Nigeria: Shell of a State
by Wale Adabanwi
Dollars and Sense magazine, July/August 2001
In February 2000, Nigerian federal troops stormed Odi, a sleepy
village right in the heart of the troubled Niger Delta, a spatial
cash cow with 20 billion barrels of oil reserves and 120 trillion
cubic feet of gas reserves. Ostensibly, the troops were on the
trail of suspects who had allegedly kidnapped and killed 12 mobile
policemen in one of the regions numerous uprisings against ecological
devastation and neglect - offenses in which multinational oil
companies (including Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, Texaco, Chevron,
Elf, and Agip) and the colluding Nigerian government all stand
accused. Apparently frustrated by their failure to nab the suspects,
the troops sacked the entire village and razed it to its very
The punitive expedition against the inhabitants of Odi - one
of the communities from which Nigeria, the fifth-largest oil-yielding
country in the world, has extracted crude oil worth billions of
dollars in the last four decades - drew public outrage, both locally
and internationally. It was particularly shocking to Nigerians,
who had reasonably expected that the recent return to civilian
governance would mark a departure from the repression that had
been the hallmark of military rule. The attack on Odi has led
many to reappraise the democratic credentials of the new civilian
government of President Olusegun Obasanjo, who was elected in
However, to those familiar with the history of the Niger Delta,
the Odi invasion merely reflected older patterns of repression.
Odi, populated as it is by deprived and despoiled villagers living
in thatched riverside shanties, is an archetype of the state of
affairs in the Niger Delta. The poverty of these villagers contrasts
sharply with the wealth buried in their soil, a wealth that the
oil companies - along with their pool of expatriate and Nigerian
staff- enjoy. For more than a decade, the oil-yielding communities
have been agitating for an increased share of oil revenue, along
with control over resources and an end to environmental pollution.
Under both military and civilian regimes, the government has responded
to the agitation with undisguised severity. The current crisis
contains the ingredients for another civil war, which could break
up the Nigerian federation.
ORIGINS OF THE CURRENT CRISIS
The history of the oil industry, scholar Jean-Marie Chevalier
has observed, is the history of imperialism. In 1956, Shell British
Petroleum (now Royal Dutch Shell) discovered crude oil at Oloibiri,
a village in the Niger Delta, and commercial production began
in 1958. These developments changed Nigeria's relationship to
the global capitalist order. Previously, Nigeria had been mainly
a producer of cocoa, groundnuts, and other agricultural items.
These goods, representing the country's major source of external
revenue, were exported principally to the West. As the exploitation
of oil resources continued in the postcolonial era, Nigeria became
increasingly reliant on oil, and its reputation as an agricultural
producer disappeared. Oil revenue now accounts for 90% of Nigeria's
export earnings (almost $300 billion in the past 40 years).
In turn, reliance on a single source of revenue distorted
the relationship between successive (mostly military) regimes
in the country, and the citizenry. Oil exploration introduced
an entirely new element into the structure of the Nigerian state
- an internal predatory elite that saw the new commodity as God-sent
and so saw itself as unaccountable to the communities that produced
it. This lack of accountability has continued in the post-colonial
period. As Nigerian scholar Femi Taiwo has argued, the discovery
of petroleum in commercial quantities, and its emergence as the
primary fuel of the Western industrial economies, combined to
ensure that the post-colonial Nigerian state did not cultivate
its own citizenry. Nor did it put into place appropriate infrastructure
that would have helped to create local wealth and provide a strong
local tax base for its operations. As for the wealth derived from
oil exploration, both the Nigerian state and the multinational
oil companies believe that what they owe the oil-yielding communities
is minimal, and that even this must be given at their own pleasure.
Today, there are 606 oil fields in the Niger Delta, of which
360 are on-shore and 246 off-shore. These have been parceled out
to the oil multinationals for extraction. Also, over 3,000 kilometers
of pipeline lie across the landscape of the Delta, linking 275
flow stations to various export facilities. The Nigerian state
operates a joint-venture agreement with the multinationals, which
in turn pay the federal government royalties running into hundreds
of millions annually.
According to a Revenue Allocation Formula, the Nigerian state
is legally required to inject part of the revenue from oil royalties
into the oil-yielding communities. But the communities only receive
revenue from on-shore oil deposits, which account for less than
10% of total oil deposits. (The off-shore deposits are much larger
than onshore deposits, and exploration is more limited off-shore.)
Historically, the communities have received only 3-5% of the on-shore
revenue. The Obasanjo government has now increased the share of
on-shore revenue, but only to 13%.
Some people in the oil-yielding communities see the oil multinationals
as potential stakeholders in the development of the region. Yet
the multinationals have been anything but that. Back in 1983,
for example, the Inspectorate Division of the state-owned Nigeria
National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) noted the environmental
problems caused by the activities of the oil companies in the
Niger Delta. The Inspectorate described "the slow poisoning
of the waters of this country, and the destruction of vegetation,
and agricultural land by oil spills which occur during petroleum
operations." "Since the inception of the oil industry
in Nigeria," it continued, "there has been no concerted
effort on the part of the Government, let alone the oil operators,
to control the environmental problems associated with the industry."
