Poverty and Despair in the Midst of Plenty: The Paradox of the Niger Delta - The Genesis


In an attempt to grasp the complexities of the militancy of the Niger Delta, a little overview of its history and journey as a distinct people is in order. The problems of this subject were no better captured than by the following statement by a Nigerian academician: “The exploitation and production of oil in the Niger-Delta have created some of the largest fortunes for the multinational companies and have helped to achieve impressive economic growth and development through high productivity of firms of the Nigerian state, but little or no attention has been directed by both the multinational companies and the Nigerian government to the effects of such oil activities on the welfare of oil producing communities.” 

Understanding and appreciating the current context, we must take ourselves back through Niger Delta history, its travails and moments of brief reprieves. The region and that of its neighbors, as with most African history, is first posited by oral accounts that these people started having and forging an identity with the formation of city states, the Oyo and Benin Kingdoms, circa the 11th century. Just like any new and fledgling empires in the making, these kingdoms grew quite fast in the spheres of political, economic, and socio-cultural prowess, becoming an independent trading power and controlling the coasts of the regions of the Niger Delta. In the newly formed and growing empires, political and religious authority were concentrated in the king. The kingdom of Benin grew to an approximate size of 100,000 inhabitants, urbanization being accompanied by artistic, cultural, and commercial development including ivory sculpture, terracotta, and metal works such as casting (to appreciate the mastery and sophistications of some of their expertise after the invasion of Benin by the British, the Benin mast, a bronze work, was carted away and is today on display at the London museum). Outside of Benin, the Niger Delta was a collection of regions controlled by different tribes and kings, for example, the Urhobo, Delta Igbos, Isoko, Itsekiri, Oron and Ijaw (the Ijaw have always been the majority ethnic group in the Niger Delta, a section of these empires at the southern tip of the Nigerian Delta).

Within and between these diverse ethnic groups existed trade and other socio-economic factors prior to the arrival of the Europeans in the late 15th century. 

The year 1471 saw the quest for glory and profit brought in by the Portuguese, as the pioneer navigators arriving in the Niger Delta established contact with the local people not to export democracy or salvation as they claim, but to provide fuel for industrializing Western Europe. However, it was 10 years later that the first royal emissary visited the court of the Oba of Benin. The relationship between both sides was “cordial”, with early reports of the Portuguese being allowed to speak in the Oba’s court. The relationship was made to look mutually beneficial, but in truth, the Portuguese and later the British had the best of these “cordial, beneficial relations” as they offered mirrors, coral beads, textiles, and on some rare occasions guns (some accounts say the guns were given to the powerful slaving clans and ruling families) while the Oba offered ivory, peppers, art works (sculptures etc), slaves, and other products for what they desired from more developed European markets. As the relationship was sustained, secondary economies grew that provided services to slave traders, creating self-sustaining economic conditions. The growing slave trade in Europe saw a dip and later total breakdown of the inter-community trade relationships, not primarily due to conflict, but due to the more lucrative opportunity they saw from Europe as the demand for slaves for the Americas grew. Larger communities raided smaller tribes for slaves to satisfy their greed and their masters’ demand. It should be noted that, before the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, the region’s reliance on the Slave Trade dwindled not due to an even more lucrative opportunity in the palm oil trade, as claimed by some authors, but because of the industrialization of Europe and the replacement of human-powered economies with a machine driven economy. Thus, the demand for the native palm oil rocketed in Europe for the purpose of industrial machine support, as the demand for factory machine lubricant increased exponentially, which this commodity satisfies. 

Towards the end of the 19th century, the British began to explore and exploit the region’s territory and river systems for potential trade.

