Oil on water

AUTHOR: Helon Habila

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December 2005 | Peace Brief by Dorina Bekoe
About the Niger Delta

The Niger Delta, an area of dense mangrove rainforest in the southern tip of Nigeria, comprises nine of Nigeria’s thirty-six states: Abia, Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Cross River, Delta, Edo, Imo, Ondo, and Rivers. The region’s oil accounts for approximately 90 percent of the value of Nigeria’s exports, but the Niger Delta remains one of Nigeria’s least developed regions.


Africa (Niger and Nigeria outlined)

Biography of Helon Habila

Born in Nigeria. Writes short stories, poetry, and novels.
Poet and prose fiction writer Helon Habila studied Literature at the University of Jos and lectured for three years at the Federal Polytechnic, Bauchi, before going to Lagos to write for HintsMagazine. Extracts from his collection of short stories, Prison Stories,were published in Nigeria in 2000. The full text was published as a novel in the UK under the title Waiting for an Angel in 2002 and received a Commonwealth Writers Prize (Africa Region, Best First Book) in 2003. Also in 2002, he moved to England to become a Writing Fellow at the University of East Anglia.Helon Habila also won the MUSON Poetry Prize in 2000 and was the arts editor of the Vanguard Newspaper. He is currently teaching Creative Writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, where he lives. His second novel, Measuring Time, the tale of twin brothers living in a Nigerian village, was published in 2007, and his latest novel isOil On Water (2010), shortlisted for the 2011 Commonwealth Writers Prize (Africa Region, Best Book)..
Critical Perspective
Helon Habila’s novels are stories of individuals discovering and dealing with loneliness, ennui, love affairs that don’t quite work out, political corruption, brutality and violence, and the enduring importance of freedom of expression.

Set in his native Nigeria, his first two books have already established his as a fresh and original literary voice.

His debut novel, Waiting for an Angel (2002), was originally written as a series of short stories (the first of which, published as ‘Prison Stories’, won him the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing). While Habila has said that constructing the book in this way allowed him a sense of achievement as he completed each section, the fracturing of viewpoints and chronology also creates an effective jarring which mirrors the story’s tense and unsettling atmosphere.

In the first section we meet Lomba, a journalist imprisoned for two years without trial. In the repressive Abacha regime of 1990s Nigeria, harsh crackdowns on the media, arbitrary arrests and brutal quelling of protests have fostered a climate of fear and violence. Habila likes blurring the line between fact and fiction, and much of the book has a documentary and an autobiographical feel. His reference to real events, including the execution of writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, lend the novel a current of immediacy and authenticity. Even the author himself appears at a party of writers and poets.

Lomba initially appears far from a political animal: he’s much more interested in girls, soul music and writing a novel. But gradually the grip of the disturbing events around him grows tighter and tighter, as his friends and colleagues start to find themselves caught up in the violence. Knowing about his imprisonment in advance invites the reader to consider the key turning points in the events leading to it, and whether things might have turned out differently.

Throughout the novel, words are portrayed as a positive reaction to oppression. Lomba’s novel, the reports published by his newspaper colleagues in an attempt to inform the people of real events, and even the love letters that the incarcerated Lomba pens for his jailer’s girlfriend, are all seen as positive affirmations of the human spirit in the face of the oppressor. We are invited to weigh up the power and effectiveness of each written form in changing attitudes and ideas – even if it’s just one person at a time. Similarly, the importance of music and humour in the novel are ways both of showing that the characters aren’t defined purely by their suffering, but are able to continue expressing themselves and feeling deeply. Habila says that in his stories ‘people still fall in love in spite of repression, people still aspire in spite of being in prison, they write poetry – and what greater affirmation of life and hope can you find that is greater than poetry, self-expression?’ Seen in this context, Waiting for an Angel is itself clearly an act of defiance, of revolt, an attempt to portray the truth, and to assert in the process the fundamental human right to express it.

Habila’s second novel, Measuring Time (2007), is much broader in scope than its predecessor, with an epic ambition to tell the story of a village from its conversion to Christianity by white missionaries, through periods of political machinations and power struggles, to the present day. Compared to Waiting for an Angel, Habila has said he sees the book as ‘more traditional, more down to earth. Here I seek to express myself more directly, to say exactly what I mean. But it is as serious as the first one, still as political.’