The impact of these conditions on oil-yielding communities
has been devastating. As Tell, a Lagos-based magazine, captured
it in 1993: "What [the Niger Delta people] used to call upon
for their livelihood and well-being has been wrecked for eternity
by the coming of oil and its exploitation by the Nigerian state.
They cannot fish because marine life has been flushed out, they
cannot hunt because the game fled a long time ago, thanks to the
oil hunters and their land no longer yields good harvest."
The destruction of flora and fauna has been compounded by endemic
poverty, the absence of basic social amenities, and at best primitive
health and educational facilities.
Why has the Nigerian government failed to address these problems?
Because, according to some observers, it has been totally at the
beck and call of the multinationals. The Niger Delta debacle is
a classic case of collusion between international finance capital
and a corrupt, morally derelict state. "The Nigerian government
has no power," says Oronto Douglas of Environmental Rights
Action (ERA), based in the oil-refining city of Port Harcourt.
"Power lies with the oil companies."
Noted oil scholar Kayode Soremekun, a professor at Obafemi
Awolowo University in the city of Ile-Ife, echoes Douglas' view:
"The Nigerian state is a shell, and Shell [the Anglo-Dutch
giant] is the Nigerian state."
RESISTANCE AND REPRESSION
The struggle of the oil-yielding communities to redress this
untoward situation has led to bitter conflict with the central
authorities. The Niger Delta has been in turmoil since the 1 990s,
when the Ogoni people began leading the battle to change the relationship
of the oil-yielding areas with the Nigerian state and within the
Nigerian federation. The Ogoni, who number about 500,000 and inhabit
one of the oil-rich stretches of land in the Niger Delta, have
been in the forefront of the struggle to end government developmental
neglect. They have also demanded a dramatic increase in the area's
allocation of oil revenue.
In 1990, the Ogoni Central Council, led by writer and environmental
activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, presented a petition to the government
and people of Nigeria. In over 30 years of oil mining on their
soil, the petitioners stated, Ogoni land had provided Nigeria
with total revenue estimated at over 40 billion naira (then about
US $2 billion), for which they had received "NOTHING"
in return. Rather, they had "no representation whatsoever
in ALL institutions of the Federal Government of Nigeria; no pipe-borne
water; no electricity; no job opportunities; [and] no social or
economic projects of the federal government." "It is
intolerable," they declared, "that one of the richest
areas of Nigeria should wallow in abject poverty and destitution."
The petitioners accused the federal and state governments of promoting
ethnic politics that were "gradually pushing the Ogoni people
to slavery and possible extinction."
Subsequently, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People
(MOSOP) was formed as the umbrella organization for all Ogoni
groups fighting for greater resource allocation and control. Among
its objectives, MOSOP hoped to achieve political control of Ogoni
affairs by the Ogoni, the right to control and use of a "fair
proportion" of the economic resources found on Ogoni land,
and the right to protect the Ogoni environment and ecology from
The emergence of MOSOP, led by Saro-Wiwa after the exit of
other Ogoni leaders (who were later murdered in the ensuing crisis),
changed the tone and tenor of the struggle against both the state
and the oil companies. In a campaign that was as international
as it was national, Saro-Wiwa brought the world's attention to
the ecological devastation wreaked on Ogoni land, as well as to
the oppression and violent repression there, unequalled in any
other part of the world where oil is extracted. The symbol and
leader of the Ogoni struggle, Saro-Wiwa introduced an Ogoni flag
and national anthem that fired the agitation against the state
and the oil multinationals. Before long, other oil-yielding peoples,
such as the Ijaws, Itsekiris, and Ondos, were launching their
The Nigerian state responded by imposing a reign of terror.
Between 1993 and 1998, when the struggle was at its peak, the
military regime of the late General Sani Abacha deployed a military
task force on Ogoni land to "keep the peace." Lieutenant
Colonel Paul Okuntimo, the task-force commander, boasted that
he knew 103 ways to kill. For many Ogoni, this was no mere boast,
for the soldiers ravaged villages, raped women, and randomly killed
men, women, and children in a sadistic manner. The infamous hanging
of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight Ogoni compatriots by the Abacha regime
in November 1995 marked the height of the repression.
The state terror campaign was carried out with the connivance
and, sometimes, financial backing of the oil companies. In 1997,
the London Observer broke the story that Shell had purchased arms
to equip the Nigerian police guarding its installations. In response
to mounting condemnation, Shell disclosed that it was not the
only oil company given to the practice of supplying the police
As the struggle continued, however, it affected the psychological
balance of forces. The Ogoni case for self-determination became
an international cause célèbre after the 1995 hangings
of Saro-Wiwa and the others. Since then, the oil companies and
the Nigerian state have been forced to defend themselves before
the court of international public opinion.
