The Enemy Within: Oil in the Niger Delta

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From the Winter Issue "Africa's Moment"

By Fidelis Allen

PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria—It was a cool afternoon on November 10, 1995, in the Bundu Waterside area of Port Harcourt in southern Nigeria. In the local prison, the Ogoni environmental rights activist Kenule Saro-Wiwa sat awaiting execution. He had already been detained for a year, charged with murdering four Ogoni leaders. The charges were spurious. The four had actually died during a protest against oil pollution and government neglect. Saro-Wiwa had been caught between the demonstrators and heavily armed police—the real killers of the Ogoni four.

Police and army troops stood guard in front of the prison. Some distance away, townsfolk gathered, speechless with their hands folded solemnly. The atmosphere was at once volatile and sad. On this November day, the Nigerian state hanged Saro-Wiwa and eight other Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) environmental activists after a secret, stage-managed trial. “The federal government, with the support of the Rivers State government has killed these innocent Ogoni men, not for any other reason but for the love it has for oil,” snarled one resident in front of his shop across the street from the prison. “Meanwhile, oil has taken away food from the table of the rural people these leaders represented.”

The hanging of nine innocent individuals turned Saro-Wiwa into an international icon and only increased the determination of those who fight pollution by oil companies that threatens the lives and the livelihoods of the 30 million people who call the Niger Delta home. With 48 oil fields and 93 natural gas fields, the Delta region’s recoverable reserves are estimated at 34.5 billion barrels of oil and 94 trillion cubic feet of gas. At $90 a barrel, the oil alone would be worth in excess of $3.1 trillion—the equivalent of 11 years of the entire GDP of Nigeria. It is the primary resource that Nigeria’s government depends on to run the state. Since 1956, when oil was first discovered in commercial quantities at Oloibiri, presently part of Bayelsa State, the government has realized more than $600 billion dollars from oil. Yet most of the region’s people have hovered at or below the poverty level. Now, they are being threatened by a looming food shortage caused by oil pollution and gas flares.

The oil industry is the enemy within, but the government is telling Nigerians to believe that it is their best friend. Successive federal regimes have seen the oil industry as the lifeline of the nation’s economy, neglecting its impact on the people of the Niger Delta and their environment. Annual budgets of both federal and state governments hinge on expected oil money. President Goodluck Jonathan recently launched a Gas Revolution Policy using increased oil and gas production as the foundation of all national development.

The environment and development were supposed to be peaceful bedfellows. Today, this possibility is remote, especially here in the Niger Delta where oil and people come into the closest proximity. Oil development as a basis for socio-economic change has not only failed, it is fuelling social, environmental, and political conditions for a permanent state of unrest.

The Ogoni people were not the first in the Niger Delta to articulate a comprehensive response to oil-related problems. An initial reform effort in the 1960s by a few Ijaw youths was successfully resisted by the federal government. Isaac Jasper Boro led a group of armed youths under the Niger Delta Volunteer Force in protest against oil and gas exploration in the delta, declaring a Niger Delta Republic on February 23, 1966. The group was overpowered by superior federal forces, and the survivors, including Boro, were arrested and imprisoned. Although granted amnesty by General Yakubu Gowon’s government, Boro remained convinced that the oil industry would ultimately be responsible for the environmental degradation of the region and the destruction of his people, the Ijaw. Ironically, Nigeria’s current president, Goodluck Jonathan, is an Ijaw from this same coastal area. Nearly all of Nigeria’s 15 million Ijaw live within the oil belt.


From the perspective of the federal government, the oil industry can never be the enemy for one simple reason—it pays the bills. Political elites compete for high-level positions that have access to the oil wealth, which lubricates nearly all government programs at the local, state, and federal level. Moreover, the federal government has joint ventures—55 percent equity stakes—with the major oil companies in all exploration and production. The state is trapped by these long-term contractual relationships and is often unable to pursue transformative policies to protect the environment. By paying for the army and almost all other government services, national security in Nigeria is tied to the uninterrupted flow of oil money, turning those who disrupt oil exploration and production into enemies of the state.

The Nigerian government considered an Ogoni Bill of Rights, submitted in October 1990, a threat to its national interests. The Bill of Rights demanded political autonomy for Ogoniland within the Federal Republic of Nigeria; that a portion of Ogoni resources go to Ogoni development; the fair, proportional, and direct representation of Ogoni in all national institutions; the use of Ogoni languages within the territory; and environmental regulation of oil extraction to protect the local ecology.

