Urhobo Historical Society

ENVIRONMENTAL CONFLICTS:
THE CASE OF THE NIGER DELTA

  By Akpobibibo Onduku

A presentation at the One World Fortnight Programme
Organised By the Department of Peace Studies,
University of Bradford, United Kingdom 22nd November 2001.


PREAMBLE

I would want to thank the organizers of this programme “One World Fortnight” for given me an invitation to share on a topic I have a passionate interest on.  Today, I have been mandated to talk on environmental conflicts with a focus on the Niger Delta in Nigeria.  I believe you would all join me on board in making this session a stimulating and fulfilling one.

Earlier this year at the European Peace University in Austria, I had an opportunity to make a presentation on the Niger Delta crisis identifying options for a culture of peace.  In the course of that exercise, I presented a poem entitled Shattered Trusts.  That poem was sent by the Organization of Niger Deltans in the Diaspora as part of an Easter package to the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, his Attorney General of the Federation Chief Bola Ige, State Governors and other groups and people associated to the Niger Delta struggle and the indigenes.  Shattered Trusts summarily calls for a culture of peace by all parties in the Niger Delta conflict and a change for equitable resource distribution and allocation and control; fairness and justice; and environmental sustainability.

The environment is one of the liveliest and topical issues of our day. The environment is in crisis globally and the Niger Delta situation is such a pathetic one due to the degree of devastation done to it and the complexity of the crisis.  Even though environmental conflicts essentially develop in a local framework, they are also frequently connected at regional, national and even international levels.

The Environment and Conflicts Project (ENCOP) posits that “environmental conflicts manifest themselves as political, social, economic, religious or territorial conflicts, or conflicts over resources or national interests, or any other type of conflict.  They are traditional conflicts induced by an environmental degradation”.  Environmental conflicts are usually complex in structure and history; they impact public interests and goods, including non-represented interests (e.g. future generations).  ENCOP identified that environmental problems are seldom the only cause of conflicts.  However, when interwoven with such elements as population growth, poverty and injustice they increasingly contribute to existing and future political tensions and their escalation to violent conflicts.

The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) report of June 1999 provided an overview of environmental conditions, resources and conflict.  It gave the proposition that a growing trend in international and intranational conflict appears to be linked to the deteriorating environmental conditions and resources.  It is revealed that conflicts over water resources appear to be a major source of direct international conflict.  The most common elements around which conflicts can erupt are water flow, diversion, salinization, floods and pollution.  Resource depletion issues like deforestation, soil erosion, desertification, flooding and pollution commonly cause indirect international or indirect intranational conflict.   The report went forth to reveal that from empirical evidence across all categories, it appears that the vast majority of environmentally related conflicts occur in developing regions.

The notion that disputes and violence can erupt over access to resources appears commonplace.  International wars have been fought over access to land and water since biblical times.  Indeed, the link between environmental resources and the outbreak of international conflicts has been recognized for decades.  But what separates modern day analysis on environmental conflicts, however is recognition of the role that population growth plays in fomenting conflicts and the distinction between non-renewable and renewable resources.

Conflicts by nature do not disappear, simply through the invisible hand of God.  Their causes and effects are always many and varied, their histories more complex than we normally think; their solutions more challenging than a remote observer could ever imagine.  It should be understood that a conflict is usually the playing out of human needs and fears in society.  In other words, a conflict is driven by unfulfilled needs of the people be it in terms of autonomy, sense of justice, identity, basic needs, rights of individuals, or whatever.  Most of these needs are of a collective character, and are more often than not provoked by official neglect, persecution, and denial of human rights, insensitivity or egoism as well as arrogance of power on the side of some leaders. These significantly contribute to the escalation of a conflict.

