Conservation and Development of The Niger Delta

Posted by on 1/5/2004 1:24:19 PM
Post Comment Conservation and Development of The Niger Delta Nigeria

S. W. Petters


The Niger Delta of Nigeria is among the richest deltas in the world. Other major deltas are either famous for crude oil and natural gas (Amazon in Brazil, Orionoco in Venezuela, Mississippi in the U.S.A., Mahakarn in Indonesia) or grow mainly rice (e.g. Indus in Pakistan, Ganges in Bangladesh, Mekong in Vietnam).

The Niger Delta however has huge oil and gas reserves and ranks as the world's sixth largest exporter of crude oil and the second largest producer of palm oil, after Malaysia, which even obtained its palm seedlings from Nigeria.

Environmental conservation and economic development in the Niger Delta depend on the flow of federal funding and goodwill into the region, and on improved understanding of the delta, its petrole um occurrences and its peoples. But the historical background and human dimensions of the unrest in the Niger Delta have, hitherto, not been sufficiently highlighted in the search for lasting peace in the oil producing communities.

Since pre-colonial days, the Niger Delta has played a crucial role in the Nigerian economy. Its ports and rivers provided access for the British to penetrate the Nigerian hinterland; the gateway for the trade in slaves, and later export commodities such as palm produce, timber, rubber and even groundnut and cotton from the distant northern parts of Nigeria.

The potentates who ruled the Niger Delta city states and neighbouring kingdoms were also the sentinels that guarded the lucrative trade routes of the Niger Delta. They either received or resisted British mercantilism and imperialism. But through negotiations, the Europeans, principally the British secured the co-operation of the rulers of the Niger Delta city-states, who then became the middlemen in the slave and palm oil trade.

Participatory conti nuity is what their descendants in present-day petroleum-rich Niger Delta seem to be clamouring for. Whether for peaceful resolution of the unrest in the Niger Delta, or for environmental protection and development, the human factor has a crucial role to play.

The Niger Delta is also among the world's major wetlands; with one of the largest mangrove ecosystems. Environmental degradation, arising from total dependence of the rural population on unsustainable agriculture, fishing, forestry and wildlife exploitation, has seriously threatened the Niger Delta.

Land resource degradation, renew able resource depletion and oil pollution are now the irreversible consequences of prolonged dependence on the natural resources of the region by the indigenous population and the nation. But conservation must start with human con siderations before it can succeed. The social and political impact on the attitudes of the local people of centuries of exposure to colonial and national economic pressures should also be examined.

The following questions are pertinent for the Niger Delta: Are there any social dislocations; political alienation and discontent; and the erosion of tradi tional values along with environmental degrada tion? These questions are prompted by the serious unrests in the Niger Delta and the urgent need to restore peace and security.


Identifying the geographical extent and the component ethnic communities of the Niger delta region, a more appropriate term than the conven tional Niger Delta, is problematic. A geographical definition of the Delta is offered in Module 1.1 while a geological definition is provided in Module 3.1. Takena Tamuno, an authority on Nigerian history and an outstanding scholar from the region, stated that "linguistically, ethnographically, culturally, the Niger Delta of the pre-crude oil and gas era, com prised a bewildering mix of ethnic groups" among which "the communities of ljo (in eastern, western and central Niger Delta), the Ogoni, Itsekiri, Urhobo, Isoko, lkwerre and Delta lgbo hit more h'eadlines and covered electronic waves more than others." (Tamuno, 1999)

Furthermore, Tamuno pointed out that the Niger Delta comprised about 70,000 sq. km. This contrasts with the 1995 World bank Technical Report which gives the total land area of the Niger Delta as 20,000 sq. km. "located in south eastern Nigeria" (World Bank, 1995).

An even more restricted concept of the Niger Delta has, unfortunately, been espoused by the Niger Delta Environmental Survey (NDES), a non governmental organisation funded by the Oil Producers Trade Sector (OPTS) of the Lagos Chambers of Commerce. The NDES placed the limits of the Niger Delta at Aboh to the north, the Imo River estuary to the east, the Benin River lo the west, and down to Akassa and Nun River Estuary to the south.

