despoiled and
impoverished. This contradiction of riches is a constant refrain in most
conflicts in the Delta. I cannot but agree with the summation contained in the
UNDP human development report, “a delicate balance exists between the human
population in the Niger Delta and its fragile ecosystem. There is a strong
feeling in the region that the rate of environmental degradation is pushing the
region towards ecological disaster.”
Conflicts in the
region have often been blamed on among other things, neglect by government and
oil companies, unemployment, military rule, the minority question, and a badly
structured Nigerian federalism, especially as it concerns finances. While these
factors separately or jointly bear on the conflict dynamics in the region, what
has been lacking is their integration into an explanatory system in the addendum
called environmental degradation.
I prefer to call it
environmental destruction as against degradation. Whereas both natural and human
interventions can result in environment degradation, destruction is a product of
man’s unhealthy and unfriendly interaction with the environment. Okechukwu
Ibeanu questioned if the factors are causal or only mediatory? (Ibeanu, 2000).
He went further to query that if they are causal factors, are they principal,
secondary, or tertiary, are they triggers, pivotal, mobilizing, or aggravating
I will respond by
saying that the environment factor is primary and is pivotal to the Niger Delta
regional peace and conflict dynamics.
In attempting to
underpin environmental degradation and its implication on peace and conflict
dynamics in the Niger Delta, it will be necessary to try to examine the various
contextual environments that present themselves and how they singularly or
collectively interact to define the peace conflict spiral. Attempt will also be
made to examine how this interaction dictates and reorders the peace security
dynamics in the Niger Delta.
Dr Egunjobi Layi in
his paper published in Springlink Journal writes that “The relatively
under-developed condition of the Delta Area of Nigeria is mainly due to its
difficult natural environment. This is with particular reference to the mass,
and complex maze, of water which floods the region, causing erosion and
pollution, all of which adversely affect agricultural practice, transportation
and other human activities.”
While I want to
agree with the scholar to some extent, I beg to differ a little and state that
attributing the under-development in the delta to a difficult natural
environment is just over simplifying the problem. The natural Niger Delta
environment we inherited from our forebears was an environment rich in bio
diversity, varied species of wild life, dense population of marine and aquatic
life, in fresh and salt water bodies, with rich mangrove and fresh water
vegetation, flamboyant raffia and shrubs.
However, what we
are now bequeathing for future generations is a natural environment whose
lushness has disappeared completely, altered and degraded. This is due to canals
that have been dredged, rivers and rivulets that have been blocked, streams and
ponds that have silted to make way for oil drilling and exploitation. The
resulting scenario is mass migration of fish species, destroying traditional
livelihood systems. We now have polluted fresh water streams and rivers, fresh
water vegetation completely wiped out by salt water encroachment caused by a
combination of dredging and high tidal currents resulting from melting ice in
the Arctic. The consequences of all these changes in the natural environment are
poverty and frustration, resulting in tribes lashing out at one another or at
the multi national corporations.
inherited a physical environment that was characterized by natural clean long
stretch of sand beaches, fresh and healthy water lettuce that add their beauty
and flavor to the environment. It is sad to say that we are bequeathing to our
children an environment that is completely eroded or silted in some cases. We
are bequeathing communities whose shorelines have been washed away or eroded due
to the high volume of deep-sea exploration and exploitation activities. Once
hilly and highland environments have been reduced to below sea level. Navigable
creeks which once supported socio-economic activities among local dwellers have
been silted with dredge dump, washed top surface soil arising from erosion and
blocked canal of water ways to make way for oil activities; thus making them
difficult for navigation.
We are beginning to
find deserts in the delta due to pollution and oil spills, or forests that have
been wiped out by bush fires caused by spills of petroleum products from aged or
burst pipelines. The situation continues to reduce the land available for
farming and infrastructural development. This has created unhealthy competition
for available land space, further heightening cases of land related
Our skylines are
lit up with flares from gas, fumes and smoke associated with gas flare. In some
of our communities it is difficult to differentiate between day and
The social safety
nets of extended family system, communal labour, and communal ownership have
broken or been replaced by greedy self-seeking and self-promoting values. I
remember growing up as a child in the very strong sense of community that
sustained peace and security for the environment.
There was this
particular occasion, in 1971 when a stranger passerby pulled into our community
in one of the evenings with a very small canoe. The stranger was in the middle
of his small canoe, sitting on top of a huge red snapper because he does not
want the fish to escape. Immediately when he got to our village he started
asking who had set the fishing trap to the south of our community, and my elder
sister came out and said, I am the one.