Focussing on the lives of Mamo and his twin brother LaMamo, Habila quickly sets up parallels between them: LaMamo is the stronger, bolder, more reckless one; Mamo has inherited sickle-cell disease and is weaker, but more thoughtful and bookish. Their paths divide when Mamo isn’t strong enough to accompany his brother on their planned escape to the army. For more than a decade LaMamo travels the African continent fighting with various rebel groups, while Mamo stays behind and becomes a teacher at the village school. But while LaMamo’s horizons are broadened spatially, and his understanding of politics is gained through a first-hand familiarity with violence and death, Mamo’s mind stretches to take in a temporal consideration of history, and its relevance to contemporary events.

Once again it is words which become the crucial means of asserting individual freedom and self-expression. Mamo’s career as a writer begins when, aged fourteen and bored, he transcribes the lines of the traditional village play to make the actors’ lives easier. But his life really begins to change when, as a teacher, he begins contemplating what history really means, and how it ought to be written. He writes a paper arguing against a colonial version of his village’s history, which is published by an academic journal abroad, and is encouraged to write another explaining how he thinks history should be written. When Mamo argues that history should be about people rather than geography, we’re invited as readers to consider the village as a microcosm of Nigeria – the country which is itself an arbitrary grouping of multiple languages, cultures and peoples. But when Mamo is invited to write a biography of the local chief, he comes to realise how even writing personal histories can, in the wrong hands, become a political tool.

Habila’s work is ambitious in its scope and the themes it tackles: politics, corruption, colonialism, coming-of-age, education, history and love. His characterisation is strong and vivid, as is his evocation of both the landscapes of Nigeria, and the often fragile atmosphere when peace can tip over suddenly into violence.


Commonwealth Writers Prize (Africa Region, Best Book) , Oil on Water, shortlist
Library of Virginia Fiction Prize (US), Measuring Time 
Commonwealth Writers Prize (Africa Region, Best First Book), Waiting for an Angel
Caine Prize for African Writing, ‘Love Poems’
MUSON Poetry Prize (Nigeria), ‘Another Age’


Nigerian author Helon Habila mixes oil and water in new novel


May 31, 2011

For all the public outrage directed at government agencies and BP over last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Americans and others across the world have largely remained silent when it comes to the environmental destruction wreaked by the oil industry in the Niger delta. The United States imports 40 percent of its crude oil from Nigeria, and according to reliable estimates, the Niger delta has suffered spills over the past half century that are 50 times the size that of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.

Helon Habila. Photo: Flickr/BBC World Service

However, unlike in the United States, the Nigerian government has never called upon oil companies to improve their safety procedures or to provide meaningful compensation for those whose lives and livelihoods have been altered by the oil extraction.

In the absence of any government accountability, Nigerian journalists have taken it upon themselves to act as de facto watchdogs – often at great personal and professional risk. In 1995, environmental activist and writer Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed by a military tribunal for speaking out against the government.

Nigerian novelist Helon Habila comes out of this tradition, where politics and literature are closely intertwined. In Habila’s latest book, “Oil on Water,” the rookie journalist, Rufus, treks into the foggy backwaters of the Niger delta in search of the wife of a British oil executive kidnapped for ransom by a militia group whose stated goal is to bring the environmental destruction of the oil industry to the attention of the government and the world.

I recently talked to Habila about his novel, the ongoing environmental devastation of his homeland and the liberating properties of fiction.

Gabrielle Zuckerman: Can you talk a little about your decision to cast the narrator as a journalist?

Helon Habila: Yah, it’s an interesting choice. I’ve done it with my first novel, “I’m Waiting for an Angel,” and, of course, I was a journalist myself. First and foremost, there was a functional element because I know exactly what a journalist does. Then there’s also the symbolic significance of a person who can ask questions, investigate, takes pictures and document things for posterity.

I’m trying to call attention to the fact that we’re going to be held accountable. The destroyers of the environment are going to be held accountable by future generations. These things will be there for them to see and to know. So it’s very important to preserve nature and to stop the destruction of nature. The destruction of this beautiful wetland [occurred] in one generation. Oil destruction started in the 1950s, and we’re [now] witnessing the ruin of a whole way of life. The farmers cannot farm, the fishermen cannot fish. Everything’s changed.

Zuckerman: Why did you choose to write a novel about what’s happening in your homeland, as opposed to writing a nonfiction book or an expose?

