Posted on August 2, 2013

Human Security and the Niger Delta

by Virginia Browne, Tessa de Geus, Wendy Gong and Mariko Park


As the most populous country and largest oil producer in Africa, Nigeria has suffered bouts of severe social unrest. After six successful and numerous failed military coups, a civil war that cost over a million lives, and three inconclusive transitions to democracy amidst recurrent factional violence, Nigeria rates below all other major oil nations on quality of life. The discovery and exploitation of oil transformed Nigeria’s economy, governance and environment. After the start of oil exploitation in the 1950’s, disputes over the distribution of oil wealth have been at the heart of the country’s major conflicts, while simultaneously feeding into intricate internal dynamics in complex ways. In this article we apply human security concepts to examine the main sources and types of insecurity in Nigeria.

The exploitation of oil reserves has been at the heart of three inter-related sources of human insecurity in Nigeria. First, state reliance on oil revenues instead of a strong tax policy insulated the country from accountability to citizens, particularly to communities in oil-producing region. Close relationships were forged between state elites and oil multinationals, exacerbating a deficit of democracy and a state of corruption and unaccountability. Protest movements that emerged in response were tackled through violent state repression, often supported by oil multinationals, and private security forces and informant networks of the oil industry. From a de facto political alliance between the government and oil multinationals, a plethora of problems emerged concerning corporate governance, rent seeking, lack of development investment, and large-scale environmental damage.

Second, militancy in the Niger Delta was inflamed in response to the violent repression, human rights violations and perceived neglect of the region by the state. Militia groups sought not to capture political power, but to highlight and seek redress for their plight. Over time, however, oil and privatized violence seeped into the social fabric of Niger Delta communities. This process contributed to corrupting grassroots protests, underpinning the emergence of rentier groups, transforming social formations and resonating with the intimidation and corruption that marred democratic governance in the state and federal arenas. A political economy and culture of violence steadily became embedded, primarily  but not exclusively in the Niger Delta.

The third source of human insecurity has stemmed from serious environmental threats caused by the exploitation of oilfields. Frequent spills, the on-going use of gas flaring (despite an official 2005 court ruling ban), dredging, destruction of mangroves, and dumping of drilling waste have all contributed to large-scale environmental destruction. These forms of environmental insecurity are inherently linked to forms of economic, food and health insecurity such as the loss of livelihoods in farming and fishing due to contamination. Access to clean water has been compromised in many areas and the Delta is no longer self-sufficient in food. Contaminated water and food from the area elevate the risk of developing multiple forms of cancer, including forms passed on from mother to child. The costs of cleanup are daunting. For Oganiland alone, it is estimated that recovery would take around 30 years and cost over US $1bn.

A human security approach to break this cycle of poor governance and environmental neglect must address multiple issues. Addressing personal insecurity requires involving communities in security provision. With the help of civil society and international organizations, the government should hold accountable oil companies as well as past military leaders involved in human rights violations. Restoring environmental security requires international legal mechanisms to hold international oil companies accountable for neglect and damage caused. Third party investigations and case-by-case examinations such as in The Hague in January 2013, could build momentum and force oil companies to take seriously environmental concerns. Companies could be charged in international courts, not simply for environmental degradation but also for damage to economic, food and health security. Alleviating economic insecurity requires greater involvement of communities in oil-producing areas. More broadly, the economy needs to be diversified in order to be de-concentrate efforts in oil production. It is also vital to trace the destination of the 250,000 barrels of daily illegally tapped oil, to track complicity.

Safeguarding human security requires the Nigerian state to impartially administer the rule of law by pursuing and prosecuting all cases of crime, including with international assistance where necessary. Designing and implementing a reconciliation plan including all parties could help address tensions and build trust. Furthermore, it could be suggested to install an official truth commission to investigate human rights violations in affected communities. In addition, Nigerian security forces require effective training to handle militancy while ensuring public safety and to defuse tensions. Tactically withdrawing the army and introducing a well trained and equipped police force should be considered alongside reforms to police training, tactics and oversight mechanisms.

In general, such reforms need to be combined with creating alternatives for marginalized groups. Training and empowerment of youths, improvement of regional infrastructure and creation of employment opportunities will be crucial in encouraging militias to disband. Political dialogue aimed at demilitarization on all sides could also help build trust while de-escalating violence. Essentially, such dialogue depends on government recognition that militarisation has not brought about security in order to win back popular recognition by local communities of government as the legitimate political authority.

Virginia Browne, Tessa de Geus, Wendy Gong and Mariko Park are Graduate students taking the Human Security course at the Department of International Development, LSE. This commentary is based on their group project for the course.