The term "Niger Delta Oil Province" was intro duced at the 7th World Petroleum Congress in 1967 by Franki and Cordry for the region southward from Onitsha, Benin and Umuahia, where oil and gas occur in commercial quantities. This is the petrole um definition of the Niger Delta. But it must be emphasised that for development purposes it is the coastal, riverine parts of the Niger Delta that is problematic.

The definition of the Niger Delta can be likened to the proverbial elephant that was described in the fable about the seven blind men of Hindustan. Each blind man touched a different part of the elephant and described it differently. The his torian, the geographer, the petroleum geologist, the politician and even the fanners and the fishermen of the Niger Delta all perceive their delta differently.

But what is needed is a bird's-eye view of the entire Niger Delta region. The recent Niger Delta Development Bill equates the Niger Delta with the South-South geopolitical zone, comprising Edo, Delta, Bayelsa, Rivers, Akwa lbom and Cross River States, to which neighbouring oil-producing parts of Ondo, Abia and Imo States must be added.

The Niger Delta has to be meaningfully and compre hensively defined to be useful to the people that live there, who are exposed to oil pollution and environ mental degradation, and have suffered from neglect and poor infrastructural development. It is perhaps equally instructive to view the Niger Delta from the perspectives of both human and natural history, in order to be able to trace the roots of the discontent in the Niger Delta region today.

Mankind has a past which we study as history. Similarly, nature has a past which is referred to as natural history. And since the Niger Delta is an inte gral aspect of nature, that is so paramount to Nigeria, it is pertinent to briefly examine it histori cally, just as we earlier considered the history of the Niger Delta peoples. From this, we shall appreciate how long it took for the delta to accumulate the petroleum resource we have been exploiting.

Apart from deepening our understanding of the enormous length of time - millions of years - it took for petrole um to form and accumulate, time and natural histo ry dimensions to natural resources management will engender greater sense of equity in the devel opment of the oil-producing communities.

Furthermore, what in nature may constitute an entity may not necessarily translate to a political or an economic unit. This paradox is exemplified by the Cross River Basin, a geographical entity by itself with a delta of its own. One of the areas where deltaic sands accumulated most rapidly over the past ten million years along the coast of southern Nigeria was the estuary and offshore region at the mouth of the Cross River. (Evamy et al., (1978) Re'ljers et al., (1997) have recognised a separate

A reopie unitea, A future Assured - volume i Cross River delta as extending from east of the Imo River into nearby Cameroun Republic, where it is to referred to as the Rio Del Rey basin. The entire easternmost part of the Nigeria oil-producing off o- shore region belongs to and was constructed as the Cross River delta, a process which was greatly accelerated by the rise of the Cameroun Mountain is some three million years ago. This uplift supplied enormous amount of deposits into the Cross River delta.

In spite of its distinctiveness geologically, and the fact that the Cross River delta is the most prolif in ic oil-producing area in the entire Niger Delta is region, the practice has, however, been to consider of the Cross River delta as a part of the Niger Delta ... in fact a sub-delta within it. Thus, although no petroleum discovery has been made in Cross River State, the river that courses through it and from of which the state derives its name has produced ly. enormous oil, condensate and gas accumulations in nearby states and in Cameroun.

Cross River State as a political entity can, as yet, be likened to the petroleum barren zones that lie between the giant oilfields in the Niger Delta shown in Fig. 2. The question then arises: Are these barren zones of that lie next to the oilfields not entitled to develop e ment as the rest of the oil-producing communities of the Niger Delta? For equity, a regional approach to the development of the Niger Delta will provide the most appropriate strategy and framework for mobil ct ising petroleum revenue into the region, specially M as the Niger Delta presents, in reality, a tale of two deltas.

in Petroleum occurrence in the Niger Delta does not comply with state or any other political bound aries. What then governs the distribution of oil fields? Essential though petroleum is to everyday as life, knowledge about the petroleum industry is rather poor, except among the highly skilled and to capable Nigerian labour force that operates this industry.

A salutary development is the fact that oil and gas exploration and production in Nigeria is completely manned by Nigerians, with the foreign multinational corporations providing a small super irt visory and monitoring workforce, the size of which JS is strictly regulated by the Federal Government through its Department of Petroleum Resources.

This point is emphasised in order to underscore the fact that the expertise for petroleum, natural 31- resources and environmental conservation and development in the Niger Delta is available within in the country.

