Originally Published 2011-06-29 00:00:00 Published on Jun 29, 2011
In mid-June, the oil giant Shell was forced to declare force majeure in its Nigeria unit excusing it from liability and contractual obligations due to sabotage by local militias on its oil pipelines.
Oil, Ethnicity, and Insurgency in Nigeria
In mid-June, the oil giant Shell was forced to declare force majeure in its Nigeria unit excusing it from liability and contractual obligations due to sabotage by local militias on its oil pipelines. Shell, in a press statement, said,  "the leaks and fires show a worrying trend not only on the TNP but also on our facilities elsewhere. Sadly, the trend is continuing unabated."1 In the past four months, there have been approximately 35 of such sabotage spills, and in 2010 alone Shell declared nearly 14,000 tonnes of oil spill damages in the Niger Delta due to local militia sabotage.2 These recent trend lines indicate that these acts of defiance will not cease anytime soon.

Nigeria, Africa's biggest oil producer, and Shell have had a long-drawn history in the oil sector, reaping the profits from a very lucrative yet turbulent industry. The Niger Delta, located in the southwest of Nigeria, is at once the haven of oil supply, a place abundant with nature's black gold, and yet it is the cesspool that has grown radical militias engaged in petro-violence, ravaged its environment surroundings, and exploited ethnic populations.

To bring context to the issue in Nigeria it is important to understand the historical underpinnings of the Nigerian state. Gaining independence from Britain in 1960, Nigeria was rattled by civil war in its early years with its southwest region of Biafra fighting for secession and consequently gaining independence from 1967-1970 (after which it was seized and acceded by the Nigerian government). This had a major impact on its formative years and was crucial in strengthening the role of the centre in a federal system, eager not to lose out on its territories based on ethnic divisions.

From its discovery in pre-colonial period to the entry and establishment of major oil stalwarts like Shell and British Petroleum in the 1950s, oil has been crucial in dictating the economic trajectory of the nation. With oil constituting 80% of national revenue, the Nigerian government took on a greater equity stake in the form of rents and royalties over the years and by 1979, it gained 60% participation in the oil industry.

The government's main oil agency, the National Nigerian Petroleum Corporation, through which the government regulates the oil industry, gained an impressive leveraging ability over the oil industry and the allocation of the royalties from it. With an allocation of nearly 80% revenue going to the federal government and only 20% being distributed to the states, of which the Rivers state (where most of the oil comes from) gets an even smaller fraction, it is safe to say that the centre has gained dramatically from the financial exploitation of the crude oil industry.

What is significant to note here is that despite the Rivers state being the home of Nigeria's oil industry, it has not been able transform its own developmental and social infrastructure and is in fact home to some of the poorest communities in Nigeria. Thus, much of the conflict that has ensued in the Niger Delta since the 1990s is based on the dissent and furor of the various ethnic minorities, such as the Ijaw and the Ogoni, who have felt marginalized and exploited in the corporate-government nexus in this region. In resentment with an unresponsive federal government, formative militias consisting of Ijaw and Ogoni ethnic communities have been instrumental in lashing out on Shell (which has the most amount of direct contact with the local environment) and destroyed many of its facilities and pipelines. In fact, one of the largest militia groups in the Niger Delta, MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) claims its main aim is to totally destroy the capacity of the Nigerian government to export oil. Their dictum against government agents and oil corporations such as Shell has been 'leave our land while you can or die.'3

On the surface of these issues, it seems as though these minority groups, ethnic and tribal, are in fundamental opposition to foreign investment and the exploitation of the natural resources of their respective region. And thus, they are acting out by unleashing a war against the corporations and the state entities. However, what is important to realize is that these communities are not antagonistic to development, but they are in opposition to the discourse of development that is taking place. Subnational communities like these have become stronger than ever because the existing frames of development have reinforced the imposition of a state apparatus that dictates the mechanism of governance and development.

Interestingly enough, protests in Niger Delta - be it sabotaging Shell facilities or kidnapping Shell employees - was not always so violent in nature. In the 1990s, it all began as a non-violent peaceful force of resistance under the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. They began with a simple Bill of Rights for the Ogoni people and advocated for more environmental, economic and socio-ethnic rights of recognition. However, over the years the Nigerian government exercised an overwhelmingly coercive use of state violence and went as far as executing the Ogoni people's most notable environmental activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995 under Sani Abacha's military regime.

This only further antagonized the state from its people and if anything has only further divorced these communities from the fundamental decision-making process of development. As these dispossessed communities of Nigeria use violent or non-violent mediums to show their dissent, it is time to look at the greater context of governance in large federal states that boast of ethnic diversity, a unitary national identity, and social inclusion. Legal frames of the constitution make the state the custodians of tribal people or minority ethnic groups; yet continue to marginalize them from the realm of the decision-making process. What the marginalised simply ask for is a greater level of participation in the decision-making process on issues that are fundamentally integral to their lives. Perhaps if this reconciliation process starts taking effect, one would not have to see these minority communities transform into radical militias that voice their dissent through sabotage and violent means. This singular act of defiance is reflective of a larger transformation that needs to take place in the Niger Delta for the sake of its people and the sustainable development of the region. 

1 http://af.reuters.com/article/energyOilNews/idAFLDE75C17920110613

2 http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/may/05/shell-oil-spill-niger-delta

3 http://www.corpwatch.org/article.php?id=13121

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