Nigeria, after nearly four decades of oil production, had by the early 1980s become almost completely dependent on petroleum extraction economically, generating 25 per cent of its GDPC, which as at 2008, had risen to 60 per cent.
However, many believe that despite the vast wealth created by petroleum, the benefits have been slow to trickle down to the majority of the population, who since the 1960s have increasingly been forced to abandon their traditional agricultural practices, leading to a significant drop in the annual production of both cash and food crops in recent times. It is worthy of note that Nigeria was the world’s largest cocoa exporter in 1960, but all that are in the past now.
In spite of the large number of skilled, well-paid Nigerians who have been employed by the oil corporations, the majority of Nigerians, and most especially the people of the Niger Delta states and the far north have become poorer since the 1960s.
While the Niger Delta region continued to have a steady growth in population estimated to be over 30 million people in 2005, the region continue to experience exploitation and degradation necessitating a drastic call for attention. It was a case of urbanization without an accompanying economic growth to provide jobs. This situation, unfortunately, gave birth to militancy in the region beginning from 1990, which in turn led to a section of the growing populace assisting in destroying the ecosystem that they require to sustain themselves.
By December 1992, the Ogoni people of the Niger Delta has come up with the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), which started a confrontation with the oil exploration companies in the region, and their conflict escalated to a level of greater seriousness and intensity on both sides. Both parties began carrying out acts of violence and MOSOP issued an ultimatum to the oil companies: Shell, Chevron, and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, demanding some $10 billion in accumulated royalties, damages and compensation, and “immediate stoppage of environmental degradation”, and negotiations for mutual agreement on all future drilling.
The Ogonis threatened to embark on mass action to disrupt their operation if the companies failed to comply. By this act, the Ogoni shifted the focus of their actions from a Federal Government that has refused over the years to give response to their agitations to the oil companies engaged in their own region. The rationale for this change of stance lies in the benefits accrued by the oil companies from extracting the natural wealth of the Ogoni homeland, and neglect from central government.
The government responded by banning public gatherings and declaring that disturbances of oil production were acts of treason. Oil extraction from the territory had slowed to a trickle of 10,000 barrels per day (1,600 m3/d) (.5% of the national total).
Military repression escalated in May 1994. On May 21, soldiers and mobile policemen appeared in most Ogoni villages. On that day, four Ogoni chiefs (all on the conservative side of a schism within MOSOP over strategy) were brutally murdered. Saro-Wiwa, head of the opposing faction, had been denied entry to Ogoniland on the day of the murders, but he was detained in connection with the killings. The occupying forces, led by Major Paul Okuntimo of Rivers State Internal Security, claimed to be ‘searching for those directly responsible for the killings of the four Ogonis.’ However, witnesses say that they engaged in terror operations against the general Ogoni population. Amnesty International characterized the policy as deliberate terrorism. By mid-June, the security forces had razed 30 villages, detained 600 people and killed at least 40. This figure eventually rose to 2,000 civilian deaths and the displacement of around 100,000 internal refugees.
In May 1994, nine activists from the movement who would become known as ‘The Ogoni Nine’, among them Ken Saro-Wiwa, were arrested and accused of incitement to murder following the deaths of four Ogoni elders. Saro-Wiwa and his comrades denied the charges, but were imprisoned for over a year before being found guilty and sentenced to death by a specially convened tribunal, hand-selected by General Sani Abacha, on November 10, 1995. The activists were denied due process and upon being found guilty, were hanged by the Nigerian state with the exception of Ledum Mitee.
The executions were met with an immediate international response. The trial was widely criticised by human rights organisations and the governments of other states. The Commonwealth of Nations, which had also pleaded for clemency, suspended Nigeria’s membership in response. The United States, the United Kingdom, and the EU all implemented sanctions, though none of the sanctions affected petroleum exportation.
According to the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, “The oil companies can’t pretend they don’t know what’s happening all around them. The Nigerian government obviously has the primary responsibility to stop human rights abuse. But the oil companies are directly benefiting from these crude attempts to suppress dissent, and that means they have a duty to try and stop it.”
The stage was therefore set for actions that could make the Federal Government wake up to the demands of not just the Ogoni people, but the entire Niger Delta region. This is as the MOSOP agitation seems to have met a brick wall; a more militant approach was necessitated.
According to a Niger Delta activist, Kolokomu Ebiwei, the soft approach to the Ogoni question and other Niger Delta issues made the authorities to take the cause for granted, thereby subjugating the entire process, adding that time came when the language of force, which anyone understands, became necessary.
“In this part of the world, no one understands anything other than violence, and that is the reason no one pays attention when you try to make your case using civil means. The Niger Delta issue would have been dealt with if the government had done something way back when the agitations had not gone violent. But unfortunately, it is only violence that draws attention,” he said.