George Goldie (1846-1925) established the United African Company, modeled on the former East India Company, a typical international British trade (and unincorporated) organization of the time. The motive behind these companies was control, ownership and profit with little regard for the native communities in the region - such was the arrogance of the British and Europeans alike. Goldie partnered with other organizations engaged in economic activities in the same area and effectively took control of the Lower Niger River, an obviously key trade route in and out of the region. Within two years, Goldie and his agents had signed treaties with tribal leaders along the major Benue and Niger Rivers whilst also penetrating into the mainland in violation of verbal agreements that had been made to restrict the organization’s activities to coastal regions. The company’s name changed to the National Africa Company, which in 1886 was granted a royal charter (equivalent of incorporation at the time) authorizing the company to administrate the Niger Delta and the country on the banks of the Benue and Niger Rivers. The now chartered company was once again renamed to be the Royal Niger Company. As trading relationships developed, a certain degree of agitation grew amongst the Niger Delta middle men, who had forged a successful and prosperous association with the European traders. As these middle men were from different regions and tribes, the commercial competition between them grew as the European traders were able to choose the intermediate that offered the best opportunity and therefore the greater profit for the European traders. Tensions rose to the point that the first major conflicts occurred, such as the rebellion of King William Koko of Nembe, who from 1894-1895 resisted the Royal Niger Company’s attempts to shut out the Nembe people from the lucrative trade in palm oil. This was a major event and is particularly noteworthy, as it marks the feeling of imposition that the residents of the Niger Delta have felt since the 19th century. The self-imposed British control over the region was insufficient to stop the growing role in the area of the state sponsored protectorates of France and Germany who also craved hegemony, as well as growing tensions from native tribes that required the use of gun boats from the Royal Navy to protect British interests. Consequently, in 1899, the Royal Niger Company sold its interest to the British Government for £865,000, the equivalent today of approximately £87,000,000. The interests were merged with the Niger Coast Protectorate of Brass, Bonny, Oporobo, Aobh and Old Calabar excluding Lagos. This formed the Southern Nigerian Protectorate under the control of the British Colonial Office. 

The devil’s feces 

How locals would later call this crude oil is understandable in the light of the despair and degradation it brought to an erstwhile calm region. The term “devil feces” caps it all. As is well known, the British were not in Africa or any of their colonies for the fun exploring new lands or spreading of the gospel or democracy. The main reason was the crave to satisfy desires. At the time when oil was gaining global importance because of its diverse uses and its centrality as the foundation for new world economy as the main driver for industries, light and heavy machineries, it was clear to the British as as well as all other powers that exploration, exploitation, and high jacking of oil reserves everywhere was essential to its survival as an empire or great power. Britain’s demand for oil outstripped its mediocre supply of shale gas and oil fields off the north coast of Scotland. In addition, the increased need of military ships, protecting the island during and following World War I, substantially increased this demand from which the British government concluded that the satisfaction of this demand had to come from other areas of the globe that might potentially hold oil reserves. The first of which they “rightfully” explored were their colonies. Nigeria, being one of those colonies, was explored first for bitumen, coal and oil. This was evoked after the 1914 ordinance which ordered that any oil and mineral under Nigerian soil was rightfully the property of the crown. Several explorative ventures occurred between 1903-1935, however, it was the joint venture of Shell and the Anglo Iranian Oil Company (now BP), known at the time as the Shell-D’Arcy Exploration Parties (SDEP) that led the way of exploration, performing many geological surveys of the Niger Delta (and other regions of the Nigeria).

Thus, in 1956 the first oil well was struck commercial quantities at Oloibiri in the Bayelsa state. This period was also extremely significant in the broader Nigerian context, as this coincided with the qausi-Balkanization of Nigeria into regional administrative divisions along majority ethnic lines: the Hausa Fulani of the north, Igbos of the east and Yorubas of the west, vast ethnic minorities in the central south (present day South-South zone) of Nigeria. The Ijaws particularly felt ostracized from mainstream majority agendas, and thus their views on economic, national, socio-political positions formed little or no part of the calculations for resource/revenue distribution. Tensions grew with this development as the major ethnic groups that were major political actors and policy makers formulated and adopted a model in which the people of the Niger Delta were handicapped from participating with the major groups, as they didn’t form any politically “viable group.”

This situation led to significantly reduced economic, political and social opportunities for the owners of this oil rich region and exacerbated the feeling of inequality, leading to resentment among the people of the region. 

The drawbacks for any exploration and exploitation were a rallying of the general population of the Niger Delta. Land degradation, oil spills, forest, marine and general biodiversity decline, which directly affected their daily living conditions, led the locals to call oil the devil’s feces, the simple explanation being the problems that accompanied the exploration and exploitation of oil in the Niger Delta


Following the end of World War II, partly because during the war Nigerian who served as part of the allied forces soldiers came to understand that they were in no way inferior to their “superior white” masters back home as they all bled and died in the same way and adversity, nationalist demands for independence grew. The British Government reluctantly transitioned Nigeria towards self-governance on a representative and increasingly federal basis. During this period, a broad sweeping demand for independence was happening across Africa. This culminated in the independence of Nigeria on October 1st, 1960 with Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa leading a coalition government. Compounding these parallel events of oil discovery and independence, this laid another foundation for conflict, as many Niger Deltan’s saw themselves as second class citizens in an independent Nigeria that they had assisted the British in creating. 

