The Niger Delta: A People and Their Environment

Royal Canoe of the Kingdom of Bonny, painted by Edouard Auguste Nousveaux, 1890. via Wikimedia Commons.

Written in 2001 and published by Verso in 2003, Ike Okonta and Oronto Douglas's Where Vultures Feast: Shell, Human Rights, and Oil documents four decades of violence committed against against the people and the ecosystem of the Niger Delta by Royal Dutch Shell, one of the world's largest oil companies. "Royal Dutch/Shell is more than a colonial force in Nigeria," Okonta and Douglas write. "A colonial power exhibits some measure of concern for the territory over which it lords. This is not the case with this mogul, which goes for crude oil in the most crude manner possible." 

Below we present the book's first chapter, which surveys the longer history of European plunder of the region.   

And finally, on the immense scale of humanity, there were racial hatreds, slavery, exploitation, and above all the bloodless genocide which consisted in the setting aside of fifteen thousand millions men. — Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth

The Niger has the third-largest drainage area of Africa's rivers. The delta into which it drains is a huge floodplain in southeastern Nigeria consisting of sedimentary deposits flowing down from the Niger and the Benue rivers and covering 25,640 square kilometers of the country's total land area. This floodplain is home to some seven million people, grouped into several nations and ethnic groups: the Ijo, Urhobo, Itsekiri, Isoko, Efik, Etche, Ibibio, Igbo, Andoni, Ikwere, Ogoni, Isoko, Edo, and Kwale-Igbo. Some of the ethnic groups are further divided into clans with their own distinctive languages. 1

Before the arrival of European traders in what is now modern Nigeria, the Niger Delta was inhabited mainly by the Ijo peoples, who lived in small creekside fishing villages ranging from two hundred to about a thousand inhabitants. The head of the village was the Amanyanabo (or Amakasowei), who in turn was elected by the heads of the various wards or patrilineages. With the advent of the slave trade, however, there was a rapid expansion of the population of the Delta. The hitherto small and idyllic Ijo fishing villages grew into powerful trading states like Bonny, Owome (New Calabar), Okrika, and Brass (Nembe), some of whose origins can be traced to the early sixteenth century. The Efik trading state of Old Calabar at the entrance of the Cross River, and the Itsekiri kingdom of Warri in the western Delta, also emerged at this time. 2

The slave trade brought with it great social and economic upheavals in the Niger Delta. 3 Before the arrival of the European slave traders, the Ijo and the other peoples of the Delta traded with the peoples of the hinterland — mainly the Igbo and Ibibio. The former exported dried fish and salt to their neighbors in exchange for fruit and iron tools. The trade in slaves brought an abrupt stop to this flourishing commerce, however. The slave traders brought with them salt, dried fish, and new consumer goods such as cloth and metal utensils. The consumer goods were often cheap and not necessarily well made, but since the slave traders also brought salt along with them, the Ijo and the other inhabitants of the Delta gave up the trade in fish, salt, and iron tools with the Igbo and Ibibio altogether and concentrated on the lucrative slave trade.

It is generally assumed that the exploitation of the peoples of the Niger Delta and the devastation of their environment began when crude oil was discovered in the area by Royal Dutch Shell in 1956. The truth is that Europe's plunder of the Delta, and indeed the entire continent, dates much further back, to 1444, when the Portuguese adventurer and former tax collector, Lancarote de Freitas, sailed to the West African coast and stole 235 men and women whom he later sold as slaves. 4 De Freitas's trip was to trigger the Atlantic slave trade, which, before it was displaced by the trade in palm oil in the 1840s, saw several million able-bodied young men and women taken from the Delta and its hinterland and shipped to the plantations of North America, South America, and the West Indies.

The slave plantations of the West Indies were the basis of much British wealth. The Barclay brothers, David and Alexander, actively engaged in the slave trade in the 1750s and later used the proceeds to set up Barclays Bank. William Gladstone's political career was funded by family wealth generated by his father's Liverpool trade and West Indies sugar plantations. In 1833, John Gladstone's assets included £296,000 (£15 million today) and £40,000 (£2 million) — or about $24 million and $3 million today — in Demerara and Jamaica respectively. William Gladstone's first speech in the House of Commons on June 3, 1834, was in opposition to the Slavery Abolition Bill, speaking as a West Indian representative. The staggering economic cost aside, slavery abruptly and catastrophically disrupted life in the Niger Delta and its hinterland, triggered interethnic wars, and led to the displacement of whole communities.

