Photo by George Osodi/Panos for Oxfam America

Oil conflicts in Nigeria today

While much of the recent media and political interest in Nigeria has been focused on Boko Haram and its dealings in the north, there is in fact a massive ongoing conflict in the oil-rich states of the south that has been transpiring since the early 1990s. It first arose due to tensions between minority ethnic groups and foreign oil companies and has escalated into widespread regional militarization over the past few decades.

The region has a history of ethnic conflict, notably the Biafran War of the late 1960s in which the southeastern states, known collectively as Biafra and comprised of the Igbo people, seceded from Nigeria in an effort to form an independent state. Today, however, the catalysts for the continued conflict are more diverse and include factors across a wide spectrum of traditional conflict drivers.

An article by Stakeholder Democracy, a non-profit that works to support those impacted by extractive industries and weak governance through community-based empowerment, divides the Niger Delta conflict drivers into five categories: political, social, economic, historical and environmental. The majority of the article is focused on political and economic factors, however it does not note which conflict drivers are most significant and instrumental.

According to the article, the political drivers of conflict are rooted predominantly in the legacy of military rule and the armed mobilization of youth since the early 2000s. In the run up to the 2003 elections, and again in 2007, young people in the Niger Delta states took up arms in order to influence elections, and they have yet to demilitarize. The article stresses the need to address the corrupt patrimonial system and the monopoly of violence present in the Niger Delta if the region is ever to see lasting peace.

The article also argues that social disintegration and the fueling of intra-communal conflicts by oil companies are two of the greatest social drivers of conflict. It contends that politicians and militia leaders manipulate communities and “thus further reinforce the disenfranchisement of the Niger Delta society.” Historical conflict drivers, according to the article, trace their roots back to 1967 when the Niger Delta people first revolted against the Nigerian military government.

In terms of the economy, the article focuses on corruption, impunity and the illegal economy. Over 90% of Nigeria’s revenue is from oil, and thus the diversification of the economy has the potential to be one of the main solutions to the conflict, in the same way that it is one of the main catalysts of the conflict. There is vast wealth available in the oil economy, and those benefitting from its domination are opposed to economic diversification because of the potential loss of income. However on a national scale, the country will likely continue to lose money in the future if it does not find viable economic alternatives.

Finally, environmental drivers of conflict permeate the Niger Delta. Gas flares and oil spills have permanently impacted the environment and made it nearly impossible for people to engage in traditional livelihoods such as fishing and farming. The decrease in subsistence living is producing idle youth who are often incentivized to join armed militias which only perpetuates the regional conflict.

Niger Delta communities continue to demand equality in the social, economic and political spheres. However if peace is to be achieved, a holistic and inclusive shift in Nigerian politics and its engagement with oil companies is needed. Hopefully this will serve to “rebalance the asymmetry of negotiating power” and ensure that Niger Delta communities are adequately represented and compensated in the future.


Abby Pioch is the primary blogger for Remembering Biafra. She is a senior in the Elliott School studying International Affairs concentrating in international development with a second major in French Language, Literature and Culture and a minor in Political Science. She is a member of Delta Phi Epsilon Professional Foreign Service Sorority and currently tutors ESL students at the Washington English Center.