The struggle for power and oil wealth sparked and ignited the first conflict in this new nation on the basis of the domestic rivalries between political blocs and military factions (ethnic groups), one led by the north with Balewa and Sir Amadu Bello at the helm, known as the NPC (Northern People’s Congress) and the disgruntled east led by Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe under the banner of the NCNC (National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons), who were dissatisfied with their junior partner status in the coalition with the NPC, as well as from the western region with discontent from the AG (Action Group), a political party headed by Chief Obafemi Awolowo (first western premier). The Niger-Delta was absent from the political scene. The latter’s infighting led to the decimation of its top leadership and weakening of its political efficacy, and as the next elections slated for 1964 approached, the position of southern Nigeria were further weakened with the creation of the mid-west region which particularly disenfranchised the people of the Niger Delta insofar as some of the states of the Niger Delta found themselves scattered between the three regions of the south. These political blocs ensured that the Niger Delta was left out of the political calculations of power. The region was divided by its minorities and lacked the political cohesion to voice their demands as a people and defend their interests. They had to depend on the benevolence of the major actors in their region to defend their interests. At the time, this was a sort of battle for supremacy as each of the region’s ethnic nationalities sought to outwit the other while there was little concern for the problems of the Niger Delta. 

Thus, the 1965 elections were characterized by numerous irregularities and electoral manipulation in all the regions. This did little to change the power structure in the country. The army closely watched the sliding of Nigeria into chaos as a result of citizens’ distrust and suspicions over the political class’s affluent and flamboyant lifestyles and divisive politicking. The army had enough and on January 15th, 1966, carried out a coup to “correct” this abnormality during which the prime minister and all regional premiers were executed. The coup was led by Major Kaduna Nzeogwu along with other young military officers such as Major Ifeajuna, Major Anuforo, Major Ademoyega and others (mostly southerners of the Igbo ethnic group and a few Yorubas). The coup was not a complete success, but the government was decimated and almost rendered ineffective, in light of which the federal government headed by Dr. Nwafor Orizu, then acting president, handed over power to the military headed by General Aguiyi Ironsi, which in turn led to the militarization of the government. The north was now disadvantaged politically as its top civilian leadership was wiped out and also felt the coup was a scheme to deprive it of its right as the leading political force possessing the biggest region geographically and population-wise. The north did not accept this. In July 1966 a group of young, northern military corps carried out a bloody countercoup and deposed General Ironsi's military government, which also led to the death of General Ironsi. This action had far reaching consequences as the Igbos marched out of the north in large numbers back to the eastern region, partly due to the fact that Radio France Hausa service broadcasted in the north that, as a response to the coup, the easterners were on a vengeful killing spree against northerners in the eastern region of the country. At a time when there was high tension across the country, this was a recipe for disaster. The Igbos arriving home in the east were received by the then eastern military administrator Lt.Col. Odemegwu Ojukwu, an well-education Igbo himself, who made his dissatisfaction known to the military supreme command in Lagos. With some sections of the Igbo nation calling for secession from the country as a result of the losses they incurred, especially from the north partly a result of the Radio France announcement, and more because of the deep-sitting suspicion that exists between the northern and eastern regions, Lt.Col. Odemegwu Ojukwu declared the eastern region a breakaway independent republic called Biafra, in 1967, thus sparking active hostilities of the Nigerian Civil War. However, this was not the only reason - some reasons and events lurked behind the curtains that led to the belief that the quest for inter-regional rivalries and domination played a key role.

The influence and interest of global powers was evident even though the Western powers led by the US embargoed arms sales to the Nigerian military government. The British and Soviets gave military support to the military government, while the French on the other hand supported the breakaway Biafran state, just short of outright recognition (according to declassified state documents) for the breakaway region. The reason for France’s position was the British and Western bloc’s economic “ties”, as the major oil companies (Shell, Bp, Chevron e.t.c) operating in the Niger Delta benefited these powers. Thus, as benefactors of Nigeria’s oil fields, with contracts that were too juicy to be left in peril and likely sabotaged, and given that the contracts signed with the Nigerian government were not honored by the Biafrans, the French on were looking at a potential new foothold in an oil rich region on the African continent while the total monopoly enjoyed by the French over the Algerian oil fields of Hassi Messaoud in the Algerian Sahara was being challenged and their position in the Algerian oil sector overall came under threat. This culminated with the French being kicked out of the Algerian oil sector by the nationalization of the oil sector by the government of Houari Boumediene on January 24th, 1971. Before this happened the tussle over Niger Delta oil was ongoing within the civil war itself. The French attempted to secure another oil source in Biafran, which was also an attempt to weaken the English and their partners in an area where they seemed to have less of an economic foothold and vibrant colonies (West Africa). This war was an oil war in the broadest sense.

