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« All Roads Lead to World Igbo Congress (WIC) Boston, Massachussettes | Main | Is there any Reason why a Biafrian can't be President? »

September 03, 2006

Is Oil Worth a Drop of Blood? - Part 2

by Henry Chukwuemeka Onyeama (Awka, Anambra State, Nigeria) --- Oil was discovered in Nigeria in 1956 at Oloibri in Bayelsa State. But this was not the beginning of the challenges that bedevil the Niger Delta. However, the oil factor has significantly greased a situation rooted in political quagmires exacerbated by ethnicity, negative inter group relations, and a heartless petro-capitalist system.

Anyone familiar with the Niger Delta knows that it is different from other parts of Nigeria. Its crisscross of creeks mean that its peoples depend on water for their survival, and any government that seeks a better life for them must consider this. Given their numerical inferiority vis-à-vis their closest neighbours-the dry-land dwelling Igbo and Yoruba – and the nature of Nigerian politics, tensions were inevitable. But were these tensions at the root of their problem? Or were they exploited by the alliance of petro-capitalism and a succession of governments dating back to pre-independence?

The peoples of the Niger Delta did not kowtow to colonial masters who grabbed their oil-in this case, palm oil – through a mixture of deception and conquest. The resistance by rulers like Nana the Itsekiri is an example of 19th century resistance to international adventurers by Niger Deltans. But these adventurers improved on their strategies and capitalized on inter group polarizations to achieve their ambitions.

The 1950s witnessed agitations among the minorities in Nigeria. By no means were the minorities solely in the Niger Delta. Many of them are in the Northern part of Nigeria, which is dominated by the mostly Muslim Hausa-Fulani. Those in the Niger Delta had the Igbo and the Yoruba to contend with, the former to the east, the latter to the west. In the bid to succeed the British the major groups got involved in power-juggling exercises that did not pay much attention to the interests of their smaller neighbours, who in some cases, were split by antagonisms. For example, the Urhobo and the Itsekiri of Warri became pawns in the hands of the Yoruba-dominated Action Group, a Nigerian political party of the 1950s and 1960s. But this should not have been the case. If the British did not fashion out a structure to accommodate Nigeria’s different nationalities, couldn’t their indigenous successors do so? The following observations from ‘The Price of Oil’, the 1999 Human Rights Watch report on the Niger Delta are noteworthy: ‘Conflict in the Niger Delta is directly related to the debates, ongoing since before independence, about the structure of the Nigerian polity. It can be assumed that there would have been disputes as to the relationship between the centre and periphery in Nigeria in any economic circumstances, given the complexity of the country and the lack of established nationwide democratic institutions at independence. Yet the addition of oil production and oil wealth to the difficulties already posed by the problem of ruling a country of at least 250 ethnic groups, each with its separate traditions of government, has greatly increased the potential for conflict and the stakes at play in that conflict.’

To assuage the concerns of the minority groups in Nigeria the British set up the 1958 Henry Willink Commission. As Akinyemi put it the Commission declared the Niger Delta ‘a special area which requires special attention.’ There were demands for states in the Niger Delta as a means of protecting the smaller groups from the Igbo-dominated government. West of the Niger Delta was home to a dominant Yoruba presence. Whether the fears of Niger Deltans were justified should be seen within the context of the earlier quote from the Human Rights Watch report.

Evidence indicates that the Commission, while rejecting the demands for state creation, recommended the establishment of regional advisory councils for the minorities and constitutional assurances. It also established a federal board to cater for the interests of the Niger Delta. This board became operational in 1961. It only carried out surveys and made recommendations to the government. It operated from Port Harcourt, a city that though dominated by the Igbo, was contested as part of Niger Delta. The Ijaw, the largest of the Niger Delta peoples, did not find this funny. Many of them demanded that British treaties that yoked them to Nigeria should be revoked.

Militancy reared its head in the Niger Delta for the first time in January 1966. Isaac Boro, an Ijaw, led his fighters to declare a state in the Niger Delta. By this time oil was becoming a factor in the national economy. The political class had designed ethnicity as a badge of Nigeria. Boro’s movement was predominantly Ijaw. Although Boro failed, courtesy of the Ironsi military regime, the dogs of war had had their first taste of blood.

Till date the roles of the Niger Delta peoples during the Nigerian civil war is a sore point. While many other factors propelled the government led by General Yakubu Gowon to end the secessionist enclave called Biafra, the oil factor was significant. By 1967 the oil companies had discovered Nigeria’s potential as a counter weight to the volatile Middle East. Breaking Biafra’s backbone by granting concessions to the minorities was a decisive ploy by the Gowon regime. Were the minorities’ true allies of the Igbo during the civil war? The evidence is a mixed record. Non-Igbo from the Niger Delta also suffered from the mayhem of May-September 1966 which formed the background to the secession. But there were prominent Niger Deltans who believed that secession was wrong. Some even put their lives on the line to prove their belief. The Rivers writer, Elechi Amadi, fought on the Nigerian side. The renowned Ijaw poet, Gabriel Okara, was a staunch believer in the Biafran cause. Isaac Boro died on the battlefield as a Nigerian soldier fighting Biafra. In the words of Sola Odunfa, ‘he was reported as saying he would not swap his Nigerian citizenship for that of a Biafran under domination by Igbo.’ How many people know that a non-Igbo coined the name Biafra?

To be continued.

An award winning writer, Henry Chukwuemeka Onyeama
lives in Awka, Anambra State, Nigeria.

Posted by Administrator at September 3, 2006 02:13 AM


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