BACKGROUND TO THE NIGER DELTA CONFLICT

The Federal Republic of Nigeria lies on the Atlantic Coast of West Africa.  It is Africa’s most populous country with a population of about 120 million people, made up of some 250 different ethnic groups speaking near 400 different languages.  The nation became independent in October 1, 1960 with a federal system, designed by the colonial rulers, which from the very beginning was at variance with the aspirations of many of the minorities in the country.  Scholars of political development observed that the federal constitution that was produced suffered from two fundamental and destabilising flaws.  The first was the division of the country into three unequal regions, with the population of the size of the northern region alone exceeding that of the two southern regions put together.  The second flaw involved, the political and demographic domination of the northern, western, and eastern regions being the majority ethnic nationalities and the attendant marginalisation of the minority ethnic nationalities that comprise approximately one-third of the population of each region. The Niger Delta people form the largest group amongst the ethnic minorities spread over the South-South geopolitical zone of the nation today.

Political history reminds us that the Niger Delta as a region predates Nigeria’s emergence as a British colony by at least a decade.  Britain’s Niger Delta Protectorate and the Niger Delta Coast Protectorate were already well established by the middle 1880s and the late 1890s before further British interests led to the formation of Southern Nigeria in 1900.  In the decades before Second World War, many Niger Delta communities had their own local leaders who distinguished themselves in the service of their people while serving the British.  But it was only as a result of the Arthur Richards Reforms of 1946 that regional representation became important in British colonial arrangements.  The people’s experiences with the treacherous British policies served them well in the leaders who emerged to represent them in the late 1940s.

Some experiences abound in the Niger Delta.  It was agitation by the Ijaw Rivers Peoples League that led to the creation by the British of Rivers Province in 1947.  It was here and during this period that the Niger Delta Congress was founded by the young Harold Dappa-Biriye to fight for equality for the disadvantaged people of the Niger Delta.  He later represented the Niger Delta people in the London Conference of the Minorities and the report of the Willinks Commission in 1958 described the Niger Delta as a “poor, backward and neglected region”.

At Nigeria’s independence in 1960, the injustices against the Niger Delta people prompted Isaac Adaka Boro, the young radical nationalist, an Ijaw born revolutionary and master campaigner of resource control to champion a revolt against the oppressors of the people of the Niger Delta to effect a change of the environment so that “man can be man”.  On February 23, 1966, he landed at Tontoubau a sacred forest in Kaiama town in the present Bayelsa state in the riverine areas of the Niger Delta with one hundred and fifty-nine comrades to launch a guerrilla war against the then Federal Military Government.  Earlier in January 1966, Boro had proclaimed the Niger Delta Peoples Republic with himself as Head of State.  He engaged the Nigeria Police Force in a bloody battle and defeated them, but the Armed Forces of Nigeria went into the war and Boro and his men held up the federal troops for a quite while before he was defeated on the 12th day.  This rebellion has today become known in political history of Nigeria as the Twelve-Day Revolution.

CAUSES OF THE CONFLICT

By popular perception, the marginalization and balkanisation of the peoples of the Niger Delta, the despoliation of their environment and the resultant conflicts have their roots in the discovery of oil, exploitation, exploration and production activities by the oil multinationals in the late 1950s.  The Niger Delta, a lush of mangrove swamps, rainforests and swampland is the site of rich oil and natural gas reserves in Nigeria.  Oil accounts for about 90 per cent of Nigerian exports and more than 80 per cent of government revenue.  Despite being the richest geopolitical region in terms of natural resource endowment, the Niger Delta’s potential for sustainable development however remains unfulfilled, and is now increasingly threatened by environmental devastation and worsening economic conditions.  Particularly threatened is the mangrove forest of Nigeria, the largest in Africa and sixty per cent of which is located in the Niger Delta.  Also facing extinction are the fresh water swamp forests of the Delta, which at 11700 km square are the most extensive in West and Central Africa and the local people depend on this for sustenance.

Incidental to and indeed compounding this ecological devastation is the political marginalisation and total oppression of the people and especially the denial of their rights, including land rights.  In spite of the enormous wealth accrued from their land, the people continue to live in pristine conditions in the absence of electricity, pipe borne water, hospitals, housing and schools.  The late environmentalist and minority rights crusader, Ken Saro-Wiwa summed it up by describing the pitiable situation of his 500,000 Ogoni people in the Niger Delta to have been consigned to slavery and extinction.  The internationalisation of the Ogoni case in the 1990s committed a global audience into the Niger Deltans plight.