With the abolition of slavery in the first decades of the nineteenth century, there was a switch to the so-called “legitimate” trade in palm oil. But the pattern of trade remained unchanged — from the Niger Delta to Europe and back. Europe was at the height of its industrial revolution at this time, and the demand for palm oil, which was used to lubricate the machines of the factories and as raw material for soap and margarine, was high. The Delta traders played the role of middlemen between Liverpool merchants who anchored their ships on the coast and the cultivators of the palm oil in the hinterland.

At first this arrangement was satisfactory to all parties. Trade boomed. By 1850, British trading interests were concentrated mainly in Lagos, which provided access to the wealth of the forests of Yorubaland, farther west, and the Delta ports, which were the gateway to the interior of eastern Nigeria. Palm oil was now the chief export, as the European traders no longer found the trade in slaves profitable following the advent of the industrial revolution. Bonny, an Ijo town strategically located on the coast, gradually grew into the richest port in the Niger Delta, and by 1856 the port and its hinterland was exporting over 25,000 tons of palm oil a year, over half of the total quantity exported from Africa. 5

Consuls and Gunboats

While the European slave merchants were content to ply their ignominious trade mainly from their ships using the kings and chiefs on the coast as go-betweens, the Liverpool palm oil barons began to actively interfere in the politics of the Niger Delta, beginning in 1850, with the sole purpose of displacing the local middlemen and appropriating the enormous profits for themselves. The argument of the Liverpool traders was that the middlemen of Bonny, New Calabar, Brass, and Old Calabar, the main Delta ports at the time, were not hardworking enough, and that the rich palm oil farms of the hinterland were not being exploited to the maximum as a result. They also complained about the high prices of the middlemen and increasingly began to urge the British government to intervene. 6

Yet, as several chroniclers of trade and politics in the Niger Delta at the time have shown, it was actually the Liverpool merchants who were ripping off the coastal middlemen. They had a monopoly of the palm oil trade, and since there was not a standardized medium of exchange on the coast, they sold second-rate and sometimes worthless goods to the Africans. The historian K. O. Dike described trade practices at the time: “White supercargoes had managed to convince Africans that articles of clothing such as old soldiers' jackets and cocked hats bought at little cost at Monmouth Street, were a fair exchange for their raw materials.” Moreover, some of the British merchants were in reality ruffians and thieves and would actually seize barrels of palm oil from the Delta middlemen without payment.

It was to curb the activities of these rogue traders that the king of Bonny instituted a Court of Equity in 1854 run by a joint committee of the British traders and coastal middlemen under his supervision. Erring traders were fined, and those who refused to pay up were cut off from the palm oil trade by the Delta middlemen, who, obeying the king's directives, refused to sell palm oil to them. The Court of Equity brought order to the hitherto chaotic trade and was so successful that it was introduced in such other places as Akassa, Benin River (Itsekiri), Brass, and later Opobo.

The British merchants (or supercargoes) were, however, not satisfied. The palm oil trade was becoming even more lucrative as the pace of industrialization accelerated in Europe, requiring greater quantities of palm oil to lubricate machine parts and to manufacture soap and margarine for the millions of industrial workers who flocked to the cities. The supercargoes wanted a direct access to the hinterland so they could get the palm oil virtually for free. They began by using the British-appointed local consuls on the coast to force unfavorable terms of trade on the Delta middlemen. Indeed, the activities of the British consuls between 1850 and 1856 was to lead to the breakdown of the monopoly of coastal trade held by the supercargoes and the African middlemen between them. This, in turn, led to a crisis in Niger Delta politics.

John Beecroft, who was appointed Her Brittanic Majesty's Consul for the Bights of Benin and Biafra in 1849, laid the foundation of British power in Nigeria and initiated the politics that was to characterize the consular period in Nigerian history. 8 Beecroft saw himself not as an administrator but as a pathfinder of sorts, expanding British trade in the Niger Delta. It is instructive that the new consul's first intervention in the politics of the Delta was in palm-oil-rich Bonny, against King William Dappa Pepple, whom the supercargoes bitterly resented because they saw him as the main obstacle to their designs to get at the palm oil fields in the hinterland.

