Niger Delta: Restoring The Rights Of Citizens


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Niger Delta: Restoring The Rights Of Citizens




Ike Okonta





November 9, 2006


A massive democratic deficit is at the heart of the Niger Delta crisis, concludes Ike Okota in the third and final article in a series on the troubled Nigerian region. The previous two articles can be found at ( )

and ( )

It is not yet clear whether the massacre at Letugbene on 20th August will turn out to be a crippling blow, compelling MEND militants to beat a retreat and explore peace alternatives with greater vigour. One fact is clear, though. Both the central government and the oil companies have retreated from their ‘peace and dialogue’ stance of last April when overtures were made to Ijaw youth and community leaders to come to Abuja and agree on a new ‘Marshall Plan’ for the Niger Delta. The new policy, although not favoured by some of President Obasanjo’s senior commanders, is containment and subsequent evisceration of the youth militias through superior fire-power.

Shell led the ‘return to the warpath’ initiative when its officials secretly approached the US military in early March to see if it could intervene in the delta. Faced with MEND’s increasingly focused attacks on its facilities, the company had shut down 455,000 barrels of daily crude output, evacuated the bulk of its staff, and declared force majaure. Company executives adopted two policies at the same time in this period, both designed to serve the same end of ensuring that Shell remained the top player in the delta. When Admiral Henry Ulrich, commander of the US Naval forces in Europe visited Nigeria last March, a delegation of oil company officials led by Shell asked him to deploy his ships to the region to ‘protect our investments.’ [1] At the same time company officials were briefing local journalists in Lagos and Abuja that they favoured dialogue with Ijaw youth as the only route to lasting peace in the restive region, a manoeuvre clearly designed to buy time while they readied their military option.

Admiral Ulrich turned down the request, explaining that ‘it was difficult to conceive of a way that foreign forces could intervene because attacks on oil facilities and vessels were occurring very close to shore in territorial waters, or from the shore itself.’ [2] While maritime analysts at the US Office of Naval Intelligence in Fort Lauderdale openly acknowledge that the Nigerian government is no longer able to ensure security in the delta region, and that indeed oil production in the country will ‘hang precariously in the balance for some time,’ they have been careful to avoid giving the impression that increased US military presence in the Gulf of Guinea is a prelude to ‘Vietnamisation’ of West Africa’s oil-rich belt.

Ulrich, on the occasion of a courtesy visit to Nigeria’s chief of naval staff in Abuja on March 19 informed journalists that his government planned to increase its naval presence in the Gulf of Guinea for the sole purpose of ensuring maritime safety in the region. He explained that his primary concern was the proliferation of ‘terrorist activities’ in the region, and that he had deployed two ships with training and repair facilities to the Gulf of Guinea to assist West African navies in policing their shores more effectively.

The Gulf of Guinea, comprising fifteen west and central African countries, is critical to the United States’ oil security. The region accounted for half of the nine million barrels per day produced by Africa in 2004. In the same year, the continent supplied an estimated 18 per cent of US net oil imports, with Angola and Nigeria as the leading suppliers. This development has meant an increase in the number of ships and oil tankers that pass through the west coast of Africa on their way to America’s east coast. Said Ulrich, ‘In this day and age, all nations have a vested interest in knowing the ships that are coming into their waters, their territory and what they are carrying.’ [3]

Right-wing American journalists and think-tanks , with the Washington–based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in the lead, have also been playing up the ‘surge in Islamic terrorist threat in the Gulf of Guinea’ angle, arguing that with billions of dollars of US investment now in the region, thousands of US workers in the oil fields, and strategic supplies of energy at stake, US effort to boost the capability of these countries to repel attacks from Islamic terrorists of the bin Laden variety had become imperative.

Local journalists and environmental activists in Nigeria and other Gulf of Guinea countries have questioned the assertion that the region is crawling with Islamic terrorists, pointing out that neither the Bush government nor the right-wing think-tanks it is allied with have been able to produce compelling evidence to back up their claims when asked to do so. They have also expressed fears that the new ring of steel being put in place in their region by the US navy is an underhand attempt to militarise the region and encourage attacks on oil facilities by armed militias and then use this as justification for military occupation of the Gulf of Guinea.