Furthermore, the main centres where the delta piled up the oil-and-gas bearing sands have shifted their positions over the past 50 million years during which the Niger delta has existed. Known as depo belts the thick piles of oil-bearing sands represent the coastal zones where the ancient River Niger and the Cross River entered the Gulf of Guinea.

Initially, the Gulf of Guinea itself extended as far as across Benin-City and received the sediments of the ancient Niger Delta, giving rise to what petroleum geologists refer to as the Northern Delta Depobelt, with many oilfields.

Then, the ancient coast shifted southward as the Gulf of Guinea had also retreated southward and stretched across Ughelli from east to west, with corresponding oilfields. Younger depobelts where the Gulf of Guinea paused in its southward retreat are today represented by the prolific oilfields in zones stretching across Warri; across Port Harcourt to Aba; and across Nembe (Bayelsa) in the centre of the delta to Eket and offshore Akwa lbom State.

The present coastal zone of the Niger Delta and the offshore belt contain the youngest oilfields where the Niger Delta has been almost stationary with minor oscillations over the past five million years. It is important to understand the above geological scenario so that development and conservation efforts in the Niger Delta region can be properly focussed but equitably distributed.


The peoples of the Niger Delta are, like other Nigerians, highly diverse culturally. Historical differ ences in their political behaviour have been imposed by their peculiar riverine geography in which isolated settlements on the little available dry land, surrounded by mazes of anastomosing creeks, fostered small ancient city-states and king doms such as Bonny, Brass, Akassa, Kalahari, Okrika, Nembe, Ogoni, Opobo, Bassan, Andoni, Itsekiri and Urhobo, which were contemporaries to their much larger neighbouring Old Calabar, Arochukwu Trading Empire, Benin Empire and lbadan Empire of the late 19th Century (Ajayi and Crowder, 1985).

The harsh physical background induced a somewhat more republican political behaviour among the peoples of the Niger Delta, than among those Nigerians who were traditionally used to more centralised authority. Youth alienation, dissent and radicalism have bordered on open rebellion against unemployment, frustration and exclusion from the flourishing petroleum economy of the delta.

In their more confrontational attitude towards constituted authority, it is not unusual for the youths of the Niger Delta to dethrone and desecrate traditional authori ty whenever they suspect that their chiefs and kings have colluded with oil companies to deprive them of what they consider their legitimate benefits from petroleum.

Another backlash of youth unemploy ment and alienation in the Niger Delta is their atavistic recourse to organised resistance and tactics similar to that which their ancient kings employed in colonial days against the British.

Just as King Jaja of Opobo (1821 - 1891) resis ted British traders and missionaries, proclaimed the autonomy of Opobo, which he founded, and con trolled the supply of palm oil to European mer chants, through recourse to arms and African Traditional Religion, some youths in the Niger Delta have resorted to cultism in their quest for similar control of their natural resources.

Ethnically, the people of the Niger Delta com prise those in Rivers and Bayelsa States (Kalahari, lkwerre, ljo, Okrika, lbani, Nembe, Ekpeye, Ogba, Engenni, Epie-Atissa); Akwa lbom State (Ibibio, Anang, Oron); Delta State (Urhobo, lgbo, Isoko, Itsekiri, ljo); Ondo State (Yoruba, ljo llaje); Edo State (Edo, Etsakos, Yoruba, lgbirra, Okpameri); Cross River (Efik, Ejagham, Bekwarra), and the lgbo in Abia and Imo States. These are the indige nous peoples of the oil fields of the Niger Delta. Besides, since the great-grandfathers of today's Niger Delta youths were oil merchants, there is a perceived need for continuity and participation in the oil business.


Violent agitation by the people of the Niger Delta for the control of their petroleum resources and involvement in the petroleum industry is a most serious threat to the Nigerian economy and nation al security. These protests involve loss of human life, damage and seizure of oil installations and hostage-taking. Attempts to suppress them have not restored peace.

Rather, violence has escalated into inter-communal hatred and bloody clashes as was the case in Warn between the ljos, the Itsekiris and the Urhobos; and between the llaje-Ugbo and the Arogho-ljo communities in Ondo State.

At the root of these violent agitations is the fact that there is a missing link between past and present control and management of the economy of the oil-produc ing communities; and an apparent lack of consider ation by the operators of the petroleum economy, of the role of the Niger Delta peoples during the colo nial days of the Oil Rivers.

