Mwalimu George Ngwane*
Most scholarly publications on the Niger Delta conflict in Nigeria attest to the fact that the proximate and structural factors are related to natural resources (oil), environmental degradation and political governance.
Yet since 1900 what is now known as the Niger Delta and which is today home to thirty-one million people, 70.000 square kms and more than forty ethnic groups presents a case on how the major conflict factors can be ethnicised hence the term ‘extra-oil’ conflict.
This essay seeks to provide the historical background of the inter-ethnic conflict, the conflict stages, the challenges faced in resolving this conflict in tandem with other conflicts and the recommendations for identity-based conflicts in the Niger Delta region.
Even though the Niger Delta has about forty ethnic groups with the main ones being Urhobo, Ogoni, Ukwuani and Isoko, two major ethnic groups have been identified over the years to be in conflict on issues related directly or indirectly to the global conflict situation in the Niger Delta.
These two groups are the Ijaws whose population of over 7 million makes them the largest in the region and the Itsekiri whose number is only about 450.000. The conflict between the two groups has been particularly intense in the major town called Warri.
While the Ijaws and Itsekiri have lived alongside each other for centuries, for the most part in relative harmony, the Itsekiri were the first to make contact with the European traders as early as the 16th century and they were more aggressive both in seeking Western education and in using the knowledge acquired to press their commercial advantages until 1879. Itsekiri chieftains controlled most of the trade with Europeans in the Western Niger region. That monopoly was challenged by the Ijaws yet Europeans continued to find favours with the minority Itsekiri. This bred resentment among the Ijaws at what they felt to be a form of economic apartheid perpetrated by Europeans against the Ijaws. The departure of the Europeans (British) during the Independence of Nigeria in 1960 did not lead to a decrease in tensions between the Ijaws and Itsekiri. Instead the foundation of conflict had been laid.
With the discovery of large petroleum reserves in the Niger Delta region in the late 1950s, a new bone of contention was introduced as the ability to claim ownership of land now promised to yield immense benefits in terms of jobs and infrastructural development expected to be provided by the petroleum companies. Tied to this economic expectation was the question of local political ownership within the Niger Delta region. The Ijaws feel that the allocation of power in the region does not reflect their superior numbers. This is especially seen in the largest metropolitan area of Warri which has become the prime source of political patronage and the hot spot of political contest.
Be that as it may, competition for oil wealth has fuelled violence between these two ethnic groups leading to the ethnic militarisation of nearly the entire region.
The first open conflict between the Ijaws and Itsekiri took place in December 1998 when the Ijaws attacked the Itsekiri over greater autonomy of the Warri area. Indeed the Ijaws were angry at government’s relocation of a local government office from an Ijaw area to an Itsekiri part of the town. Thirty people were reported dead and about 3000 displaced.
Other confrontations took place between 1999-2002 albeit in low intensity and with fast track ceasefires.
The most violent conflict was recorded in 2003 killing more than 200 people, forcing the withdrawal of major oil companies from the area, about 40% of the country’s output on oil was shut down and the government was forced to send in troop reinforcements to restore order. The reason for this violence was the accusation levied on Chevron Oil Company by an Itsekiri Member of Parliament, Daniel Mayuka, on the marginalisation of Itsekiri youths in Chevron’s youth employment policy that favoured the Ijaws.
On June 1 2004, leaders of the rival ethnic groups agreed to peace terms in Warri. Unfortunately the Peace deal failed to address key demands of the Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities Group for improved political representation and better access to the region’s oil resources. The fundamental demand by the Ijaw community was the creation of separate local government along ethnic lines.
In October 2004, the Itsekiri and Ijaw people signed another truce pending discussions with government on possible profit-sharing of oil resources among the various ethnic groups. A Peace and Security Working Group was set up. That truce did not hold on for long.
From 2005 this horizontal violence between the two groups led to the militarisation of ethnic groups resulting in criminal violence. These ethnic militia groups consisted mainly of young people frustrated by unemployment, targeting each tribe but at the same time getting at the various oil installations. Some of these militia groups include the Niger Delta Peoples Volunteer Force (NDPVF) led by Mujahid Dokubo-Asari and the Niger Delta Vigilante (NDV) led by Ateke Tom both from the Ijaw area. In fact in2006, the NDPVF clamoured for the autonomy of the Ijaw people.
In 2007 there was a major Conflict settlement by the Nigerian Government with the publication of a Niger Delta Master Plan which outlines a plan for economic and social development in the Niger Delta region.
No major ethnic clashes have been recorded since then.
Conflict Resolution Challenges
While most of the conflict between these two groups are triggered by economic access to oil, and therefore could be resolved politically, there are other challenges which make the conflict difficult to address. Some of these include Primordialism, Instrumentalism and Constructivism.
Primordialism builds on anthropological theories with emphasis that members of the same ethnic group have a common cultural/ancestral bond that determines their ethnic identity and community mode of livelihood different from the ‘other’. History books are replete with the fact that the Ijaws are the most ancient and indigenous inhabitants of wherever they are found in the riverine areas in Benin, Warri and Ugbo. In fact, it is the verdict of history that the Ijaws are the most ancient people in the whole of Nigeria, and are among the most ancient in West Africa. Dr. P.A Talbot, once acting Resident of Benin Division (1920), calls the Ijaws "this strange people- a survival from the dim past beyond the dawn of history- whose language and customs are distinct from those of their neighbours and without trace of any tradition of time before they were driven-southwards into these regions of sombre mangroves. In another context, Dr. Talbot submits firmly; "their (Ijaws) origin is wrapped in mystery. The people inhabit practically the whole Coast, some 250 miles in length, stretching between the Ibibio and Yoruba. The Niger Delta therefore, is…occupied by this strange people.