King Dappa Pepple had signed a treaty with Consul Beecroft in October 1850, regulating conditions of trade on the coast. In return, the British government had promised to pay the king an annual subsidy to enable him to develop the palm oil trade even further. But an increasingly powerful and ambitious Beecroft ignored the treaty to which he himself was a signatory, and even refused to pay the king the promised subsidy. In 1851, Beecroft took the decisive first step — in what was to become his open intervention in Niger Delta politics — when he deposed Kosoko, the king of Lagos, and installed Akitoye in his place. Beecroft's excuse was that Kosoko was a slave trader, a practice the British government had decreed illegal. There was, however, ample evidence at that time to show that Akitoye was himself financed by a well-known slave trader, Domingo Jose, and certainly would have indulged in slave trading were it economically and politically expedient for him to do so. What Beecroft really wanted was a friendly king in Lagos who would help British merchants get a secure foothold in the area, and he conveniently used the “slave trader” tag to get rid of the independent-minded Kosoko. 10

Beecroft employed similar tactics to do away with King Dappa Pepple of Bonny. He accused the king of sponsoring attacks on the ships of British traders on the New Calabar River, and, cleverly exploiting a trade dispute between Dappa Pepple and one of the royal lineages in Bonny, used the Court of Equity to deport him to Fernando Po in 1852. 11 After the removal of King Dappa Pepple, the British traders, in concert with the local consuls, accelerated the displacement of the Delta middlemen in the palm oil trade.

In 1855 some freed slaves from Sierra Leone who had converted to Christianity and settled in Calabar tried to help the local middlemen ship their palm oil directly to England, pointing out that the prices they got from the British supercargoes were ridiculous. The consul, Hutchinson, intervened, however, stopping the King, Eyo Honesty, when he tried to export a shipment directly to Liverpool. The consul claimed that the king owed £18,000 (about $30,000) to an English firm and so could not trade directly with the Liverpool commercial houses until he had paid it off.

A Commission of Inquiry later set up by the Foreign Office in London discovered that Hutchinson was corruptly enriching himself at the expense of the Niger Delta middlemen, and that he was in fact a commission agent in the employ of the English firm Hearn and Cuthbertson, to which he claimed the king of Calabar owed money. But this was after Hutchinson's predecessor, Consul Lynslager, had ransacked and destroyed the town of Old Calabar, claiming that he did so because the people practiced human sacrifice. Church of Scotland missionaries stationed in the town contradicted Lynslager, pointing out that the consul destroyed the town at the behest of British traders who wanted to teach the local middlemen a lesson for daring to trade directly with Liverpool. 12

The enormous riches to be derived from the Niger Delta and the other coastal towns opened the eyes of the British traders and, subsequently, of the government itself, to the possibilities of taking over the area entirely, by force if necessary. Thus, in 1861, the Foreign Office instructed the consul to annex Lagos, “to protect and develop the important trade of which their town is the seat; and to exercise an influence on the surrounding tribes ... " 13 Trade was growing by the day. The Niger provided an excellent highway for the British traders, who began to penetrate into the interior. They saw virgin forests brimming with agricultural produce. Fired by greed, they sent urgent dispatches to London. The Foreign Office, after ensuring that the area would not prove a financial liability to the government, but indeed the opposite, proclaimed the Niger Delta and its hinterland a British Protectorate in 1865, thus laying the foundations of what turned out to be modern Nigeria.

King Jaja and the Robber Barons

The story of King Jaja of Opobo and his epic struggle against the British merchants in the closing decades of the nineteenth century best illustrates the long-standing struggle of the peoples of the Niger Delta to protect their environment and its natural resources from the grasping hands of European mercantilists and their patrons in London, Paris, Hamburg, and Amsterdam. 14

Jaja, who dominated the politics of the Niger Delta for twenty years, was an Igbo ex-slave in Bonny. Through hard work and a display of business acumen, he rapidly rose through the ranks and became head of the Anna Pepple royal house. Following a kingship tussle in the town, which escalated into civil war in 1869, Jaja and his followers retreated into Andoni country in the hinterland, named their new town Opobo, and declared it independent of the rulers of Bonny. Opobo, strategically located near the oil markets of the hinterland, quickly grew into the chief port in the Niger Delta, attracting European traders from all over the coast and even surpassing Bonny in wealth and political importance.

