Let us Talk about Young Men and their Participation in the Niger Delta Violence
Pollution in the Niger Delta (courtesy: Stakeholder Development Network SDN)
Written by Dr Modesta Alozie
Anjo limped as he walks towards me for an interview, I wondered what had happened to his leg. He had been shot in 2003 in Bayelsa during a violent clash between the military and the local youths, many of whom were men. For months, local youths sabotaged oil pipelines in the region and kidnapped oil company staff for ransom, which led the federal government to send in the military to repress dissidents. Although the National Youth Policy (2019) says the age range of youth in Nigeria as 18-29 years, it is not unusual in the Niger delta to find people as old as 45 years old identify as youths. This is because youth, in this context, is mainly a site of marginalisation and contestation rather than an age category.
The violence was not only happening in Bayelsa but across the other eight states of the Niger delta where Nigeria’s oil production takes place, with a huge consequence for the development of the region. Thousands of people have died and thousands have been displaced. Properties have been destroyed, and between 2007-2008, Nigeria’s oil production decreased by 40%. In a country where 88% of the government earning comes from oil, the economic effect of this violence cannot be understated. Peace was eventually restored in 2009 after the government introduced the Amnesty Programme which promised monthly stipends to the youths if they dropped their arms. But sporadic violence still occurs.
Because Nigeria is Africa’s biggest oil exporter, the violence in the Niger delta has huge implications for global oil supply. As such, there is serious interest from academics as well as the media to explain this violence. Economists like Paul Collier tell us that what fuels this violence is greed by young men, and in the media, these young men have been labelled as criminals. Blaming young men for this violence leads to the stigmatisation of young people in the society and obscures the role of the state as well as the oil companies in creating the inequalities that fuel this violence in the first place.
In my doctoral research, I sought to explain this violence from the perspectives of these young men. I spoke with these young men and observed their social environment to understand how their identity as men influence their violent behaviour. Many of the youths I spoke to blame the government and the oil companies, who are in a joint business arrangement with the federal government, for this violence. When Nigeria’s oil revenue surged in the 1970s, the federal government introduced new economic and political structures to monopolise control over oil proceeds. First, a Federation Account was created into which all oil revenues are channelled to be shared subsequently across all the states in the country. Then, the Derivation Principle which regulates the proportion of internally generated revenue to be retained by any state was slashed from 50% to 3% in the 1980s. At the moment, the oil communities retain 13% of the oil profits generated within their region as specified by the Derivation Principle and population size is considered the most important criteria for sharing the revenue collected by the federal government. As such, the majority ethnic groups, especially the Hausa Northerners, have received the largest chunk of the oil proceeds due to their large number. The oil communities see this as distributive injustice. There is a perception amongst the oil communities that their ethnic minority status makes it difficult for them to negotiate a better revenue-sharing arrangement at the federal government level.
Corrupt practices by local politicians and harmful corporate practices by the oil companies further compound the problems of the oil communities. A large chunk of the funds which could have been invested in development projects, such as employment creation is diverted into private pockets, and so the level of unemployment in the region is very high. For decades, oil spills have occurred frequently in the Niger delta often without remediation and compensation to the oil communities. Between 1976-2001, 7000 oil spill incidents occurred in the Niger delta and every year, 240,000 barrels of oil are spilt in the Niger region. This is the highest rate of oil spills recorded anywhere in the world leading the BBC to name the Niger delta ‘the world oil pollution capital’.
Oil spills in the Niger delta occur mainly from operational failures or pipeline vandalisation by youths. By law, the local communities are supposed to be compensated by the oil firms when an oil spill happens due to operational failures. However, compensation rarely happens because the Joint Investigation process (JIV) which is used to determine the cause of an oil spill is seriously flawed. The oil companies provide the equipment and finances required for the JIV, which leaves little room for accountability and transparency in the process. As such, the oil communities believe that most oil spill data from the JIV is unreliable.
In many instances when local residents have gone to the court to challenge the outcome of the JIV, they have been unsuccessful, although a recent court case in which four local farmers won an oil spill case against Shell in a Dutch court brings some glimmer of hope. Because rural livelihood in the Niger Delta is predominantly fishing and farming, local people have watched their future drain away with oil and concern for health continues to rise. It is within this context of exclusion and pollution that young men like Anjo are challenging the oil companies and the institutional structures which they believe do not serve them.
My research found that while women also experience the economic exclusion resulting from oil exploration, men are disproportionately affected by the social consequences of this economic exclusion. Also, some traditional ideas of manhood encourage violent behaviour amongst Ijaw men. Egbesu, the Ijaw god of war commands young men to rise as men and protect their communities against any external danger and injustice. This cultural context normalises violence to a certain extent and many young men who are socialised in this context see the enactment violence as merely a habitualised way of being a male member of the Ijaw community.
Young men in the Niger Delta are expected to provide for their households as well as to marry, but in the Niger Delta, marriage is a long and elaborate process requiring large sums of cash. Without getting married, many young men remain in limbo as junior men and they are not able to participate meaningfully in local community life. Many young men I spoke to saw marriage and the provider role as essential to who they are as men. They explain how unemployment undermines their ability to perform these roles as well as how violence enables them to meet these social roles.
During my interview with Anjo, he explained that before joining violent militancy, he had no money to pay his children’s school fees and to feed his family as a man, which led to regular insults from his wife. After joining one of the well-known militant gangs in the region, Anjo’s economic situation improved significantly. He and his peers were paid hugely by the oil companies to protect oil territories. Consequently, Anjo received enough money to provide for both his immediate as well as extended family.
Many Ijaw men I spoke to justified violence as a normal way of being a good man in the Ijaw community and in a context characterised by injustice. The dependence on Ijaw men’s strength for community protection shifts the responsibility of resistance against military repression and exclusion on young men, who then use violence to resist an equally violent state.
While many unemployed men struggled to become providers and to marry, I observed in the night clubs and in wedding ceremonies that violent men lived a different life. In the clubs, women wanted them for their cash, and in the wedding ceremonies they were invited as ‘Chairmen’, an honourable Nigerian title almost exclusively reserved for older rich men. In this context of exclusion, violence offered young men an opportunity to insert themselves into the mainstream social and economic life, albeit through the back door.
Since young men are the main perpetrators and victims of this violence, addressing this violence and achieving inclusive development in the Niger delta requires that intervention strategies meet the diverse needs of young men (and women) many of whom live at the margins of the oil communities. Finally, it is time to move towards a society where men are humanised and manhood is not linked with violence.
Dr Modesta Alozie is the Lead Research Fellow on the Data and Displacement Project at the Department of Politics and International Relations University of Warwick, UK. She holds a PhD in Development Planning from University College London. Before joining Warwick, Modesta worked as a research consultant at the Urban Institute University of Sheffield in the LO-ACT low carbon project. Her research has focused on climate change and analysing the complex impacts of oil extraction in Nigeria from an intersectional perspective. Recently, her research has expanded geographically beyond Nigeria to include South Sudan focusing on the experiences of internally displaced people in these two contexts.