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Conflict in the Niger Delta
Map of Nigeria numerically showing states typically considered part of the Niger Delta region: 1. Abia, 2. Akwa Ibom, 3. Bayelsa, 4. Cross River, 5. Delta, 6. Edo, 7.Imo, 8. Ondo, 9. Rivers
LocationNiger Delta, Nigeria
Result Ongoing

Government of Nigeria

Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta
Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force
Niger Delta Liberation Front
Joint Revolutionary Council

Niger Delta Vigilante
Commanders and leaders
Olusegun Obasanjo
Flag of Nigeria.svg Umaru Musa Yar'Adua
Flag of Nigeria.svg Goodluck Jonathan
Alexander Ogomudia
Martin Luther Agwai
Owoye Andrew Azazi
Paul Dike
Oluseyi Petinrin

Henry Okah
Government Ekpemupolo
Ebikabowei Victor-Ben
John Togo

Ateke Tom
150,000 soldiers[2]

15,000 active militants[3]

4,000 militants [4]
Casualties and losses
2,500 killed
3,642 surrender[5]

The current conflict in the Niger Delta arose in the early 1990s over tensions between the foreign oil corporations and a number of the Niger Delta's minority ethnic groups who felt they were being exploited, particularly the Ogoni and the Ijaw. Ethnic and political unrest has continued throughout the 1990s and persists as of 2013 despite the conversion to democracy and the election of the Obasanjo government in 1999. Competition for oil wealth has fueled violence between many ethnic groups, causing the militarization of nearly the entire region by ethnic militia groups as well as Nigerian military and police forces (notably the Nigerian Mobile Police). Victims of crimes are fearful of seeking justice for crimes committed against them because of growing "impunity from prosecution for individuals responsible for serious human rights abuses, [which] has created a devastating cycle of increasing conflict and violence".[6] The regional and ethnic conflicts are so numerous that fully detailing each is impossible and impractical. However, there have been a number of major confrontations that deserve elaboration.


Nigeria, after nearly four decades of oil production, had by the early 1980s become almost completely dependent on petroleum extraction economically, generating 25% of its GDPC (this has since risen to 60% as of 2008). 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. Annual production of both cash and food crops dropped significantly in the latter decades of 20th century, cocoa production dropped by 43% (Nigeria was the world's largest cocoa exporter in 1960), rubber dropped by 29%, cotton by 65%, and s by 64%.[7] 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.[8]

The Delta region has a steadily growing population estimated to be over 30 million people as of 2005, accounting for more than 23% of Nigeria's total population. The population density is also among the highest in the world with 265 people per kilometre-squared (reference NDDC). This population is expanding at a rapid 3% per year and the oil capital, Port Harcourt, along with other large towns are growing quickly. Poverty and urbanization in Nigeria are on the rise, and official corruption is considered a fact of life. The resultant scenario is one in which there is urbanization but no accompanying economic growth to provide jobs. This has led to a section of the growing populace assisting in destroying the ecosystem that they require to sustain themselves.[7]


Ogoniland is a 404-square-mile (1,050 km2) region in the southeast of the Niger Delta basin. Economically viable petroleum was discovered in Ogoniland in 1957, just one year after the discovery of Nigeria's first commercial petroleum deposit, with Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron Corporation setting up shop throughout the next two decades. The Ogoni people, a minority ethnic group of about half a million people who call Ogoniland home, and other ethnic groups in the region attest that during this time, the government began forcing them to abandon their land to oil companies without consultation, and offering negligible compensation. This is further supported by a 1979 constitutional addition which afforded the federal government full ownership and rights to all Nigerian territory and also decided that all compensation for land would "be based on the value of the crops on the land at the time of its acquisition, not on the value of the land itself." The Nigerian government could now distribute the land to oil companies as it deemed fit.[9]

The 1970s and 1980s saw the government's empty promises of benefits for the Niger Delta peoples fall through, with the Ogoni growing increasing dissatisfied and their environmental, social, and economic apparatus rapidly deteriorating. The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) was formed in 1992. MOSOP, spearheaded by Ogoni playwright and author Ken Saro-Wiwa, became the major campaigning organization representing the Ogoni people in their struggle for ethnic and environmental rights. Its primary targets, and at times adversaries, have been the Nigerian government and Royal Dutch Shell.