The British traders on the coast were, however, not happy with King Jaja. He had made it clear from the onset that he would not allow them direct access to the oil markets in the Opobo hinterland and that they could buy palm oil only from his agents. Jaja explained that since the British traders had a virtual monopoly over trade with the Liverpool commercial houses, he and his people should control the trade with the producers of the palm oil in the Delta hinterland. 15 New developments on the coast also favored King Jaja. In 1852 the British government had subsidized a fleet of steamers owned by Macgregor Laird, a merchant who began to operate a regular service between Liverpool and West Africa. This dealt a death blow to the great Liverpool houses and their monopoly of the Niger Delta oil trade. The Liverpool merchants began to face increasing competition, and by 1856 there were over two hundred European firms operating in the Niger Delta. Consul Lynslager's destruction of Old Calabar was a last-ditch attempt to prevent the local people from joining their European counterparts in turning this new development in shipping to commercial advantage. However, a few brave African middlemen began to export their oil directly to Europe, using Macgregor Laird's steamers. King Jaja, expectedly, was in the forefront.

This did not go down well with the British supercargoes, and they began to plot Jaja's downfall and to also devise means to evade his agents and buy palm oil directly from the hinterland. Jaja retaliated by increasing the volume of his shipments to England. Following a series of skirmishes with the supercargoes on the coast, King Jaja signed a treaty with the local consul in 1884 that effectively placed his town under British protection. But he made sure that a clause was inserted in the agreement that explicitly stated that his people would control the oil markets in the hinterland, his contention being that the supercargoes on the coast still controlled the bulk of shipments to England and took all the profits. Oil prices had, however, risen in Europe at this time, and the British supercargoes were getting increasingly impatient with Jaja. There were enormous profits to be made in the hinterland, and Jaja was in the way. They urged the local consul, H. H. Johnston, to intervene, and in 1887 King Jaja was deported to the West Indies. When he was eventually allowed to return to Opobo in 1891, he died on the way, a lonely, broken man. 16

A similar fate was to befall Nana Olomu, a merchant prince and leader of the Itsekiri, who controlled the oil trade on the Benin River in the western Delta. Although Nana had signed a treaty with Consul Hewett in 1884, placing the Benin River, Warri, and some parts of western Ijo under British protection, he rebuffed attempts by the British to extend the powers of the new Oil Rivers Protectorate, which had been proclaimed in 1887, over his country. Nana correctly saw the new protectorate for what it really was: an attempt by the British traders on the coast to edge him out and take over the oil markets in his territory for themselves. But the supercargoes would brook no opposition. British gunboats were now in absolute control of the coast, the Niger River, and its tributaries. In September 1894, under the command of the acting consul, General Ralph Moor, they bombarded Nana's headquarters in Ebrohimie, ransacked the town, and carted away his goods. 17 Nana gave himself up a few months later. Thus was the last formidable obstacle to British imperialist designs in the Niger Delta removed.

Afterward, it was open season for the British merchants, most notably George Goldie Taubman, the “founder of modern Nigeria." 18 The scramble for Africa was going full steam when Goldie Taubman arrived in the Niger Delta. The French had set their eyes on the area, and Taubman decided that the only way to keep them out and secure the rich lands of the Niger basin for Britain was to wield the several British firms competing against one another in the Delta into a powerful trading bloc with total monopoly over the palm oil trade. The new firm that emerged from the merger was called the Niger Company. Taubman followed this up with a spate of “treaties” with the coastal kings, which he obtained literally at gunpoint. By 1884 he had obtained thirty-seven such “treaties.” Towns that demurred, like Brass, Patani, and Asaba, farther inland, were bombarded into submission. 19

When the conference of the European powers to divide Africa among themselves opened in Berlin in 1885, Taubman was the British government's official delegate. London was so pleased with his performance that his new company was granted a Royal Charter. In addition to the monopoly of the oil trade in the Niger districts that it already enjoyed, the company was given political authority over the area as well. Rechristened the Royal Niger Company, it set up its headquarters in Asaba.

