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Africa Insight – Can Nigeria Cure its Oil ‘Disease?’

By Okello Oculi, The Nation (Kenya)

After underdeveloping the Niger Delta, the Nigerian government is building roads and bridges in the region – which is too late – as the people have learnt that kidnapping foreigners produces rapid results.

And, to end the problem once and for all, some Nigerians say corrupt Delta business people, council chairmen, MPs and contractors should be kidnapped as well.

On July 10, a workshop was organised in Abuja, Nigeria, to discuss the epidemic of kidnappings which have evolved from targeting oil-workers to seizing primary or kindergarten children either from inside classrooms or from inside cars taking them to school.

The most publicised was that of the little girl with a British father and Nigerian mother. Her case had the well-publicised twist of the kidnappers asking to exchange her for her father, Mr Hill, presumably because the kidnappers were getting bad publicity as nauseating criminals who would sink so low as to brutalise a three-year old girl for the sake of ransom money. There were also unspoken fears of the kidnappers either sexually abusing the girl – or going down the lane of bizarre incidents which had been in the news in Africa’s most populous nation.

Notably there was a case in Anambra State where a five-year old boy was lured into the bush by a cousin who then cut off both hands to be sold to a ritualist who had demanded them.

A similar thing happened in Katsina State where a nine-year old boy was similarly lured into a farm and both his eyes plucked out for sale to a “medicine man.”

Such bodily organs are said to make people very wealthy if used for a ritual by a “medicine man.”

The current users of guns for armed discussion over demands for oil wealth to benefit Niger Delta peoples under whose lands the fluid mineral is found in abundance, trace their history to the early 1960s when Isaac Boro, a university graduate from the area, launched a failed secessionist movement against domination of the then Eastern Region by the numerically larger Igbo ethnic group who controlled both economic and political power. When the Igbos followed him with their own secession as “the State of Biafra”, he would die fighting with the Nigerian federal troops against Biafra. Boro was convinced that Biafra would control the newly-discovered oil under the soils of his smaller ethnic group under a break-away Igbo state.

Although the Nigerian federal troops won the civil war against Biafra that lasted from 1967 to 1970, too many other ethnic groups who had been drafted into the federal army from other parts of the country, particularly Northern Nigeria, had shed their blood to keep that oil from contamination by notions of a new “federal ownership” of the black gold.

The emergent confrontation of claims of ownership would express itself in the invention of arithmetical formulae for sharing monies earned from selling crude oil in the international market.

This mathematics assumed its own trajectory- notably plunging from 50 per cent to as low as two per cent shared between the States from where the oil spurted out, on the one hand, and the federal government on the other.

The political dynamite in the calculus would be hinted by a paradoxical situation in which Alhaji Shehu Shagari won the 1979 elections as Nigeria’s civilian president riding piggy-back on the oil-owners of the Niger Delta. Ironically, on assuming the presidency, Shagari reduced the share of wealth to these people from two to 1.5 per cent of monies earned from oil exports.

The blood of Saro-Wiwa

That example would be followed by successive military governments from 1983 till 1994 when General Sani Abacha increased it to 13 per cent.

The general’s increment, however, already carried the poison of the blood of the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, and nine companions whom he hanged in November 1995 (on the eve of the Commonwealth Conference held in Australia), even after assuring Nelson Mandela that he would not do so.

Saro-Wiwa had revived armed struggle for asserting the rights of the Niger Delta people over oil wealth. He anchored his movement on a call for bringing salvation to his Ogoni people by winning them an African State as small but as rich as Kuwait on the edge of Nigeria’s mainland and using them as inflammable fuel to set other ethnic groups into a war of liberation.

Prof Festus Iyayi, who presented the lead paper at the workshop in Abuja, presented the Niger Delta issue as the tragedy of “four decades of governance for the underdevelopment of the Niger Delta.”

The main culprits, Prof Iyayi, argues, have been oil companies, or the “Seven Sisters” – including Shell, Chevron, Agip, Exxon as well as French and Norwegian oil extractors. They have, he insisted, been accused of committing the double crimes of routinely and indifferently, callously, and arrogantly spilling huge quantities of crude oil into waters from which communities traditionally got fish, crabs, periwinkles and other forms of food and over extensive agricultural farmlands thereby destroying crops and making them unsuitable for future agriculture.

The oil giants have also been accused of polluting bodies of water from which people draw water for drinking and cooking without providing alternative sources and burning gas (which comes out with oil) day and night so that children have grown into adults without knowing what night darkness looks like and never experiencing true sleep.

The gas burns from tops of huge and tall pipes, thereby broadcasting “acid rain” onto roofs of houses, leaves of food crops including bananas and vegetables. In short, oil production has produced an environmental nightmare.

The resultant protests from angry and desperate communities provoked a variety of counter-measures.

The oil companies succeeded, in the 1980s and 1990s, in buying guns for a special police force to gun down protesters. Professor Iyayi called this “Shell’s garrison approach”.

