The current Delta conflict emerged over tensions between the foreign oil companies (namely, Shell and Chevron) and several minority ethnic groups who felt they were being exploited, particularly the Ogoni, Itsekeri, and the Ijaw. The contradiction of the ethnic groups’ poverty amidst wealth generation has generated anger, frustration, and hostility toward both companies and the federal government. Furthermore, competition for oil wealth has fueled violence among various tribes fighting for revenue allocation. Such conditions have caused the militarization of nearly the entire region by ethnic militia groups as well as Nigerian military and police forces. So, the conflict is a major contestation at two levels.  First, it is a challenge to the state and its multinational partners regarding policies and practices that disadvantage the region, destroy its environment and impoverish its people. Second, it is a challenge by and among civil groups and communities over control of oil and the distribution of its benefits.

Tensions since the late 1970s have led to the emergence of several insurgent groups, the most prominent being Movement for Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), Joint Revolutionary Council (JRC), and the People’s Volunteer Force. Some insurgents have claimed political grievances based on the marginalization of their tribe or appropriation of land, others demand compensation for environmental damage or for oil companies to leave altogether.  Still others appear to engage in insurgency purely for the financial gain. Foreign oil companies have been reported to have colluded with the state to violently suppress such resistance efforts since the early 1990s. Both state and private security forces have committed village pogroms, rapes, and extrajudicial killings in their efforts to control the insurgency, e.g. the Choba community.  The 1995 execution of activists Ken Saro Wiwa and the Ogoni Nine under the Abacha regime is among the most well-known of human rights abuses committed in the Delta. Such state actions have resulted in more extreme violence on the part of some insurgents who engage in kidnappings for ransom of foreigners and oil workers, and now are increasingly targeting civilians in their violence.