Habila: I think that writing fiction gives you the latitude to go beyond journalism: to go into the houses and the minds of these little people that have been forgotten, that have been trampled by all of these big companies and the government. [In a novel], I can create a narrative for this forgotten, overlooked individual. And that’s what a good story does. It creates a full character; you can make them as passionate and as convincing and as heroic as you want. You can’t do that with nonfiction, not as effectively.

Zuckerman: At one point, your main character Rufus ends up on an island inhabited by these men and women who wear white robes and seem to be part of a religious cult or a commune. They live on this island peacefully and are seemingly immune to the conflict raging around them. They’re like a calm respite in the midst of chaos. Who do they represent?

Habila: Children are swimming in these oil-polluted waters as if they were clear lakes. This is the only water they’ve ever known in their life. … Abnormal has become so normal.

Habila: I wanted to show people despairing of the modern situation with all of its destructiveness — all these elements of modernity that came to Africa with colonialism. There’s a kind of harkening back to traditional ways where people didn’t destroy nature, not on this scale definitely. People were mindful; people would live in harmony with their environment. So I was trying to [illustrate] the despair that people feel [in contemporary times].

Zuckerman: In your book, you describe how oil has altered the Niger delta, with the constant and prevalent gas flares and the presence of oil in the water and on the land. Can you describe this a bit more?

Habila: Gas flares are a byproduct of extracting oil. A friend [recently told me of a trip where] he was flying at night over the delta to another African country and when he looked down, he saw the gas flares … fires all over the delta. He said it was surreal, these fires all over the land. And that’s the way it is. In some places, it’s like daylight all the time. The women are so used to these gas flares that they go there to dry their food, [despite the risk of] chemical and the acid [contamination]. Children are swimming in these oil-polluted waters as if they were clear lakes. This is the only water they’ve ever known in their life. Polluted, you know? That’s it. Abnormal has become so normal.

Kome Okwaghecha dries her tapioca near a gas flare belonging to Shell oil company in Warri, Nigeria, in 2006. Photo: AP/George Osodi

Zuckerman: You were in the U.S. during last year’s Gulf oil spill. What was it like to watch the response here in comparison to the apathy that greets oil spills and accidents in Nigeria?

Habila: Yah, it made me realize how powerful the words of people can be. People just have to stand up and reject this injustice. And it’s also important when their government backs them. A government [that] leads — that is what is sorely missing in Nigeria.

Almost every year, we have similar kinds of Deepwater Horizon spills in Nigeria, and they just pour in chemicals and disperse the oil. Sometimes, they don’t even get to do that. Nobody talks. Sometimes they just offer a little compensation and the money disappears. And the environment is suffering. It’s crazy … and unsustainable.

We have to change things; the oil companies are not going to change things for us.

Zuckerman: It must be very hard to watch what’s happening in your country. I sensed certain hopelessness in your novel: There’s no protection from the oil companies; there’s no place to hide.

Habila: There’s money involved, and we’re talking about a lot of money here: billions. Nigeria is the seventh largest oil producer in the world. Imagine the money that’s being made from oil. And with chaos, there’s no accountability, so people can [profit from] that. Once there’s order, there’s accountability, and people won’t make that kind of money. People have oil wells, and we don’t know how they got them; people have import-export licenses, we don’t know how they got them.

This is the situation. I don’t want to say that it’s the fault of the oil companies alone. It’s also the fault of Nigerians because it’s their country — it’s our country. We have to change things; the oil companies are not going to change things for us.

Zuckerman: Nigeria has a history of turning out prominent writers like Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka. How have they influenced your generation of writers?

Habila: They inspire us. There’s always been a connection between literature, politics and Africa if you go back to anti-colonial movements and all that. [For us], there’s no separation, really, between politics and literature. So they inspire us, not just in terms of literary activity, but also in terms of speaking out, being involved, refusing to keep quiet when something is not going right. So I think that’s their biggest legacy in Nigeria.


Shell faces Dutch lawsuit over Niger Delta pollution

By Ivana Sekularac and Anthony Deutsch   Oct 10, 2012

(Reuters) – Oil major Royal Dutch Shell Plc will defend its environmental record in the Niger Delta on Thursday as it faces a lawsuit that may set a precedent for damage claims related to the activities of international companies.