Shell has also borne the brunt of accusations by critics for paying compensations for damaged crops, farmlands and fishing waters in such a way that it sets neighbouring communities against each other and community leaders against their own people.

Iyayi quoted an elder as saying: “We were living in peace before Shell came and started setting communities against each other; they started killing our people”.

Bitter fights over funds paid as compensation for oil spillage gave birth to the youths who started learning the monetary pickings from using guns borrowed from soldiers and policemen sent to silence their communities.

Then came a bizarre event. In 1998 Gen Abacha decided to announce to the world how popular he was with the Nigerian people. He borrowed from Louis Farrakan, leader of the Nation of Islam in the United States, the notion of the “One Million Man March”.

The march was held along new wide tarmacked streets of Abuja, the nation’s federal capital. Military rulers of Nigeria’s 36 States were ordered to each send bus loads of “Abacha-for-president- supporters”.

Constance Meiju, a civil society activist from the area expressed the impact of Abuja on youth “supporters of Abacha” from the Niger Delta states thus: “They saw London in Nigeria; they saw New York in Nigeria: they had come from thatched-houses sitting on water to see wide streets, huge, glittering mansions and bridges on land when where they came from they had no bridges over water and creeks”.

Consequently, the youth reaped fury from Abuja and took it back to the Niger Delta. Saro-Wiwa’s “Movement for the Salvation of Ogoni Peoples” (MOSOP), gave birth to the “Movement For the Liberation of Ijaw Nation”. The staccato of gun shots became the dominant language of political struggle for oil.

Various efforts by successive Nigerian governments to develop the area through setting up agencies that would take social services (such as schools, clinics, roads, electricity) into oil-producing communities, have remained paralysed by corruption.

A novel and rare resource

In 2003, former President Obasanjo followed that same route by setting up the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC).

President Umaru Yar’Adua has not only inherited it but also promised to launch his own “Master Plan” for developing the area.

He has also come with one novel and rare resource – the invention of Goodluck Jonathan as Vice President. As an Ijaw man, Jonathan is a historic political incident.

In the thick of the tumultuous political struggles in 2006 and 2007 (presented as President Obasanjo’s desire to have a “Third Term” in government), I had claimed repeatedly to observers of Nigerian affairs in Nairobi that the clue lay in the apparent decision by Nigeria’s past and current military top brass, and their civilian partners, by solving the Niger Delta cauldron by sticking a fat, spiced smoked fish into the mouth of Niger Delta’s nationalism.

Since it was unlikely that northern political communities would reject a situation in which Obasanjo, a Yoruba from the South, would be succeeded by another southerner, the power-brokers would settle for giving the Izon people (the majority ethnic group in the oil-producing areas) the vice-presidency of Nigeria. To achieve that goal, the political ambition of Obasanjo’s Vice President, Atiku Abubakar, had to be flushed down bleeding into the flood waters of the River Niger and drowned in the Atlantic Ocean.

One week to the April 14, 2007 elections I presented a paper at a workshop in Yenagoa, the capital of Bayelsa State. The excitement at the prospect of the future Vice President coming from among them filled the air.

Also loudly in the air was a new language of political triumphalism tempered with condemnation of kidnappings as “criminal acts against the development of Bayelsa State”.

Dr Godswill Iyali, the “consultant” to President Obasanjo on the Niger Delta, read a speech by Governor Goodluck Jonathan then on a campaign trail, which told the audience that rampant kidnappings of foreigners who were constructing long bridges across creeks, building communications and power grids across mangrove swamps and networks of waterways and oil-related factories, was retarding the development of the region.

Jonathan’s speech called for a separation of past acts of sabotage, which had been used to force Nigeria’s federal government to listen to the fury and cries against impoverishment in the Niger Delta, from new the phenomenon of kidnappings done to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars in ransoms.

Corrupt council chairmen

Dr Iyali received a resounding ovation. Likewise, he called on his audience to stop blaming all the poverty in their region on foreigners while ignoring the bane of corruption by local government chairmen, councillors, State government officials, local businessmen and contractors who took payments but failed to complete projects.

Dr Iyayi ended his paper by demanding that government officials should stop using official rhetoric which paints all Niger Delta activists as “criminals” and “terrorists”. He insisted on focus being put on unsavoury realities such as the “Niger Delta having the highest infant mortality rate in a Nigeria that has the highest rate in the world”.

Dr Agari, a Federal Permanent Secretary and an indigene of the area, demanded that intellectuals from Niger Delta be allowed to make inputs into Yar’Adua’s Master Plan.

The loudest applause, however, went to the young man who ended the workshop with calls for kidnappers in the Niger Delta to direct their technology at corrupt local government chairmen, bureaucrats, councillors, local community leaders who accepted bribes from oil companies, offending contractors and politicians.

New winds of change are apparently blowing over the Niger Delta – working their way through a staccato of guns shots in the hands of angry youths.

Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media. (

Published: Jul 20, 2007 and its sister non-profit websites,,,,,, and are owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia feature.

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