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« President Obasanjo is "a Dog in a Manger" for Ndi Igbo | Main | There are Three Investment Ratings for Nigeria »

March 27, 2006

Is a Drop of Oil Worth a Drop of Blood?- Part 1

by Henry Chukwuemeka Onyeama (Awka, Anambra State, Nigeria) --- The wave of kidnappings of foreign oil companies workers by Niger Delta guerillas in the past two months have once more focused the world’s attention on the oil-producing but impoverished region of Nigeria.

Spectres are rising, not unlike the ones that emerged following the violence that tore Warri, also located in the Niger Delta, apart nearly three years ago. If the Niger Delta implodes, what will happen to Nigeria?

A commissioned research work on the Warri crises in 2004 compelled me to delve into the love-hate marriage between oil and politics in the area. I came to realize that as James Agee wrote in Time Magazine, quoting the psalmist ‘no man may deliver his brother, nor make agreement unto God for him.’

Whatever is stated here are deductions based on my interpretation of facts. I hope they will go some way in contributing to the search for peace in the Niger Delta.


What exactly is the Niger Delta? Maybe it is because many of those who struggle for the region’s oil have given the world the generally accepted depiction of the Delta. Or maybe it could be because the ruling elite of Nigeria has, through their power juggling exercises, thrust an unrealistic image of the Niger Delta on our consciousness.

Defining the Niger Delta is not easy. According to a 1999 report by Human Rights Watch on the area aptly titled The Price of Oil the Niger Delta, from a geographical perspective, is ‘one of the world’s largest wetlands, and the largest in Africa: it encompasses 20,000 square kilometres. It is a vast floodplain built up by the accumulation of centuries of silt washed down the Niger and Benue rivers, composed of four ecological zones – coastal barrier islands, mangroves, fresh water swamp forests, and lowland rainforests – whose boundaries vary according to the patterns of seasonal flooding. The mangrove forest of Nigeria is the third largest in the world and the largest in Africa; over 60 percent of this mangrove, or 6,000 square kilometres, is found in the Niger Delta. The freshwater swamp forests of the delta reach 11,700 square kilometres and are the most extensive in West and Central Africa.’

But to where does this vast crisscross of rivers and creeks extend within Nigeria? How do the peoples who dwell there define themselves?

In his presentation at a seminar organized by the Shell Petroleum Development Company, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, stated that it was scholars of the Niger Delta phenomenon who, in a bid to bring some order to their subject, classified the Niger Delta into wetlands and highlands. Communities in the area, in the pre-colonial era, defined themselves according to their peculiar cultural realities.

The Niger Delta was an administrative creation of the British who imposed their regime on the numerous self-governing entities there. Just as in the 20th century, the area, in the 19th century, was an oil-spinner. In this case it was palm oil and, just as the contemporary world’s heartbeat is petroleum, palm oil was the soul of the world then. Thus, it was known as Oil Rivers. Quite a few scholars of the submerging of the Niger Delta into global petrocapitalism believe that it began with the appointment of John Beecroft in 1849 as the first British Consul of the Bights Benin and Biafra (which is approximate to the Niger Delta/South-Eastern Nigeria).

So do we define the Niger Delta by the presence of oil? Oil cannot be divorced from the Niger Delta. But the woes of this region predate the discovery of petroleum, though it is central to the conflict claiming heads presently. Dr. Kimse Okoko, the President of the Ijaw National Council, one of the pan-Ijaw organizations of the Niger Delta, asked rhetorically, “now that oil has been found in Bauchi, does it make Bauchi a member of the Niger Delta?” Bauchi is in the northern part of Nigeria, straddling the savannah and the sahel area.

Various ethnic units who speak different languages dwell in the region. Quite a few of them have sub-units and it is not unusual to notice affinities between some of these units and others which some people regard as being outside the Niger Delta, including Nigeria’s three major ethnic groups – the Igbo, the Yoruba and the Hausa/Fulani. An example is the Itsekiri whose language is related to that of the Yoruba. The Ijaw, the biggest of the Niger Delta ethnic groups, has various linguistic and geographical divisions on both the eastern and western sides of the Niger Delta. Indeed, Okoko has identified fifty-two different communities with different names as belonging to the Ijaw. A number of other groups like the Ikwerre speak languages related to Igbo. Historical records indicate that inter group relations between some of these nations, prior to British colonialism and the birth of Nigeria in 1914, were sometimes hostile.

In the contemporary world, particularly in the Nigerian milieu, the existence of petroleum has become the yardstick for determining which community is in the Niger Delta. Based on this reality, quite a few places geographically outside the Niger Delta is classified as the Niger Delta. Those who define the Niger Delta from an economic perspective may not accept Akinyemi’s classification of Niger Delta as Southern Nigeria minus Yoruba and Igbo. Currently, the following states of Nigeria – going by the composition of membership of the Niger Delta Development Commission – belong to the Niger Delta: Bayelsa, Delta, Rivers, Cross Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Edo, Imo, Abia and Ondo. Imo and Abia are predominantly Igbo while Ondo is mostly Yoruba. And Edo’s significance as a member of the Niger Delta lies more in its proximity to the oil-rich Delta State than the quantity of oil deposits it has. The violence rocking the Niger Delta is mostly concentrated in Bayelsa, Delta, Rivers and parts of Ondo (the major petroleum states), and one suspects that this is partially because they are the heartbeat of the Niger Delta.

Posted by Administrator at March 27, 2006 12:39 AM


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