This is the final case study of four, including Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, that demonstrates one of many explanations for conflict. Social theory in a nutshell: We follow laws and pay taxes and do what the government says in exchange for protections, services, and good leadership by the government. When the government doesn’t follow through on its end of the deal, citizens don’t follow through on theirs. See more below on how this impacts the Niger Delta oil conflict.
Social Contract Failure Hypothesis (Stewart, 2002): This explanation for conflict derives from the view that social stability is based on a hypothetical social contract between the people and the government. People accept state authority so long as the state delivers services and provides reasonable economic conditions (e.g. employment and incomes). With economic stagnation or decline, and worsening state services, the social contract breaks down and violence results. Hence, high and rising levels of poverty and a decline in state services would be expected to cause conflict. In many African countries, social contract failure takes the form of neo-patrimonalism, which means power comes from a single leader. Corruption, often organized along kinship ties to control networks and resources, destabilizes the state and causes conflict.
The incidence of conflict is higher among countries with low per capita incomes, life expectancy, and economic growth. However, many statistical studies of the association between vertical income distribution and conflict produce differing results. It has been suggested that funding programs from the International Monetary Fund—usually associated with cuts in government services—cause conflicts, but neither statistical nor case study evidence supports this, perhaps because countries on the verge of conflict do not generally qualify for such programs.
My Relatively Quick Summary of the Ongoing Niger Delta Oil Conflict: When oil was discovered shortly before Nigerian independence in 1960, it was heralded as key to the new nation’s economic future. Nigerians living in the fertile fishing and agricultural southern region of the Niger Delta, the epicenter of oil operations and home to ¼ of the country’s population, waited decades for the newfound oil wealth to trickle down and improve their quality of life. Instead, they became slowly aggrieved by oil companies’ widespread environmental degradation in the form of oil spills on farmlands and fishing waters and gas flares that pollute the air. Oil companies also failed to fulfill the contractual promise of employment that had initially been introduced to get local support for oil extraction and the federal government (FG) did little to secure those local jobs. There was little to no improvement in community infrastructure in the form of schools, hospitals, or electricity for the average Niger Deltan, despite the government’s campaigns advertising oil as the key to a more prosperous future. The federal government entered into a joint venture with foreign oil companies such as Chevron and Shell, so oil profits went largely into the national coffer and very little revenue trickled down to benefit oil-producing southern states. This continued poverty is seen as an example of the resource curse or the paradox of plenty, in which natural resources do not lead to economic development for democratically-weak states. Niger Deltans, largely of the Ijaw and Ogoni tribes, continued to be politically marginalized while power over oil decisions and profits remained in the hands of the non-oil holding majority ethnic groups such as the Yoruba and the Igbos. So, although the issues being debated have to do with poverty and fair revenue sharing by the government, the conflict is also informed by long-standing ethnic questions of self-determination.
By the early 1990s, many Niger Deltans had concluded that the government and oil companies would not fulfill their promises of employment, infrastructure, or better living conditions. In response, a prominent Ogoni writer and intellectual named Ken Saro-Wiwa founded the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) in 1992, and his peaceful movement came to be the face of the indigenous resistance against oil operations. They issued the Ogoni Bill of Rights, staged non-violent marches, and began to liaison with international non-profits to garner global attention to their environmental and human rights cause. In 1993, however, General Sani Abacha came to power in a violent military coup and promptly targeted the Ogonis for their oil reform efforts. The Niger Delta became a militarized zone in which soldiers and private security forces committed torture, killing, rapes and pogroms as a means of stifling the movement. Under Abacha in 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa was falsely accused of inciting the murder of four chiefs and sentenced to death in a specially convened court widely criticized by human rights observers. He was secretly executed with eight others, known as the Ogoni Nine, in November of that year. The peaceful oil reform movement still exists today among various groups functioning under the umbrella of MOSOP, but it does not have the vigor it enjoyed under Saro-Wiwa.
After 2000, the Niger Delta saw an alarming rise in domestic terrorism against the government and oil companies in the name of oil justice. The U.S. Department of State has identified the region as a “breeding ground” for ethnic militants engaged in kidnapping and ransom for profit, with victims initially being foreign oil workers but today including wealthy Nigerians outside the oil industry. Militants also engage in widespread oil bunkering, or stealing of oil, to sell it on the black market, arms dealing, and destruction of oil infrastructure through explosions. The most notorious among these militant groups are the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), Niger Delta Avengers (NDA), Niger Delta Liberation Front (NDLF) and the Niger Delta Vigilante (NDV). Although it is often the average farmer or fisherman most endangered by militant activities, the groups claim to be ideologically committed to targeting the key companies operating there: Shell, Agip and Eni. These companies enjoy the staunch support of the military and federal security forces such as the Joint Task Force.
Companies see the militancy as a threat to their business operations while the state, with one of the highest rates of measurable corruption in the world, sees it as a threat to the national economy since 80% of national revenue comes from oil. Indeed, militants have succeeded in diminishing nation oil revenues by 25%, causing a shut in of 600,000 barrels per day. Insurgency is one of several factors that impact Nigeria’s below-capacity oil production. Nigerian oil production is of great concern to Western countries such as the U.S., which gets 5% of its total oil from the country. Since September 11th, Nigeria’s high-quality “sweet crude” has served as a great strategic alternative to more expensive oil from the Middle East.
Within the last decade, the government’s peace talks with militant groups have failed. MEND had a voluntary ceasefire with the government in 2006. MEND resumed attacks the following year though when its most prominent leader, Henry Okah, was arrested in Angola. The security situation became so volatile that it threatened a collapse of the oil industry, so President Yar-Ardua offered an amnesty program in 2009. In exchange for turning in their guns as part of Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR), fighters received university education, vocational training, and stipends. However, there are allegations of corruption and fraud within the Amnesty Office that oversees the program, charges that too few fighters were included, and a view that the very problems of environmental damage and unemployment that undergird militancy remain unsolved. These same issues currently plague the Niger Delta to perpetuate this on-going, low-level conflict.