The war went on two and a half years and was bitterly fought by both sides, but the Biafran leaders were overpowered and surrendered in 1970 after which the Biafran region was reintegrated back into Nigeria.

The year 1975 saw another coup that toppled General Gowon and ushered in Brigadier Murtala Ramat Mohammed, who first began the process of moving the federal capital to Abuja. Brigadier Mohammed was assassinated in 1976 in an unsuccessful counter coup led by Colonel Suka Bukar Dimka and replaced by his deputy, Lieutenant-General Olusegun Obasanjo. The latter helped introduce an American-style presidential constitution.

All through this history of turmoil, the indigenous people of the Niger Delta were absent from significant political calculations, irreparably building up discontent. But at different times of the era they took steps and reflected on the civilian population of the Delta during the years before and after the Biafran war. There was an increasing rise in tension over the unfair distribution of the wealth created by the drilling and extraction of oil on their land. The problem was threefold given, firstly, the resistance of the government and extractive companies to address this unfair distribution and, secondly, the heads of state corporations that were in charge of the oil sector were devoid of indigenous people of the Niger Delta, so the little wealth that would have flowed back into government coffers were channeled through Nigerians from other regions with rife corruption in the country. People outside the Niger Delta were benefiting from the oil wealth. To understand it more closely, not a single person from the Niger Delta from independence until 2010 was ever appointed minister of petroleum, with the exception of one (Don Etiebet). Finally, the right to operate oil blocks in the oil sector is also seriously lopsided in favor of the north and other regions, with few people of the Niger-Delta having the right to run oil platforms. 

This led to the mobilization of the radical armed militia, the Niger Delta Volunteer Force, (NDVF) lead by Isaac Boro along with two of his top lieutenants, Nottingham Dick and John Owonaro and countless others of the Ijaw extraction. The NDVF fought the Nigerian military for 12 days and even attempted to emancipate the region as the Niger Delta Republic, which was the first secession move by any region or ethnic nationality.


However, Boro and his accomplices were captured and sentenced to jail for treason. Although unsuccessful, Isaac Boro’s attempt to fight this perceived injustice paved the way for other like-minded activists (Niger Deltans’ view) and criminal rebel saboteurs (government and other regions’ view) campaigning for the same cause. Ken Saro Wiwa was the most prominent of these activists taking a non-confrontational approach as the leader of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, or MOSOP.


This advocated a non-violent approach to reconciliation of the injustices felt by the Ogoni people (people living in Ogoniland, a large area of the Delta) from the actions of foreign extractive companies (Shell etc), on their land.

The death by hanging of Ken Saro Wiwa along with eight of his comrades who were also leaders of MOSOP, Saturday Dobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel  Gbooko, Paul Levera, Felix Naute, Baribor Bera, Barinem Kiobel and John Kpuine, known as the Ogoni 9, in 1995 was one of the most poignant injustices in recent Nigerian history bearing the subtle fingerprints of oil companies operating in the Niger Delta and corrupt government officials at all levels of government. But it should be noted that a greater section of the Niger Delta never took Boro and Wiwa’s activism and agitation seriously, but saw them as trouble makers with mischief up their sleeves until a few years later when the then military head of state Gen. Sani Abacha organized a one million man march to show the world the massive support he enjoyed even in the Niger Delta, where earlier he had to quell a rebellion. This was a bid to transition himself from a military to a civilian president, but this singular act transformed the Niger Delta into a hotspot of hostilities as youth and stakeholders from the region marching through the streets of Abuja (Nigeria’s capital) saw a new, beautiful, and functional city unlike the cities of the Niger Delta, having been built with oil proceeds while their home region lacked basic amenities. A massive settlement for the family of the activist Ken Saro Wiwa many years later would show the level of complicity of government and other multi-national corporations in the Niger Delta.

These kind of acts of stifling dissent, along with gross mismanagement, impunity, and nepotism in the operation of oil infrastructure and the distribution of oil wealth, have heightened the deep sense of injustice felt by many in the Niger Delta. Thus, a variety of militant activities characterized the struggle for better governance and equitable distribution of resources in the area during the largely dark days of the military regime. The return to democracy will rejuvenate this cause of a hybrid of activism, militancy, state corruption, and call for resource control.