THE PROBLEMATIQUE

Demands for more equitable and privileged treatment by the oil-producing minorities of the Niger Delta, as well as struggles by them and other minorities to redress power imbalances in the country which makes them internally colonised people are not new.  The Niger Delta communities have been protesting the injustices peacefully for decades and they have been in the vanguard focussing on the “national question” as a problem.  Not withstanding the Ogoni uprising from the early 1990s and the consequent execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa in November 10, 1995 by the federal military junta which was described by human rights groups as a travesty of justice, the military invasion of Ijaw communities consequent upon the Kaiama Declaration and the Odi direct action of 1998 to 1999 marked a new interesting interface of oil politics in Nigeria.

The parties in the conflict do not involve only the federal government and the Niger Deltans but also the oil multinationals.  Put summarily, the grievances of the Niger Deltans have involved three closely interrelated, but analytically distinct issues: firstly, that all laws relating to oil exploration and land ownership be abrogated; secondly, the issue of natural resource control and self-determination and thirdly, that appropriate institutional and financial arrangements should be put in place by the Nigerian nation state and the oil multinationals to compensate the oil producing communities for the developmental and environmental problems associated with oil exploration and exploitation.

The conflict has therefore been made complex and worse by the goal-blocking behaviours practised by the parties.  The government continues to marginalize the people, militarising the area, suppressing intellectualism, e.g. the killing of Isaac Boro, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Professor Claude Ake and countless numbers of promising youth activists.  The locals have now opted for hostage taking, hijacking and kidnapping of expatriate oil company workers and demand of ransom, and repeated invasion and blockading of oil installations.  In 1993 for instance, it is claimed that, the operations and activities of Shell were disrupted by about a hundred communal disturbances, leading to the loss of some 12 million barrels of crude oil worth about 369 billion naira.  In Ogoni land alone Shell has been losing about 8,000 barrels of crude oil per day since the Ogoni ‘rally’ of January 1993.  In all, the company estimates that over 60 per cent of spills and leakage affecting its installations is caused by acts of sabotage by aggrieved oil producing communities of the Niger Delta.

The companies despite all these continue to invest into oil exploration in the Niger Delta and have at most times been linked to equipping the federal military for the militarization of the Niger Delta.  In all, the government wants to continuously maintain the region for revenue purposes, the oil companies have refused to pack up from the region in spite of the several ultimatums given them by civil groups due to the huge profit they derive in the oil business in the region and the Niger Delta people have now become more organized in their demands for ‘development’ something that has been denied them for a long time.  These goal-blocking behaviours leave much to be desired and have jeopardised conflict prevention mechanisms.

Furthermore, the whole conflict has been compounded by the cultural patterns of the people.  The people consider their land to be sacred, for it is the source of their subsistence and income, and it also links the living to the dead.  This too is reinforced by refusal to accept change, pride, confidence in supernatural deities and the low context behaviour.

THE KAIAMA DECLARATION IN BRIEF

In the course of this presentation I have made mention of the historic Kaiama Declaration.  I would want to believe that many in this hall are familiar with the Ogoni Bill of Rights which was written by a few and signed by thirty traditional rulers and imminent persons of Ogoniland on behalf of the Ogoni people. That document was presented to the Government and people of Nigeria on November 1990.  It was a reason for the murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa.  I wish to inform you that his son Mr. Ken Wiwa is coincidentally about this same time delivering a lecture on cultural politics involving Ogoni, Shell and the Nigerian State at the University of Sheffield and as such I would confine my focus more to the Kaiama Declaration.  Both documents have as part of their requests highlighted the unguarded devastation done to the fragile natural environment of the Niger Delta.

