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ICE Case Studies
Number 290, January, 2014

Interethnic Conflicit in the Niger Delta

Annika Ford

I. Case Background
II. Environment Aspect
III. Conflict Aspect
IV. Env. - Conflict Overlap
V. Related Information



1. Abstract

The communities of the Niger Delta have long been faced with the burden of damages caused by oil exploration and exploitation activities in the region. Despite large amounts of wealth extracted, local peoples directly depend of the environment for livelihood, which serves as a source for fishing, farming, hunting, water, and religious practices. Existing Nigerian laws give practicaly unlimited access to the region, at the expense of extreme humanitarian and environmental injustice. Resource loss, existing tensions, and Nigerian military force have all contributed to inter community and ethnic conflict, and more recently, direct violent action by ethnic groups against the state (Emuedo, 2012). 

2. Description

A brief political description of the Niger Delta wetlands is that the area stretches across nine states across southern Nigeria, namely the Abia, Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Cross River, Delta, Edo, Imo, Ondo, and Rivers states. These states can be further broken down into 185 Local Government Areas where over 2,000 communities live. There are also several minority ethnic groups, all together making up a population of over 40 million people. The people of the Niger Delta account for about twenty-three per cent of Nigeria’s total population and have one of the highest population densities in the world (Odoemene, 2011).

The abundance of crude oil in the area has made the Niger Delta Nigeria's richest region. It is the number one petroleum producer in Africa and is the sixth in the world (Odoemene, 2011). In fact, the country has a sole reliance on gas and oil, most of which is found in the Niger Delta (Ejumudo, 2012). As the current main source of revenue, petroleum has accounted for more than 25% of the country’s GDP, and oil exports make up over 95% of the country’s total export earnings. However, the Niger Delta is still a predominantly rural area (Odoemene, 2011).

3. Violent Conflict and Climate Change Literature

In effort to connect literature I make an historic case study connection that focuses on the consequences of climatic and environmental change in the case study of the Niger Delta and how this compares to other historic cases that in which conflict was resource based. I argue that the basis of the link between the two cases is that the populations were subsistence societies. If resources or carrying capacity became stressed in any way, be it overuse or overpopulation, the impacts directly affected society. 

It is possible to compare the case of the Mohenjo-Daro people of the Indus Valley who existed from around 2500 B.C. to 1700 B.C. Explained briefly, the Mohenjo-Daro civilization was slightly unusual in that although the location was a climactic wet area, it was not on a river system like other societies of its time. There were, however, enormous forests that were cut down and the land was settled upon. While the exact reasons for the decline of the Mohenjo-Daro people are unknown, it is likely it had a lot to do with resources. The area had suffered extensive deforestation, causing soil erosion as well as heating effects. Not to mention, wood enabled brick making, a need that left the countryside bare. Despite trade with those west in Mesopotamia as well as with people in China and Burma, the Mohenjo-Daro relied on the carrying capacity of their environment. Most likely, their decline was gradual and due to a number of factors. This civilization, regardless of trade, was a subsistence community whereby resources and natural supply directly determined its ability to survive.  Environmental deterioration weakened the Mohenjo-Daro civilization to outside invasion, rendering the people less able to protect themselves (Lee, 2009: 31-34).      

This summary of this historic case of the Mohenjo-Daro peoples highlights a number of points; however, the most important in the instance of comparing the case to that of the Niger Delta is that this civilization was a subsistence community. Like the ethnic groups of the Niger Delta in Nigeria today, the health and quality of the surrounding natural environment directly impacted the health of the community. Both cases show us how when carrying capacity declines, the ability to avert from conflict tends to decline as well.

Carrying capacity, in combination with human forces, works in such a way that people place demands on the environment while the ability of the land to support this is based on sustainability and renewability of natural resources. As resources dwindle, the propensity for conflict increases in the struggle to maintain livelihood. In the end, the choices usually are either to migrate (and face conflict) or come up against domestic groups in the fight to control diminishing resources. In the case of the Mohenjo-Daro civilization, they were subjected to outside invasion and weakened by the declining health of the natural environment (Lee, 2009: 62-63). The case of the Niger Delta is extreme: oil spillage, gas flares, land degradation, air pollution, and poisoning of water is occurring at the expense of the health of local communities. A significant impact is the fall of agricultural output (Kareem 2012). Reduced crop yield, polluted fishing systems, and decreased land productivity have reduced both income and standard of living, resulting in extreme health problems coupled with dismal social and economic outcomes (Okoh 2009). Much like the Mohenjo-Daro, the health of the community has fallen at the expense of increased resource and land usage.   