The Birth of Nigeria

There is no doubt that George Goldie Taubman and the Royal Niger Company which he founded played a key role in bringing together the otherwise disparate nations and ethnic groups in the Niger Basin into what is now known as Nigeria. It must be pointed out, however, that Goldie Taubman's career as a monopoly trader in the Niger Delta and its hinterland was marked by looting, murder, and the mass sacking of whole towns and communities. 20 He was more a soldier than a trader — he came to the Niger Delta as a conqueror.

The palm oil wealth of the area provided Taubman the financial muscle with which the company now began to push forward into the hinterland, navigating the Niger up to Bussa in the north and opening new trading centers on its banks. Taubman, however, was not content with merely draining the Delta of its natural resources. He also embarked on trading practices that cut off the once flourishing Delta ports from the outside world, which plunged the populace into unprecedented penury from which it has never been able to recover. Indeed, it can be said that the basis of the underdevelopment of the Niger Delta, following the forcible integration of the area into the world of international finance capital in the nineteenth century, was laid by Goldie Taubman and the Royal Niger Company in the 1890s. 21

Following the granting of a Royal Charter to the company in 1886, Taubman decreed that such towns as Brass, the chief port of the Nembe Ijo, which were outside the Royal Niger Company's territory, were “foreigners.” The people of Brass were therefore forced to pay fifty pounds (about eighty dollars) a year for a trading license and another ten pounds for each company station they traded in. Trade in alcoholic spirits had also grown in importance, and Taubman imposed an extra hundred pounds (equivalent to about $8,000 today) tax on any Brass merchant who desired to trade in the commodity. 22 In the 1880s this was a lot of money. Perhaps the people of Brass might have endured this hardship in silence if the Royal Niger Company had not taken its monopoly practices further by preventing them from shipping their palm oil directly to England, insisting that all such exports be routed through Akassa, the company's port. The company also undercut the Brass traders by journeying into the hinterland to buy palm oil directly from the producers.

Faced with increasing poverty and hardship, the Brassmen revolted. In 1895 they attacked the company's port at Akassa and took sixty-seven men hostage, insisting that they would not be released until the company gave them access to their old markets in the hinterland. The Consul General of the newly established Niger Coast Protectorate sent a naval force to Nembe Creek, attacked the town, and razed it to the ground. 23 Two thousand unarmed people, mostly women and children, were murdered. The ancient kingdom of Benin farther west was to be subdued and brought under British rule two years later.

In 1894, Captain Frederick Lugard, a veteran of the East African campaign, arrived to help extend the British empire on the Niger coast, accelerating the pace of the “pacification” of the peoples of the Niger basin. The French were pushing aggressively from the Borgu area north of the Benue River, grabbing whatever territory they could lay hands on. In April 1898, London was sufficiently worried to ask Lugard to set up an armed unit to protect all the territory then under the control of the Royal Niger Company. Thus was born the West African Frontier Force, a battalion of soldiers that Frederick Lugard used to bring the vast Sokoto Caliphate under British control a few years later. 24

In 1898, London withdrew the charter from the Royal Niger Company and set up structures to administer direct imperial control on her new domain. The palm oil trade alone was worth almost £3.4 million a year to Britain (£175 million today, or $280 million), and it was felt that the Niger basin was too valuable to be left to a commercial firm to manage. West of the Niger, Sir Gilbert Carter, the governor of Lagos, had by now brought the Yoruba states and kingdoms, which had been at war with one another for a hundred years, under British suzerainty. During his trek of 1893, Carter had used a mix of diplomatic cunning and force of arms to subdue the states and kingdoms.

On January 1, 1900, Britain's new domain was restructured under three administrative zones: the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria; the Lagos Colony; and the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria. The name “Nigeria” was chosen for it. It was left to Lugard to bring the Sokoto Caliphate to heel, and this he achieved between 1900 and 1906. The Aro, the only remaining obstacle to British colonialism in the Igbo heartland in the east, was conquered in 1901, but it took a little longer-well into the 1920s-before the entire area was “pacified" and brought under British rule. In 1914 the southern and northern protectorates were amalgamated under a single administrative unit and a new country was born. 25

One Country, Many Nations

Nigeria, it must be remembered, began life as a loose collection of nations, ethnic groups, clans, and villages brought together under one roof by British force of arms. As the late politician Obafemi Awolowo put it, “It was [the British] who created Nigeria out of a welter of independent and warring villages, towns, and communities, and imbued the various Nigerian national groups with an overriding desire for the unity of the entire Federation.” 26

