Resource-Induced Conflicts, Part I: Petro-violence in the Niger Delta

By: Obi, Cyril and Siri Aas Rustad



Since the turn of the century, petro-violence has brought the oil-producing Niger Delta to the forefront of international energy and security concerns for strategic, socio-economic, historical and political reasons. However, the root causes of this conflict lie in decades of marginalisation of the region’s inhabitants, pollution and the highly centralised state control of oil revenues.[1] Over five decades of oil production has largely contributed to the enrichment of international oil companies and national and local elites, while at the same time leading to the disempowerment and impoverishment of the local population through direct dispossession, repression, and pollution of the air, lands and waters.[2]

The turn to violent resistance in the early 2000s took place in the context of prolonged military rule, marginalisation, and repression of community protests. Militias, riding on the back of widespread frustration about the ineffectiveness of prior non-violent protests, resorted to violence. The attacks on oil installations and the kidnapping of expatriate oil workers were initially intended to gain attention and support for their cause. Subsequently, however, the activities of some militias began to acquire other characteristics and goals that went beyond demands for resource control.[3]

While some scholars point to greed and personal enrichment as the motivation for violent conflict[4], there is a growing quantitative literature pointing to resource-related grievances as the main explanation of the statistical correlation between oil in particular and violent conflict. Østby, Nordås, and Rød (2009) find that regions with high level of group inequalities, combined with resource endowment, have a higher risk of conflict, while Rustad (2016), in a study of the Niger Delta, concludes that those who believe their region to be worse off than others are more likely to support violence. Similarly, Must and Rustad (2016) observe that a perception of unfair treatment also increases the likelihood of supporting the use of violence. The case of the Niger Delta brings some of these issues to the fore.

The petro-violence in the Niger Delta is closely linked to revenue sharing between the Nigerian state and oil-producing areas, control over the resources, as well as feelings of exclusion, marginalisation and exploitation endured by ethnic minority groups compared to larger groups on national level, such as the Ogoni and Ijaw communities. Perhaps most relevant are the ways in which the high stakes involved have fed into a vicious cycle of exploitation, protest, repression, resistance, militarisation and the descent into a volatile mix of insurgent violence and criminality[5]. Both these processes place great strain on the relationship between the local and the national levels.

The Niger Delta is a vast coastal plain in the southernmost part of Nigeria, with an estimated population of 31 million people. Traditionally, the local people earned their livelihood as farmers, fishers, and traders of items linked to the principal subsistence economies. At the same time, the region is also home to over 75% of Nigeria’s petroleum production and exports, including oil multinationals, state and local oil companies, oil service companies, ‘thousands of kilometers of oil pipelines, ten export terminals, four refineries and a massive liquefied natural gas (LNG) sector’.[6] The great challenge to forging a balanced relationship between the local and national level is the coexistence of a vast petro industry alongside the local grievances related to the subsistence livelihoods of the population.

At the national level, oil accounts for over 70% of government revenues[7] and 90% of merchandise export earnings[8], making it the fiscal basis of both state and federal power, as well as economic development. Thus, at the local level there is the strong feeling among ethnic oil minorities that the non-oil producing ethnic majority groups (Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa-Fulani), which dominate the federal government, also control the oil wealth, while those who produce the oil suffer from neglect, exploitation, and pollution.


The feelings of marginalisation among the ethnic minorities in the Niger Delta compared to the larger national ethnic majorities gained momentum in the wake of Nigeria’s independence from British rule in 1960. In 1966, there was an attempt at secession by a group of ethnic Ijaw youth, the Niger Delta Volunteer Force (NDVF) led by Isaac Adaka Boro, who wanted to create a Niger Delta republic that would ensure Ijaw self-determination, and ownership and control of the oil in its territory.[9] The attempted secession failed. Instead, Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu led the Biafran secession, ostensibly to fight for Igbo self-determination against perceived northern domination, but also to assert control over the Niger Delta oil fields. Boro joined the federal war against Biafra, to repel Biafran claims to oilfields in Ijaw territory. This struggle over oil riches in the 1960s, both amongst various ethnic groups within the Niger Delta, and between the ethnic minorities and the federal government, underline the grievances and claims that feature in many of the struggles witnessed today.

