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The Niger Delta has been described as "exploited, misused, abused, polluted, underdeveloped, and almost completely dead; like a cherry fruit sucked and discarded". [1] Nnimmo Bassey looks at the crude oil trade in the Niger Delta and finds it's anything but sweet for local communities.

The Niger Delta of Nigeria has been in the news so repeatedly that the issues merit little introduction. In one sense the issues are a mesh of politics, trade and resource exploitation. All these work to gravely undermine the rights of people in terms of the exploitation of their natural environment.

The Niger Delta is the treasure base of Nigeria, since successive governments have decided to ignore other sustainable income sources that had sustained the nation before the discovery of oil in commercial quantities in the country. Today, by official count, oil contributes about 95% of the country's foreign exchange earnings from a production of 2.2 million barrels of crude per day. An additional chunk is extracted illegally into private and corporate pockets through crude oil bunkering. These all lead to the milking of the Niger Delta to the point of near death. The area suffers a dearth of social amenities, high unemployment, environmental degradation, and other social malaise.

Oil corporations such as Shell and Chevron, who are major players in the Niger Delta, have admitted to contributing to corruption and violence/civil unrest in the Niger Delta. In Shell's Peace and Security report (published in 2003) as well as Chevron's double page ads in Nigerian newspapers in May 2005, the corporations admit that by their actions they have contributed to the state of conflict, corruption and distortion in both the Niger Delta environment and by extension the Nigerian state.

According to the Shell report: "Annual casualties from fighting already place the Niger Delta in the 'high intensity conflict' category (over 1,000 fatalities a year), alongside more known cases such as Chechnya and Colombia. The criminalisation and political economy of conflicts in the region mean that the basis for escalated, protracted and entrenched violence is rapidly being established. This not only threatens SCIN's (Shell Companies in Nigeria) future ability to operate, but also Nigerian national security." [2]

Trade has remained the major precursor of destruction in the Niger Delta. We can go right back to trade practices where highly valuable goods were exchanged for bottles of whisky, beads and mirrors, or to the days during which the Niger Delta lost human resources through the slave trade. Before the advent of the crude oil trade in the Niger Delta, we have it on record that on 22 February 1895 the trading city, Brass, located here, was attacked and levelled by British naval forces at the behest of the Royal Niger Company to ensure that the company had a monopoly over the palm oil trade for which the town was famous. Over 2,000 persons, mostly women and children, lost their lives in that attack.

In modern day times, it has been said that since Shell arrived in the Niger Delta it has been a tale of desolation. Much of the activities in the Niger Delta with regard to crude oil and its exploitation are shrouded in rights abuses, as the world came to learn from the struggles of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni people and the subsequent hanging of Saro-Wiwa.

There is an unending story of horrors coming out of the Niger Delta. Oil spills and pipeline fires are regular features and official estimates are that there are at least 300 incidents each year. Clean up exercises are spade and shovel events. They are often capped off by the setting of remaining crude oil on fire. This way forests and even rivers have been set ablaze. These crude oil spills poison the land, pollute water bodies and expose the people to untold hardship. Consider also the response to communities attempting to protect their rights:

- In 1990, the Umuechem community was visited by contingents of Nigerian police. Eighty community members were murdered in the unprovoked attack. Houses in the community were either burnt down or looted. The people of Umuechem were engaged in peaceful protests at the gates of the Shell's flow station located in their community. [3]

- On November 10, 1995, the Nigerian military regime of General Sani Abacha murdered Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other leaders of the Ogoni people of the Niger Delta after a kangaroo tribunal set up by the regime convicted them for trumped up charges of murder. The world responded with outrage. This followed the commencement of peaceful protests in1993 by the Ogoni against the destruction of their natural environment and livelihoods.

- For the people of Ilaje community, Ondo State of Nigeria, May 28, 1998 is a day they cannot forget in a hurry. Ilaje youths had occupied Chevron's oil platform in order to induce Chevron to have a dialogue with them. The Nigerian military and police swooped down in helicopters on the protesting youths. Reports have it that the attackers landed shooting, Rambo style, killing two youths on the spot. [4] A lawsuit is currently being heard on this in San Francisco, USA.

