Africa: Nigeria’s continuing conflict over oil wealth

IN MID 1999 only three weeks into his first term of office President Olusegun Obasanjo had to send the army into Warri, an important oil town, in the Niger delta. Around two hundred people were killed by intertribal fighting over confused land ownership.

By Jonathan Power

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Published: Mon 31 Oct 2005, 9:34 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 3:25 PM

Obasanjo flew into Warri and started negotiations between the fighting groups. Six years later there is now peace between the three tribes who fought each other the most, the Ijaws, the Urhobo and the Itsekeri. He also promised to substantially increase the proportion of federal revenues going to the delta states.

Nevertheless, sporadic violence has continued through the Obasanjo era, with the army and police sometimes responding viciously. Periodically, panicky articles appear in the local Press quoting the oil companies —in particular Shell, by far the biggest —as fearing for the lives of their employees and threatening to shut down their oil wells. Nigeria is the world’s eighth largest oil exporter.

A month ago the federal authorities arrested a young militant, Mujahid Asari Dokubo, who enjoyed being photographed with his armed militia. Protests erupted around the delta. "Five flow stations were shut down by angry youths. Explosions and gunshots have been heard. Oil companies had to shut their facilities. Two Britons have been momentarily kidnapped while the others feel threatened", reported the Nigerian newspaper, The Guardian.

Bad as it sometimes can be it cannot be compared with the dark days of the dictatorship of General Sani Abacha, who besides imprisoning Obasanjo ordered the hanging of one of Nigeria’s most illustrious writers, Ken Saro-Wiwa, who led an organisation which modestly demanded that a greater proportion of Shell’s profits be channelled into the local community.

After the execution Shell made a great effort to change their practice of working too closely with military and police forces careless of human rights. Shell’s vice president for external relations, Robin Aram, observed, "There is an emerging consensus that for peace and stability to be restored to the Niger delta the communities must view themselves as net beneficiaries from oil production. Achieving a shift in perspective is no easy task, given the legacy of past failures by government, persecution by security forces, inter-ethnic values and the sense that oil companies have put profit before principles."

A visitor to the delta, attempting to measure if there has been "a shift in perspective", confronts contradictions whichever way he turns. Local states have much more to spend on development but a corrupt political and bureaucratic class siphon off much of it. The militias exist, but in small numbers with shallow roots. They thrive because the media amplify their meagre message, and the oil companies, staffed with nervous expatriates who prefer to live isolated behind barbed wire, over react.

Worst of all the companies have allowed themselves to be blackmailed, attempting to buy off the most ferocious militants and most compliant village chiefs. The media, both local and international, often appear to ignore the fact that most political and human rights activists here pursue their causes non-violently and have no truck with the policies of blackmail.

Down in the mangrove swamps the reporter has no difficulty in finding rich oil wells standing next to fishermen’s villages made of reeds and grass, so frail they look as if the next wind will blow them down. Yet in Port Harcourt, the oil capital, building works are booming, much of the popular housing has been upgraded many notches above the traditional level, school enrolment is increasing at a fast pace and potable water supplies are spreading rapidly.

The Niger Delta Development Commission has had substantial success in training unemployed youth in new skills. All over there are new roads and electricity pylons. In the towns the number of small businesses and workshops are mushrooming, very few of them having their output measured by the GNP statisticians. The governor, Dr Peter Odili, is understandably proud of what is underway, yet at the same time he is building himself a Saddam Hussein-type palace.

I asked Obasanjo, a religious man, if it was God who gave Nigeria oil or was it the Devil? "God", he replied. "However, the Devil is manipulating it!" But slowly the devil is being exorcised. The federal government is cracking down on the militias, even as local politicians deviously try to make use of them. Oil is being stolen to buy guns, but much less than before. The oil companies are trying harder but could do much more. The battle against corruption is making progress but needs to be more rigorously fought.

The human rights activists claim the situation is much better, even whilst they uncover new abuses. The progress may be so slow but it is also apparent. Compared with the days of the dictatorship it’s the difference between day and night.

Jonathan Power is a veteran foreign affairs commentator based in London. He can be reached at

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