Militants with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers patrol the creeks of the Niger Delta area of Nigeria in 2006. Nigeria’s government has resumed paying stipends to former militants even as security forces mount air bombardments and ground assaults reported to have killed scores of fighters disrupting petroleum production in the oil-rich region. (George Osodi/AP)

In this week’s African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular post, we feature a Q&A with Omolade Adunbi, author of “Oil Wealth and Insurgency in Nigeria.” Adunbi’s book shows how non-governmental organizations (NGOs), local community collaborators and especially multinational oil corporations structure people’s daily lives in the oil-rich Niger Delta. He draws on years of experience as an activist followed by years of field research.

Kim Yi Dionne: Your book taught me a lot about how oil exploration in the Niger Delta has harmed the region. It shows not just that oil wealth hasn’t contributed to general well-being, but also that oil wealth “has continually created deprivation, misery, and impoverishment” (p. 50).

In other words, it’s not just that people in the Niger Delta aren’t receiving their fair share — they’ve been made worse off. Can you say more about this?

Omolade Adunbi: You are right. Many people in the Niger Delta were farmers and fishermen before oil was discovered in 1956. Many community members saw this as fulfilling their ancestors’ promise of wealth that could dramatically improve their lives. Communities advocate for a fair share of what they consider to be their wealth.

Many NGOs — including Environmental Rights Action, Social Action and Oil Watch Nigeria — position themselves as community advocates. They echo the campaign slogan of “keep oil in the ground,” used by influential transnational NGOs like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth International, OilWatch International and Earth Rights International. But while those NGOs want to end oil exploration, community members would rather have more benefits from oil extraction.

At the same time, insurgent groups — such as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force and more recently, the Niger Delta Avengers and Reformed Niger Delta Avengers — also claim to fight for the communities, combining community grievances with NGO rhetoric about environmental rights.

As my book shows, many insurgents eventually reveal that personal interest — getting oil wealth for themselves — trumps community interest. In short, it’s not just multinational corporations and the Nigerian government that are making Niger Delta communities worse off. Purported advocates may also use community grievances for their own purposes.

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KYD: I found your discussion of ancestral promise and oil myths fascinating. For example, you write that “many people in the Niger Delta believe that the slaves who did not make it through the long and torturous journey to the new world” had died and returned to the Niger Delta “in the form of crude oil, as an ancestral blessing on those who opposed slavery.” (pp. 6-7).

OA: The slave narrative is quite fascinating to me as well. In interview after interview, informants would reiterate that the bodies of the ancestors returned as blessings to the Niger Delta communities.

One narrative that didn’t find its way into the book was about how the ancestors had given “their today for the tomorrow of the next generation” — gave up a good life, suffered and made abundant resources available for the current generation to enjoy. Unfortunately, informants say marauding corporations have made that virtually impossible.

KYD: We recently featured a guest post by Tarila Marclint Ebiede on the resurgence of violence in the Niger Delta. He wrote of two insurgent groups: the Niger Delta Avengers and the Red Scorpions. To your knowledge, are these new groups or reconfigurations of previous insurgent groups?

OA: The militant resurgence can be traced to some of what I highlighted in the closing chapters of my book. When Delta activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was about to be hanged by the Nigerian military in 1995, he said that his death would not end agitation in the Delta; unless ecological destruction and neglected communities were attended to, in Saro-Wiwa’s famous words, “the ashes shall rise again.” These words were reiterated to me by many.

The ashes rose shortly after his execution, producing many more activists, NGOs and more violence. The violence lasted from 1999 to 2009, when the Yar’Adua and Jonathan administrations crafted an amnesty program for former militants who agreed to lay down arms. But rather than address infrastructural deficits, ecological destruction and high unemployment, the Goodluck Jonathan administration basically created a program that paid former militants not to fight. Many insurgent leaders were paid huge sums to keep the peace. Former militant commander Government Tompolo, for example, got a $100 million contract to police the waterways of Nigeria. Foot soldiers were given monthly allowances far exceeding the national monthly minimum wage.

But when international oil prices collapsed, the state could not continue these payments. The result is that we are witnessing old insurgents clad in new names with the same style of agitation.

KYD: Finally, your book features Annkio Briggs, the founder and executive director of Agape Birthrights, a Port Harcourt NGO focusing on Niger Delta women. (pp. 175-179).

I found Annkio really interesting because she lived in the creeks before oil exploration, giving her a perspective unavailable to younger activists. She strikes me as a bridge between elders who can talk about how things were better in the past and the younger generation who have learned from transnational human environmental rights campaigns.

But as time passes, these bridging activists will only decline in number.

OA: I highlighted two forms of “bridging activists” in the book. The first serve as a bridge between the insurgents, the communities and the state. This group helped negotiate an end to several crises between 2005 and 2009 when insurgents took foreign oil workers hostage. Some also helped build relationships between Niger Delta communities and multinational corporations by helping negotiate Global Memorandum of Understanding.

The second category connect the struggle against injustice in the Niger Delta to struggles against injustice in Nigeria more broadly. They believe firmly in Ken Saro-Wiwa’s idea of nonviolent struggle and suggest that the struggle of the Niger Delta people cannot be detached from the larger struggle for a better Nigeria.

Unfortunately, the voices of bridging activists are either getting lost or getting co-opted into the reductionist idea that every struggle starts and ends with the Niger Delta.

Omolade Adunbi is an associate professor in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies and a faculty associate in the Program in the Environment (Pite) and the Human Rights Program (HRP) at the University of Michigan. He is also the author of “Oil Wealth and Insurgency in Nigeria.” You can follow him on Twitter at @LadeAdunbi. 

READ MORE in this year’s African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular: