West African oil is of increasing strategic importance globally, and Nigeria— the largest producer in the region —is at the centre of this petro-capitalist industry. In this episode of Declarations, Dr Elias Courson is in conversation with Mary-Jean Nleya andL’myah Ross-Walcott. Together, they explore the history and contemporarysignificance of the Niger Delta for Nigerian politics and petro-capitalism.

Elias begins by offering a summary of Nigeria’s long history of resource exploitation, mostly centred on the Niger Delta – the fertile coastal region of land sitting directly on the Gulf of Guinea. For European powers, the Niger Delta was a key site during the slave trade, providing a gateway from West Africa to the Atlantic and onto sugar plantations in the Americas. Palm oil then took the interest of the British colonial administration, going on to become the most consumed edible oil in the world.

Oil was discovered in 1956, and the infrastructure developed by the British colonial administration passed into Nigerian hands with the country’s independence in 1960. Since then, Nigeria’s oil has become the country’s main source of income. It is the key resource in national, regional and international politics. However, the powerful interests involved in Nigeria’s petro-capitalism and its immense profits mean that there is little interest in the needs of Niger Delta peoples and its environment. Whilst Nigeria’s oil economy is run by its independent government, the distance between national elites and Niger Delta populations mean that ‘For us in the Delta, we see an external imposition in the region’.

International oil giants also have a strong interest in the region, with most of the extraction and production of oil taking place through licenses to corporations such as Shell, Texaco and ExxonMobil. The relationship between these corporations and the Delta peoples ‘has been one of conflict’. Through expulsions and massacres the Nigerian state has smoothed the road for extractive industries. Now, with intensified large-scale crude oil thefts, or so-called illegal bunkering, oil companies are increasingly turned to private security firms to guard their profits. However, these forces, supported by the state’s Mobile Police unit, are also repressing local activists and dissenting voices. Elias invokes the memory of Ken Saro-Wiwa, a Nigerian environmental activist, public intellectual and member of the Ogoni people who was assassinated in 1995 for his non-violent resistance to oil extraction in the region. Since Ken’s killing, the exacerbating levels of repression have provoked local groups into adopting alternative means of retaliation.

Focusing on the present-day situation in the Niger Delta, Mary-Jean asks about the environmental destruction involved in hydro-carbon extraction. Amnesty International reports flag the Niger Delta as one of the most polluted areas in the world. For Elias, this is an understatement. The region has now passed from ‘polluted to uninhabitable’. People who live in the Niger Delta are regularly dying of conditions caused by polluted air, water and soil.

L’myah is keen to know what role the Niger Delta played in Nigeria’s elections cycle in early 2019. Elias describes how contemporary political struggles for control over the Nigerian state are really a fight for control over Nigerian oil and so, the Niger Delta. Despite a federal structure, individual states have little control and power at the federal level passes between elite groups. This strong central power means that the Niger Delta populations have little involvement in the decisions being made about the future of the region.

Looking to this future, Elias believes a push for alternative energy sources will be crucial for the Niger Delta. If oil can be unseated as the key source of profit and power, then there will be space for alternative voices in Nigerian politics. Elias also sees an urgent need for dialogue between different groups and interests in Nigeria, and for the state to realise that it cannot respond to civic demands with violence.

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Dr Elias Courson is a lecturerin the Department of Philosophy at Niger Delta University, Nigeria. He hascarried out extensive research on the oil induced crisis in Nigeria’s NigerDelta and is currently part of a research team that received an APNCollaborative Working Group grant in 2017. Dr Courson earned his PhD inGeography from the University of California, Berkeley and is a former postdoctoralfellow at the Centre of African Studies, University of Cambridge.