Today let me intimate you that the Kaiama Declaration was issued on the 11th day of December 1998 by the Ijaw Youths of the Niger Delta.  The document signed for the entire participants by Messrs. Felix Tuodolo and Timi Ogoriba added a new perspective to the Niger Delta struggle. It was named after the town Kaiama (the revolutionary headquarters of the Ijaw nation) where the All Ijaw Youths Conference was held.  The participants were drawn from over five hundred communities from over 40 clans that make up the Ijaw nation and representing 25 organisations.  They deliberated on the best way to ensure the continuous survival of the indigenous people of the Ijaw ethnic nationality of the Niger Delta within the Nigerian state.  This document generated so much controversy and led to the massacre of hundreds of Ijaw youths in the hands of the Nigerian Law enforcement agents.

The Kaiama Declaration succinctly observed the unabating damage to the environment as due to uncontrolled exploration and exploitation of crude oil and natural gas which has led to numerous oil spillages, uncontrolled gas flaring, the opening up of forests for loggers, indiscriminate canalisation, flooding, land subsistence, coastal erosion, earth tremors etc.  It stated further that oil and gas are exhaustible resources and the complete lack of concern for ecological rehabilitation, in the light of the Oloibiri experience, is a signal of impending doom for the people of Ijaw.

The Ijaw nation is the fourth largest ethnic group in Nigeria after the Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba and Ibo.  It has a population of about 12 million people politically balkanised by the Nigerian state over six states namely Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Delta, Edo, Ondo and Rivers States.  It contributes the greatest amount of the oil wealth to the national economy meanwhile the people have little to show for this.  They are greatly marginalized just as other ethnic groups in the Niger Delta.  The first exploration and production of crude oil in commercial quantity at Oloibiri (an Ijaw town) by Shell B.P in 1958 has made them to be the first to experience the agonies brought along with oil exploration and exploitation in the Niger Delta.

Having lived within this situation over the years, the Ijaw youths resolved in the Kaiama Declaration amongst other items the immediate withdrawal from Ijawland of all military forces of occupation and repression by the Nigerian State.  And that any oil company that employs the services of the armed forces of the Nigerian State to “protect” its operations will be viewed as an enemy of all Ijaw people.  They requested family members of military personnel stationed in Ijawland to appeal to their people to leave the Ijaw area alone.

Consequently, the Declaration called on Ijaw youths in all communities in all Ijaw clans in the Niger Delta to implement the resolutions beginning from the 30th of December 1998, as a step towards reclaiming the control of their lives.  They therefore, demanded that all oil companies stop all exploration and exploitation activities in the Ijaw area for they are tired of gas flaring, oil spillages, blowouts and being labelled saboteurs. They claimed it is a case of preparing the noose for their hanging and rejected this labelling. Hence they advised all oil companies’ staff and contractors to withdraw from Ijaw territories by the 30th December 1998 pending the resolution of the issue of resource ownership and control in the Ijaw area of the Niger Delta.

The events that followed this Declaration led to a state of emergency in the Niger Delta.  It was all blood, tears and rape in Ijaw communities of the Niger Delta as the Nigerian State bombarded the region with her military might.   For instance, in Opia community (an Ijaw settlement) in Warri North local government area of Delta State, Human Rights Watch reported that an helicopter claimed to be owned by Chevron carrying Nigerian soldiers landed and set the entire village ablaze with many locals killed.

STRATEGIC UNDERPINNINGS

Agreed that the devastation of the environment is a key factor in the complex Niger Delta crisis in Nigeria, lets consider underdevelopment as a source of tension.  This tension may be managed by appropriate institutional structures, which avert degeneration into conflict, but without economic growth there can be no generalised access to health, education and other elements of social well-being.  The employment policies of the oil companies too are lopsided with the Niger Delta youths always denied.  Moreover, the less a people benefit from a system, the less interest it has in the survival of that system.  Basically, ‘profits’ or ‘satisfaction’ derived from a functioning economy or system create an interest in avoiding conflict, which will prove more costly than management of the tension even if the latter process requires some compromises.  The people of the Niger Delta are presently still living in the dark stone ages in the presence of modern day technology and have therefore felt that enough is enough by demanding a control of their resources.  The issue of resource control today go far beyond what we can hear.  It is about the development of the most backward areas in Nigeria, where the wealth of Nigeria comes from.  If you visit those areas you must have to show sympathy and support for resource control and environmental sustainability.  The Niger Delta State Governments in collaboration with other Southern State Governments are currently in a judicial logjam with the Federal Government.   The judicial option of the Federal Government is being frowned at, and portrays a modern and sovereign resurgence of internal neo-colonialism and state imperialism.