Oil companies have paid lip service to cleaning up a host of spills in Ogoniland and the rest of the Niger Delta. While a number of oil-related environmental laws and regulations exist in Nigeria, none is fully implemented by major oil companies. The Environmental Impact Assessment Act of 1992 was designed to prevent oil spills and gas flaring. Sadly, oil companies can dismiss environmental impact statements with impunity. In some cases, the oil companies simply adopt sub-standard methods of cleaning up oil spills, as happened in the 2008 spill in Bodo City and Goi in Ogoniland. “The oil companies have maintained their ecological war against our community since 1958,” says Celestine Akpobari of the Ogoni Solidarity Forum. “This is something Ken Saro-Wiwa urged our people to resist, but the oil companies have failed to repent. The impact of that single oil spill will continue through our unborn generations.” The Bodo City spill was traced to a leak in an oil pipeline operated by Shell. The Goi community has largely deserted the area because of contamination from the leak.

The Ogoni people have sought a measure of political control within the Nigerian state as a way to tackle the environmental issues created by the oil industry. Since the three major ethnic groups in Nigeria (Hausa/Fulani, Yoruba, and Igbo) largely control the levers of power, minorities struggle to influence decisions about the exploration, production, and use of oil revenues. It took a second phase of violent protest by armed youths in the Niger Delta in the late 1990s to create an atmosphere conducive to the emergence of Jonathan as president. As a compromise, much of the ruling class among the ethnic triad agreed to allow Jonathan to emerge as vice president. After the death of President Musa Yar’Adua in 2010, Jonathan was expected to take over, but much of the political class resisted, especially those from the northern part of the country who feared the control of oil resources and revenues by someone with a real stake in this issue.

Eventually, the National Assembly intervened and cleared the way for Jonathan to become president. The battle against him continued, however, when he decided to stand for the presidency in the 2011 general election. Jonathan handily won under the platform of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) with 59 percent of the vote.

Despite Jonathan’s hold on the presidency, minority ethnic groups like his Ijaw are all but powerless within the Nigerian federal system and therefore are perpetually unable to regulate oil company activities. Some 2,400 oil spills have been reported in Nigeria between 2006 and 2010, but there are believed to be more than 1,000 cases of polluted sites that have never been documented. Over the past half-century, at least 260,000 barrels have been spilled every year, with massive harm to fish, water, and farmland. Considering the secrecy when it comes to spills, these numbers are likely vastly higher.


Large villages of hundreds of people are caked with oil. It has penetrated the earth and seeped into the groundwater. The family of Mene Eric Barizaa Doe in Goi village is one of thousands of victims, living in the vast oily quagmire that runs through the streets, seeps up the side of buildings, and has left half his family victims of illnesses ranging from skin diseases to cancer. The 2008 spill destroyed his late father’s fishing ponds, the only means of support for the family. “Shell has brought hunger, disease, and pain to my community,” sighs Doe. For this reason, Doe, along with three others from states in the Niger Delta, are currently in court at the Hague, suing Royal Dutch Shell for adequate compensation for the destruction of his family’s livelihood through oil pollution.

On June 26, 2005, an oil spill at Shell’s facility in Oruma killed game and destroyed fishing ponds, farms, and trees. Alali Efanga was among those whose fishing ponds were contaminated. “I inherited the fishponds from my late father,” says Efanga. “I lost my income due to the oil spill. Now, we are struggling to make ends meet.” Shell first appeared in the community four days after the spill to begin a clean up, but it quickly outsourced the responsibility to a contractor who dug pits near the polluted spots and buried the dark and sticky oil, leaving the byproducts to leach into the groundwater at the first rain. This crude method of cleanup damages local agriculture and can lead to fatal illnesses.

For its part, a Shell spokesman says it cleans up “all oil spilled from our facilities, no matter what the cause,” but admits it can be difficult for their crews, who are sometimes “physically prevented” from reaching a spill because of violence and infrastructure problems.

Women and children are the most affected by oil pollution in the Niger Delta. Margaret Dekawe, age 59, from oil-producing Gbaramatu in Bayelsa State, shared her pain with Betty Abah of Environmental Rights Action Gender Focal Point. “If we had known that this is what oil exploration would turn into, we would have told the white people right from the onset to hold off, for not long after they started, our suffering began,” Dekawe told Abah. “See me here, I am a widow. Our rivers have no fish. We are hungry. Only recently, soldiers, pursuing militants, chased us away from our communities and nearly killed us.” In many villages in the region, women are the breadwinners of their families. But, as Abah said “the destruction of the eco-system and [an end to] wide biodiversity have weighed more severely on the women who depend on them.”