Ogoni Flag created by Ken Saro-Wiwa

Beginning in December 1992, the conflict between Ogonis and the oil infrastructure 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) which demanded some $10 billion in accumulated royalties, damages and compensation, and "immediate stoppage of environmental degradation", and negotiations for mutual agreement on all future drilling.[10]

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 an unresponsive federal government to the oil companies engaged in their own region. The rationale for this assignment of responsibility were 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.[11][12]

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 10 November 1995. The activists were denied due process and upon being found guilty, were hanged by the Nigerian state.[13]

The executions were met with an immediate international response. The trial was widely criticised by human rights organisations and the governments of other states, who condemned the Nigerian government's long history of detaining their critics, mainly pro-democracy and other political activists. The Commonwealth of Nations, which had also plead for clemency, suspended Nigeria's membership in response. The United States, the United Kingdom, and the EU all implemented sanctions, but not on petroleum (Nigeria's main export).

Shell claims it asked the Nigerian government for clemency towards those found guilty[citation needed], but its request was refused. However, a 2001 Greenpeace report found that "two witnesses that accused them [Saro-Wiwa and the other activists] later admitted that Shell and the military had bribed them with promises of money and jobs at Shell. Shell admitted having given money to the Nigerian military, who brutally tried to silence the voices which claimed justice".[14]

As of 2006, the situation in Ogoniland has eased significantly, assisted by the transition to democratic rule in 1999. However, no attempts have been made by the government or an international body to bring about justice by investigating and prosecuting those involved in the violence and property destruction that have occurred in Ogoniland,[15] although a class action lawsuit has been brought against Shell by individual plaintiffs in the US.[16]

Ijaw unrest

The December 1998 All Ijaw Youths Conference crystallized the Ijaws' struggle for petroleum resource control with the formation of the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC) and the issuing of the Kaiama Declaration. In it, long-held Ijaw concerns about the loss of control of their homeland and their own lives to the oil companies were joined with a commitment to direct action. In the declaration, and in a letter to the companies, the Ijaws called for oil companies to suspend operations and withdraw from Ijaw territory. The IYC pledged “to struggle peacefully for freedom, self-determination and ecological justice,” and prepared a campaign of celebration, prayer, and direct action, Operation Climate Change, beginning December 28.

In December 1998, two warships and 10-15,000 Nigerian troops occupied Bayelsa and Delta states as the Ijaw Youth Congress (IYC) mobilized for Operation Climate Change. Soldiers entering the Bayelsa state capital of Yenagoa announced they had come to attack the youths trying to stop the oil companies. On the morning of December 30, two thousand young people processed through Yenagoa, dressed in black, singing and dancing. Furries opened fire with rifles, machine guns, and tear gas, killing at least three protesters and arresting twenty-five more. After a march demanding the release of those detained was turned back by soldiers, three more protesters were shot dead including Nwashuku Okeri and Ghadafi Ezeifile. The military declared a state of emergency throughout Bayelsa state, imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew, and banned meetings. At military roadblocks, local residents were severely beaten or detained. At night, soldiers invaded private homes, terrorizing residents with beatings and women and girls with rape.

On January 4, 1999 about one hundred soldiers from the military base at Chevron’s Escravos facility attacked Opia and Ikiyan, two Ijaw communities in Delta State. Bright Pablogba, the traditional leader of Ikiyan, who came to the river to negotiate with the soldiers, was shot along with a seven-year-old girl and possibly dozens of others. Of the approximately 1,000 people living in the two villages, four people were found dead and sixty-two were still missing months after the attack. The same soldiers set the villages ablaze, destroyed canoes and fishing equipment, killed livestock, and destroyed churches and religious shrines.

Nonetheless, Operation Climate Change continued, and disrupted Nigerian oil supplies through much of 1999 by turning off valves through Ijaw territory. In the context of high conflict between the Ijaw and the Nigerian Federal Government (and its police and army), the military carried out the Odi massacre, killing scores if not hundreds of Ijaws.

Subsequent actions by Ijaws against the oil industry included both renewed efforts at nonviolent action and attacks on oil installations and foreign oil workers.[17]

Creation of the Niger Delta Development Commission

The Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) was established by President Olusegun Obasanjo with the sole mandate of developing the petroleum-rich Niger-Delta region of southern Nigeria. Since its inauguration, the NDDC has focused on the development of social and physical infrastructures, ecological/environmental remediation and human development. The NDDC was created largely as a response to the demands of the population of the Niger Delta, a populous area inhabited by a diversity of minority ethnic groups. During the 1990s these ethnic groups, most notably the Ijaw and the Ogoni established organisations to confront the Nigerian government and multinational oil companies such as Shell. The minorities of the Niger Delta have continued to agitate and articulate demands for greater autonomy and control of the area's petroleum resources.

Emergence of armed groups in Niger Delta

The ethnic unrest and conflicts of the late 1990s (such as those between the Ijaw, Urhobo and Itsekiri), coupled with a spike in the availability of small arms and other weapons, led increasingly to the militarization of the Delta. By this time, local and state officials had become involved by offering financial support to those paramilitary groups they believed would attempt to enforce their own political agenda. Conflagrations have been concentrated primarily in Delta and Rivers States.