The Oil Rivers (Tasie, 1978) was the name given to all the oil trade regions of the Niger Delta and Calabar since the 1830s when, with the aboli tion of the slave trade which had existed right from the early Portuguese contacts in the 16th Century, the region then switched to the palm oil economy.

Western industrial demands for palm produce greatly stimulated the palm oil trade. Bonny and Calabar, two rival city-states since the days of the slave trade, became the dominant ports that con trolled palm oil export. Bonny emerged as the most powerful state, with larger interior markets in Essene in Ibibioland and Ngwa, Obunku and Ndele in lboland. In 1890, Bonny defeated the Kalahari kingdom and forced its people to route their palm produce through Bonny.

Today, although Bonny is not an oil-producn community, its strategic natural port is serving tl petroleum industry as in the days of palm oil expo Bonny kingdom hosts Shell's export termin. Mobil's gas refining plant and the Nigerian Uquefli Natural Gas (NLNG) plants. The Bonny peof have shut down these plants before, and demanded commensurate benefits, development and employment in the petroleum exporting facilities.

It is only natural that they should be involved. Bonny's case history should serve as a model for oil-community development and participation in the oil industry, as was the case in the days of the Oil Rivers. As for Bonny's pristine rival city-state Calabar, the petroleum industry is yet to make ar impact.

Another lesson from the days of the Oil Rivers is that the coastal communities did not try to conduct the palm oil business in isolation. The coasta city-states from Koko (Warri) in the west to Calaba' in the east realised that the oil palm did not grow solely in their areas; but also in the hinterland, anc in places as far away as Uzuakoli in lgboland, which was a major producing area.

Through middlemen and cordial inter-ethnic relations in a region tha was as ethnically diverse then as it is now, the Niger Delta kingdoms on the coast ensured the supplies of the commodities from the hinterland. That unity is still needed today for the development of the entire oil-producing region.

Petroleum, too, is not a monopoly of the riverine communities of the Niger Delta. There is more petroleum in the hinterland the coastal zone and offshore than along the creeks and swamps. The reason is that in the ancient geologic past, the hinterland of the delta used to occupied by coastal creeks and swamps.

Delta shorelines are not static features on the earth's surface. They are "here today and gone tomorrow, but they leave their oil and gas behind. Similarly what is now offshore, was coastland in the past hence offshore petroleum belongs to the coasta communities which also suffer the effects of oil spillage and pollution.


To reduce the role of the Niger Delta people in Nigerian political and economic development mere ly to violent agitators for environmental and natural resources rights, amounts to acknowledging only the negative aspects of the region's contributions. There were political contributions as important as the physical and petroleum resources of the Niger Delta.

Also, the search for the origins of the politi cal aspirations and identity of the Niger Delta peo ples should include the antecedents of post-inde pendence crusaders like Isaac Boro and Ken Saro Wiwa. Demands by the various ethnic nationalities embodied in the Kaiama Declaration, the Ogoni Bill of Rights and many other declarations that have sought to draw national attention to the need for equity, echo from colonial days. The case of King Jaja of Opobo was mentioned earlier.

Agitations for a separate political region for the Niger Delta begai al, since the 1950s, culminating in the Willink Commission (1957-58). This led to the establish ile ment of the Niger Delta Development Commissior the precursor of the present River Basil Development Authorities throughout Nigeria.

The first Niger Delta patriot and nationalist was a vocal missionary convert, Prophet Garrick Sokari Braide (1882-1981) of the Niger Delta Pastorate Church, who with over a million followers (Tasie, 1978), started a radical African religious movement that threatened not only the foreign missionary influence, but sowed the seeds of Nigerian nationalism through passive resistance to colonialism of Kalahari origin, Braide made tremendous impact locally by organising religious crusades against idol-worshipping and by enjoining abstinence from alcoholic drinks and witchcraft.

Tasie (1978) recalled that in 1916 during World War 1, Braide said in Abonnema that "the white man's day were over and that it was up to the native peoples to determine their fate." Percy Amaury Talbot, the British district officer for Degema, who eventually arrested and detained Braide, charged that the Prophet's movement was "essentially one of Ethiopianism, of blacks against whites, and to a cer tain extent against all authority."