Before the 1914 amalgamation, Nigeria consisted of two distinct colonial territories, separately ruled and administered. The Sokoto Caliphate, founded by the Islamic warrior and scholar Uthman Dan Fodio in 1817, was a theocratic state — at least in theory — and was administered along lines outlined by its founder in his book Kitab al-Farq. The Caliphate was more closely linked to North Africa and Saudi Arabia, culturally and commercially, than with its neighbors west and east of the Niger, who were mainly Christians and traditional religion practitioners and had had contact with Europe dating back to the fifteenth century.

The interests of British trade were paramount, however, and the dictates of commerce, coupled with the financial difficulties of administering the various nations and ethnic groups as separate entities, compelled the colonial administrators, from Frederick Lugard onward, to treat the country as a single unit, using a system of “indirect rule” in the North and “direct rule” in the South. While the northern emirs who held unchallenged sway over their subjects were allowed to administer their territories with minimal interference from the colonial residents, Lugard discovered that this system of indirect administration could not apply in the more egalitarian south, where the ruler's authority was circumscribed by a large number of checks and balances. The South was therefore ruled directly through courts and a “warrant” system whereby certain individuals were raised to positions of authority specifically to dispense justice and collect taxes as the emirs did in the North. 27 The British were, however, determined to rule the country as two separate political units, employing the infamous tactics of divide-and-rule that they had perfected in India to keep the various indigenous groups constantly at each other's throats.

The 1922 Constitution, introduced by Lugard's successor as Governor General, Sir Hugh Clifford, provided for the first time for elected African members in a legislative council. The 1930s and early 1940s witnessed rapid social and political changes in colonial Nigeria. The Eastern and Western regions were created out of the old Southern Nigeria by administrative fiat in 1939, while the Northern Region was left intact. A small but educated and articulate indigenous elite had emerged. The Second World War also saw Nigerian soldiers serving alongside their European counterparts on an equal footing, and this further accelerated political consciousness among the population. Led by Western-educated journalists and politicians, they began to agitate for greater participation in the administration of the country. The Richards Constitution, which became effective in January 1947, was the colonial government's attempt to accommodate the demands of the nationalists by attempting “to secure greater participation by Africans in the discussion of their own affairs." 28 Governor Arthur Richards's constitution united the northern and southern parts of the country in one central legislature for the first time. Richards, though, made provisions for regional councils, thus ensuring that the North enjoyed a degree of autonomy and was not “contaminated” by the southern politicians, whom the colonialists generally looked down upon as upstarts and political agitators. The Richards Constitution thus helped lay the foundation of tribalism in Nigerian politics and proved a most effective counterfoil to the nationalistic, pan-Nigerian outlook of the National Council of Nigeria and Cameroons, which Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe founded in August 1944, with the aim of driving the colonialists from the country. 29

Arthur Richards also established the basis for an unequal and unwieldy federation, with the northern region twice the size of the East and West. Like his predecessors, Richards refused to listen to wise counsel from C. L. Temple, Lugard's lieutenant governor of the North, and restructure the country into seven or eight provinces, generally corresponding with the geographical space occupied by the various ethnic nationalities. 30

Richards had hoped that his constitution would last for nine years. But this was not to be. As soon as a new governor, Sir John Macpherson, was appointed in April 1948, he announced that he would give the country a new constitution that would further widen the participation of the people in the political process. The Macpherson Constitution, which replaced Richards's in January 1952, put in place a federation with a central legislature and executive, but at the same time the regional assemblies were enlarged and given legislative and financial powers. Perhaps this was Macpherson's attempt to widen the democratic space at the regional level. The North, however, was given half of the seats in the central legislature of 148 members, ensuring its near total dominance of the nascent country's politics. It is instructive that such regional and ethnic-inspired political parties as the Action Group and Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) emerged in the West and North respectively, at this time.