4. Duration and History

For decades, the Niger Delta has had a strategic position in national and international economies. The Niger Delta experienced “boom” periods in alternation between several natural resources including palm oil, timber, and rubber. In 1838 British two companies, Shell and BP were given sole oil exploration rights of the then British colony of Nigeria (Frynas, 2000). The discovery of petroleum by Shell-PB in Oloibiri in 1958 sparked increased exploration and subsequent extraction, production, and transportation of this petroleum that continues today. Nigeria obtained independence in 1960, but Shell-BP was able to maintain its monopoly.  From this time of discovery, until around 1970, oil companies such as Mobil (now Mobil Exxon) and Tenneco (now Chevron-Texaco) were granted rights to the exploration, extraction, production, and transportation of this petroleum by the Nigerian government for a 50-50 profit sharing arrangement. During this era, the Niger Delta oil industry in Nigeria was dominated by these oil companies while the government collected royalties (Ejumudo, 2012).   

In 1967 oil production officially overtook the Nigerian economy, replacing the agricultural production that had had been the backbone of the economy for the last century. State-increased land control severely disadvantaged those in the Niger Delta by way of a Land Use Decree that changed customary regional laws, transferring land control from the Delta peoples to the Nigerian state in the interest of enhancing oil production (Emuedo, 2012). Meanwhile, the newly independent state was facing increased conflict due to divisive state lines that aggravated ethnic rivalries. Civil war, triggered by several military coups, officially broke out in 1967. Conflict between the Muslim Hausas in the north and Igbos in the south-east triggered thousands of Igbos to take refuge, and they declared independence in a region separation declared Biafra. Following this was a three-year battle for autonomy from the state that resulted in the loss of an estimated three million people, or twenty percent of the Nigerian population at the time (Hoffman, 2012). It is also important to note that the international community refused to recognize Biafra based on the fear of starting a precedent for ethnic secessions in any given African country (Maykuth, 2005). The Igbos were ultimately defeated, leaving Nigeria ravaged by war, disease, and starvation.    

5. Location

West Africa, a region which includes the countries of Nigeria, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, Togo, and Benin, is a remarkably diverse climate zone much like the rest of the continent. Significant to West Africa’s geography are the Sahel, a zone that makes up the fringe of the Sahara Desert, and the Niger Delta, a tropical rain forest zone (Falola, 2000: 31). West Africa is characterized by alternating wet and dry seasons (IPCC, 1997), and is typically one of scant natural resources as a result of changes in the availability of fresh water (Paeth & Heiko, 2004: 179). West Africa’s wet and dry seasons are marked by variations in rainfall, of which was prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s before giving way to drier conditions that have remained since the 1970s though (IPCC, 1997). In terms of overall changing changing climatic conditions in the region, there has been a general 1°C increase in average seasonal temperature since 1970 to 2006 (, 2011).

Africa’s largest wetland (and second largest in the world), the Niger Delta, is located in southern Nigeria in the Atlantic Coast. The area is made up of an intricate marshland of mangroves, creeks, tributaries and lagoons that cover about 70,000 square kilometers, making it an extremely fragile and sensitive ecosystem that is highly susceptible to environmental change. More specifically, a little over 2,000 square kilometers of the Niger Delta wetland is made up of rivers, creeks, and estuaries together with 8,600 square kilometers of stagnant swamp. The region is incredibly multifarious, supporting a number of terrestrial and aquatic species of flora and fauna as well as people. These characteristics make it highly susceptible to any form of environmental degradation (Odoemene, 2011). 

6. Actors

The Niger Delta is home to over 2,000 communities that have historically depended on the rich bounty that the Delta has provided and the practice continues today. Most of the people living in the area, over 85 percent, depend heavily on the land as their main source of livelihood, farming, fishing, and trading. As the largest wetland in Africa, the Niger Delta is rich in natural resources, and it has been this way for centuries. Once a leading producer of palm oil that fueled the industrial revolution two centuries ago, it is now one of the top ten oil producers. This unfortunately has been the source of many of the recent problems faced by the communities of the Delta. My research focuses on inter-ethnic conflicts in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, especially on the Urhobo, Itsekiri and Ijaws groups of the Delta State.