Braides movement drew support even from far away Lagos, where the leader of the African Native Churches and columnist in the Lagos Weekly Record, the Rev. S. A. Coker, delivered a l'ecture on April 10, 1917, in support of Braide. The lecture was enti tled: 'The Rights and Duties of African Natives of Organised Indigenous Churches Uncontrolled by or Unattached to Any Foreign Organisation" (Taise, 1978).

Braide's case was both that of a demand for freedom of worship and an expression of national ism far ahead of the better known, later pioneers of Nigerian nationalism, such as Herbert Macaulay, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo and the Sarduana of Sokoto. It is, therefore, possible that the current demand by the Niger Delta people for reforms in the control of petroleum and mineral resources will ultimately be accepted by the entire nation, leading to a mineral ownership arrangement similar to those in other world democracies.

But in order to appreciate the need to conserve the Niger Delta and develop it, it is important to emphasise what the region has contributed to the nation. In its June 7, 1999 article on "Pouring Oil on Troubled Waters," Time Magazine reported that not less than 300 billion U.S. dollars accrued from crude oil sales in twenty-five years (1974-1999) to Nigeria. No single region has contributed so much to our national development.


Persistent flames of passion in the Niger Delta and ad-hoc stakeholders, (federal government, oil companies) piecemeal responses and interventions warrant clearly defined, credible policy focus, framework and institutions that have the continuity to effect short, medium, and long-term environmen tal conservation and regional development pro grammes in the Niger Delta.

The development concept has to expand beyond satisfying parochial oil-community demands; and be positioned within a national socio-economic development matrix, in which case the delta is made to offer opportunities and attractions to all Nigerians in a manner compa rable with Lagos and Abuja.

A broader mind-set is required, taking cognisance of the fact that invest ments and developments usually do not just fly into any region; but, rather, have to be purveyed through vendors who must first have confidence in the secu rity of life, property and investments. The Oil Mineral Producing Areas Development Commission (OMPADEC) that was established in 1992 failed in both confidence-building and capaci ty-building because, since it had no planning and executive ability, it tended to rely more on contrac tors to define and implement its conservation and development mandates. The result was a colossal failure.

The establishment of the Special Project Division in the Presidency for the Niger Delta, and the Presidential Committee on Development Options for the Niger Delta were public admissions of defective planning or lack of it, which these spe cial presidential ad-hoc bodies were meant to address. Research institutes and well-funded uni versities are needed in the Niger Delta to generate conservation and development data and action plans; and monitor them.

Since the Niger Delta region stagnated over a period of four decades of oil production, during which the population grovelled in poverty, the lists of community demands are endless, confused and conflicting. Like Rip Van Winkle the delta had slept for too long only to wake up one morning, visit Abuia. and discover that the face of the rest of

Nigeria had changed beyond recognition. This is what happened in March 1998 when the youths of the Niger Delta joined the 2 million-youth rally in Abuja. Environmental conservation issues that have to be prioritised and tackled in the Niger Delta include agricultural land degradation, flooding, fisheries depletion, deforestation, biodiversity loss, Nipa palm invasion, water hyacinth proliferation, toxic and hazardous waste, oil spillage and pollution, sewage disposal and municipal solid waste disposal.

There is an acute shortage of infrastructural development in the Niger Delta, in which case strategies are urgently needed to provide roads and transportation (land and water); potable water; elec tricity; telecommunications; housing; reclaimed land; planned settlements (towns); finished petrole um products distribution depots and pipelines; as well as health and educational facilities.

But sustainable development of the Niger Delta will hinge on massive industrialisation of the region based on its cheap supply of energy (natural gas). More heavy industries are needed than the existing skeletal, epileptic or moribund refineries, petro chemical plants, aluminium smelter, fertiliser plant, newsprint and power plants found in the delta. The regional skyline of the delta must change from gas flares to the chimneys of manufacturing industries. Such developments will persuade the Niger Delta people to beat their ancient swords into plough shares.


Treasure-trove though the Niger Delta region is, it is lacking in development, peace and harmony. But the region has a long history of mercantilism, since colonial days, when the palm oil trade flour ished. Lack of participation in the petroleum econ omy, unlike colonial days, when the delta was referred to as the Oil Rivers, has contributed to community unrest in the Niger Delta.

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