- On November 20, 1999, barely six months into his first term as civilian president of Nigeria, President Obasanjo ordered soldiers into Odi, a town in the Niger Delta. By the time they left, the destruction of Odi was complete and 2,483 people had been slain. The dead included women, children and the aged and infirm. [5]

- About 50 members of Odioma community in Bayelsa State of Nigeria were reported massacred on Saturday, February 19, 2005 during a military raid by a Joint Task Force of the Nigerian Army and Navy. [6] The soldiers also destroyed the whole community with houses bombed and burnt in a manner reminiscent of the Odi Massacre of 1999. Again, those killed were mostly women, children and the elderly. Odioma Community, located in Brass Local Government Area of Bayelsa State, is one of the many oil-bearing communities in the Niger Delta and had been in conflict with neighbouring Bassambri community over the ownership of a fishing settlement, where Shell has some oil wells. Shell planned to build an oil flow station at Obioku and had actually mobilized its contractors to the site since January 20, 2005. Work on the project was stopped by protesting youths from Odioma community because of the lack of an Environmental Impact Assessment.

Apart from vigorous protests by communities, the struggle for human rights gained momentum on 14 November 2005 when a high court sitting in Benin City ruled that the practice of flaring gas associated with crude oil extraction was an infringement of the fundamental human rights of the people living in communities where such flaring existed. The judge subsequently ordered that the top guns of Shell and the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) should appear before him to show a clear step by step plan for stopping gas flaring a year from that date. This and other gas flare cases have been filed by communities with the collaboration of Environmental Rights Action (Friends of the Earth Nigeria) as well as the Climate Justice Programme.

Gas flaring has been going on in the Niger Delta for close to 50 years and has been estimated to constitute a waste of $2.5 billion annually. Besides being an economic waste, the flares release a cocktail of toxic and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and greatly endanger the lives of people. Health problems associated with gas flares include respiratory diseases, cancer, acute nonlymphocytic leukemia and a variety of other blood-related disorders. The environmental problems, including acid rain and damage to water bodies and farms, are no less horrendous.

The government and Chevron (project executors) of the West African Gas Pipeline project (WAGP), which is planned to harvest and pipe liquefied natural gas from new gas fields in Escravos in the Niger Delta of Nigeria to industrial complexes in Benin Republic, Togo and Ghana, have been presenting it as an answer to the gas flaring problem. They also present the WAGP as a clean development mechanism project in order to claim carbon credits.

The truth however is that the project has nothing to do with ending or reducing gas flaring in the Niger Delta as a huge proportion of the gas it would convey would be harvested from purely gas fields as opposed to being associated gas. Communities affected by this project have sent a petition to the Inspection Panel of the World Bank claiming that many rules of the bank have been flouted in the project and that their rights are not respected. Indeed, the local communities in the firing lines of this project have rejected the scheme and insist that decisions have been made without first conducting the needed environmental, social and other impact assessments. The WAGP is emblematic of the rape of the Niger Delta by TNCs and collaborating governments. Projects and trade decisions are made without regard to the rights of the people.

But as the oil wells begin to run dry, the competition is getting more acute. The Chinese are making bold grabs for the oil fields of the Niger Delta. The USA sees the region as being of critical strategic interest. The World Bank and the Paris Club eye the petrodollars coming into the region as theirs for the taking. All these combine to make the future of the region more precarious. With growing resistance in the region it is anyone's guess how things will play out.

While the trade booms, having rights respected will remain illusive. The realisation of this appears to form the bedrock of the local people insisting that there should be community control over community resources. They reckon that this way they would be able to decide if they want any mineral to be exploited in their environment or not. Where the people decide to have their resources exploited they would be able to insist on certain rules that would ensure that their rights are respected and that benefits from such exploitation accrues to them.

It is conceivable that the refusal of the state to accept this proposition is the trigger to the present conflagration in the Niger Delta. Another growing demand among environmentalists such as those in the Oilwatch International network is that there should be a moratorium on new oil explorations, for say ten years. The intervening time would be used to make an audit of the pollution and abuses that have accumulated over the years, commence clean up and remediation actions and decide how the vulnerable communities would fare in a post petroleum economy when they would be left with nothing but a polluted environment.

* Nnimmo Bassey is Executive Director of Environmental Rights Action and Friends of the Earth Africa campaign co-ordinator.

* Please send comments to or comment online at


[1] Quoted in Terisa E. Turner and Leigh S. Brownhill, “Why women are at war with Chevron” Nigerian Subsistence Struggles Against the International Oil Industry, New York: International Oil Working Group, 2003. Accessed at on 29 May 2006.

[2] Peace and Security in the Niger Delta: Conflict Expert Group Baseline Report, SPDC, December 2003

[3] See The Shell Report by Environmental Rights Action (ERA) at

[4] ERA The Wicked Activities of Chevron in Ilaje Land, Environmental Testimonies # 3 published in Environmental Testimonies, ERA, Benin City Nigeria, 1999. See Also Environmental Testimonies #5 in same publication.

[5] See ERA: A Blanket of Silence. The publication catalogues names of victims.

[6] See Nigerian Soldiers Destroy Odioma Community, 50 local people killed.