Many of these problems originate with the Land Use Decree of 1978 that stripped local communities in the Niger Delta of any ownership rights or claims to decisions about oil. Without a fair proportion of Ogoni economic resources going to Ogoni development, poverty spread at the same time vast quantities of oil and gas were extracted from land appropriated by oil companies. David Alukpa of Blaziagha Federated Communities in Delta State, where Italy’s Agip Oil Company’s new oil field development has caused enormous pollution, describes the impact:

“We are the owner of the Grandgbene Deep Oil Well ‘A’, but since Agip came here and dug a canal we have not seen anything. They came here and dug the canal. They did not invite us or involve us about anything, about the oil found here. Agip entered this place by the backyard without informing us about their arrival or activities. Now, they have blocked our major access creek—Olumu Creek—with a canal. One cannot also go through the canal, which is theirs. Blaziagha is a federated area of eleven communities, but Agip does not recognize our existence. Look at the river. We cannot drink the water anymore because of what this canal has caused in the environment. Agip has polluted it. Even fish have either died or run away from this area.”

On April 12, 2009, in the K Dere communities of Ogoniland, a massive Shell oil spill destroyed cassava and plantain farms, swamps, and marine life in the river that irrigates the whole region. The families of Gberebeedom Keenom Dugbor, Keregbor Biradee, and Nkoo Gbienga Nbe have all sought to recover damages in the Nigerian High Court in Port Harcourt for the destruction of their sources of livelihood. The spill, from an unmaintained manifold and faulty valve, touched off an inferno that lasted two days before it was finally sealed. According to Bariaria Kpalap, spokesman for the K Dere community, Shell failed to respond to community warnings about a leaking valve before the massive spill.

“Fishing is the dominant occupation of the people. But they have lost their farms and crops as a result of the pollution,” says Kpalap. “Of course, rain has accelerated the spread of chemicals contained in the spilled oil to the rest of the villages.” Since 2009, he charges, Shell has failed to perform any effective clean up. The United Nations Environment Program’s 2011 assessment of the Ogoni environment reinforced fears of the life-threatening impact of oil on farmland, swamps and mangroves, surface water, sediments, fish, and public health. The team of assessors took samples from various oil pollution sites in area and found that at 41 sites, hydrocarbons had infiltrated groundwater at levels far beyond standards permitted by Nigerian law.


Land ownership is a major factor in the production of food and other resources and so taking land for oil extraction impedes the ability of people to survive. The result has been growing tensions between oil companies and government forces on one hand and an increasingly rebellious population on the other. Many pipelines in the Niger Delta have not been maintained since colonial days when they were first installed. This has increased the risk of leakages and vandalism. The inferno and massive spill in K Dere, say locals, was caused by a lack of maintenance over several years.

The Ogoni demand for representation in the national government is based on a deep sense of exclusion, and many blame this political discrimination on the influence of the oil industry. Multinational oil companies in Nigeria operate the oil industry jointly with the federal government, whose majority stake should come with an equivalent share of the burden of conducting business with modern technologies to avoid pollution. All too often, however, the government has revealed itself to be more willing to listen to oil companies than to local communities.

Flaring of gas from production wells, which can cause cancer and acid rain, became technically illegal in 1984, but the oil companies have continued to plead that total prevention is impossible. Gas flaring, says a Shell spokesman, is done only when “it’s simply not safe to collect and use the gas,” and that sometimes “it’s environmentally better to flare it” than store it.

As a result of industry pressure, the federal government has continued to push back the deadline for an end to gas flaring. There are still about 100 continuously burning gas flares in the Niger Delta region, according to Friends of the Earth Netherlands, and some of these flares have been burning since the 1960s.

Since the government sees the nation’s oil industry as central to country’s economic growth, the goals of federal politicians and local communities are often in direct conflict. The real solution to this involves reducing local grievances through adequate and direct representation.

Government officials at the national and regional levels often use force to keep the peace, suggesting that oil pollution is merely an unfortunate side effect of the oil industry, which should be managed without local communities resisting in any fashion that could disrupt production. But effective representation of the people who actually live in the centers of oil production would open the door to policies that tackle pollution and reduce sabotage. Unfortunately, this has not been widely accepted. The only real government effort has been to bring Shell back to Ogoniland.


The proposed 2013 national budget of Nigeria features increased oil production as the primary engine of economic growth over the next year. Not surprisingly, there is not a single mention in the budget of resources to mitigate the environmental, economic, and social problems that come with increased oil exploration and production. So the government and oil companies must secure for themselves uninterrupted access to lands where oil exploration and production are conducted—a process that only creates conflicts with locals. An environment deeply polluted by oil cannot bring peace, prosperity, or development.

Nigeria’s federal and state governments need to create comprehensive blueprints with clear objectives for responding to climate-related issues such as flooding and polluting of water and land. Sweeping reform could even increase foreign investment. Oil companies have held back an estimated $40 billion in investment, according to the Financial Times, because of regulatory uncertainty. Such a blueprint could serve as a model for other oil-producing nations in Africa and beyond.