Prior to 2003, the epicenter of regional violence was Warri. However, after the violent convergence of the largest military groups in the region, the Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force (NDPVF) led by Mujahid Dokubo-Asari and the Niger Delta Vigilante (NDV) led by Ateke Tom (both of which are primarily made up of Ijaws), conflict became focused on Port Harcourt and outlying towns. The two groups dwarf a plethora of smaller militias supposedly numbering more than one hundred. The Nigerian government classifies these groups as "cults", many of which began as local university fraternities. The groups have adopted names largely based on Western culture, some of which include Icelanders, Greenlanders, KKK, and Vultures. All of the groups are constituted mostly by disaffected young men from Warri, Port Harcourt, and their sub-urban areas. Although the smaller groups are autonomous from within, they have formed alliances with and are largely controlled from above by either Asari and his NDPDF or Tom's NDV who provided military support and instruction.

The NDPVF which was founded by Asari, a former president of the Ijaw Youth Council, in 2003 after he "retreated into the bush" to form the group with the explicit goal of acquiring control of regional petroleum resources. The NDPFV attempted to control such resources primarily through oil "bunkering", a process in which an oil pipeline is tapped and the oil extracted onto a barge. Oil corporations and the Nigerian state point out that bunkering is illegal; militants justify bunkering, saying they are being exploited and have not received adequate profits from the profitable but ecologically destructive oil industry. Bunkered oil can be sold for profit, usually to destinations in West Africa, but also abroad. Bunkering is a fairly common practice in the Delta but in this case the militia groups are the primary perpetrators.[18]

The intense confrontation between the NDPVF and NDV seems to have been brought about by Asari’s political falling out with the NDPVF’s financial supporter Peter Odili, governor of Rivers State following the April 2003 local and state elections. After Asari publicly criticized the election process as fraudulent, the Odili government withdrew its financial support from the NDPVF and began to support Tom’s NDV, effectively launching a paramilitary campaign against the NDPVF.

Subsequent violence occurred chiefly in riverine villages southeast and southwest of Port Harcourt, with the two groups fighting for control of bunkering routes. The conflagrations spurred violent acts against the local population, resulting in numerous deaths and widespread displacement. Daily civilian life was disrupted, forcing schools and economic activity to shut down and resulting in widespread property destruction.

The state campaign against the NDPVF emboldened Asari who began publicly articulating populist, anti-government views and attempted to frame the conflict in terms of pan-Ijaw nationalism and "self-determination." Consequently the state government felt the escalated the campaign against him by bringing in police, army, and navy forces that began occupation of the Port Harcourt in June 2004.

The government forces collaborated with the NDV during the summer, and were seen protecting NDV militiamen from attacks by the NDPVF. The state forces failed to protect the civilian population from the violence and actually increased the destruction of citizens' livelihood. The Nigerian state forces were widely reported to have used the conflict as an excuse to raid homes, claiming that innocent civilians were cahoots with the NDPVF. Government soldiers and police obtained and destroyed civilian property by force. The NDPVF also accused the military of conducting air bombing campaigns against several villages, effectively reducing them to rubble, because it was believed to be housing NDPVF soldiers. The military denies this, claiming they engaged in aerial warfare only once in a genuine effort to wipe out an NDPVF stronghold.

Innocent civilians were also killed by NDPVF forces firing indiscriminately in order to engage their opponents. At the end of August 2004 there were several particularly brutal battles over the Port Harcourt waterfront; some residential slums were completely destroyed after the NDPVF deliberately burning down buildings. By September 2004, the situation was rapidly approaching a violent climax which caught the attention of the international community.[18]

Nigerian oil crisis

After launching a mission to wipe out NDPVF, approved by President Olusegun Obasanjo in early September, Mujahid Dokubo-Asari declared “all-out war” with the Nigerian state as well as the oil corporations and threatened to disrupt oil production activities through attacks on wells and pipelines.[citation needed] This quickly caused a major crisis the following day on September 26, as Shell evacuated 235 non-essential personnel from two oil fields, cutting oil production by 30,000 barrels per day (4,800 m3/d).