Several developments during and after the Biafran civil war had implications on the agitation for minority rights in the Niger Delta. The first was that the oil from the region became the main source of national revenues and export earnings. Secondly, the federal military government had seized control of oil through Decree No. 51/Petroleum Act of 1969. Specifically, it provided that “the entire ownership and control of all petroleum in, under or upon any lands…shall be vested in the state [Federal Government]”[10]. In section 2, the Act granted the federal oil minister “the sole right to grant oil mining leases to oil companies”. This legislation expropriated oil from the Niger Delta much to the chagrin of the ethnic minorities of the region, who had hoped that the individual states would own the oil within their respective territories. This meant a loss of power over the oil resources by local people and the loss of compensation for the full value of appropriated land. It also meant that multinational corporations (MNCs) could directly get oil and land leases from the government without recourse to local communities.

These feelings of exclusion, dispossession and disappointment were further reinforced by the progressive downward revision of the derivation principle for revenue allocation (i.e. the share of the revenues being returned to the producing state) from 50% in 1966 to 1.5% in the mid-1990s. While this level was raised to 13% following the return of democracy in 1999, the relationship between the Niger Delta and the federal government worsened when demands from the oil-producing states for an increase to 25% were blocked by the northern elites.[11]

Protests and militants

However, what followed was a systematic repression of Ogoni protests, including military raids on Ogoni villages, and arrests of suspected MOSOP cadres and sympathizers. This culminated in a trial, widely held as flawed, where Saro-Wiwa and eight MOSOP members were found guilty of the murder of four pro-government Ogoni leaders. In spite of worldwide pleas for clemency, they were executed in 1995.[12]

The return to democracy in 1999 also had negative ramifications for the human rights and pro-democracy movement. Politicians of the Niger Delta tapped into the groundswell of popular anger among the large number of unemployed or alienated youth in the region, frustrated over the lack of local jobs within the oil industry.[13] Some of these youths became ready tools of politicians, feeding into a spiral of local violence in the 1999 and 2003 elections. By 2006 these violent outbursts, combined with communal conflicts, politics of local resistance, and the struggle for resource control, evolved into a full-fledged insurgency. Although initially rooted in the militarization and coming together of youth groups and their protests at several levels, the insurgency quickly took on other agendas and dimensions. The complex conflict that raged in the Niger Delta involved broad militant alliances like the militant group Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), linked to the ethnic minority group Ijaw. This insurgent faction combined lethal attacks and sabotage of oil installations with the effective use of global media to publicize its campaign of fighting for the control of oil revenues by indigenes of the Niger Delta.[14]


Rising domestic and international concerns surrounding the conflict, alongside the inability of the government’s military Joint Task Force in reining in MEND – which had successfully managed to shut down a third of Nigeria’s oil production – formed the basis of a Presidential Amnesty granted to the Niger Delta militants in 2009. The aim was to restore security by ending the disruption of oil production and exports, which had contributed to the loss of oil revenues and profits, and offer the battle-weary militias an opportunity to partake in state patronage and assistance programs. The offer to ‘drop their guns in exchange for peace’ was accepted by the main militia leaders, while a faction of MEND remained opposed to the Amnesty. Consequently, there was a remarkable reduction in the level of violence between 2010-2011.

Over time, however, the region has been once again engulfed by violence; a trend mainly caused by ex-combatants who have either turned to criminality, or have engaged in protests over their perceived exclusion from the benefits of the Amnesty. Their behaviour can be traced back to several factors. The first was the election of President Muhammadu Buhari from north-central Nigeria in 2015. After taking office, Buhari reorganized the Amnesty program and fired the leadership appointed by former President Goodluck Jonathan, while reviewing and reducing the funding of the program. Secondly, speculations emerged on the alleged expiry of the Amnesty program at the end of 2017. These rumours arose, in part, due to on-going investigations of corruption in the program, as well as the allegations (raised by some ex-militia leaders) that the new President is hostile to the interest of the region and seeks to perpetuate northern domination of regional oil resources. Thirdly, Nigeria felt the negative impact caused by the crash of global oil prices on its oil-dependent economy and fiscal federalism. The stakes of gaining access to shrinking oil revenues in the midst of an economic recession led to intensified struggles.

The foregoing broadly defines the context within which a new group, the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA), emerged after over five years of relative peace in the Niger Delta, attacking MNCs’ oil installations in early 2016. While the Amnesty succeeded in buying some respite for a few years, it failed to address the underlying causes of the violent conflict. The local population still feels marginalised and the federal government retains control over the region’s natural resources. While the establishment of the Amnesty was a window of opportunity for the federal government to deal with the Niger Delta crisis, it seems that this window is about to close.[15] If the root causes continue to be left unsolved, and the old and new protagonists of the conflict see the struggle for power over oil in zero-sum ways, the oil-rich region could be engulfed by another wave of violence in the near future.