First, an oil policy that checks the excesses of the oil companies is essential and needs to be enforced. More than 25 major environmental laws are already on the books in Nigeria, but none is fully implemented or enforced by Nigerian courts. The new Petroleum Bill currently before the National Assembly, as well as an ongoing constitutional amendment process, could begin to address this problem. Suing oil companies in foreign courts, as four farmers are undertaking against Shell at the Hague, is lengthy and expensive. To avoid this, the Nigerian constitution must be amended to make litigation affordable for impoverished oil producing communities.

The brilliant, colorful landscape of the Niger Delta is being destroyed, perhaps irrevocably. The extensive mangrove, swamp, and rainforest regions that once characterized the delta are close to complete depletion from decades of oil pollution. At the same time, unemployment and poverty are rising. Years of exclusion both from the oil industry and politics have forced many locals, especially unemployed youths, into the underside of the oil industry—diverting, then illegally refining and distributing illicit oil and its byproducts.

The oil industry often points to sabotage and illegal activity as the primary cause of the region’s environmental woes. “Seeking to place all the blame on international oil companies,”  says a Shell spokesman, “is looking completely in the wrong place.” Illegal oil refining is a multi-billion dollar industry, but its cost to the environment, people, and economy of Nigeria is incalculable. It requires vandalizing oil pipelines, where large quantities of crude oil are diverted into containers and vessels for local refining. It is inherently risky for those involved in the profession, with deaths soaring into the hundreds. It has meant huge economic losses for the Nigerian government. Still, the most devastating impact of these illegal refineries, which numbered more than a thousand before the Joint Military Task Force began a massive crackdown, is on the environment.


Nigeria’s federal government, in the face of a growing chorus of criticism by a broad spectrum of civil society, has initiated several programs, chief among them the establishment of a Ministry of the Niger Delta. Launched September 8, 2008, by President Yar’Adua, it was given power to develop the Niger Delta, protect the environment, and empower youths in the region. At least a dozen other organizations operating under the all but powerless Ministry of the Environment have proven feeble and ineffective. A number of policy initiatives, such as the National Policy on Environment and existing oil regulations, have provisions designed to realize sustainable development. The Environmental Impact Assessment Act of 1992 requires the input or participation of local communities. If amended to include the legal enforcement of environmental rights, it has the potential to protect the environment and livelihoods of people.

A top Nigerian official in Port Harcourt, who asked not be quoted by name for fear of reprisal, says a new government organization called the Hydrocarbon Pollution Restoration Project would use the best technologies available to finally clean up oil on Ogoniland. While a commendable move by the government, the project is under Nigeria’s Department of Petroleum Resouces, which has consistently failed to enforce regulations in the past.

Oil companies continue to violate laws with impunity, as seen by their regular refusal to obey court decisions about payments for oil pollution or spill cleanup. When Shell was ordered, somewhat half-heartedly, to pony up $5 billion for the cleanup of a 40,000 barrel spill off Nigeria’s southern coast last December, a Shell spokesman told the BBC that there was no need for a fine since everything had been done to prevent environmental damage.

Above all, protecting the Niger Delta must be a collective effort extending beyond the delta, Nigeria, or even Africa. As there is currently no global environmental regime to check oil companies, a more transformative approach to holding multinational oil companies accountable is urgent. The United Nations seems the best multilateral forum for developing such a regime. The dependence of developed and developing countries on fossil fuels as a source of energy has brought the whole world under the sway of the corporate oil sector. The major oil companies in Nigeria have consistently exerted influence at the national level, but even worse, they have made inroads into global efforts to respond to environmental issues.

In the near term, the Nigerian federal government must be more assertive and free from the corruptive influence of big oil. Already, the Nuhu Ribadu-led committee investigating corruption in the oil industry has discovered irregularities in the handling of oil revenues. Some of the government officials implicated are now subjects of an ongoing criminal probe.

Civil society needs to be more actively involved in checking the excesses of the government. In Nigeria, only a few non-governmental organizations like Environmental Rights Action are consistently taking on environmental issues and fighting for the survival of the Delta. This must change. With more pressure by civil society, oil companies might be persuaded to reverse the trend. Already, companies including Shell and Chevron have seen that it is no longer business as usual in a few local communities, where adequate education and mobilization for environmental rights have begun to pay off. The Ogoni remain among the forefront of such groups, but their efforts must be encouraged and expanded if the Niger Delta is to remain a place where families can live healthy and productive lives.



Fidelis Allen is a senior lecturer in the Department of Political and Administrative Studies, University of Port Harcourt in Choba, Nigeria, on leave as University of KwaZulu-Natal’s postdoctoral scholar. He is the author of Implementation of Environmental Policies in Nigeria: Government Inertia and Conflict in the Niger Delta (Cambridge Scholars Press).

[Photo courtesy of Afolabi Sotunde]

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