Introduction

Many studies have interrogated the interactions between global oil actors and civil society, particularly the implications for vulnerable indigenous social groups in oil producing states of the Global South (Ikelegbe, 2001; Butcher, 2013).1Ikelegbe, Augustine. “Civil Society, Oil and Conflict in the Niger Delta Region of Nigeria: Ramifications of Civil Society for a Regional Resource Struggle.” Journal of Modern African Studies, 39, no. 3 (2001): 437-469.; Butcher, Charity. “Can Oil Reliant countries democratize? An Assessment of the Role of Civil Society in Algeria.” Democratization 2, no. 4 (March 2014): 722-742. Some studies on Nigeria’s Niger Delta shows that despite protests by pan-Delta groups such as Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) which existed between 2006-2015, vulnerable ethnic minority groups have continued to suffer the adverse environmental effects of oil production by international oil companies.

Various civil society groups have been actively agitating for control over oil resources in the region. Civil society in this context describes an organization of non-state actors, who are in continuous antagonistic confrontation with the state (Ikelegbe, 2001: 439-440).2Ikelegbe, Augustine. “Civil Society, Oil and Conflict in the Niger Delta Region of Nigeria: Ramifications of Civil Society for a Regional Resource Struggle.” Journal of Modern African Studies, 39, no. 3 (2001): 437-469. They are largely driven by civil and public objectives, defined along the lines of ethnic, gender, and socio-economic variations. While some are small, locally based groups, others are big identity-based groups directly linked to various political, economic, social and cultural interests.

This article focuses on ethnic minority militias who claim to be fighting for the rights of vulnerable groups (Duruji, 2014).3Duruji, Moses Metumara. “Militia Movements in Nigeria.” In Understanding Government and Politics in Nigeria, edited by Rotimi Ajayi and Joseph Olayinka Fashagba, 327-346. Kwara State: Landmark University Press, 2014. Such armed militia groups exercise great influence over political, economic, and national issues, often by protesting against the state and international oil companies who they accuse of exploiting and polluting their lands and waters (Courson, 2009).4Courson, Elias. Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND): Political Marginalization, Repression and Petro insurgency in the Niger Delta. Discussion Paper 47 Uppsala: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, 2009. This article interrogates the activities of MEND. It argues that while MEND’s capacity to disrupt oil production and exports forced government to engage with it, the interests of smaller, non-violent vulnerable groups who live in oil producing communities are largely ignored. As a result, such smaller groups have continued to experience oil pollution, destruction of their fertile farmlands, and the reduction in the production of staple foods. (Babatunde, 2017).5Babatunde, Abosede Omowunmi. “Challenges of Food Security in Nigeria’s Oil Rich Niger Delta Region.” Kujenga Amani, 2017. https://kujenga-amani.ssrc.org/2017/02/03/challenges-to-food-security-in-nigerias-oil-rich-niger-delta-region/. These threaten both the livelihoods and food security of the inhabitants of the region and exacerbate socio-economic inequalities. This article draws attention to the need to critically reexamine and differentiate the types, roles, and impacts of civil society groups operating in the Niger Delta. It also seeks to make a case for a more nuanced understanding and broader representation of vulnerable groups and local communities in the oil region, in the context of civil society engagements with international oil companies.

An overview of MEND and its nature of engagement

Prior to the advent of violent armed militias such as Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), most protest groups in the oil region adopted largely non-violent forms of engagement and protests against pollution caused by the operations of oil companies. Examples of non-violent groups included the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), Urhobo Progress Union (UPU), and the Ijaw Youth Council (IJC), to mention a few. The adoption of violent protest by ethnic militias in the region went beyond reactions to the non-response by the State to non-violent protest, particularly after Nigeria’s return to democratic rule in 1999.

