Nigeria’s Niger Delta has known a long history of struggle over resources. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, indigenous communities fought against attempts by British traders (backed by the imperial government) to seize control of the trade in palm oil and other produce. Communities like the Nembe, Opobo and Akassa were attacked by British gunboats and their chiefs deposed and exiled.
In the mid-1960s, Isaac Adaka Boro declared a separate republic in the Niger Delta. Boro accused the post-independence governments of the period, controlled by Nigeria’s major ethnic nationalities, of oppressing the minorities in the Delta. His republic was soon overrun by government forces and he was thrown into prison. Boro was released from prison to fight on the federal side in the Nigerian Civil War and died in action.
Even before Boro, leaders in the Niger Delta had agitated for a separate state or region within the Federation during the constitutional negotiations that led up to Nigerian independence. The Willink Commission set up to investigate their grievances did not back the creation of a separate Niger Delta state. Instead it recommended that the region be given special attention because of the extreme challenges of physical development posed by its marshy terrain.
The period after the Nigerian Civil War saw a steady erosion of the position of the Niger Delta minorities in the nation’s distributive politics. Before the Civil War, a 50-per-cent share of national revenue was allocated to the regions of the country from where such revenue was derived. After the War, from the 1970s onwards, the percentage allocated on the basis of derivation was reduced sharply, falling to virtually zero. It was no coincidence that this happened at a time when crude oil, produced in the Niger Delta, displaced cash crops like palm oil, cocoa and groundnuts (grown mainly by the larger ethnic groups) as the country’s primary source of revenue.
By the time Ken Saro-Wiwa and other Ogoni leaders gave birth to the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) in the early 1990s, the struggles in the Niger Delta had become focused on reversing this injustice. Communities were also agitating to secure better compensation from the oil companies for the land they acquired – and for the environmental damage arising from their activities. In some instances, communities in dispute with oil companies were brutally repressed by the military regimes of the time – as with Umuechem, a little village in the Rivers State.
MOSOP changed the character of this struggle by organizing on the basis of an entire ethnic nationality rather than as separate clans and villages, as had been the case in the past. MOSOP started asserting the rights of Nigeria’s constituent ethnic nationalities within the Nigerian Federation rather than simply agitating for increases in compensation payments. In creating a mass movement of the Ogoni people, which for the first time included the unemployed and disaffected youth, MOSOP radicalized the struggle in the Niger Delta. It challenged the old conventions where issues in dispute were settled between the oil companies, the Government, the chiefs of some communities and a handful of others. Elite accommodation no longer did the trick. MOSOP made its campaign an international one, ensuring that foreign NGOs and the media kept the problems of the Delta in the spotlight. This attention has only intensified since the killing in 1995 of Saro-Wiwa and his compatriots by the Abacha dictatorship and the subsequent campaign to crush the Ogoni people.
It was perhaps inevitable that this long history of struggle and repression, of leaders who have been exiled or hanged, of the growing anger and frustration of radicalized and disillusioned youth, would one day lead to armed struggle in the Niger Delta. What is remarkable is that the campaign of sabotage and kidnapping led by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) only really took off in 2006.
Listening to the current political leadership in Nigeria as it tries to address the violence, you get the feeling that the significance of all that MOSOP did is lost on them. The present Government speaks as if the problems of the Delta could be solved by building a few roads and bridges. But things have moved beyond that: the fighters of MEND and the activist intellectuals of the Niger Delta are questioning the very nature of the Nigerian state. Gestures such as appointing as vice-president a politician from the Niger Delta will simply not make the violence go away.
MEND recently decided not to extend a month-long truce it had announced because the Government was setting up committees of ‘dubious individuals’ instead of speaking to the region’s genuine representatives. Lately MEND has begun to denounce criminals in the Delta who are exploiting the discontent in the area to kidnap for ransom. Evidently MEND realizes it must create out of its loose federation of fighters and their associates a credible political entity to negotiate with the Nigerian Government. If the Government is serious about ending the violence in the Delta, MEND seems to be offering it an opportunity to do so. But the Nigerian leadership must first accept that the old tactics of co-option and the tired promises of new development projects no longer work.
There are so many guns in the Niger Delta now, procured by politicians for their thugs and by a variety of ethnic warlords, that – even with the best will in the world – ending the violence is a huge challenge. But there is no chance that things will improve until the fundamental political issues that have been at the centre of the struggles in the Niger Delta for so many years are seriously engaged.