Oiling the Friction: Environmental Conflict Management in the Niger Delta, Nigeria
The Niger Delta, once considered "the White Man's Graveyard," is viewed today as an important biological and economic source of wealth for its richness in biodiversity and for its immense oil reserves. However, according to Dr. Okechukwu Ibeanu, the extraction and production of oil by large oil companies in accordance with the Nigerian federal government, has caused environmental damage in this extremely sensitive ecosystem, as well as exacerbated tensions between the petrobusiness and the government on the one hand, and the local ethnic communities of the Niger Delta on the other. Dr. Ibeanu presented his research findings on the conflict and challenges of this oil rich but environmentally fragile region of Nigeria known as the oil belt, at a discussion meeting co-hosted by the Environmental Change and Security Project and the Africa Project of the Wilson Center.
Since the country began exporting oil in large quantities in the 1950s, the oil-rich southern region of the Niger Delta has been a source of revenue for the Nigerian federal government. Nigeria is the fifth largest producer of OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries), and currently exports about one million barrels of oil per day with Shell Nigeria - the Shell Petroleum Developing Company, a subsidiary of Royal Dutch/Shell, producing about fifty percent of total oil exports.
With the crisscross of oil pipelines and gas pipelines as well, there have been large spills over the last half century, including a recent burst pipeline resulted as much as 13 million barrels being spilled over an extremely confined space. These oil spills destroy the freshwater ecosystems and also spill over onto farmland, killing animals and endangering human life. In addition, the canals built to support the pipelines have an impact on the hydrology of the Niger Delta creating a scarcity of water in combination with the water pollution.
Despite the environmental awareness by many Nigerians as well as local and international environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), Dr. Ibeanu stressed that no systematic study has been done on the impact of oil production on the Niger Delta. One major reason for this neglect is that the Nigerian environmental protection agency is still in its infancy (only ten years old), has limited financial and technical capacity, and is susceptible to corruption. In essence, the agency acts as a rubber stamp for lower standards by endorsing the oil companies' own standards. On the other hand, there are several environmental NGOs who are in the Niger Delta, which are trying to highlight the precarious environmental situation.
While oil exports constitute only 13 percent of Nigeria's gross domestic product, they make up about 80 percent of government revenues, causing the government to view the continued production of oil as an essential Nigerian security interest. In contrast, for the oil-bearing communities of the Niger Delta, oil is not central to the survival of the majority of people since they rely upon agricultural and pastoral economies. This has created what Dr. Ibeanu terms a "paradox of securities" in that the federal government's endorsement of "national security" has come to contradict the security of its citizens. It also creates different perceptions of security between the state and oil companies on one side and the local communities of the Niger Delta on the opposing side.
In order to ensure the viability of the oil production, the state has relied on the military to secure a stable environment for the oil companies, which together with state officials, constitute the elite of Nigeria. This alliance was firmly cemented during the long military rule of Nigeria which ceased in the 1990s, and continues today, as evidenced by the high level of corruption within the federal government. Furthermore, the oil companies have been able to control the federal government's decision to benefit and improve the living conditions of a select elite corps of leaders. Thus, according to Dr. Ibeanu, the Nigerian government, in collusion with the petrobusiness, has relied on state violence, a conscious, systematic, and organized violence by the state against groups considered anti-regime, to support this corrupt relationship. Meanwhile, the local communities are more concerned about protecting the environment, from where they secure their livelihood, and are willing to resort to violence to end crude oil production, if their security is threatened.
The changing nature of ethnicity in Nigeria is another element that is creating more conflict, says Dr. Ibeanu. With the introduction of oil money, many new ethnic groups are laying claim to the oil-producing land and resulting profits. This is not to say that "new" ethnic groups are forming, but rather that definitions of who constitutes particular ethnic groups are changing, primarily in response to the degradation of the environment combined with the flow of oil money straight into a corrupt federal government's coffers. These ethnic groups are distressed that the oil companies misuse security forces to protect production of oil in the face of native claims to the land. There is a lack of accountability and transparency since oil revenues, which supposedly are part of the state, are actually being siphoned off by state officials and oil leaders.