The series of constitutional conferences that were later to culminate in independence for the country on October 1, 1960, under an NPC-led government were attempts by Nigeria's political leaders to fashion a federal constitution that would work smoothly “to promote efficiency in, and harmonious relations and unity among, the constituent parts of the Federation.” 31 This laudable goal proved difficult to achieve, however, partly due to the lopsided nature of the federation the British left behind, and partly due to corruption, intolerance, and abuse of office on the part of the politicians. The breakdown of law and order in the Western Region in late 1965, orchestrated by the NPC — which wanted to crush the Action Group, the party of the opposition — triggered a chain of events culminating in a military coup led by Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, a young major, in January 1966. Several politicians and military officers were killed, among them the Prime Minister, Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa.

Attempts by the new military Head of State, General Johnson AguiyiIronsi, to introduce a new unitary constitution in May 1966 sparked a mutiny by young Hausa-Fulani military officers, who claimed that the January coup was an attempt by the Igbo to take over the political leadership of the country. Ironsi was killed in a countercoup in July, and the killing of Igbos and other easterners began in northern towns and cities. There was a massive exodus of the latter to the Eastern Region, and when Ironsi's successor, Colonel Yakubu Gowon, proved incapable of stopping the genocide in the North, the military governor of the East, Colonel Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, called on his fellow easterners in other parts of the country to return home. A new constitutional arrangement making for a loose confederation of the three regions was worked out for the country by the two sides in Aburi, Ghana, as a last-ditch effort to stave off civil war and the subsequent disintegration of the country. But Gowon reneged on this agreement after realizing that the Aburi Accord effectively gave the Eastern Region political autonomy. On May 27, 1967, he announced that the country would henceforth be divided into twelve states. Ojukwu saw this as an attempt to bury the Aburi Accord, and he responded three days later by proclaiming the former Eastern Region as the sovereign Republic of Biafra. The federal government declared war on Biafra on July 6, a bloody carnage that did not stop until Nigerian troops forcibly brought the East back into the federation in January 1970. An estimated two million people, the bulk of them Biafran children, lost their lives in this conflagration.

People of the Niger Delta Today

The bulk of the inhabitants of the Niger Delta live in three states in present-day Nigeria — Rivers, Delta, and the newly created Bayelsa. These states take up about 80 percent of the area. The rest are scattered in such other states as Cross Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Imo, and Ondo.

The years of slavery, palm oil trade, and subsequent colonial conquest brought with them massive migrations and intermingling of ethnic groups in the Delta. The rapid growth of Port Harcourt, the area's biggest city, in the decades leading to independence also encouraged intermarriage and resettlement of whole communities. As a result, today the Niger Delta is a fascinating collage of ethnic nationalities, clans, and language groups that, while still relatively distinct, nevertheless have many cultural similarities.

The Niger Delta has substantial oil and gas reserves. Oil mined in the area accounts for 95 percent of the country's foreign exchange earnings and about one-fourth of Gross Domestic Product. The bulk of Nigeria's proven oil reserves, currently estimated at twenty billion barrels, is located in the area, although exploration is also going on in the state of Bauchi and the Lake Chad Basin. Rivers, Bayelsa, and Delta states alone currently produce three-fourths of the country's crude oil. 32 Besides its great mineral wealth, the Niger Delta also has fertile agricultural land, forests, rivers, creeks, and coastal waters teeming with fish and sundry water creatures. Clearly, the Niger Delta is, at least for the moment, the goose that lays Nigeria's golden egg.

Yet, in spite of its considerable natural resources, the area is one of the poorest and most underdeveloped parts of the country. Seventy percent of the inhabitants still live a rural, subsistent existence characterized by a total absence of such basic facilities as electricity, pipe-borne water, hospitals, proper housing, and motorable roads. They are weighed down by debilitating poverty, malnutrition, and disease. While decades of corruption and mismanagement in the echelons of power have plunged the country's GNP per capita to an all-time low of $280, annual incomes in the Niger Delta are still far below the national average. The area also has one of the highest population densities in the world, and annual population growth is currently estimated at 3 percent. Rapid population growth is increasingly exerting pressure on cultivable land, a good part of which is in any case prone to flooding almost all year. The population of Port Harcourt and the other major towns is literally exploding. The ensuing scenario — urbanization without the economic growth that would ordinarily generate more jobs — has resulted in the human ecologist's ultimate nightmare: a growing population that, in a bid to survive, is destroying the very ecosystem that should guarantee its survival.