The case, filed in a local court in The Hague where Shell has its joint global headquarters, seeks to make Shell and other corporations responsible for pollution resulting from three oil spills in 2004, 2005 and 2007 in Africa’s top energy producer.

Plaintiffs are four Nigerians and campaigning group Friends of the Earth.

The four, who are fishermen and farmers, are seeking unspecified compensation and argue they can no longer feed their families because the area has been polluted with oil from Shell’s pipelines and production facilities.

Shell says the pollution was caused by oil thieves and that it has played its part in cleaning up.

“The real tragedy of the Niger Delta is the widespread and continual criminal activity, including sabotage, theft and illegal refining, that causes the vast majority of oil spills,” the group said in a statement.

Friends of the Earth said it hopes the case – set to last a day during which attorneys for both sides will present arguments before the judges retire to give their verdicts next year – will set a precedent and lead to “an end to the corporate crimes committed by oil giants like Shell in Nigeria and around the world”.


With around 31 million inhabitants, the Niger Delta, which includes the Ogoniland region, is one of the top 10 wetland and coastal marine ecosystems in the world and is a main source of food for the poor, rural population.

It’s not only environmental groups who have been critical of Shell’s Nigerian operations.

Last year, the United Nations said in a report the government and multinational oil companies, particularly Shell, were responsible for 50 years of oil pollution that had devastated the Ogoniland region.

In one community near an oil pipeline, drinking water was contaminated with benzene, a substance known to cause cancer, at levels over 900 times above the World Health Organization guidelines.

Shell also faced legal action this month in the United States, where the U.S. Supreme court is hearing a case in which Nigerian refugees accused it of aiding the Nigerian military in the torture and killing environmentalists in the 1990s.

The government and oil firms have pledged to clean up the region and other parts of the Delta, but residents say they have seen very little action.

Royalty payments from oil firms and the sharing of federal oil revenues mean state governments in the Niger Delta have larger budgets than many West African nations, but endemic corruption has meant that little development has been achieved.

Shell Petroleum Development Co (SPDC) is the largest oil and gas company in Nigeria, with production capacity of more than 1 million barrels of oil equivalent per day. It operates a joint venture with the Nigerian National Petroleum Corp and other oil companies including Total SA subsidiary Elf Petroleum Nigeria Ltd.

(Editing by David Holmes)


Violence and Poverty in the Oil-Producing Niger Delta 

The 2009 amnesty—which saw a few thousand people, including top militant commanders, surrendering weapons in exchange for cash payments—has reduced attacks on oil facilities, but kidnappings, mostly of family members of wealthy Nigerians, continued in the Niger Delta and southeastern Nigeria. The government made little effort to address the environmental damage from oil pollution, state and local government corruption, and political sponsorship of armed groups, which drive and underlie violence and poverty in the oil-rich region.

Decades of oils spills—from multinational oil company operations, sabotage of pipelines, and bunkering (theft) of crude oil—and widespread gas flaring have left the Niger Delta heavily polluted. A UN report in August found that oil pollution in the Ogoniland region of Rivers State may require the world’s largest clean up ever, at an initial cost of US$1 billion, and take up to 30 years. The UN team found that oil contamination had migrated into the groundwater in at least eight spill sites that Shell—the largest oil company in Nigeria—had claimed they had remediated.

http://www.hrw.org/world-report-2012/world-report-2012-nigeria   Human Rights Watch


From e -International Relations : The Politics of Oil in the Niger Delta  by Emannuelle Duru Dec. 5, 2010

December 5, 2010


Oil production in Nigeria has been a mixed bag of fortune and misfortune, of blessings and curse, depending on who is feeling what effect. For the country, it has been a huge fortune. It is the source of her wealth, accounting for about 90 per cent of her foreign exchange earning. It is the source from which governments at the federal, state and local levels fund all developmental programmes and projects. (TELL, February 18, 2008).

Oil is one sector in which the much desired transfer of technology had, to some extent, been achieved, especially in the areas of exploration and production. Nigeria’s membership of such important bodies as the World Petroleum Congress (WPC), Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), and African Petroleum Producers Association (APPA) has raised the country’s profile internationally. In other words, that Nigeria is a force to reckon with in the comity of nations is, arguably, attributable to her being an oil producing country, (Udeme Ekpo, 2004: 39).

