Nigeria's Nationalization of British Petroleum

By Genova, Ann | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, January 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Nigeria's Nationalization of British Petroleum


Genova, Ann, The International Journal of African Historical Studies


On 30 July 1979, Festus Marinho, the managing director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC) on behalf of Nigeria's military leader, General Olusegun Obasanjo, dispatched a telegram to BP (Nigeria) Ltd. stating that Nigeria intended to "increase its participation to 100%" in Shell-BP and BP (Nigeria).1 He went on to say, without elaboration, that the decision stemmed from the United Kingdom's (UK) proposed change in policy favoring the resumption of oil supplies to apartheid South Africa.2 Not surprisingly, this same message was repeated in Nigeria's government-monitored newspapers a day or two later.3 Within a week, however, journalists and scholars offered a modified version of the declaration by stating that Nigeria- one of the world's largest producers and exporters of petroleum- had "nationalized" the London-based British oil company, British Petroleum (BP).4 Yet, we find little agreement in their reports over why this "Giant of West Africa" nationalized BP. Some mention South Africa, others Southern Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe); some mention oil, while others solely discuss British diplomacy. In looking at how the announcement has been presented, it is evident that the nationalization of BP was more complicated than suggested in the news reports and scholarly essays with regard to Nigeria's intended purpose and execution.

Within the broad "popular narrative,"- that is, the nationalization presented by journalists and scholars and accepted by the public- the nationalization of BP rarely appears within discussions of economic policy, but almost always receives attention within the context of foreign policy- even in publications about Nigeria's economy. Within these works, the narrative runs like a melodrama with new developments unfolding incrementally with clearly recognizable villains, such as South Africa. Nigeria, on the other hand, is represented as a liberation hero. It is easy to see how it has become, for all its ambiguity, an important part of historical memory in Nigeria and endured as the narrative. In general, the popular narrative asserts that Nigeria nationalized BP as punishment for the UK's wrong-headed policies in southern Africa. Beyond this broad conclusion, however, we find no consensus on the specifics within the secondary literature.

Some scholars mention South Africa, others Southern Rhodesia; but, only a few identify oil as the central feature. For example, Okon Akiba writes that Nigeria nationalized Shell-BP in response to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's announcement that the UK would be lifting economic sanctions against Southern Rhodesia.5 J.K. Onoh writes that Nigeria nationalized BP in response to Thatcher's "de facto recognition of the minority government in Zimbabwe."6 Scholars who incorporated South Africa into their conclusion focused on oil sales, which is supported by the official announcement, and repeated in the newspapers, given by Marinho in July 1979.7 A variation, which surfaced in the Nigerian press just after the nationalization, involved a complicated oil swap. Nicolas J. Spiliotes suggests in his 1981 publication that the nationalization occurred in response to "BP setting up swap arrangements with its North Sea and Nigerian oil, enabling it to sell to South Africa."8 His conclusion echoes that which was presented in the Nigerian news.9 And, with the exception of a few, the nationalization is nestled in discussions of Nigeria's boisterous foreign policy.10 The numerous reasons for the nationalization indicate that the purpose and execution of the nationalization was not, at the time, abundantly clear. Further, they suggest that the specifics about why, within the context of southern Africa, were irrelevant. These works offer the ambiguous popular narrative, falling perfectly in line with the nationalist agenda of the Obasanjo regime. The revised narrative introduced here is the result of the historical investigation and analysis of recently declassified materials from BP's private archives as well as Nigeria's and the UK's national archives, and illustrates how the nationalization of BP is central to Nigeria's economic nationalism. …

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