Significantly, reference to ‘another Vietnam’ and ‘the new Iraq’ is now routine in the Niger delta creeks, and such talk is not restricted to armed militias like MEND. When rumours began to make the rounds in February, at the outset of MEND’s offensive that the US government had resolved to send in the Marines to assist Nigerian troops in rescuing the nine expatriate workers they had kidnapped, there was a general uproar. Patrick Bigha, leader of the Warri Ijaw Peace Monitoring Group, a civic pressure group that espouses non-violent political action, quickly called a press conference in the city and declared that ‘The Niger Delta is not Afghanistan or Iraq and any attempt to dare us will end in a bloodbath and the greatest defeat in the history of the American Army.’ [4]

Such utterances is sweet music to American journalists like Jeffrey Taylor of the Atlantic Monthly, who, after travelling in the Niger Delta for a couple of days last March, wrote an article in the magazine making the controversial claim that Nigeria had become the largest failed state on earth, further threatened by takeover from radical Islamic forces. This, Taylor, argued, would endanger the region’s abundant oil reserves that the US government had vowed it would protect, adding that ‘should that day come, it would herald a military intervention far more massive than the Iraqi campaign.’ [5] The vultures of war have scented the Gulf of Guinea oil prize, and are now circling overhead, egging on combatants on both sides, and readying their bellies for the inevitable feast of corpses at the end of battle.

The fear of triggering another Vietnam-like scenario is, however, furthest from the calculations of the Nigerian and US governments at present. US deployment of military hardware in the region continues apace. The US European Command has concluded plans to construct a naval base in Sao Tome and Principe, to complement the permanent military base in Djibouti, in the strategic Horn of Africa. On 28 August Nigerian and American officials in Abuja announced a new Nigeria-United States Gulf of Guinea Energy Security Initiative aimed at ‘securing’ $600 billion of new investments in oil fields in the region.

Present estimates indicate that the gulf hosts some 14 billion barrels of crude in deep offshore fields. There are 33 fixed crude oil production platforms, 20 floating production facilities, and 13 floater and off-take vessels in the Gulf. This is expected to increase to 159 fixed platforms and 700 oil wells by 2008. Any military attack and subsequent disruption of production would not only threaten US and Western Europe’s energy supplies, the loss of billions of dollars in investments could throw their economies into a tail-spin. The energy security initiative is the American response to this potential threat.

But is building a new infrastructure of state violence in the Gulf of Guinea an intelligent and effective answer to the fundamentally political questions that fifty years of uncontrolled oil exploitation, massive corruption, and cynical exploitation of the local communities have raised, now given militant expression by the MEND militia?

Brining the civic back in

This author has been travelling in the Niger Delta’s devastated communities extensively since the late 1980s, but nothing prepared him for what he encountered in Oporoza and its satellite hamlets in the Western delta last August. Poverty and neglect are the norm in the region, but in Oporoza, and further still in the clutch of creek hamlets that constitute the Ijaw clan of Egbema, they rise up in the shape of flimsy huts on decayed wooden stilts, bracken greenish water ponds from which the bedraggled inhabitants drink, and polluted fishing creeks long denuded of life, to smack you rudely in the face. To visit Oporoza and Egbema is to encounter the very nadir of the noxious embrace of Big Oil, unaccountable government, and the excruciating indigence that only violent exclusion from the civic sphere can bring about.

For as Amartya Sen has so brilliantly demonstrated in his book Development as Freedom, poverty and famine only flourish where people are deprived of the right to participate in the political and civic process to determine the way in which they desire to be governed. This is only too true of Oporoza and the wider Niger Delta where the machine guns of the Nigerian military, oiled by oil company executives, have violently elbowed ordinary people out of the public sphere.

Academics, journalists, and development workers that espouse the so-called ‘Resource Curse’ theory argue that resource-rich countries like Nigeria inevitably degenerate into authoritarian and corrupt rule because it is easy for the military elites and their civilian allies to hijack the oil fields by force and redesign political institutions to sustain the new regime of praetorian government. [6] The junta, plentifully supplied with dollars from oil sales, does not bother to tax citizens to finance governance, thereby reducing them to powerless spectators unable to drive economic development or participate effectively in the political arena. Poverty, corruption in high places, and religious and ethnic violence are usually the result, the advocates of the resource curse theory argue.