In response to state violence, ethnic groups have mobilized to present their grievances. Dr. Ibeanu, however, was quick to point out that some ethnic group elites manipulate the environmental question to their own benefit, further degrading the legitimate claims of those communities truly in need. The paucity of infrastructure and deprivation in the Niger Delta, however, explains the local demands for more resources, including schools, roads, and hospitals. The derivation of monetary resources from oil production has dropped from about fifty percent following independence to a low of 1.5 percent in 1983, and finally to about 13 percent in 1999. In sum, the tension in the Niger Delta is the result of local demands for better living conditions exacerbated by a struggle for more benefits for the elites of these communities, as well as communal conflicts between ethnic groups such as the Ogoni and the Ijaw.
The federal government with the financial support of the oil companies has responded in two ways. The old way, which still holds sway, was violence using the security force as major tool of oppression. With the civilian government, a new strategy has been to introduce a Niger Delta Development Cooperation bill to send resources back to the communities. The problem with this approach is that a struggle has ensued over which ethnic groups are located in the Niger Delta, since such a geographic distinction is based on a two-tier conception of the Niger Delta. There are the traditional ethnic groups that claim to live in the Niger Delta, and the oil-producing area, which is a specific region of the Niger Delta. Hence, tensions have only increased between ethnic groups; a situation the oil companies have been quick to exploit. When conflict breaks out, the oil companies lean on the federal government to send in security forces to suppress the violence, claiming that oil production must be protected, and as a result, increasing local distrust of the government and the military. Moreover, the government claims that the funds for this development initiative should come from oil revenues that already go to the local communities while the latter insist that the initiative should be funded by new government money.
Why does this conflict persist and what can be done about it? Dr. Ibeanu stressed the continued misunderstanding of the problem by both the federal government and the oil companies. They insist that more money will resolve the issue but this money is being misappropriated. Instead, Dr. Ibeanu recommended some fundamental policy changes to overcome the conflict including increasing local participation, encouraging further decentralization and democratization, re-addressing the issue of Nigerian federalism, and changing the mindsets of both local communities and the elites of the federal government. Local communities must desist in viewing the government as the enemy and should seek to cooperate with the government in order to ensure change. On the other hand, the oil companies must be re-oriented in their focus. Currently, they concentrate too much on improving their public relations. Instead, Dr. Ibeanu suggests that the oil companies view their activities in the long term. Transparency and openness of their activities will help to alleviate the tension especially if combined with infrastructure investment, rather than payment of compensation, which increases corruption. Finally, oil companies must adhere to international environmental standards to show their commitment to protecting nature.
Following Dr. Ibeanu's presentation, discussion centered on how to make the transition to a more decentralized and open democratic process in Nigeria. Questions by the participants focused on how to achieve this democratization at both the local and federal level, as well as mechanisms to better enhance local group participation and greater investment by the oil companies in the local infrastructure. One participant suggested that to counter the proliferation of mobilized groups based solely on ethnic enclaves, one aim would be to seek civic groups that cross ethnic divisions such as associations and religious organizations that could play a facilitating role. Dr. Ibeanu noted that this was slowly beginning to occur but that ethnicity is still seen as viable instrument in furthering an ethnic group's agenda at the expense of others. The meeting concluded with Dr. Ibeanu reiterating that a decentralized, participatory democracy with local officials being voted into power in a democratic and proportioned way will help in mitigating the cycle of deprivation and violence.
In addition to this meeting, Dr. Ibeanu also gave a public noon discussion on the same topic entitled "Petrobusiness, Politics, and Environmental Conflict in the Niger Delta" on 2 March 2000. ECSP will also publish an article on oil politics and environmental conflict in Nigeria by Dr. Ibeanu in the forthcoming Environmental Change and Security Project Report (due out in summer 2000).