He pulled into our
waterfront and said, please come take this fish, I saw it in one of your traps,
it was almost escaping so I decided to rescue it and look for the owner. My
mother was so moved by the act of courage, honesty and kindness that she told
the stranger that he should wait so that they can butcher the fish to enable him
to have some portion of the fish. As far as mama was concerned, the fish would
have escaped from the trap, but for the resilience of the human spirit of
honesty and kindness displayed by the man that rescued the fish. The man simply
said, mama thank you for your kind gesture, but let it be next time because my
journey is far before I get to my final destination, the portion would have
In another incident
my mother lost her boat with the entire foodstuff she had bought for sale
because the boat was not well tied to the shore. The next morning we went out
looking for mama’s boat and her foodstuff. If you like, call it going out to
search for mama’s shop or stall, because that mobile boat was the shop we had.
In every community we got to, we would ask whether they found the boat or not.
We finally located mama’s shop at the 8th community from our own. A hunter who
had gone out in the night from that community found this strange boat shop and
decided to take it to his water front hoping that the owner would show up. When
we got there the entire content of mama’s shop boat was intact. The man did not
remove a pin. My mother thanked him and we took our shop boat back without
paying a dime.
The most exciting
aspect of it was that the man even gave a portion from a bush pig he had killed
that night, saying that mama’s shop boat brought him good luck that night. He
claimed that for the past one week he had been going hunting without success,
but that when he saw mama’s floating shop boat, he decided to bring it ashore
and tie it firmly to his water front. He then decided to continue his hunting,
and that not quite two kilometers away he ran into these bush pigs which by his
explanation were mating and he was lucky to kill one of them, but the second one
escaped. So not only did we recover our shop boat and its contents, we also had
a very fresh portion of bush pig for meal that day.
These were the
social settings that existed in our communities then. Communities that were
driven by deep values of kindness, honesty and transparency, a communal
philosophy of giving and sharing, where the haves have and keep for, on behalf
of the whole not self. Societies where you could go to bed with your doors open;
houses where there were no doors.
But today caution
has been thrown to the wind and people brazenly even appropriate to self that
which belongs to all. The social formations now create societies where some live
in squalor and abject poverty, while others live in affluence at the expense of
the whole. Today words that were alien to our lexicon have started to find their
way into dominant pages. We now hear of sea piracy, hostage taking and
kidnapping targeted at locals and strangers, highway and sea way robbery,
heavily armed criminal gangs in our water ways who wreak all sorts of havoc, all
in the name of the Niger Delta struggle. There is no longer trust for one
another, not even at the community level.
The clash of
traditional and western cultures, religions and belief systems also has opened
up sacred shrines and places of worship for drilling and exploration for oil.
Ancient landmarks have been pulled down and in some cases destroyed. We are now
like a people without a past.
By decrees, oil and
gas became owned by the federal government, and progressively the region’s
entitlements by way of derivation-based allocations declined from 50% to a mere
1½% in 1984 and later 3% in 1999 (Augustine Ekelegbe, The Economy of Conflict in
the Oil Rich Niger Delta Region, p. 214).
hegemony taking advantage of military dictatorship began a regime of near total
appropriation of the region’s oil resources through an intense over
centralization and concentration of power and resources in the federal
government. Oil resources were a major target. Various decrees and enactments
were made to completely take away control of oil from the locals.
Under the Petroleum
Act 1969, the entire ownership and control of all oil and gas in place within
any land in Nigeria, under its territorial waters and the continental shelf, is
vested in the state of Nigeria. The Constitution of the Federal Republic of
Nigeria 1999 further emphasized the state ownership in section 40(3), which
provides that "the entire property in and control of all mineral oils and
natural gas in, under or upon the territorial waters and the Exclusive Economic
Zone of Nigeria shall vest in the Government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria,
and shall be managed in such manner as may be established by law."
The implication of
these laws is that the land available to the locals or people in the Niger Delta
is further taken away from them on a daily basis as more oil is found in the
land. As the land space gets smaller the struggle for its ownership and control
increases and at the same time potential conflict over ownership of land
The Local and
International Economic Environment
Nigeria is a major
player in the world energy market. It is the seventh largest producer of oil in
the world. It supplies a fifth of United States oil imports. It is further
becoming an important supplier in the global liquefied natural gas (LNG) market.
Instability in world oil supplies and the critical link of oil to the
international economy has made Nigerian and more generally African oil to be
more strategic than ever.
The irony is that
the local economic environment is determined and driven by powers and economic
forces that transcend beyond our borders - the IMF, the World Bank, Paris Club,
Creditors Club, and so on.
