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Environmental Degradation in the Niger Delta


by Joel Bisina



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 factors?


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.


Natural Environment


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.


The Physical Environment


Our generation 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 conflicts.


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 night.


Social Environment


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 decayed.


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.


Religious /Traditional Environment


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.


Legal Environment


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).


The Northern 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 increases.


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.


Individuals and 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 region.

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 Environment


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.


Characteristically, 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 violence.


The prevailing 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.


The Way Forward


• Institutions of government and development interventionist agencies should, as a matter of urgency, fast track the process of environment remediation and ecosystem restoration.

• The issue of transparency and accountability should be taken more seriously.

• Legislations, decrees and enactments that are disempowering should be reviewed and where necessary abrogated as they continue to serve as an impediment to peace and security.

• Development 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.





[1] Augustine Ikelegbe - The Economy of Conflict in the Oil Rich Niger Delta Region

[2] Oke Ibeanu - Oiling the Friction; Environmental Conflict Management in the Niger Delta of Nigeria

[3] CYRIL Obi - Globalised Images of Environmental Security in Africa

[4] Actionaid - Policy Watch (Perspective on Peace Building)

[5] UNDP - Niger Delta Human Development Report

[6] Actionaid - Conflict and Human Security

[7] Joel Bisina - Oil and Corporate Recklessness in Nigeria

[8] Dr. Walter Abeng Mboto - Regional Resources Versus Environmental Conflict in the Niger Delta.

[9] Zak Harmon- World Bank, Big Oil and the Niger Delta.



This 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,   (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

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