However, these communities are not the sole actors in the history of interethnic in the region. The people of the Niger Delta have clashed with the Nigerian government for years, as its complete failure to take control of the intensifying crisis in the region only heightened the effects of environmental degradation, poverty, and underdevelopment. Much of the environmental deterioration in the area can be linked almost directly to the activities of oil multinationals. Exploration operations have damaged almost every aspect of the region: the air, water, and land. Indeed, this environmental damage has been the crux of community grievances. Every year there are incidences of oil spills and gas flares, with slow or minimal remediation efforts on the part of oil companies.

II.Environment Aspect

7. Type of Environmental Problem

Put shortly, the Niger Delta is in an environmental crisis. I was told by someone who works there to imagine sludge on everything in the Delta. Ever since the first discovery of oil in Oloibiri, petro business activity, along with government complacency and convenience (turning a blind eye), has effectively turned much of the Niger Delta into a wasteland. Meanwhile we have seen a complete lack of regard for the social, economic, and environmental conditions of the Niger Delta peoples, which will be explored further in its connection to violent conflict in the region (see the causal diagram) (Odoemene, 2011). The most environmentally damaging aspect of petro business activities is the exploration of oil; however, this is not to downplay the significance of other environmental degradation issues such as bush burning, petroleum fires, and gas flares (Ejumudo, 2012). From 1976 to 1990, the Niger Delta area went through 2,676 oil spills and in 2010 experienced 3,203, though these spills are only the ones recorded in these periods. It almost goes without saying that oil spills destroy farmlands, and pollute surface and groundwater (Odoemene, 2011). In fact most other causes of environmental degradation in the Niger Delta almost diminish in importance compared to oil exploration and spillage (Ejumudo, 2012).

Another major environmental problem that has occurred as a result of petro-activities is gas flaring. Gas flares in the Niger Delta have been a serious source of Carbon and gases that have contaminated the air, land, and shallow groundwater supplies. Moreover, the Niger Delta has experienced greenhouse effects and global warming processes. For example, the a report released by the Central Intelligence Agency revealed that eight million cubic feet of natural gas are burned in the Niger Delta daily, while 50,000 thousand acres of mangroves have disappeared due to coastal erosion (Odoemene, 2011). And, all the while, these rapid and visible environmental and climate changes have considerable social effects on the rural people of the region who rely on the natural resources of the Niger Delta for their livelihood.      

(Source linked to picture)

8. Type of Habitat

See 5. Location: Tropical Rain Forest Zone

9. Act and Harm Sites:

In the wake of the environmental damage I described above, it is important to note that all stages of oil business activity, not just exploration, result in the destruction of the Niger Delta and subsequently the livelihood of the people who live there. The inhabitants that depend on the natural resources for survival consequently perceive oil activities as a threat to their basic life-support systems. One must also consider that the the petrobusinesses in the region have employed subpar operation that have caused both human and environmental injustices. For example, traditional operations of vocation such as farming, fishing, hunaing, and forest products gathered have all been eroded (Odoemene, 2011).   

III. Conflict Aspects

10. Type of Conflict

Historically, the Urhobo, Itsekiri and Ijaws ethnic groups of the Delta State have lived in relative peace, both among each other and with the natural environment. However the 1990s was plagued by conflict in the region, and clashes between ethnic groups heightened.  The conflict between these groups has typically been Itsekiri vs Ijaw, Urhobo vs Itsekiri and Urhobo vs Ijaws. Sadly, these inter-ethnic conflicts have resulted in even more environmental damage. For example, armed youths in the area have carried out violent attacks on opposing ethnic groups, resulting in the destruction of properties, deaths, population displacement, and intensification of poverty. In the case of inter-community conflict, armed youths were also involved, violently attacking opposing communities causing much of the same damaged described above as well as the destruction of rivers, streams and creeks by way of dangerous chemicals and dynamites.

Inherently, these violent conflicts hinder sustainable development, as they only add to the environmental destruction caused by oil spills and gas flares. Potential goals of the region are effectively undermined, as environmental protection, sustainable use of natural resources, production capabilities, and poverty reduction are all affected by the results of violent conflict.  For example, sustainable exploitation of resources is hindered when populations are displaced. Natural resources become strained, and production capabilities, wealth creation, and poverty reduction are all further threatened.
Tensions between the Urhobo, Ijaw, and Itsekiri are very much space based. For example, the Ijaws have claimed that many of the Urhobo and Itsekiri settlements around them are tenants of their land, meanwhile the Itsekiri have claimed the same. More specifically, community conflicts have included:   

Not surprisingly, most of these conflicts are concentrated in the Niger Delta, the boundary area among all three ethnic groups. These conflicts were resource based, and were many times aggravated by the state government that responds to ethnic conflicts militaristically. 

