The Ijaw (also known as the "Izon") are a collection of peoples residing mostly in the forest regions of the Niger River delta in Nigeria, and numbering several million individuals.
The Ijaw speak 9 closely-related Niger-Congo languages, all of which fall under the Ijoid branch of the Niger-Congo tree. The primary division between the Ijo languages is that between Eastern Ijo and Western Ijo, the most important of the former group of languages being Izon, which is spoken by about 1 million people, while the most prominent member of the Western Ijo group is Kalabari, which has about a quarter of a million speakers.
The Ijaw were one of the first of Nigeria's peoples to have contact with Westerners, and were active as go-betweens in trade between visiting Europeans and the peoples of the interior, particularly in the era before the discovery of quinine, when West Africa was still known as the White Man's Graveyard because of the endemic presence of malaria. Some of the kin-based trading lineages that arose amongst the Ijaw developed into substantial corporations which were known as "Houses"; each house had an elected leader as well as a fleet of war canoes for use in protecting trade and fighting rivals. The other main occupation common amongst the Ijaw has traditionally been fishing.
Formerly organized into several loose clusters of villages which cooperated to defend themselves against outsiders, the Ijaw increasingly view themselves as belonging to a single coherent nation, bound together by ties of language and culture. This tendency has been encouraged in large part by the environmental depradations that have accompanied the discovery of oil in the Niger delta region which the Ijaw call home, as well as by a revenue sharing formula with the Federal government that is viewed by the Ijaw as manifestly unfair. The resulting sense of grievance has led to several high-profile clashes with the Nigerian Federal authorities, including kidnappings and in the course of which many lives have been lost.
One manifestation of ethnic assertiveness on the part of the Ijaw has been an increase in the number and severity of clashes between Ijaw militants and those of Itsekiri origin, particularly in the town of Warri. While the Ijaw and the Itsekiri have lived alongside each other for centuries, for the most part harmoniously, the Itsekiri were first to make contact with European traders, as early as the 16th century, and they were more aggressive both in seeking Western education and in using the knowledge acquired to press their commercial advantages; until the arrival of Sir George Goldie's United Africa Company (later renamed the Royal Niger Company) in 1879, Itsekiri chieftains monopolized trade with Europeans in the Western Niger region. Despite the loss of their monopoly, the advantages already held by the Itsekiri ensured that they continued to enjoy a superior position to that held by the Ijaw, breeding in the latter a sense of resentment at what they felt to be colonial favoritism towards the Itsekiri.
The departure of the British at independence did not lead, as might have been expected, to a decrease in tensions between the Ijaw and the Itsekiri. With the discovery of large oil reserves in the Niger Delta region in the early 1960s, a new bone of contention was introduced, as the ability to claim ownership of a given piece of land now promised to yield immense benefits in terms of jobs and infrastuctural benefits to be provided by the oil companies. Despite this new factor, rivalry between the Ijaw and the Itsekiri did not actually escalate to the level of violent conflict between the two groups until the late 1990s, when the death of General Sani Abacha in 1997 led to a re-emergence of local politics.
The issue of local government ward allocation has proven particularly contentious, as the Ijaw feel that the way in which wards have been allocated ensures that their superior numbers will not be reflected in the number of wards controlled by politicians of Ijaw ethnicity. Control of the city of Warri, the largest metropolitan area in Delta State and therefore a prime source of political patronage, has been an especially fiercely contested prize. This has given birth to heated disputes between the Ijaw, the Itsekiri and the Urhobo about which of the three groups are "truly" indigenous to the Warri region, with the underlying presumption being that the "real" indigenes should have control of the levers of power, regardless of the fact that all three groups enjoy ostensibly equal political rights in their places of residence.
The December 1998 All Ijaw Youths Conference crystalized the struggle with the formation of the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC) and the issuing of the Kaiama Declaration (see tear-off panel). In it, long-held Ijaw concerns about the loss of control of their homeland and their own lives to the oil companies were joined with a commitment to direct action. In the declaration, and in a letter to the companies, the Ijaws called for oil companies to suspend operations and withdraw from Ijaw territory. The IYC pledged “to struggle peacefully for freedom, self-determination and ecological justice,” and prepared a campaign of celebration, prayer, and direct action 'Operation Climate Change' beginning December 28.
In December 1998, two warships and 10-15,000 Nigerian troops occupied Bayelsa and Delta states as the Ijaw Youth Congress (IYC) mobilized for Operation Climate Change. Soldiers entering the Bayelsa state capital of Yenagoa announced they had come to attack the youths trying to stop the oil companies. On the morning of December 30, two thousand young people processed through Yenagoa, dressed in black, singing and dancing. Soldiers opened fire with rifles, machine guns, and tear gas, killing at least three protesters and arresting twenty-five more. After a march demanding the release of those detained was turned back by soldiers, three more protesters were shot dead including Nwashuku Okeri and Ghadafi Ezeifile. The military declared a state of emergency throughout Bayelsa state, imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew, and banned meetings. At military roadblocks, local residents were severely beaten or detained. At night, soldiers invaded private homes, terrorizing residents with beatings and women and girls with rape.
On January 4, 1999 about one hundred soldiers from the military base at Chevron’s Escravos facility attacked Opia and Ikiyan, two Ijaw communities in Delta State. Soldiers on board opened fire indiscriminately at each village. Bright Pablogba, the traditional leader of Ikiyan, who came to the river to negotiate with the soldiers, was shot along with a seven-year-old girl and possibly dozens of others. Of the approximately 1,000 people living in the two villages, four people were found dead and sixty-two were still missing months after the attack. The same soldiers set the villages ablaze, destroyed canoes and fishing equipment, killed livestock, and destroyed churches and religious shrines.
Nonetheless, Operation Climate Change continued, and disrupted Nigerian oil supplies through much of 1999 by turning off valves through Ijaw territory. In the context of high conflict between the Ijaw and the Nigerian Federal Government (and its police and army), the military carried out the Odi massacre, killing scores if not hundreds of Ijaws.
Recent actions by Ijaws against the oil industry have included both renewed efforts at nonviolent action and militarized attacks on foreign oil workers.
Religion and Cultural Practices
Although the Ijaw are now primarily Christians, with Catholicism being the variety of Christianity most prevalent amongst them, the Ijaw have elaborate traditional religious practices of their own. Veneration of ancestors plays a central role in Ijaw traditional religion, while water spirits, known as Owuamapu figure prominently in the Ijaw pantheon. In addition, the Ijaw practice a form of divination called Igbadai, in which recently deceased individuals are interrogated on the causes of their death.
Ijaw religious beliefs hold that water spirits are like humans in having personal strengths and shortcomings, and that humans dwell amongst the water spirits before being born. The role of prayer in the traditional Ijaw system of belief is to maintain the living in the good graces of the water spirits amongst whom they dwelt before being born into this world, and each year the Ijaw hold celebrations in honor the spirits lasting for several days. Central to the festivities is the role of masquerades, in which men wearing elaborate outfits and carved masks dance to the beat of drums and manifest the influence of the water spirits through the quality and intensity of their dancing. Particularly spectacular masqueraders are taken to actually be in the possession of the particular spirits on whose behalf they are dancing.