Oil - Fuel for conflicts

Nigeria, the most populated country in Africa, is also its largest oil producer and the country with the seventh highest production rate worldwide. Over two million barrels of crude oil are produced daily - the majority onshore, a smaller amount offshore. For a long time, the Niger Delta, Nigeria's oil-producing region, was known to be the largest source of conflict in Nigeria. The Niger Delta is not a civil war area in the narrow sense, but conflicts between the central government and armed groups have claimed hundreds of lives each year since the turn of the century. In a complex mix of political and economic interests, criminal and violent acts on both sides are part of everyday life.

(Armed) conflicts around the use of oil revenues

Revenues from the oil production in the Niger Delta represent 80 per cent of the country's budget and more than 90 per cent of its total proceeds from exports. The central government's total income from 1999 to 2004 amounted to US $95 billion. If state investments in oil production are deducted, US $77 billion remain for that period.

The central government in Abuja claims the ownership of the entire oil reserves of Nigeria for themselves and manages the majority of the proceeds from oil production. Furthermore, the military governments from 1966 to 1999 did not lay open their revenues and used them to a great degree for their own benefit and to strengthen their power. One of the conflict lines, therefore, runs between the central government and militant groups in the Niger Delta that fight for a share in the oil revenues. In 1999, after the end of the military dictatorship, the conflict between the central government and militant groups in the Niger Delta continued. It is true that since then, regional governments have managed a larger share in the income, but they are nearly as corrupt as the government in Abuja.

Violence escalated in the Niger Delta around the turn of the millennium. Militant groups who, in the early 2000s, had begun with violent attacks on oil installations fought to secure a share in oil revenues. Fighting also broke out among various local communities about advantages arising from oil production.

As of 2005, a number of armed groups got together and formed the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), enforcing their attacks on oil installations. This was the beginning of large-scale crude oil theft. They drew oil off pipelines or pumped it off ships. These fighters, who had initially been armed by local politicians, were soon able to buy heavy weapons and ammunition from the revenues of their stolen oil. The central government reacted with military operations that also claimed many civilian casualties. At the peak of these clashes, between 70,000 and 500,000 barrels of crude oil were lost every day through theft or sabotage; up to one-quarter of the entire day's production.

The 2009 amnesty programme for militias handing over their weapons led to a stop of most armed clashes. However, the criminal networks of militant groups, politicians, local elites and international weapons traders continue to exist. To protect their installations, some oil companies still pay protection money to violent militant groups. Small arms and light weapons are spread throughout the region and increase the danger of new outbreaks of violence.

Negative development in the Niger Delta

In the wider sense, conflicts in the Niger Delta are also about the distribution of the pros and cons resulting from oil production. How are the revenues used? Who has to bear the costs and burdens of oil production? On average, the proceeds from oil production have not improved living conditions of the population in the Niger Delta. 70 per cent live below the national poverty level. Unemployment is significantly higher than in the rest of the country. Infrastructure is very bad, and the infant mortality rate lies at 20 per cent (Technical Committee 2008).

At the same time, the villages in the oil-producing areas have to bear the brunt of that production: the pollution of land and water through leakages in the pipelines and health risks through gas flaring. Between 1976 and 2001, the UN Environment Programme recorded more than 6,800 oil leaks resulting in a loss of more than three million barrels of oil. According to Amnesty International, in the 50 years until 2009, oil leakages amounted to a good nine million barrels.

For decades, human rights organizations worldwide have tried to make oil companies accountable for this environmental pollution. A Dutch court finally found Shell—that has its headquarters in the Netherlands and Great Britain—guilty of destroying fishing grounds as a result of two oil leaks in the Niger Delta. In September 2011, Shell's Nigerian daughter company accepted the verdict of having to pay damages to the inhabitants of the affected community.

The responsibility of oil producing companies

The following example shows how important oil producing companies' responsibility is: In Nigeria, oil is extracted in joint ventures of the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) with international oil companies such as Shell, Mobil, Total, Chevron and Agip. The largest joint venture, a cooperation with Shell, produces just below half of the Nigerian crude oil. The oil companies’ behaviour towards the local population is one reason for conflict. Oil production often necessitated the resettlement of villagers and their compensation for their lost land. But these compensation payments also caused conflicts between the inhabitants of the Delta, which can be led back to miscommunication and intransparent action from the side of the oil companies.
After years of peaceful protest, parts of the population even sabotaged oil installations. In 2003, an internal assessment by Shell came to the conclusion that the company's own behaviour had fuelled conflicts amongst the population and protests against oil production. Oil production in Nigeria is accompanied by conflicts about the distribution of the proceeds, local disputes about the advantages and costs of oil production as well as an economy of violence based on the theft of oil. Transparency initiatives, such as the Extractives Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) that call for transparency in oil revenues, give hope for a better future. The shape of this amnesty programme will also have a decisive influence on the future development in the Niger Delta. In contrast to other UN demobilization programmes, the Nigerian government has carried out the amnesty programme on its own.

Sources and further information:

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