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Nigeria: Oil and Violence

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Dec 18, 2003 (031218)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

Delta State produces 40 percent of Nigeria's two million barrels a day of crude oil and is supposed to receive 13 percent of the revenue from production in the state, notes Human Rights Watch in a new report. Conflict over oil revenue lies at the root of ongoing violence, particularly in the key city of Warri. "Efforts to halt the violence and end the civilian suffering that has accompanied it must therefore include steps both to improve government accountability and to end the theft of oil."

This issue of AfricaFocus Bulletin contains the Human Rights Watch press release, and excerpts from the full report, which is available on the Human Rights Watch website.

Bronwen Manby, the author of this latest report, was also the author of the major Human Rights Report in 1999 "The Price of Oil: Corporate Responsibility and Human Rights Violations in Nigeria's Oil Producing Communities," available at


Visit for news, analysis, advocacy Find recent book recommendations at Powell's, a unionized on-line bookstore:

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Nigeria: Delta Violence a Fight Over Oil Money

(New York, December 17, 2003) -- The violence that has engulfed parts of Nigeria's oil-producing Niger Delta this year is driven by disputes over both government resources and control of the theft of crude oil, Human Rights Watch said in a report
<> released today.

The 29-page report, The Warri Crisis: Fueling Violence, documents how violence in Nigeria's southern Delta State this year, especially during the state and federal elections in April and May, resulted in hundreds of deaths, the displacement of thousands of people, and the destruction of hundreds of homes. Among the dead were probably dozens killed by the government security forces. At the height of the violence, 40 percent of Nigeria's oil production was closed down.

"The people of the Niger Delta have suffered horribly from living amid the source of Nigeria's wealth," said Bronwen Manby, deputy director of the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch and the author of the report. "And the perpetrators get away with these crimes without even the faintest chance of being brought to justice."

The perpetrators of violence in Delta State are armed ethnic militias belonging to the three major ethnic groups in the state - the Ijaw, Itsekiri, and Urhobo - and also the state security forces. During the first half of 2003, Ijaw militia members were particularly well organized in attacking Itsekiri communities living in the creeks of the mangrove forest, where much of the oil is found.

Since the report was finalized, renewed violence has broken out once again in Delta State, with a score of civilians reportedly killed in fighting during the first week of December.

In Nigeria, individuals in government office often have virtually unchecked control over resources. Elections are therefore a focus for violence and fraud. Delta State produces 40 percent of Nigeria's two million barrels a day of crude oil and is supposed to receive 13 percent of the revenue from production in the state - so control of government positions is a particularly large prize. In addition, the warring factions are fighting for control of the theft of crude oil, known as "illegal oil bunkering." Illegally bunkered oil accounts for perhaps 10 percent of Nigeria's oil production, bringing profits that are probably more than US$1 billion a year.

Both politicians and those who head the illegal bunkering rackets - sometimes the same people - employ armed militia to ensure their reelection or defend their operations. On November 24, three journalists at Lagos-based Insider magazine were arrested by the police, detained for two days and charged with sedition and defamation of character, in connection with an article alleging that the vice president of Nigeria and the national security adviser to the president were involved in large-scale theft of crude oil.

"Although the violence has both ethnic and political dimensions, it is essentially a fight over the oil money - both government revenue and the profits of stolen crude," Manby said. "Efforts to halt the violence and end the civilian suffering that has accompanied it must therefore include steps both to improve government accountability and to end the theft of oil."

Human Rights Watch suggested that one measure toward ending the violence might be an effort to create a system for "certifying" crude oil as coming from legitimate sources. The report urged that fresh elections be held in Delta State, as in other Nigerian states where national and international monitors found the level of fraud and violence surrounding this year?s elections to be so high that the minimum international standards for democratic elections were not met. A precondition for peace, Human Rights Watch said, is that those responsible for crime be brought to justice.

Brief Excerpts from Full Report

The Warri Crisis: Fueling Violence

I. Summary

Conflict in Nigeria's Delta State during 2003 has led to the killing of hundreds of people, the displacement of thousands, and the destruction of hundreds of properties. Among the dead are probably dozens killed by the security forces. Although the violence has both ethnic and political dimensions, it is essentially a fight over money. ...

Because of the sheer scale of the violence over the past year which many people described to Human Rights Watch as a war and because many of the alleged abuses have taken place in the mangrove forest riverine areas which have been effectively inaccessible for much of 2003, Human Rights Watch was unable to document these abuses in a systematic and comprehensive way. The following account is based partly on our own research in September 2003, but also upon the reports of informed observers, including nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), government spokespeople, oil company staff, journalists, and the assertions of the political leaders of each of the three ethnic groups involved in the violence the Ijaw, Itsekiri and Urhobo.