But there is nothing inevitable about resource-rich regions regressing into poverty and remaining in the ditch of privation, as the cases of oil-rich Norway and Canada today illustrate. Nor is it the case that all movements toward authoritarianism are driven by the lure of easy spoils. Nigerian politics was already well on the way to centralized and unaccountable government, driven by the leaders of the Northern Region, before oil production commenced in 1956. This was largely the legacy of colonial conquest, and the undemocratic institutions of governance put in place by the British to exploit the wealth of the country undisturbed by the local people, subsequently handed over to carefully chosen political leaders who would go on to protect their interests after the colonial rulers quit in 1960. The Maxim machine gun, not the ballot box, was the instrument of rule in the Niger Delta and Nigeria in the age of colonialism.

It matters when oil was discovered in a country – before or after its institutions of government and political representation have firmed up and able to serve as a countervailing force to would-be despots and carpet-baggers. Norway is prosperous because her institutions of accountability were well-established and self-propelling long before she struck oil. Nigeria is a basket case today because her people were still under unaccountable colonial rule when oil was discovered in the Niger Delta in 1956. The machine guns that slaughtered the innocents of Letugbene last August are directly descended from the Maxim guns that Frederick Lugard employed to ‘pacify’ the ‘natives’ at the behest of the Royal Niger Company at the turn of the twentieth century. Shell and crude oil may have replaced Taubman Goldie and his thirst for palm oil, but the marriage of egregious violence and the resources of local people remain undisturbed, a potent link which in the specific case of oil, is illuminated by Prof. Michael Watt’s ‘petroviolence’ thesis. [7]

It is telling that top on the list of the grievances that the MEND militia pointed to in its negotiations with government officials last March was the exclusion of the Ijaw from meaningful political participation in the Nigerian project following the return of electoral politics in 1999. Anxious to arrange a ceasefire so oil production could resume, a delegation comprising two Shell executives and Timi Alaibe, finance director of the government-controlled Niger Delta Development Commission, visited MEND’s ‘Council of Elders’ in Camp Five, a fortified island near Oporoza where they were ensconced in early June. The MEND spokesperson argued that discussions must go beyond ‘mere provision of electricity and water’ and focus on the political marginalisation of the Ijaw because, according to him, ‘we believe that we have to seek first our political freedom and every other thing will follow.’ [8]

Oboko Bello had earlier framed these grievances in the handbook Constitutionality of the Ijaw Struggle thus: ‘The Ijaw of Warri, hitherto denied liberty, political space, and peace have been continuously robbed of equal participation in democracy and good governance of the Federation at the local, state and central governments…These entities corruptly control oil and gas resources which exploration has had devastating impact on the Ijaw people and their environment.’ [9] Significantly, Oronto Douglas, the Ijaw lawyer and environmental campaigner, put these political issues in the forefront of the list of demands he and other Ijaw leaders presented to their fellow delegates when they participated in the constitutional dialogue President Obasanjo convened in Abuja in 2005.

We have it on the authority of the Atlanta-based Carter Centre that local and presidential elections were massively rigged in the states comprising the Niger Delta in 1999, following the return of the armed forces to the barracks. Former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalyn travelled to the region to monitor the elections and reported:

‘Serious problems were observed in the National Assembly elections of February 20, partially caused by low voter turn out and the unknown status of many candidates who had been nominated by the political parties. Some ballot boxes were stuffed, election officials bribed, and the final results incorrectly tabulated. In addition to our normal reports, I wrote personal letters to the presidential candidates asking them to urge their supporters to refrain from improprieties during the presidential election.’ [10]

Carter’s well-meaning entreaty was ignored, and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) proceeded to rig the presidential election in March 1999 and install Olusegun Obasanjo president. The PDP also rigged the vote four years later, and returned Obasanjo and all the PDP governors to office. In Bayelsa State in particular, Shell and ENI executives provided cash and logistics to ensure that the local and governorship elections went the way of their favoured candidates in 2003. In the Niger Delta, several influential politicians and community leaders who spoke out against this massive disenfranchisement of the local people were set-upon by government-sponsored thugs and murdered.