At the same time, the 1995 hangings seem to have quickened
the pulse of the struggle for resource control and democratic
inclusiveness in the oil-yielding communities. "The youth
of the Niger Delta are not waiting and doing nothing," says
Oronto Douglas of ERA. "The Ijaw Youth Council, the Isoko
Youth Council, and MOSOP are saying, 'Hold it, corporations. Hold
it, government. You can't do what you like'" These groups,
including the National Youth Council of Ogoni People (NYCOP),
have been organizing protests and campaigns, and sometimes have
prevented the oil companies from carrying out exploration activities
on their lands.
Their struggle got a big boost in October 2000, when the U.S.
Circuit Court of Appeal ruled that the Ogoni people could bring
a class-action suit against Shell. The Ogoni went to court to
seek redress for Shell's collusion with the Nigerian military
in the brutal treatment meted out to the Ogoni. The ruling set
a precedent that could precipitate thousands of legal actions
against the other oil corporations. Shell plans to appeal.
Over the years, the Nigerian federal government and the oil
companies have initiated programs to quell the discontent of people
in the Niger Delta. Even under the cruel regimes of Generals Ibrahim
Babangida (19851993) and Abacha ( 1993-1998), the Oil Mineral
Producing Areas Development Commission (OMPADEC) coordinated development
projects in the area. But like most institutions under military
control, OMPADEC turned out to be a cesspool, in which billions
of dollars disappeared into the private pockets of commission
operators and soldiers. The oil companies, for their part, set
up several projects, including provision of basic infrastructure,
scholarship schemes, and community-relations units through which
community members could express their needs. Yet the oil companies
have continued to deny responsibility for the ecological destruction.
Says Brian Anderson, Shell's managing director, "We totally
reject accusations of devastation in Ogoni land or Niger Delta.
This has been dramatized out of proportion."
In any case, as far as the communities are concerned, these
efforts are insignificant given the billions of petrodollars that
are extracted from the soil. This assessment applies also to the
civilian regime of President Obasanjo. The most significant step
taken by the current government, the establishment of a Niger
Delta Development Commission (NDDC), has come under a hail of
criticism. Ben Naanen, a leading Ogoni patriot and scholar, has
referred to the NDDC as a monumental distraction, which may do
no better than its institutional predecessor, OMPADEC, in achieving
its development task.
In the absence of meaningful government action, the conflict
has escalated. In recent months, the youth of the area have seized
flow stations, burst oil pipes, and committed other acts of sabotage.
They have even taken oil company personnel (mostly foreigners)
as hostages and, in some cases, killed them. While some of these
acts have been tied to the youth groups, most are carried out
by unorganized youth in the oil-yielding villages and towns. ln
the meantime, the Niger Delta agitation has given birth to an
historic legal battle over resource control. Presently, the Nigerian
government is in court with the oil-yielding states, including
Bayelsa, Rivers (where most Ogoni land is located), Cross Rivers,
Akwa-Ibom, and Ondo. At a minimum, the states are calling for
both a higher percentage of on-shore oil revenue, and a share
of the earnings from off-shore oil resources.
HOPE FOR THE FUTURE?
Over time, the struggle in the Niger Delta has become bound
up with the overall struggle in Nigeria for demilitarization of
governance and the expansion of political space. With the military's
retreat to the barracks in May 1999, expectations have risen that
the deprivation of the Niger Delta peoples will come to an end.
Unfortunately, these hopes are getting more forlorn. If the experience
of Odi is any indication, bleaker days may still be ahead. Irrespective
of who is in charge, whether military or civilian, the state apparatus
in Nigeria appears rigged to undermine the struggle of the oil-yielding
communities for control of their resources.
Yet the future of the Niger Delta struggle remains a critical
part of the yet-unanswered national question in Nigeria - the
question of whether the Nigerian federation will remain intact.
Its resolution will revolve around such related issues as the
continued existence of the country, domination by particular ethnic
groups, how to organize the federating groups, formulas for power-sharing,
the military threat, and so on. The redressing of historical wrongs
in the Niger Delta will not be an isolated event, but rather a
gradual process animated by dynamics within the entire Nigerian
system - that is, if the region does not convulse into another
round of wholesale violence. The daily buffet of violence served
by the youths of the area to protest the present arrangement,
and the vigorous campaign by the governors and leaders of the
oil-yielding states for total control of their resources, both
on- and off-shore, may lead to a deeper crisis.
"The fuse on the Niger Delta is very short," says
fisheries expert Chris Allegoa, an Ijaw (the largest minority
group in the area). "All of these explosions throughout the
Delta are just mini-explosions. There could be a big bang."
And if the Niger Delta explodes? "Nigeria," Allegoa
says, "goes with it."
Wale Adebanwi is a journalist who has written extensively
on Nigerian politics. He is currently an instructor of political
science at the University of Ibadan, and a Fellow in the University's
Program of Ethnic and Federal Studies.