For the oil-bearing communities in the Niger Delta, however, oil has been more of a curse than a blessing. In communities where oil exploration and production are carried out onshore, deforestation, erosion and destroyed farmlands are the main signposts for this gift of nature. Oil production activities in these communities have polluted creeks and destroyed aquatic life. And where there are spillages, losses would be unquantifiable in monetary terms. There is also the problem of acid rain, which destroys houses, which people living within the vicinity of oil exploration and production activities have to contend with everyday of their lives (Ray Ekpu, March 10, 2008; Dan Agbese, January 25, 1993).

Obviously, over 50 years of oil exploration and exploitation had occasioned environmental degradation and pollution, resulting in excruciating and brutalizing poverty, unemployment, disease, health hazards and even death among people living in this region (TELL, February 18, 2008). According to Azigbo (2008:18), the major culprits in these ugly situations are the oil multinationals and the insensitivity of successive governments at the centre

Consequently, there has been for some time, which intensified since the late 1990s, the emergence of resistant organizations from various ethnic nationalities in the Niger Delta to confront the oil multinationals and the Nigerian government. The restiveness which stated on a mild note has since degenerated into a state of militancy, hostage-taking, destruction of oil installations, disruption of socio-economic activities and unparalleled violence, so that by 1998, the Niger Delta region had become a lawless zone (NDDC at a Glance, February, 2004).

At the root of the crisis in the Niger Delta have been the attempts by the indigenes of the region to control the oil resources located within their land. The struggle for the control of oil wealth by the indigenous population has a long history dating back to 1966 when the late Isaac Adaka Boro, attempted secession of the Kaiama Declaration. It has been sustained since then with the agitation taking different forms and dimensions.

Thus, examining the dimensions of resource control in the Niger Delta is the central focus of this study. The paper argues that the politics of oil in the Niger Delta highlights more profound national challenges with which the Nigerian state will need to contend, most notably, issues of fiscal federalism, minority rights, resources allocation and poverty alleviation.


Defining the Niger Delta Region

For practical purposes, the Niger Delta region is defined as comprising the area covered by the natural delta of the Niger River and the areas to the East and West, which also produce oil. The natural limits of the Niger River Delta can be defined by its geology and hydrology. Its approximate northern boundaries are located close to the bifurcation of the Niger River of Aboh, while the Western and Eastern boundaries are around the Benin River and Imo River, respectively. The area covers approximately 25,000 square kilometers ).

The broader Niger Delta region, which includes all oil-producing areas and others considered relevant for reasons of administrative convenience, political expedience and development objectives, extends the land area to 75,000 square kilometers (UNDP 2006:19). It is this definition that is used by this study. Defined in this way, the Niger Delta consists of nine states (Abia, Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Cross River, Delta, Edo, Imo, Rivers and Ondo) and 185 local governments areas.

The region has some unique characteristics. For instance, it is one of the largest wetlands in the world and it is noted for its sandy coastal ridge barriers, brackish or shine mangroves, fresh waters, permanent and seasonal swamp forests as well as low land rain forests. The whole area is traversed and criss-crossed by a large number of rivers, streams, canals and creeks, while the mainland is subjected to regions of flood by the various rivers (ERML, 2005).

The Niger Delta region is extremely heterogeneous with respect to culture and ethnicity. The five major linguistic and cultural groups – the Ijaw, Edo, delta Cross, Yoruba and Igbo – are each composed of numerous sub-groups. The Ijaw, who are said to have the longest settlement history in Niger Delta, are the most complex linguistically. Each of the numerous clans of this group has some linguistic and cultural distinctiveness. In certain cases, villages in the same clan have linguistic differences. This group, which occupies virtually the whole of Bayelsa State, is also found in Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Delta, Edo and Ondo States.

The Edo group is made up of mainly of the Isoko and Urhobo of Delta State, the Edo of Edo State, the Engenni and Apie-Atissa of Bayelsa State. Even within these groups, several sub-groups exist; many claim to have their own individual identity.

The Delta Cross comprises mainly the Ogoni, Ogbia, Abua and Obolo-Andoni in Rivers State. The most well known, especially internationally, is the Ogoni because of its agitation for resource control and autonomy. The ethno cultural complexity of the Niger Delta region is vividly illustrated by the fact that even a small ethnic group like the Ogoni (about 500,000 people) is made up of at least four cultural groups: the Khana, Gokana, Tai and Eleme (UNDP, 2006:22).