Ordinary people on all sides have been victims of violence and continue to suffer the consequences of the fighting; but it seems that the Itsekiri, the smallest group of the three, have been the main victims of violence during 2003, largely at the hands of organized Ijaw militia. There is a great need for detailed and unbiased investigation and reporting of the abuses that have taken place, both by official inquiries and by nongovernmental organisations, so that the impunity that has characterized the crisis can be ended. ...

Finding a permanent solution to the violence in Delta State will be difficult. It must involve both a dedicated effort by government to resolve the political issues under dispute, including the equitable and effective spending of government resources, and the restoration of law and order through effective, impartial, and law-abiding security force action. Those responsible for murder and other crimes must be brought to justice.

A negotiated solution to the demands of the different ethnic groups must be found; and fresh elections should be held in Delta State, as in other states where national and international monitors found the level of fraud and violence surrounding the 2003 polls to be so high that the minimum international standards for democratic elections were not met. One contribution to ending the violence may also be an effort to create a system for "certifying" crude oil as coming from legitimate sources, in order to reduce the demand for illegally bunkered oil, and thus the funds going to those organizing many of the ethnic militia.

II. Background

Since before Nigeria's independence in 1960 there have been tensions surrounding the arrangements for the government of the region surrounding Warri, the second most important oil town in Nigeria after Port Harcourt. Warri itself, the largest town (though not the capital) of Delta State, is claimed as their homeland by three ethnic groups: the Itsekiri, the Urhobo, and the Ijaw. The Itsekiri, a small ethnic group of a few hundred thousand people whose language is related to Yoruba (one of Nigeria's largest ethnic groups), also live in villages spread out along the Benin and Escravos Rivers into the mangrove forest riverine areas towards the Atlantic Ocean. The Urhobo, a much larger group numbering some millions related to the Edo-speaking people of Benin City, live in Warri town and to the north, on land. To the south and east, also in the swampy riverine areas, are members of the Western Ijaw, part of the perhaps ten million-strong Ijaw ethnic group, the largest of the Niger Delta, spread out over several states.

The question of the "ownership" of Warri has been in dispute for decades since well before independence and is the subject of heated debate in the Nigerian courts and media as well as in the homes of Warri. It forms the core argument in the presentation of the various ethnic groups as to the underlying causes of the violence of the last decade. Closely linked to the question of "ownership" is that of representation in the formal structures of government, both at local government and state level. Delta State was created in 1991, with several others, by the military regime of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida. Both Ijaw and Urhobo see the current dispensation in the state, in which Itsekiri dominate government structures in the three Warri local government areas (LGAs), Warri North, Warri South, and Warri South West, as unfair. ...

Human Rights Watch takes no position on who the "true indigenes" of Warri are, nor on the creation of wards or local government areas. However, the long term peace of Delta State clearly depends in part on the resolution of these political issues in a manner that ensures equitable representation of all those living in the state regardless of origin. Above all, the process of arriving at a final arrangement must be seen to be fair. The concept of "indigene" is itself problematic: all those concerned are Nigerians, and should have equal rights in relation to the government of the state where they live. ...

There has been no systematic investigation of the crimes committed in the Warri conflict since 1997, nor of the number of casualties or damage to property caused. There have been few arrests and even fewer, if any, prosecutions for these killings: either the government security forces have shot dead those involved in violence in the course of arresting them; or if there are arrests, the suspects are released after interventions with the police by their leaders. There are also credible reports from across Nigeria that many criminal suspects are summarily executed while in police custody. Often there are no consequences of any kind for those involved in the violence: there have been none for the political leaders of those who are fighting on the ground. The continued impunity for years of brutal violence is a fundamental cause of the renewed outbreak of fighting in 2003.


VIII. Conclusion

The Warri crisis is in many regards a classic example of a "resource war." Many of those on the ground on all sides claim that it is indeed a war; and the level of weaponry deployed by the various militant groups does indeed indicate a dangerous escalation in the violence. The solutions to the crisis must therefore address the equitable distribution and illegal diversion of resources: both by attempts to improve the democratic legitimacy and accountability of government (including the reholding of the elections in Delta State and strong measures against corruption), and by closing off the possibilities for the theft of crude oil and its sale on the open market.

The Nigerian government, both at state and federal level, has failed to intervene in ways that fully address the multi-layered dimensions of the problems in Delta State, focusing only on security force interventions and pro forma meetings with elite groups that lead to no concrete outcomes. There is a tendency for politicians to lay the entire blame for the violence on criminals carrying out illegal oil bunkering, without acknowledging that many of those running illegal bunkering operations are allegedly within government. ...