Today, contrary to expectation, the Niger Delta agitation had given birth to monsters more dangerous than their parent-monster. What Ken Saro-Wiwa allegedly created has become child’s play to the monster ravaging the region today in the name freedom fighting. In essence, over the years, uncountable number of militants has risen in what many analysts describe as the quest to grab one’s bread’ using the unfavourable environment as excuse. Among such militant groups are:
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) – the group was one of the largest militant groups in the Niger Delta, though their influence has gradually waned. The organization at inception, claims to expose exploitation and oppression of the people of the Niger Delta and devastation of the natural environment by public-private partnerships between the Federal Government of Nigeria and corporations involved in the production of oil in the Niger Delta.
The Economist has described the organization as one that “portrays itself as political organisation that wants a greater share of Nigeria’s oil revenues to go to the impoverished region that sits atop the oil. In fact, it is more of an umbrella organisation for several armed groups, which it sometimes pays in cash or guns to launch attacks.”
MEND has been linked to attacks on petroleum operations in Nigeria as part of the Conflict in the Niger Delta, engaging in actions including sabotage, theft, property destruction, guerrilla warfare, and more especially, kidnapping.
MEND’s stated goals were to localize control of Nigeria’s oil and to secure reparations from the Federal Government for pollution caused by the oil industry.
When the BBC spoke to the group’s leaders, who used the alias Major-General Godswill Tamuno, he said that MEND was fighting for “total control” of the Niger Delta’s oil wealth, saying local people had not gained from the riches under the ground and the region’s creeks and swamps.”
The group is credited for the 2010 Independence bombing in Abuja among other atrocities with Charles Okar, a notable member still undergoing trial.
The Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force was another large armed group in the Niger Delta region, and is composed primarily of members of the region’s largest ethnic group, the Ijaw. The group was founded in 2004, and as usual, in an attempt to gain more control over the region’s vast petroleum resources, particularly in Delta State. The NDPVF frequently demanded a greater share of the oil wealth from both the state and Federal Government, and has occasionally supported independence for the Delta region. Until 2005 the group was spearheaded by their once incarcerated charismatic leader, Alhaji Mujahid Dokubo-Asari.
The NDPVF’s strongly Ijaw agenda has led to conflict with both the Nigerian state and federal governments, as well as with neighboring ethnic groups, notably long-time rivals the Itsekiri. This rivalry precipitated a number of conflicts in the region, centred primarily on the cities of Warri and the ‘oil capital’ of Port Harcourt.
The Niger Delta Vigilante (NDV) is yet another armed militia group in the Niger Delta regio. The NDV was led by Ateke Tom. The group is composed primarily by ethnic Ijaws from in and around Port Harcourt and their main goal centred on controlling the area’s vast oil resources. In late 2003, the NDV precipitated a conflict with their rival Ijaw ethnic militia, the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF). The two groups spent most of 2004 in an escalating conflict which was ended when the Nigerian government and military eventually intervened on the side of the NDV. The government’s support of the NDV is said to have precipitate the Nigerian oil crisis, beginning in October 2004. The group was active between 2003 and 2009.
The Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) are the newest militant group in the Niger Delta. They publicly announced their existence in March 2016, and have sustained it with continous bombings of oil facilities. Among their allies are Red Egbesu Water Lions and the Joint Niger Delta Liberation Force.
The NDA have attacked oil producing facilities in the delta, causing the shutdown of oil terminals and a fall in Nigeria’s oil production to its lowest level in twenty years. The attacks caused Nigeria to fall behind Angola as Africa’s largest oil producer. The reduced oil output has hampered the Nigerian economy and destroyed its budget, since Nigeria depends on the oil industry for nearly all its government revenues.
The NDA’s declared aims are to create a sovereign state in the Niger Delta, and have threatened to disrupt Nigeria’s economy if their aims are not met. The NDA claims its members are “young, educated, well travelled…and educated in east Europe”. The group have criticised the President of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, for having never visited the delta and his detention of the Biafran independence activist, Nnamdi Kanu.
These notwithstanding, other militants are rising from the Niger Delta, seeking recognition with the instrument they know best how to use – weapons and violence, and one of such is the group that christened itself the Ultimate Warriors.
However, most natives of the Niger Delta region has come hard against the militants, saying that their actions are detrimental to the people of the region. One respondent told the Boss that these people should no longer be called Niger Delta but Ijaws, because it is just the Niger Deltans of Ijaw extraction that are involved in the malady.
“Their destructions and killings have the semblance of the unpatriotic Fulani herdsmen’s action. I am a Niger Deltan, not an Ijaw, before these elements bring us to a conflict with our accommodating neighbours,” a Lagos resident, who sought anonymity, said.
Most Niger Deltans believe that these militants and militancy do not have the real interest of the people at heart, each of them appear, grab what they could from the government through terror and disappear, creating room for another group to come and grab theirs.
However, efforts made to reach Mr. Joseph Eva, a Niger Delta activist proved abortive as at press time, as he was unavailable to pick his calls though it rang all through.s