On the other hand the Itsekiri people claim that Itsekiri kingdom extends to Ijaw and Urhobo communities in Warri with some laying claims that the whole of Niger Delta is the ancestral land of the Itsekiri.
Instrumentalists do not think of psychological bonding. They perceive ethnicity as one of the many means or resources available to elites to be used to achieve political or economic goals. The primordialist and instrumentalist approaches however are not mutually exclusive. As Solomon Gashaw puts it: The primordialist emphasis on ethnicity as a quasi-ontological object does not preclude it from being used as a manipulative instrument by elites (Gashaw, 1993). In the case of the Ijaw-Itsekiri conflict, high political interference has quite often escalated what would have been normal tensions. According to a Press Release by the Urhobo National Forum in America in 1999, the Ijaw-Itsekiri conflict arose from a close friendship between the King of the Itsekiri (Olu of Warri) and the late military President of Nigeria, Sani Abacha. It was Abacha’s direct orders to move local Government headquarters from Ijaw area to an Itsekiri territory that provoked the crisis. As of 2005, politics has been militarised in the Niger Delta as officials offer money to paramilitary groups for protection or political advancement. Militias are believed to be paid by local leaders who use them to intimidate their political rivals during elections. After the elections, the groups get involved in banditry, wide spread criminality and oil bunkering.
Constructivists see ethnicity as a social construct, manufactured rather than given. Ethnic groups conjure images of separateness only as a bargaining power and social leverage to having their demands met. Constructivists hold the opinion that the Itsekiri and Ijaw clashes are based not on the real or perceived differences between the two tribes but rather on distributive sectional struggles for the largesse of the oil industry, including infrastructure and financial compensations provided by the oil multinationals. They argue that as soon as all group needs are taken care of through good-enough Governance, all ethnic differences and hence ethnic clashes become minimised.
a) The National Question
it would be foolhardy for the Nigerian government to address the Ijaw/Itsekiri conflict as separate from the greater collective identities that make Nigeria and that has been referred to as ‘The National question’. It is believed that the regionalisation of Nigeria into North, East and West without the South leading to three major languages, three major political parties and the distribution of resources in an unbalanced manner have been the bane of the upsurge in ethnic violence. Clamours for a constitution that redresses this imbalance and especially one that strives to forge a national citizenship and citizenship education shall be welcomed. A window of opportunity exists before the 2011 Presidential elections in Nigeria.
b) Law of Derivation
From 1960 until 1966 the oil proceeds in Nigeria were divided 60% for the state of derivation, 20% for the Federal Government and 30% to a distributive pool that was shared among the whole of the Nigerian population. In 1975 the derivative percentage was reduced from 60% t0 20% and by the end of 1993 it had fallen to 3%. It was brought back to 13% in 1999 and negotiations are being carried out by the various stakeholders including the government to raise it to a minimum of 50%.
c) Corporate Social Responsibility
There are calls for Multinationals in the Niger Delta to increase corporate transparency, and how to more effectively enforce good policies. In a study carried out by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) it was recommended that oil companies and the government increase transparency by instituting the "publish what you pay" system where the government reports all revenues received by oil corporations. Alternatively, Alaska's Permanent Fund system—where residents receive an annual dividend from oil's proceeds—was suggested as a model for the Niger Delta to increase resource transparency
d) Income-generating activities
The magical focus on oil as the main income-generating source of income does not bode well for the Niger Delta. No matter how much oil companies would be willing to employ youths, no matter how much is done in preventing oil bunkering; the best recipe would be to diversify the sources of income in the Niger Delta. This should include building capacities of especially young people in vocational training and agriculture and then providing them with loan and thrift opportunities for them to start up their own businesses. This cannot be left in the hands of government alone but other partners like the Diasporan communities and International Development organisations.
e) Sustenance of Peace processes
It has been observed that Conflict Settlements and Truces are not followed up systematically and are not well coordinated. This leaves a lot of gaps for re-escalation of conflicts and redefinition of group interest. It would be recommended that the Federal government provide logistics for local ownership of Peace processes and especially strict implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreements by the Federal Government of Nigeria.
f) Good-enough Governance
According to a USIP Report, civil society groups in the Niger Delta emphasized the importance of good governance as a key component of conflict prevention in this area. Indeed most of the ethnic clashes have actually taken place under military regimes. Under the current and hopefully subsequent civilian systems, it is expected that good-enough Governance shall engender accountability in development efforts.
What I have tried to focus on is the large scope of causal factors some of them obvious like the economic triggers of the oil conflict and others couched in imaginary or real differences.
The fundamental challenge would be a thorough conflict transformation exercise that has inbuilt conflict preventive mechanisms either in governance relations or in constitutional engineering.
Yet they would be like in most resource blessed countries a case for grievances against greed in the Niger Delta and even changing ethnic belligerents even when the root causes of conflicts may have been examined and addressed.
-Conflict in the Niger Delta,Wikipedia,the free Encyclopaedia
- Strategies for Peace in the Niger Delta, Peace Brief by Dorina Bekoe, December 2005
- Letters to the US Department of State on the Warri Crisis, June 1999
-Between Development and Destruction, an enquiry into the causes of conflict in Post-colonial States edited by Kumar Rupesighe, Luc Van de Goor and Paul Sciarone, 1996
* Chevening Fellow on Conflict Resolution and Prevention (2010) University of York (UK).