Sofiri Joab-Peterside, Doug Porter, and Michael Watts (2001)6Joab-Peterside, Sofiri, Doug Porter, and Michael Watts. “Rethinking Conflict in the Niger Delta: Understanding Conflict Dynamics, Justice and Security”. Niger Delta Economies of Violence, 2012. Working Paper No. 26. asserts that the state and members of the political class have always had a history of supporting such groups either directly or indirectly. Asuni (2009)7Asuni, Judith Burdin. “Understanding the Armed Groups of the Niger Delta.” Council of Foreign Relations, 2009. Working Paper. maintains that MEND’s operations may have been dependent on the political patronage, and its engagement in criminal activities such as kidnaping, oil bunkering, and arms trafficking. Similarly, Courson (2009:19)8Courson, Elias. Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND): Political Marginalization, Repression and Petro insurgency in the Niger Delta. Discussion Paper 47 Uppsala: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, 2009. maintains that MEND operated without an identifiable clear-cut leadership structure, but adopted a strategy based on targeted attacks on oil infrastructure and passing information to the public through press statements issued by a “faceless” spokesperson, Gbomo Jomo. This ensured that the top hierarchy of the organization was not easily targeted by the government, while attracting wide publicity for its cause. Its structure and strategies invariably meant that MEND’s agitation advanced the interests of its top hierarchy or Niger Delta elites, but excluded smaller, non-violent community-based groups. This situation also contributed towards undermining its relevance to the everyday struggles of the inhabitants of the oil region.

Following the offer of the presidential amnesty in 2009, some of MEND’s commanders were coopted by the ruling elites and offered lucrative oil pipeline surveillance contracts. With this development, they moved away from the creeks to the cities. Their movement to cities further disconnected them from social issues in the rural communities. Those that chose to maintain such links constituted a new local elite that transformed power-relations at the community level, sometimes to the extent of displacing local/traditional rulers.

There is also a perception that some community-based civil society groups were undermined by the fact that some traditional rulers were either appointed by politicians or were local contractors to oil companies. Such traditional rulers were rendered ineffective for civic engagement and mobilization. Under such conditions, the capacity of smaller civil society groups to advance the wellbeing of vulnerable groups continuously deteriorated. They remained largely “invisible” to the state and big oil companies or had limited impact in addressing the challenges faced by their communities.

Civic Engagements in the Niger Delta: Could the Populist Approach be more effective?

The primary goal of MEND, according to its spokesperson, was “to totally destroy the capacity of the Nigerian government to export oil” (Courson, 2009:18).9Courson, Elias. Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND): Political Marginalization, Repression and Petro insurgency in the Niger Delta. Discussion Paper 47 Uppsala: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, 2009. As rightly observed by Obi and Rustad (2011),10Obi, Cyril and Siri Aas Rustard, eds. Oil and Insurgency in the Niger Delta: managing the Complex Politics of Petro-violence. The Nordic Africa Institute. London: Zed Books, 2011. MEND resorted to violence through attacks on oil installations and kidnapping of foreign oil workers as a strategy adopted to draw attention to its cause. However, some evidence suggests a mix of motives, including grievances as well as financial benefits from these activities (Ako, 2011).11Ako, Rhuks. “The Struggle for Resource Control and Violence in the Niger Delta.” In Oil and Insurgency in the Niger Delta: Managing the Complex Politics of Petro-violence, edited by Cyril Obi and Siri Aas Rustad, 42-54. The Nordic Africa Institute. London: Zed Books, 2011.

Thus, in spite of the efforts of big civil society groups such as MEND, evidence from the region indicates that smaller civil society groups representing the vulnerable people living in oil producing communities, remain largely marginalized and disempowered. In light of the foregoing, a populist approach to civic engagement where ordinary people are actually given the platform to initiate, make, and implement policies and decisions (Boeri, Mishra, Papageorgiou, & Spilimbergo, 2018)12Boeri, Tito, Prachi Mishra, Chris Papageorgiou, and Antonio Spilimbergo. “Populism and Civil Society”. International Monetary Fund (IMF), 2018. Working Paper WP/18/245. that concerns their daily existence is long overdue in the Niger Delta. Although it is believed to be in variance with the principles of liberal democracy (Beyme 2019),13Beyme, Klaus Von. “Definitions of Populism and its Stages of Development” In Rightwing Populism: An Element of Neodemocracy, 27-34.  New York: Springer International Publishing, 2019. populism in certain cultural contexts can create an avenue where people can relate to smaller civil society groups in re-shaping programs, policies, and decisions.

References   [ + ]