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 foundations.

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 May 1999.

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.


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."


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 further degradation.

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 own campaigns.

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 with arms.

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.


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.

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