Historically, the people of the Niger Delta have always been at the mercy of greedy outsiders who plunder their natural resources without giving them anything in return, from the days of slavery to the present day. The civil war, however, was a watershed in the political and economic development of the peoples of the Niger Delta. It created the conditions for the accelerated exploitation of their resources and the devastation of their environment. Following the takeover of the Shell oil terminal in Bonny from Biafran troops, the Gowon regime enacted the Petroleum Act in 1969, which transferred all oil revenue to the Federal Military Government, which in turn was expected to disburse the money to the various states, partly on the basis of need. This decree and the subsequent legislation enacted by the military government in Lagos was to transform Nigeria from a genuine federation to a de facto unitary state.

But the unitary state that General Gowon and his military-dominated cabinet imposed on Nigerians did not have room for the peculiar needs of the minority people of the Niger Delta, even though they produced all the oil. The revenue went straight to the coffers of the Federal Military Government, the bulk of which was spent to finance the expensive lifestyle of the indolent and unproductive elite. Oil revenue and the corruption it engendered brought great wealth to this parasitic economic class. By 1976, Nigeria had become the seventh-largest producer of oil in the world, exporting two million barrels of crude a day. Federal revenue had risen to a staggering $5 billion per annum, compared to $590 million in 1965. The oil boom was in full swing, and members of the political and economic elite began to live it up, acquiring an unrivaled taste for imported Western luxuries.


1. Kenneth O. Dike, Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta 1830-1885. An Introduction to the Economic and Political History of Nigeria (Oxford University Press, 1956), 21.

2. Michael Crowther, The Story of Nigeria (London: Faber and Faber, 1978), 59.

3. Ibid., 60.

4. Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade. The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440-1870 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997), 21-22.

5. Dike, Trade and Politics, 101.

6. Crowther, The Story of Nigeria, 123.

7. Dike, Trade and Politics, 112.

8. Kenneth O. Dike, “John Beecroft 1790-1854: Her Britannic Majesty's Consul to the Bights of Benin and Biafra 1849-54, in Crowther, The Story of Nigeria, 314.

9. See Dike, Trade and Politics, Chapter Seven, for details of Beecroft's career.

10. J. F. Ade Ajayi, “The British Occupation of Lagos 1851-1861," Nigeria Magazine, No. 69, August 1961, 96-105.

11. See Chapter Seven of Dike, Trade and Politics.

12. Foreign Office. F.O. 84/1117, No. 112, Class B, F.O., Russel to Hutchinson, September 4, 1860.

13. Foreign Office. F.O. 2/34, Minutes on Captain Washington's report, Palmerstone, April 22, 1860.

14. Dike, Trade and Politics, 198.

15. Foreign Office. F.O. 84/1630, Opobo Town, Ja ja to Lord Granville, April 3, 1882.

16. Foreign Office. F.O. 84/1630, F.O. 84/1617, F.O. 84/1634.

17.Obaro Ikime, Niger Delta Rivalry (London: Longmans, 1969), 69.

18. Dike, Trade and Politics, 213.

19. Foreign Office. F.O. 84/1617, No. 16 and its enclosures, Hewett to Granville, November 8,

20. Dike, Trade and Politics, 210.

21. Dike, ibid., 209-215.

22. Alan C. Burns, History of Nigeria (London:Allen and Unwin, 7th edition, 1956), 157-158.

23. J. E. Flint, Sir George Goldie and the Making of Nigeria (London: Macmillan, 1960), 187-215.

24. Foreign Office. Annual Report for Northern Nigeria, 1902, Appendix 111;105.

25. Crowther, The Story of Nigeria, 191.

26. Obafemi Awolowo, Thoughts on Nigerian Constitution (Ibadan University Press, 2nd edition, 1966), 14.

27. Frederick Lugard, Reports on Amalgamatton, 14-15, cited in Crowther, Story, 200.

28. Proposals for the Revision of the Constitution of Nigeria (London, 1945), 6. Cited in Okechurkewu Nebolisa, Nigeria and the Crisis of Constitutionalism (Enugu, Nigeria: Stone Press), 78.

29. Kenneth O. Dike, One Hundred Years of British Rule in Nigeria 1851-1951 (Lagos, 1957), 43.

30. Crowther, Story, 197.

31. Obafemi Awolowo, Thoughts, 26.

32. See Alexander Madiebo, The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafra War (Enugu: Fourth Dimension Publishers, 1980), for a full account of the civil war.