In the Western world, they say that ignorance is bliss. But in Africa we say ignorance kills.
— Orikinla Osinachi
Royal Dutch Shell first tapped its commercial oil well in the Niger Delta in 1956. A half century down the road the horrors of Western corporate interests are still taking their toll. On August 13, 2007, senior oil workers threatened to vacate the Delta region if the violence persists. As a result, militants have flooded the streets of Port Harcourt, frisking “suspicious” individuals. All too predictably, President Bush has dispatched armed attack boats to aid President Obasanjo in his aggressive in his aggressive police-state tactics. It is such bi-lateral corporate endeavors that have led the rebels of the Niger Delta region to drastic and desperate measures. Globally, they have been given the title as “the bad guys” (a literal term used in an article at allafrica.com). But, as is often the case, their exhaustive attempts at reformation have been overlooked . . . merely their actions, not their motives, are cause for media discussion.
Nevertheless, the crisis in the Niger Delta is exemplary of how environmental and economic degradation has led to a violent response infused with cultural solidarity. Nigeria’s history is one of long running environmental, economic and cultural exploitation. Resources are essential to the Nigerian economy; oil accounting for 90% of exports and 80% of government revenue. Nigeria, today, earns about $7.09 billion annually from crude oil. Success in the oil industry has earned Nigeria the title of the 11th nation to join OPEC in 1971. But according to UNDP, although Nigeria is one of the world’s leading oil producers, it ranks 151st out of 177 of the world’s poorest countries. Nationally, 50 to 80 million people are living below the poverty line. In the Niger Delta, the foci of oil production, 72% of households live below the poverty line. A nation with such abounding resources should not be facing an economic crisis that has persisted since its liberation in 1960. The Nigerian federal government, in cohorts with oil multinationals, works collaboratively to maintain such bourgeois ideals. Meanwhile, Niger Deltans continue to economically vegetate in an evolving global corporate market. Perhaps these conditions begin to make more sense when we acknowledge that 10% of the country controls 40.8% of the country’s wealth. Indeed, the ruling hands of the elite are to blame. While some insist that oil money can be used to facilitate the launching of future development plans, the progression towards development remains stagnant. As we have seen so many times before, there is a conflict in the capitalist agenda and humanitarian efforts.
The people of the Niger Delta have attempted reformative tactics in vain by protesting peacefully for decades. Aside from minor uprisings in the 1990s, any violence inflicted generally stemmed from the Nigerian government who acted to maintain their corporate ties to the global market economy. Yet the Niger Deltans continued to try reformative ideas to alleviate the situation: demanding compensation via institutional/financial agreements for oil producing communities and implementing laws regarding more efficient means of resource control. However, just compensation and resource efficiency are far from being realized. Thus, economic, cultural and environmental degradation persist despite countless decades of peaceful protest and reform attempts. But now, chaos has erupted.
The frustrations emanating from the lack of attention given to environmental degradation and perpetual exploitation by the oil industry has led to a hardened resentment of the corporate world. The Human Rights Violations Investigation Committee states:
Oil, one of the greatest blessings God has showered on our country, has turned out to be a curse. Oil became, in the hands of the ruling elite and the political class, an instrument sounding the death knell of good governance (Civil Society Forum 2005)
While the world continues to turn a blind eye to the ethical issues at hand in the Niger Delta, the acts of violence and vandalism steadily increase. Futile attempts at reform have given way to violent disruptions, costing corporate oil companies millions in damages. The dialogue surrounding this issue grows steadily as civilians are proving to be militant, blowing up oil refineries and kidnapping its workers as in the 2006 MEND Hostage situation. Who is to blame? And how do we end this chaos? Certain scholars, like Anthony Maduagwu, target Nigerian infrastructure and federal government as the source of instability: “NEPA and oil refineries are two of the fingered authorities that are being manipulated. It is the job of the government to fish out these elements of anti-progress and deal with them accordingly.” Yet when oil production profits are in the hands of the political elite, the target of concern becomes not only civic, but corporate as well. There is a substantial reason why these acts of violence and vandalism are not solely directed at the federal government. These acts of violence, although targeted at the oil industry and Nigerian federal government, are intended to be heard around the world. To quote John F. Kennedy, “those who make peaceful revolution impossible, make violent revolution inevitable.”
At first glance, it would appear that the largest obstacle facing the indigenous protestors of the region is cultural fragmentation. With over 250 different cultures residing in Nigeria, the region’s history is one of long and complex cultural conflicts. Yet in the face of opposition, cultural solidarity is crucial for transformation. Despite years of conflict, various ethnic groups in the Niger Delta region are allied in their resistance to the federal government and oil companies. The Chikoko Movement, consisting of Ijaw, Itsekiri, Ogoni, Andoni, and Ilage, and the Odua’s People’s Congress, is exemplary of cultural unification within the region. In February 2006, a series of oil workers have been taken hostage by armed militant leaders who identify themselves as members of the Ijaw tribe. The group is responsible for a series of strikes in which 14 people were murdered and 11 proved missing. While the Ijaw are allied with other indigenous tribes, they are highly autonomous in action given the extremity of their situation. More so than other tribes, the Ijaw remain restricted from everyday Nigerian politics and civil society. As a result of the oil refineries, Ijaw public health has deteriorated and environmental conditions continue to worsen. Thus, violence persists. As tension mounts, miniscule cultural conflicts begin to subside and give way to communal rebellion. It is far more practical to oppose as a united front than a fragmented network of individuals. Slowly, collective revolutionary tactics are taking a toll on the corporate market. Continued unrest in the region has led to a decline of daily oil exports of 2.5 million barrels by 10%. Many Nigerians have realized that cultural unity provides a platform for effective opposition. The difficulty remains in swaying the upper class Nigerians away from the beckoning finger of the Western “corporatocracy”.