In August 2008, the Nigerian government launched a massive military crackdown on militants. They patrolled waters and hunted for militants, searched all civilian boats for weapons, and raided numerous militant hideouts.[19]

MEND hostage situation

Government offensive

On May 15, 2009, a military operation undertaken by a Joint Task Force (JTF) began against MEND militants operating in the Niger Delta region.[20] It came in response to the kidnapping of Nigerian soldiers and foreign sailors in the Delta region.[21] Thousands of Nigerians have fled their villages and hundreds of people may be dead because of the offensive.[22]

Granting of amnesty

On June 26, 2009, the Nigerian Government announced that it would grant Amnesty and an unconditional pardon to Militants in the Niger Delta which would last for 60 days beginning on 6 August 2009 and ending 4 October 2009. Former Nigerian President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua signed the amnesty after consultation with the National Council Of State. During the 60 day period armed youths are required to surrender their weapons to the Government in return for training and rehabilitation by the government.[23]
During the 60 day period militants led their groups to surrender weapons which includes; Rocket-propelled grenades, guns, explosives, ammunition and even gunboats have all been surrendered to the government.

Royal Dutch Shell controversy

Friends of the Earth Netherlands (Milieudefensie) and Amnesty International have launched international campaigns aiming at having Shell clean the oil spills in the Delta. The organisations are concerned about the economic and health consequences for the people in the region. Shell's inability to respond effectively has led Friends of the Earth Netherlands and Amnesty International to believe it actively contributes to the human rights violations in the region. Because of the large area affected, the environmental consequences are vast and hardly calculatable.[24]

Rise in Piracy

Starting in October 2012 Nigeria experienced a large spike in piracy off its coast. By early 2013 Nigeria became the 2nd most pirated nation in Africa next to Somalia. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta is thought to be behind most of the attacks. Since October 2012 MEND has hijacked 12 ships, kidnapped 33 sailors, and killed 4 oil workers. Since this started the United States has sent soldiers to train Nigerian soldiers in maritime tactics against pirates. Since this 33 pirates have been captured. Although the Nigerian Navy now has learned new tactics against pirates attacks still occur on an almost regular basis.

See also


  1. "BBC News - Nigerian militants seize workers from oil rig". 2010-11-09. Retrieved 2011-04-23. 
  2. "Background" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-04-23. 
  3. "Africa | Nigeria militants end ceasefire". BBC News. 2009-10-16. Retrieved 2011-04-23. 
  5. "Armed Conflicts Report - Nigeria". Retrieved 2011-04-23. 
  6. "Violence in Nigeria's Oil Rich Rivers State in 2004 : Summary". Retrieved 2011-04-23. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 Where Vultures Feast (Okonta and Douglas, 2001)
  9. The Price of Oil: Corporate Responsibility and Human Rights Violations in Nigeria's Oil Producing Communities (Human Rights Watch, 1999)
  11. Haller, Tobias; et al. (2000). Fossile Ressourcen, Erdölkonzerne und indigene Völker. Giessen: Focus Verlag. p. 105. 
  12. Bogumil Terminski, Oil-Induced Displacement and Resettlement: Social Problem and Human Rights Issue,
  13. Nick Mathiason (2009-04-05). "Shell in court over alleged role in Nigeria executions | Business | The Observer". London: Guardian. Retrieved 2011-04-23. 
  14. Contamination in Paulina by Aldrin, Dieldrin, Endrin and other toxic chemicals produced and disposed of by Shell Chemicals of Brazil (Greenpeace, 2001)
  15. THE NIGER DELTA: NO DEMOCRATIC DIVIDEND (Human Rights Watch, 2002)
  16. "Shell hit by new litigation over Ogoniland" (Corporate Social Responsibility News, 2002)
  17. Eric Aghadiuno (1999-01-04). "Ijaw Tribe". Retrieved 2011-04-23. 
  18. 18.0 18.1 Rivers and Blood: Guns, Oil and Power in Nigeria’s Rivers State (Human Rights Watch, 2005)
  19. Military operations in the Niger Delta - 16 Aug 08[dead link]
  20. Fatade, Wale (2009-05-28). "Niger Delta offensive intensifies".,_lawmakers_meet_to_end_Niger.csp?CSPCHD=0020000100004310gmn9000000TvRs_tjTAxtmIeH1rIOinA--. Retrieved 2011-04-23. 
  21. Walker, Andrew (2009-05-27). "Africa | Will Nigeria oil offensive backfire?". BBC News. Retrieved 2011-04-23. 
  22. "IRIN Africa | NIGERIA: Thousands flee violence, hundreds suspected dead | Nigeria | Conflict | Economy | Environment". 2009-05-22. Retrieved 2011-04-23. 
  23. "Africa | Nigeria offers militants amnesty". BBC News. 2009-06-26. Retrieved 2011-04-23. 
  24. "Worse Than Bad". Retrieved 2012-06-22. 

Further reading

  • Obi, Cyril and Siri Aas Rustad (2011). Oil and insurgency in the Niger Delta : managing the complex politics of petro-violence. London: Zed Books. ISBN 978-1-84813-808-7. 

External links

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