Nigeria’s Policy Towards The Indigenous Ijaw: State And Politics


Sabella Ogbobode Abidde


The Nigerian government is bleeding the Niger Delta dry of its oil, but the Ijaw ethnic community that actually owns most of the land is left empty-handed, writes Sabella Ogbobode Abidde in this week's Pambazuka News. Abidde stresses that Niger Deltans cannot be treated in this fashion and that their will must be respected by the central government, arguing that more money must flow back into Ijawland in order to tackle the chronic neglect the region has suffered.

In recent years, a number of troubling issues have dominated the news and intelligence reports coming out of Nigeria. However, none are as disconcerting as the Niger Delta crisis, a domestic problem that should not have risen to the level of a crisis. However, it has. The situation was problematic to start with, but successive governments' miscalculations and insensitivity made the situation catastrophic. Today, the effects of the crisis are felt regionally and internationally. All indicators show that the government is stumped; how to solve the Niger Delta crisis has now become a paralysing challenge, consumed by its own duplicity and inertia.

This is not a crisis that calls for domestic military intervention and neither is it a crisis that calls for foreign military intervention. The Niger Delta crisis should be resolved through an honest democratic process and diplomacy. In other words, this is a socio-political and economic problem that calls for genuine political engagement under the aegis of an honest third party. A third party is needed because the oil-producing communities, especially the Ijaw ethnic group, do not trust the Nigerian government to do what is right by domestic and international laws and in the eyes of God. This lack of trust originates from the fact that no other government has been judicious in handling the crisis.



More than 30 different ethnic communities live in the Niger Delta. The Urhobo, the Itsekiri and the Ijaw for instance have coexisted and cohabitated for centuries. Their lives are so entwined that in some communities, it is difficult to tell who is who. Even so, the region is first and foremost identified with the leading group, the Ijaw. In terms of population and landmass, the Ijaw are the largest – with a population of more than 25 million, they are indigenous to seven federal states.

Since June 2009, about 70 per cent of the oil wells have been onshore and another 30 per cent offshore. Offshore or onshore, more than 70 per cent of all oil reservoirs are located on Ijaw territory. On account of this, the Ijaw own the most lucrative and the most coveted land and waterways in Nigeria. Their direct access to the Atlantic Ocean is also a coveted advantage. For these and other reasons, whatever political settlements that are to be reached, must be reached principally through and to the satisfaction of the Ijaw.

The Ijaw ethnic community never wanted to be part of post-colonial Nigeria. The ensuing feeling of a forced marriage is still widespread in some enclaves. According to Lindsay Barrett, ‘The Ijaws already showed signs of being unwilling partners in the post-colonial Nigerian state during the struggle for independence. Their leaders complained loudly that they were marginalised in the affairs of the eastern region, which was dominated by the Igbos. The Ijaws also raised the alarm over the developmental and service deficiencies they were inheriting from the colonial period. Their argument was so persuasive that in 1958 Sir Henry Willinks of the Colonial Office in London was sent to study their grievances and make recommendations for redress prior to the granting of independence, which was to come in two years' time. The Willinks Commission, largely vindicated the complaints of the leaders of the Niger Delta.

Since independence from Britain in 1960, the Ijaw have never stopped complaining about their ill treatment at the hands of successive Nigerian governments, be they military or civilian. Even when in 1998 a group of progressive Ijaw youths ‘gathered at Kaiama, the birthplace of the martyred Ijaw hero, Isaac Boro, to express their concerns for reform of the circumstances of their people’, the Nigerian government did not bat an eyelid. The silence was deafening and disdainful. Evidence shows that for more than 30 years, nothing tangible has been done to alleviate the fetidity of the riverside areas. Nothing tangible has been done to justify the amount of wealth that is being extracted from the region. The extraction of oil has instead left the environment desecrated.

There is nothing to show for the billions of dollars the region has given to Nigeria. In effect, there is no social, political or economic development. Nothing good is being done for the Ijaw. Whatever was done has been ornamental, provisional and superficial. Instead of development, we have air and waterborne diseases, social tension, social dislocation and high unemployment.

In an area traversed by rivers, tributaries and streams, there is a shortage of potable water. Consequently, a sizeable number of the people bathe, drink and do their laundry in the river. However, they also go to the same river to defecate. In the same river! Rivers are for swimming, fishing, and for other activities – not for ‘shitting, shaving, bathing and drinking'. Sad isn’t it? That is the stark reality of how the Ijaw people lives! How could Nigeria and Nigerians allow this to happen? How could they, as humans, allow this to happen to fellow human beings?

In terms of education, there is not a single federal institution of higher education on Ijaw land – no universities, no polytechnics and certainly no think tanks. Such institutions are instead located in the western, northern and eastern regions of the country. In fact, federal presence in the region, especially on Ijaw land, is pitiable. Where did all the money go, the trillions of dollars used to construct Abuja and other Nigerian cities? Where did all that money from the sale of oil and gas go? Today, Abuja is the shinning city on ‘Mount Dollar’ while Ijawland is enmeshed in the valley of hopelessness, sorrow and destitution.

The usual refrain of government officials is that the ‘terrain of the Niger Delta makes physical development of any kind very expensive’. Nonsense! Billions of dollars worth of oil and gas are being extracted on a yearly basis; a commensurate amount of dollars should be ploughed back in for development. Furthermore, how different is the Niger Delta terrain compared to some parts of Louisiana, Florida and Amsterdam? These are places with human ingenuity at work, places where humans have been able to ‘conquer’ nature and make growth possible.

In 2006, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) said of the Niger Delta: ‘Ordinarily, the Niger Delta should be a gigantic economic reservoir of national and international importance. Its rich endowments of oil and gas resources feed methodically into the international economic system, in exchange for massive revenues that carry the promise of rapid socio-economic transformation within the delta itself. In reality, the Niger Delta is a region suffering from administrative neglect, crumbling social infrastructure and services, high unemployment, social deprivation, abject poverty, filth and squalor, and endemic conflict.’

What we have also noticed is the deliberate policy of mediocrity and control that is being advanced in Ijawland. In this instance, the ruling oligarchy encourages and promotes the least sensible, the least courageous and the least capable of all Ijaw leaders to the position of leadership. In this way, the affairs and destiny of the Ijaw region are easily manipulated from the centre. This accounts for why especially in the last 30 years, the vast majority of Ijaw political and economic leaders have been errand boys and errand girls, men and women whose loyalties rest not with their own people, but with the ruling oligarchy. There is enough blame to go round, but the ruling oligarchy must stop this policy – allow the people to freely choose their own leaders at all levels of governance.

The overwhelming majority of Niger Deltans, especially the Ijaw, are peace-loving people. During the Nigerian civil war, they sacrificed their young men and women for a united Nigeria. They believed in the unity, the security and the prosperity of Nigeria. But as it turned out, Nigeria has a sinister agenda towards the Ijaw and the Niger Deltans. It is now evident that Nigeria’s policy is to conquer them. The Ijaw have the land and the waterways, the natural resources, the strategic location and the population. Such wealth is more than enough for the powers that be to want to dominate and conquer it. But the Ijaw are no fools. The younger generation of Ijaw will soon walk away if Nigeria continues on this path.

To the extent that we are citizens of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, our inalienable rights and dignity must be respected; our farmlands and waterways treated with utmost care; our basic needs and security guaranteed; and our rights to full and equal political and economic participation assured; with more indigenous Ijaw states created and profits from the sale of oil distributed to our satisfaction. It is that simple.


Tags: Nigeria  oil  natural resources  Ijaw  Urhobo  Itsekiri  

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