Prominent members of such civic groups as the Ijaw Youth Council were lured with promises of cash and government contracts and made to work for the governors of the various Niger Delta states as enforcers and thugs. Indeed, the metamorphosis of political activism in the delta region from non-violent advocacy to armed insurrection is partly explained by the deliberate infiltration of their ranks by government and oil company agents, thereby narrowing the civic options of those who refused to be co-opted. In desperation, elements of the latter group embraced the AK47 to seek redress.

The venality and corruption displayed by the governors of the delta states following the return of electoral politics in 1999 is driven by the fact that they rigged themselves into office with the support of powerful patrons in Abuja, and now loot local treasuries at the behest of the latter. Such government development initiatives as OMPADEC (1993), NDDC (1999) and the newly-established Council on Socio-economic Development of Coastal States in the Niger Delta (COSEDECS) (April 2006), ostensibly designed to address long-standing poverty and social neglect in the region, have also been transformed into avenues to dispense perks and favours to the friends and relatives of the PDP leadership in the capital.

Authoritarian in conception and execution, these projects, including the bewildering array of ‘community development projects’ run by the oil companies, although well-meaning, have not been able to embed in a politically marginalised people. Nor have they been able to deliver jobs, social amenities and peace – the so-called ‘dividends of democracy’ that President Obasanjo promised the people of the region when he took office in May 1999. Anna Zalik, the Canadian scholar and rights activist, has drawn our attention to the problematic of development strategies devoid of democratic and participatory structures in oil-bearing communities in the region. [11]

Those who sneer at youth activists in the Niger Delta today and claim that the return of politics has only transformed them into younger versions of the corrupt military leaders they battled against in the 1990s fail to distinguish between fraudulent elections, which put the present crop of political ‘leaders’ in the region in power in 1999, and proper electoral processes that, had they taken place, would have put the true representatives of the local people in positions of government and authority. At the heart of the Niger Delta crisis, which has now ballooned into armed insurgency, is this democracy deficit.

MEND, properly understood, is the violent child of the deliberate and long-running constriction of the public space in the Niger Delta in which ordinary citizens, now reduced to penurious subjects, can exercise their civil and political rights in the legitimate pursuit of material and social wellbeing. Behind the mask of the MEND militant is a political subject forced to pick up an AK47 to restore his rights as a citizen.

The journey to peace and prosperity in the region can only commence when the civic is brought back in.

* Dr Ike Okonta is a research fellow in contemporary African politics at the University of Oxford. He is co-author of Where Vultures Feast: Shell, Human Rights and Oil, Verso, New York, 2003.

* Please send comments to or comment online at

[1] Reuters, ‘Nigerian oil “hangs in balance,” 23 March, 2006.
[2] See Reuters article.
[3] George Oji, ‘US to increase Naval Presence in Gulf of Guinea,’ ThisDay, 20 March, 2006.
[4] Segun James, ‘Militants to US: Steer clear of Niger Delta,’ ThisDay, Lagos, 24 February, 2006.
[5] Jeffery Taylor, ‘Worse than Iraq?’ Atlantic, April, 2006.
[6] Professor Jeffery Sachs, a Columbia University economist and UN Sec Gen Kofi Annan’s adviser on Millennium Development Goals, developed the ‘Resource Curse’ theory to explain the seeming inability of resource-rich states in Africa and Latin America to industrialise and prosper like their counterparts in south-east Asia.
[7] Michael Watts, Petro-Violence: Some Thoughts on Community, Extraction and Political Ecology, Berkeley Workshop on Environmental Politics, Institute of International Studies, University of California, Berkeley, September 1999
[8] See ‘A Trip to Mend Headquarters,’ The Ijaw Voice, July 2006.
[9] See Constitutionality of the Ijaw Struggle, preface.
[10] Jimmy Carter, ‘Visit to Nigeria,’ The Carter Center, Atlanta, 25 February, 1999.
[11] See Anna Zalik, ‘The Niger Delta: “Petro-violence” and “Partnership Development”, Review of African Political Economy, 2004.


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