Much as there is a need for additional security in the Niger Delta, especially Delta State, policing and other security operations cannot be successful unless they are impartial and do not themselves result in further violations of human rights. ...

IX. Recommendations

To the Nigerian Federal and Delta State Governments

  • Identify and rapidly bring to justice, in accordance with international standards, those responsible for organizing the violence in Delta State, as well as those who carried out the killings. Launch thorough, prompt and impartial investigations into the conduct of the security forces during the violence of 2003 and the previous outbreaks of violence in Delta State, in particular into the allegations of security force bias and misconduct made by either side, make public the results of this investigation, and bring to justice those implicated in abuses.
  • Put in place an integrated strategy for investigating illegal oil bunkering activities, up to the highest level, and for ensuring that such investigations and resulting arrests and prosecutions are not affected by political considerations.
  • Ensure that all communities, regardless of ethnicity, in Delta State receive equal protection from the security forces. Deployment of additional security, especially to the riverine areas, will not assist in finding a permanent solution to the crisis unless the security forces act professionally and impartially, without themselves carrying out human rights violations.
  • Take steps to reschedule federal and state elections in Delta State (and other states where national and international monitors found such serious irregularities that no genuine election could be said to have been held) ensuring that the rescheduled elections fulfill minimum international standards. For all elections, the government should implement the reforms suggested by the teams observing the 1999 and 2003 elections. Amongst other things, the Electoral Act should be thoroughly reviewed; the independence of INEC should be guaranteed, the role of the state electoral commissions clarified, and the capacity for electoral administration strengthened; a permanent system of voter registration should be put in place; and improved systems for ward and constituency delimitation should be established.
  • In order to ensure, among other things, that competition for government resources does not contribute to violence among ethnic groups, especially at election time, put in place proper controls over federal and state government spending in consultation with the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and other relevant international agencies to ensure that budgets are properly audited, off-budget spending eliminated, and government resources allocated in a non-discriminatory manner.
  • Provide relief assistance to individuals whose houses or livelihoods were destroyed during the violence.
  • Intensify and encourage dispute resolution initiatives and other measures aimed at preventing further violence, including by taking steps to negotiate solutions to the political disputes that underlie the violence, and by supporting civil society grassroots and leadership initiatives to foster dialogue and cooperation among Ijaw, Itsekiri, and Urhobo communities. In attempting to resolve the crisis take into account the recurring violence of previous years and the findings of investigations and studies into the 1997 and 1999 clashes. Special efforts should be made to listen to the grievances and suggestions of the various communities affected by the conflicts.
  • Strengthen controls over government-held weapons to ensure they cannot be diverted into private hands. Prevent arms inflows to the delta, including by improving border security. Learning from the experience of other African countries, develop a program for the disarmament of the armed militia operating in the delta that does not depend on indiscriminate raids into the communities where they are believed to live. Press for the strengthening of the ECOWAS small arms moratorium and its implementation, which should be expanded to encompass all weapons categories, developed into an information-exchange mechanism, and be made binding.
  • Explore the possibilities of oil certification as a means of reducing the role of illegal oil bunkering in fueling the violence, by reducing the income that can be made from the illegal sale of oil.

To foreign governments, intergovernmental organizations, and the oil companies

  • Urge the Nigerian government at state and federal level to seek a peaceful resolution to the political issues raised by the various parties to the Warri crisis and to ensure that all Nigerians receive equal protection of the law.
  • Urge Nigerian government and security force officials to ensure that members of the security forces deployed to quell violence in any future incidents of unrest refrain from excessive use of force, extrajudicial executions, and other human rights violations.
  • Fund thorough national and international monitoring of future elections, basing diplomatic responses to the elections on the findings of election observers. Urge the Nigerian government to rehold the 2003 elections in Delta State and in other states where minimum international standards were not met.
  • Support appropriate national and local dispute resolution initiatives aimed at defusing intercommunal tensions in Delta State and elsewhere, and urge both federal and state government institutions to do likewise.
  • Fund independent human rights groups to carry out thorough, impartial documentation of the human rights abuses committed in the course of the violence in Delta State and to press the government to take action to prosecute those responsible and provide equal protection for all ethnic groups in the state.
  • Provide funds for relief assistance to those affected by conflict in Delta State and elsewhere in Nigeria.
  • Governments providing training, weapons or other military equipment to the Nigerian military should suspend all such assistance until the Nigerian government has shown a commitment to ending the impunity which still protects the military, including at minimum bringing to justice those responsible for the killings and destruction in Benue State in 2001, and in Odi, Bayelsa state, in 1999.
  • Explore, as part of other initiatives to increase transparency in the exploitation of primary resources, the possibilities of oil certification as a means of reducing the role of illegal oil bunkering in fueling violence.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is a free independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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