We do not have any
control over the oil we produce, the quantity to be produced, the price at which
to sell, who to sell to and at what price to refine it. Nor do we have the
powers to determine at what price we should sell to ourselves.
Other factors at
the fore of regional conflicts are strong economic considerations, desperation
and the need to amass wealth. Economies of crisis and war in the region have
largely been underpinned by greed and high levels of corruption. There is also
the profiting from conflicts by youth militias, rebels, armed gangs and even
government soldiers. This involves plundering, bunkering, looting, and
extortion, imposition of tolls, and robbery of local people, traders and
farmers. Most youth militias are driven by the opportunity to acquire properties
and riches. The economy underpins an extensive proliferation of arms and the
pervasiveness of crime, violence and communal/ethnic conflicts.
The challenges of
creating and ensuring access to these benefits have fuelled a deadly struggle
among the ethnic and community leaderships, the elites, businessmen and
politicians, youths, women and various other groups in the region. It has also
fuelled deadly and violent conflicts as each group struggles to prove their
relevance and capacity to disrupt the oil economy.
groups struggle to control and dominate access and actual opportunities and
benefits. The emerging greed, corruption and distributive conflicts underpin
numerous incidents of community disturbances and criminal violence in the
Ibeanu (2002: 165)
describes the situation as a ‘matrix of concentric circles of payoffs and
rewards built on blackmail and violence.’ He continues:
The closer a person
is to the centre, the greater his/her capacity to blackmail oil companies and
therefore the greater his/her payoff. In time, members of the raucous inner
circle fade away in a whimper and silence as a new core of vocal community
leaders emerge: more blackmail, more payoffs.
Historical / Political
The history of
protests and conflicts of acrimony by the Niger Delta peoples against forced
union and exploitation dates back to 1957 when testimonies were made in respect
thereof before the Willink Commission of Inquiry into Minority Fears. What were
those fears? They were fears of marginalization, neglect and the politics of
exclusion, by the ethnic majority-based ruling political parties and governments
of the then Eastern and Western Regions. Subsequently, several protests and
clamors for justice have been registered to no avail.
both military and civilian governments have ignored clamors for equitable
remedies, and forcibly smothered protests through use of overwhelming military
might and other documented acts of state sanction and political
concept of federalism in Nigeria today falls short of expectations in both
definition and practice. To the extent that it is being practiced as
quasi-federalism, there has been an overly centralized control of resources by
the Federal Government. This aberration continues to generate perpetual
conflicts with indigenous rights; hence, it has become a major cause of
conflicts in the Niger Delta Region, especially from notorious derivation
principles for revenue allocation to states in the region.
• Institutions of
government and development interventionist agencies should, as a matter of
urgency, fast track the process of environment remediation and ecosystem
• The issue of
transparency and accountability should be taken more seriously.
decrees and enactments that are disempowering should be reviewed and where
necessary abrogated as they continue to serve as an impediment to peace and
priorities should be set by local communities.
• Local community
participation in the resource mobilization, management and allocation should be
given the attention it deserves. At least 30% of oil revenue should go directly
to oil bearing communities.
• The political
process should be made transparent and fair for free entry and exit of those
with integrity and men whose vision and values are driven by the desire to serve
not to be served.
Ikelegbe - The Economy of Conflict in the Oil Rich Niger Delta Region
 Oke Ibeanu -
Oiling the Friction; Environmental Conflict Management in the Niger Delta of
 CYRIL Obi -
Globalised Images of Environmental Security in Africa
 Actionaid -
Policy Watch (Perspective on Peace Building)
 UNDP - Niger
Delta Human Development Report
 Actionaid -
Conflict and Human Security
 Joel Bisina -
Oil and Corporate Recklessness in Nigeria
 Dr. Walter
Abeng Mboto - Regional Resources Versus Environmental Conflict in the Niger
 Zak Harmon-
World Bank, Big Oil and the Niger Delta.
paper was presented at the Niger Delta Environmental Roundtable at the Hotel
Presidential Port Harcourt November 16, 2006. It is herein republished with
the author's permission.
This essay was
originally published by Pambazuka News. Pambazuka
News is the weekly electronic forum for social justice in Africa,
www.pambazuka.org (Pambazuka means arise
or awaken in Kiswahili) it is a tool for progressive social change in Africa.
Pambazuka News is produced by Fahamu, an organization that uses information and
communication technologies to serve the needs of organizations and social
movements that aspire to progressive social change.
Posted December 08, 2006