Magazine article New Internationalist

Guns and Justice in the Niger Delta

Magazine article New Internationalist

Guns and Justice in the Niger Delta

Article excerpt

Nigeria's Niger Delta has known a long history of struggle over resources. In the late ipth and early zoth centuries, indigenous communities fought against attempts by British traders (backed by the imperial government) to seize control of the trade in palm oil and other produce. Communities like the Nembe, Opobo and Akassa were attacked by British gunboats and their chiefs deposed and exiled.

In the mid-1960s, Isaac Adaka Boro declared a separate republic in the Niger Delta. Boro accused the postindependence governments of the period, controlled by Nigeria's major ethnic nationalities, of oppressing the minorities in the Delta. His republic was soon overrun by government forces and he was thrown into prison. Boro was released from prison to fight on the federal side in the Nigerian Civil War and died in action.

Even before Boro, leaders in the Niger Delta had agitated for a separate state or region within the Federation during the constitutional negotiations that led up to Nigerian independence. The Willink Commission set up to investigate their grievances did not back the creation of a separate Niger Delta state. Instead it recommended that the region be given special attention because of the extreme challenges of physical development posed by its marshy terrain.

The period after the Nigerian Civil War saw a steady erosion of the position of the Niger Delta minorities in the nation's distributive politics. Before the Civil War, a so-per-cent share of national revenue was allocated to the regions of the country from where such revenue was derived. After the War, from the 19705 onwards, the percentage allocated on the basis of derivation was reduced sharply, falling to virtually zero. It was no coincidence that this happened at a time when crude oil, produced in the Niger Delta, displaced cash crops like palm oil, cocoa and groundnuts (grown mainly by the larger ethnic groups) as the country's primary source of revenue.

By the time Ken Saro-Wiwa and other Ogoni leaders gave birth to the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) in the early 19905, the struggles in the Niger Delta had become focused on reversing this injustice. Communities were also agitating to secure better compensation from the oil companies for the land they acquired - and for the environmental damage arising from their activities. In some instances, communities in dispute with oil companies were brutally repressed by the military regimes of the time - as with Umuechem, a little village in the Rivers State.

MOSOP changed the character of this struggle by organizing on the basis of an entire ethnic nationality rather than as separate clans and villages, as had been the case in the past. MOSOP started asserting the rights of Nigeria's constituent ethnic nationalities within the Nigerian Federation rather than simply agitating for increases in compensation payments. In creating a mass movement of the Ogoni people, which for the first time included the unemployed and disaffected youth, MOSOP, radicalized the struggle in the Niger Delta. …

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