In spite of the fact that the Yoruba and Igbo are two of the largest ethnic groups in Nigeria, the related groups in the Niger Delta are some of the smallest there. The main Yoruba groups are the Itshekiri of Delta State, and the Ilaje and Ikale in the borderlands of Ondo State. The main Igbo groups are the Ikwerre, Ndoni, Egbema, Ogbia and Ekpeye in Rivers State and the Ukwuani in Delta State (ANEEJ, 2004).

In 1991, the total population of all the nine states of the Niger Delta was 20.5 million. This was made up of 10.133 million males and 10.329 million females. The projected total population for 2005 was 28.9 million, rising to 39.2 million by 2015 and 45.7 million by 2020. The states with the highest population size are Rivers, Delta, Akwa Ibom and Imo. With the possible exception of Bayelsa and Cross River States, there are probably no significant differences in population sizes among the states (CPED, 2003: 33)

Available information on the age structure of the population of states in the Niger Delta region depicts a large segment of young people below 30 years of age. This group comprises 62.1 per cent of the population of the region, compared with 35.8 per cent of adults in the 30 to 69 years age bracket. Based on the 1991 census, there is almost an even distribution of population between men and women in the Niger Delta Region (see NDDC at a Glance, 2004). Though the 1991 census reports that in some state (Abia, Akwa Ibom, Delta, Edo and Imo), there are more females than males, the NDDC Regional Master Plan, reports that there are more males (54 per cent) than females (46 per cent).

Fishing and agriculture are the two major traditional occupation of the Niger Delta peoples. During the colonial era, forestry was introduced as a third major economic activity in the region. Today, though agriculture, fishing and forestry still account for about 44 per cent of employment, all three economic activities have declined since the ascendancy of the oil industry (UNDP, 2006:25).


According to Ekpo (2004: 133), for more than four decades, the people of the Niger Delta had lived with the anomaly of having to feed on the crumbs of the national cake which is baked in their territory, but which is shared in the nation’s capital – hundreds of kilometers away – with other Nigerians who know nothing about the negative effects of oil exploration and production as the highest beneficiaries. They had been content to accept the little handouts, which came their way, in forms of a few development projects, from the federal government.

If they were not satisfied with the situation, such dissatisfaction was expressed in subdued tones at public fora, whenever the opportunity presented itself. In extreme cases, especially when if concerned the youths of the area, dissatisfaction was often expressed through the use of violence – like disruption of the activities of oil companies operating in the area; kidnapping of oil workers with demands for ransom and vandalization of petroleum facilities to cause spillage for which communities would demand compensation.

These violent agitations in the Niger Delta have been informed by the desire of the people of this region to control the oil wealth and resources located within their land. This desire on the other hand has been occasioned by the pervasive feelings of decades of abandonment among the people by the oil multinationals and successive governments at the centre.

The argument by the indigenes of the Niger Delta region over the years is that a people whose land produces the wealth that sustains the nation cannot be made to dwell in abject and excruciating poverty consequent upon environmental degradation and pollution resulting from oil production activities (See Newswatch, March 10, 2008; TELL, February 18, 2008). They have, therefore, in different ways been demanding for a fair share of the oil wealth to ensure poverty reduction, enhanced well-being, socio-economic infrastructural development of the area, or alternatively, be allowed to wholly control these oil resources (Newswatch, January 25, 199:10).

On the part of the oil multinationals and the Nigerian governments, there have been accusations and counter accusations, of neglect and abandonment of the people whose lives have been frustrated and endangered by oil production activities. Though the government and oil companies have been offering tokenism, through the establishment of development intervention agencies (whose activities have largely been frustrated by poor funding), the people contend that such is not enough. The government and the oil companies are being accused of indirectly but purposely ensuring the poverty of the people and the underdevelopment of the area to enhance their (government’s and oil companies’) economic interests. These have over the years resulted in violent agitations of varying magnitude which date back to pre-colonial era.

According to Emmanuel Duru (1999: 100-103), the politics of oil merchandise produced the first nationalists in the Niger Delta. These were African merchants and rulers who insisted that the trade must bring a fair deal to the area. The commodities then were largely palm oil and slaves; the Europeans marked them as threat to legitimate trade and proceeded to terrorize and eliminate them. King William Deppa Pepple of Bouny was an early casualty in 1854. He was exiled by Consul Beecroff to Fernado Po (Equatorial Guinea) and then to Clearance, though he was restored in 1861, he died five years later.