Worst of all, the operations of the oil multinationals show that most of the host communities are criss-crossed by oil pipelines and gas flares burned around the clock at ground level. For instance, in most of the host communities, oil companies like Shell locations lie part in the middle of villages, in front and back gardens that should lay a particular responsibility on Shell to be absolutely cautious in its operations.  Environmental activists opine that, the company remains negligent and wilful.  Ken Saro-Wiwa in championing this cause out rightly and clearly put it this way, that “the Niger Delta, one of the richest areas on earth is today a fragile ecosystem.  He wonders why rich oil companies with the abundance of knowledge and material resources available to them should treat the area with such callous indifference”.  He considers the loss of the Niger River Delta a loss to all mankind and therefore regards Shell’s despoliation of the area as a crime to all humanity.  Despite his laying his life for the cause of the Niger Delta in general and his Ogoni people in particular, successive governments, the oil multinationals and the international community are all yet to fashion out sustainable development options for the survivability of the people of the Niger Delta.

Under Nigeria’s laws, oil wealth which is the bone of contention in the conflict belongs to the Federal government and in a critical analysis, the laws where never made with the consent of the people of the Niger Delta and other minorities even though the preamble of the Constitution reads as “We the people of the Federal Republic of Nigeria having and solemnly resolved to live in unity and harmony…provide for a constitution for the purpose of promoting the good government and welfare of all persons in our country, on the principles of freedom, equality, justice, and for the purpose of consolidating the unity of our people.  Do hereby make, enact and give ourselves to the… constitution.”   The constitution has not ensured freedom and equality, good governance and promoted the welfare of the people of the Niger Delta.  The theory of equitable economic development stipulates fair and equal development of all regions and people, but this is not the case for the Niger Delta and its people. This region is the most underdeveloped in the country.

The present constitution does not reflect the desires of the people since it was fashioned out in military abracadabra and imposed on the citizenry. It does not also ensure the fundamental right to life.  This is one of the bases for the present agitation for the Sovereign National Conference to discuss the basis of continued coexistence of all people and geopolitical zones of the Nigerian state.  The political structure of the country too has not ensured equal participation for this people.  There are some portfolios they cannot not aspire to, which again negates the provisions in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Covenant on the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of the United Nations, both of which Nigeria is a signatory.

Be that as it may, the situation in the Niger Delta involves a struggle of relevance and survival by the various actors within the nation state.  As long as the people are forced to endure governments that take them political and economic hostage, as long as they are deprived of their cultural rights, or subjected to iniquitous and obnoxious laws, and as long as they are not provided with a context propitious for free enterprise, ‘development’ will remain an empty word to the Niger Delta.

THE WAY FORWARD/CONCLUDING REMARKS

In view of the dramatic worsening of the environment of the Niger Delta, it remains to be seen what could be the starting point for a return to normal peace for the Niger Delta but it is imperative that efforts to preventing a violent conflict in the region should be based on the aspirations and interests of the people.  Genuine peace effort in the Niger Delta can be achieved by participation, equitable distribution of resources, appropriate development, conscientisation and environmental sustainability.  Therefore, it is obvious that, for any development action, an understanding of the institutional conditions in which the action will take place should be a priority.  All the stakeholders should forget about the past and lay a solid foundation for the future by embracing options for positive peace which revolves around addressing the issues of poverty, environmental devastation, political, economic and social injustice, low level of literacy and unemployment.

Thank you all for listening.


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