11. Level of Conflict

The level of conflict in the region remains high for two reasons. First, the Nigerian government has continued to respond with military force in event of ethnic conflict, despite failure of success to reach real resolution and increased violence. Second, the Nigerian state continues to allow oil multinationals to operate with almost complete freedom, perpetuating and exacerbating environmental degradation climate change, which endangers livelihoods and human security (Emuedo, 2012).  

12. Fatality Level of Dispute (military and civilian fatalities)

Severe civilian fatalities, military fatalities, and occasional violence from ethnic groups towards those working for oil multinationals.

IV. Environment and Conflict Overlap

13. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics:

Causal Diagram of Propensity for Violence

14. Level of Strategic Interest


15. Outcome of Dispute:

Extreme regional vulnerability for conflict, between ethnic groups and between ethnic groups and the state

V. Related Information and Sources

16. Related ICE and TED Cases

Relevancy of cases based on vulnerability to interstate conflict due to community resource dependency.  

17. Relevant Websites and Literature

Aminu, Suraju Abiodun. "The Militancy in the Oil Rich Niger Delta: Failure of the Federal  
Government of Nigeria." Interdisciplinary Journal of Contemporary Research In Business 4.11 (2013): 813-27. ProQuest. Web. 12 Sep. 2013.

Daniel, J. S. (2005). LEGACIES OF BIAFRA: MARRIAGE, 'HOME PEOPLE' AND REPRODUCTION AMONG THE IGBO OF NIGERIA.Africa (Pre-2011), 75(1), 30-45. Retrieved from


Frynas, J. G., Beck, M. P., & Mellahi, K. (2000). Maintaining corporate dominance after decolonization: The 'first mover advantage' of shell-BP in nigeria. Review of African Political Economy, 27(85), 407-425. Retrieved from

Hoffman, T. (2012, Nov 24). Biafra's short, tragic history; chinua achebe writes wistfully of statehood effort. The Gazette. Retrieved from

Ikein, A. A. "Socio-Economic and Environmental Challenges and the Quest for Sustainable
Development in Nigeria's Oil Rich Niger Delta: A Commentary." Journal of Sustainable Development in Africa 6.1 (2004)ProQuest. Web. 11 Sep. 2013.

IPCC,R.T.Watson, M.C.Zinyowera, R.H.Moss, et al. 1997 The Regional Impacts of Climate
Change: An Assessment of Vulnerability. Cambridge University Press
Jan Weijenberg, et al. 1993. Revitalizing Agricultural Research in the Sahel: A Proposed
Framework for Action. Discussion Paper No. 211. Technical Department, African Region. Washington D.C.: World Bank

Maykuth, A. (2005, May 09). Biafra's independence dream rekindles. Knight Ridder Tribune News Service. Retrieved from

Mertz, O., D'haen, S., Maiga, A., Moussa, I. B., Barbier, B., Diouf, A., . . . Dabi, D. (2012).
Climate variability and environmental stress in the sudan-sahel zone of west africa. Ambio, 41(4), 380-92. doi:

Mikhailov, V. N., & Isupova, M. V. (2008). Hypersalinization of river estuaries in west africa.
Water Resources, 35(4), 367-385. doi:
Obi, Cyrus. Natural Resources, Conflict, and Sustainable Development. New York: Routledge,
2012. Web. 12 Sept. 2013

Odoemene, Akachi, PhD. "Social Consequences of Environmental Change in the Niger Delta of
Nigeria." Journal of Sustainable Development 4.2 (2011): 123-35. ProQuest. Web. 13 Sep. 2013.

Ojo, Godwin Uyi. "Community Perception and Oil Companies Corporate Social Responsibility
Initiative in the Niger Delta." Studies in Sociology of Science 3.4 (2012): 11-21. ProQuest. Web. 12 Sep. 2013.
Okolo, Philips O., Ethnic Relations and Violent Conflict in the Niger Delta: The Case of the
Urhobo, Itsekiri and Ijaws of Delta State, Nigeria (March 11, 2008). Available at SSRN: or

Paeth, H., & Hense, A. (2004). SST versus climate change signals in west african rainfall:
20th-century variations and future projections. Climatic Change, 65(1-2), 179-208. doi:

Pouliot, M., Treue, T., Obiri, B. D., & Ouedraogo, B. (2012). Deforestation and the limited contribution of forests to rural livelihoods in west africa: Evidence from burkina faso and ghana. Ambio, 41(7), 738-50. doi:

Solomon, S, et al. 2007. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press