Another Niger Delta indigene who was immersed in the politics of oil and merchandise was King Jaja of Opobo, and ex-slave, shrewd but generous business man who paid off the European slave owners in order to buy freedom for the slaves. He was originally from Bonny, but an orchestrated squabble from a rival house saw him exiled to Opobo in Andoniland. Others who opposed the exploitative trade of the European merchants and paid for it were King Nana Olomu of Itshekiri in 1883 and Oba Oviraniyem Nogbaisi of Benin Empire in 1897.

The agitation continued uptil the post-colonial era. Precisely in 1966, according to Duru (1999), there was a 12 day revolution by a Niger Delta indigene named Isaac Adaka Boro. He led a small guerrilla army of Ijaw nationals to declare the “Niger Delta Republic”. After 12 days, federal troops overcame Boro and his determined compatriots. He, Samuel Owonanu and Nothingham Dick were tried for treason and condemned to death on June 21, 1966.

After what seemed a period of quietness and silence, the Ogoni uprising erupted and lasted between 1990 and 1995. This period marked a new phase in the interesting interface of oil and minority politics between the Nigerian state and government and the peoples of the Niger Delta. According to Duru (1999), not since the rebellion of Boro and Co. declared a short-lived independence over oil related grievances, has any oil producing community sought redress in ways which involved mobilized mass action and direct confrontation with the state as the Ogonis did.           Ken Saro Wiwa, former playwright, social critic and one time federal administration of the region who led the insurrection against Shell Petroleum Development Corporation (SPDC), along with eight others paid with their lives on November 10, 1995.

Shell in particular is alleged to have influenced its joint partner (the Nigerian state) in the oil trade in the execution of the “Ogoni nine” as they were popularly known. In an editorial commentary on November 13, 1995, the Guardian Newspapers states thus:

In the final tragic document on the Ogoni crisis, national and international global attention became focused on Shell Petroleum Development Corporation and other oil companies doing business in Niger Delta. Allegations and suspicious of complicity were raised against Shell in particular. Matters were not helped by statements emanating from Shell before and after the hanging. In desperate attempt to exonerate itself of guilt, Shell came off with the unfortunate impression that if cared more about being in good business than about the fate of the communities in which it exploits oil and allied products.


The experiences of Adaka Boro and Ken Saro Wiwa and Co. according to Ekpo (2004:133) showed that the political atmosphere, for the greater part of the period during which the country was under military rule, did not present opportunity for a more forceful approach to demands for equity, justice and fair play in the Niger Delta. But even in the current democratic dispensation, the story of Odi, Bayelsa state is not different.

Since the emergence of the Fourth Republic in 1999, agitations in the Niger Delta moved from demands for a fair share of the national cake to the right to have control over natural resources that are found in the area. The demand for “resource control” as it is popularly called, was championed by the governors of the Niger Delta States and the entire Conference of the Southern Governors. In one of its meetings in Yenagoa, the Bayelsa State capital on September 20, 2001, the governors issued a communiqué in which they called for the adoption of what they referred to as true federalism. The communiqué read in part.

The conference noted with dissatisfaction that Nigeria is not practising true federalism and urges the country to abide by the tenets of true federalism and fiscal autonomy for the federating states as well as proper devolution of power to the states (Ekpo, 2004: 135).


The agitation for resources control was naturally tied to the demand for the control of land and was hinged on the precedent during the First Republic, when the regions, which were then the federating units had control over agricultural produce.

No issue, has in Nigeria’s recent history been contentious and controversial as the issue of resource control. People in Southern part of Nigeria saw it as the only answer to the nagging question of how to guarantee justice and fair play in the handling of resources of nature, especially when exploration of such resources carry with it negative consequences on the environment. But many in the Northern part of Nigeria considered the agitation as an invitation of anarchy. They expressed the fear that behind the agitation for resource control is the suspicion of a grand design by states in the south with enormous wealth to seek independence from Nigeria. They, therefore, expressed preference for a stronger federal government that would be more responsible for all other parts of the country.

Caught in the clash of counter claims and charges the Federal Government under Obasanjo took the case for resource control to the Supreme Court. On April 5, 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the federal Government which was asking for the determination of the rights of the federating state to control their natural resources.