Siri Aas Rustad is a senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO). She has extensive experience with research on natural resource management, conflict, peace and the extractive industry both in Africa and Latin America.


Dr. Cyril Obi is a program director at the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) and leads the African Peacebuilding Network (APN) program. Dr. Obi is well published, and is a member of the editorial boards of many international journals. He is also a research associate of the Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria, South Africa, and a visiting scholar to the Institute of African Studies (IAS), Columbia University, New York.


This article was based on:

Obi, Cyril and Siri Aas Rustad (2011a), “The Complex Politics of an Insurgency?” in Oil and Insurgency in the Niger Delta: Managing the Complex Politics of Petroviolence edited by Cyril Obi and Siri Aas Rustad. Zed Books. London




[1] Obi, Cyril (2014). “Oil and Conflict in Nigeria’s Niger Delta Region: Between the Barrrel and the Trigger”, The Extractive Industries and Society, 1: 147-153; Obi, Cyril Obi (2016), “Understanding the Resource Curse Effect: Instability and Violent Conflict in Africa”, in Pamela Aall (ed.), Minding the Gap: African Conflict Management in a Time of Change, Ontario: CIGI.; Watts, Michael J. and Ibaba Samuel Ibaba (2011), “Turbulent Oil: Conflict and Insecurity in the Niger Delta”, African Security, Vol. 4, Issue 1.

[2] Obi, Cyril (2010), “Oil Extraction, Dispossession, Resistance and Conflict in Nigeria’s Oil-Rich Niger Delta,”, Canadian Journal of Development Studies, Vol. 30, Issue 1-2.; Nwajiaku-Dahou, Kathryn (2012), “Then political economy of oil and Insurgency ‘rebellion’, Review of African Political Economy, Vol. 39, Vol. 39, Issue 132.; Agbiboa, Daniel (2013), “Have we heard the Movement for the Emancipation Last? Oil, environmental insecurity, and the impact of the amnesty programme on the Niger Delta and the empowerment of violence” Review of African Political Economy, Vol. 40, Issue 137.

[3] Boås, Morten (2011), “Mend Me’ the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta and the empowerment of violence” in Oil and Insurgency in the Niger Delta: Managing the Complex Politics of Petroviolence edited by Cyril Obi and Siri Aas Rustad. Zed Books. London; Ikelegbe, Augustine (2011), “Popular and Criminal Violence as instruments of struggle in the Niger Delta Region” in Oil and Insurgency in the Niger Delta: Managing the Complex Politics of Petroviolence edited by Cyril Obi and Siri Aas Rustad. Zed Books. London

[4] Collier, Paul and Anke Hoeffler (2004), ‘Greed and grievance in civil wars’, Oxford Economic Papers 56:663–595.

[5] Obi, Cyril and Siri Aas Rustad (2011b), “Is the window of opportunity closing for the Niger Delta?” in Oil and Insurgency in the Niger Delta: Managing the Complex Politics of Petroviolence edited by Cyril Obi and Siri Aas Rustad. Zed Books. London

[6] Watts, Michael (2007), “Petro-Insurgency or Criminal Syndicate? Conflict and Violence in the Niger Delta,” Review of African Political Economy, vol. 34, no. 114, p. 639.



[9] Obi (2010), ‘Oil Extraction, Dispossession, Resistance and Conflict in Nigeria’s Oil-Rich Niger Delta’, p. 225


[11] Ukiwo, Ukoha (2011), “The Nigerian State, Oil and the Niger Delta Crisis” in Oil and Insurgency in the Niger Delta: Managing the Complex Politics of Petroviolence edited by Cyril Obi and Siri Aas Rustad. Zed Books. London

[12] Obi, Cyril (1997) “Globalization and Local Resistance: The Case of Ogoni versus Shell”, New Political Economy, Vol. 2, Issue 1.;  Obi (2010), ‘Oil Extraction, Dispossession, Resistance and Conflict in Nigeria’s Oil-Rich Niger Delta’

[13] Ukoha (2011), “The Nigerian State, Oil and the Niger Delta Crisis”

[14] Rustad, Siri Aas (2016), “Socioeconomic Inequalities and Attitudes Towards Violence: A Test with New Survey Data in the Niger Delta”. International Interactions 42(1): 106-139

[15] Obi and Rustad (2011b), “Is the window of opportunity closing for the Niger Delta?”

Image Credit: Socialist Youth League of Norway (Sosialistisk Ungdom (SU)),  Flikr,, (April 6 2010)


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