Though a political settlement to the case between the federal and State governments was sort afterwards, the politics of oil in the Niger Delta has ever since assumed a more worrisome and violent dimensions, turning the region into a den of militants and lawlessness. The problem of militancy and violence in the Niger Delta manifests in two ways namely, disruption of oil and gas installations and facilities, and hostage-taking and kidnapping of oil workers. The militant groups in the region have carried out deadly and paralyzing attacks on oil and gas stations and facilities.

Statistics released by a non-governmental organization, the Niger Delta Development Monitoring and Corporate Watch (NIDDEMCOW) shows that between 1999 and June, 2007, a total of 308 hostage incidents occurred in the region (the Tide, Tuesday, July 10, 2007). A breakdown of this record shows that Bayelsa state was on the lead with 131 incidents; Rivers State had 113: Delta State 45, while Akwa Ibom had the least record of 15. Unfortunately, the situation appears to be deteriorating by the day as the spate of hostage-taking and kidnapping incidents are one the increase (see Sunday Vanguard, February 10, 2008: 9; Saturday Sun, March 29, 2008: 10 and Vanguard, April 6, 2008)

Even at the face of threat to national security and the unity of the state, the Nigerian government is yet to fashion out a strategy to ensure a lasting solution to the problem of oil and minority politics in the Niger Delta (Newswatch, August, 2008: 14 -26).


Obviously, the politics of oil in the Niger Delta highlights more profound national challenges with which the Nigerian state will have to contend, most notably, issues of fiscal federalism, minority rights, resources allocation and poverty alleviation (Cesarz, 2003).

A modest start in this direction is for the government and oil companies to make life more bearable in these oil bearing communities. This will require a massive infusion of funds into this region. And because this is expensive, the governments and the oil companies shy away from the challenge or simply offer tokenism. Neither shying away nor tokenism can solve the problem of setting up schools, hospitals and industries in these places so that life can be somewhat liveable, and those who take up arms against the state and us, for right or wrong reasons, may let us live in peace.


From the New York Times

Supreme Court to Hear 2 Human Rights Cases

Published: October 17, 2011WASHINGTON —
The Supreme Court agreed on Monday to hear a pair of cases on whether corporations and political groups may be sued in American courts for complicity in human rights abuses abroad. The Supreme Court has offered only limited and tentative guidance on the general questions of what sorts of human rights lawsuits may be brought in federal courts in the United States. The lower courts in both cases drew a clean line, saying that only individuals and not artificial  entities like corporations are subject to being sued.

One of the cases was brought by 12 Nigerians, who said that oil companies affiliated with Royal Dutch Shell had aided and abetted the Nigerian government in torture and executions in the Ogoni region of the country in the early 1990s. The plaintiffs sued under the Alien Tort Statute, a 1789 law that allows federal district courts to hear “any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.”

The meaning of that language is not obvious, and the law itself was largely ignored until the 1980s, when federal courts started to apply it in international human rights cases. A 2004 Supreme Court decision, Sosa v. Álvarez-Machain, left the door open to some claims under the law, as long as they involved violations of international norms with “definite content and acceptance among civilized nations.”

A footnote in that decision instructed lower courts to consider a related question, too: “whether international law extends the scope of liability for a violation of a given norm to the perpetrator being sued, if the defendant is a private actor such as a corporation or individual.”

With that prompting, a divided three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in New York, ruled that corporations were not subject to the law.

Judge José A. Cabranes, writing for the majority, said that international law jurisprudence since the Nuremberg trials after World War II allows human rights violations of international law to be “charged against states and against individual men and women but not against juridical persons such as corporations.”

In a concurrence, Judge Pierre N. Leval said that the case should have been dismissed on the narrower ground that the plaintiffs had not plausibly asserted that the oil companies had assisted the Nigerian government for the purpose of perpetrating human rights abuses, as opposed to obtaining protection for their operations.

But Judge Leval said the majority’s broad ruling did grave damage to the cause of international human rights, and had confused criminal and civil law. He wrote that international law took no position on whether civil liability may be imposed on corporations for violations of international law, leaving the question to individual nations. The Alien Tort Statute, he said, allows such liability.

The plaintiffs, in their brief urging the Supreme Court to hear the case,, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, No. 10-1491, said the Second Circuit majority had accomplished a “radical overhaul” of the law in this area and created “blanket immunity for corporations engaged or complicit in universally condemned human rights violations.”


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