« The Rights of African Indigenous Peoples » – S. Chu Ilo

« The Rights of African Indigenous Peoples: Lessons from the Struggles of the Ogoni of the Niger Delta »

By: Stan Chu Ilo

Table of contents – Table de matières – Indice – Inhaltsverzeichnis – 指數
English: Minorities – – Italiano: Minoranze
François: Minorités – – Português: Minoridades
Deutsch: Minderheiten – – Español: Minorías – – 中國人: 並通過

1. Introduction 

Scholarly discourse in the social sciences on the rights of the indigenous peoples in Africa is quite recent. Within theological studies and pastoral ministry in Africa, the rights and claims of the indigenous peoples of Africa have not been prominent. For instance, the rights of indigenous peoples were not discussed in the two most important meetings of African bishops, priests and lay members of Christ’s faithful at the African synods (1994 and 2009). 

According to the International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), there are about 50 million indigenous people in Africa. Most of these are nomadic and semi-nomadic pastoralists and hunter/gatherers who “live in situations of marginalization and discrimination.”[1]  Some of the indigenous peoples identified in this report include  the hunter-gatherers like the Pygmies of Central Africa, the San of Southern Africa, the Hadzabe and Akie of Tanzania and the Ogiek, Sengwer, Watta, Yaaku of Kenya; the nomadic or semi-nomadic pastoralists like the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania, the Barabaig of Tanzania, the Endorois, Samburu, Turkana, Rendille, Orma, Borana and Pokot of Kenya, the Karamojong of Uganda, the numerous pastoralist communities in Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia, the Touareg of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, the Fulani in Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and numerous other West African countries, the Mbororo in Cameroon, Chad, the Ogoni in Nigeria and other West African countries, the Toubou in Niger and the Himba in Namibia.[2]

[1] “International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs,” (accessed 10 November 2016). 

[2] Ibid. 

In this essay, I will focus on the Ogoni people of the Niger Delta in Southern Nigeria. I will show how their fight with the Nigerian government and international oil companies reveals some of the main challenges facing indigenous peoples of Africa. I will also show why their fight for ‘resource control’ was successful in generating international attention on how local communities could successfully resist state actors and their international collaborators. Lastly, some lessons from this case study are presented to show how the fight for indigenous rights challenges African theologies today. 

2. The Ogoni Campaign for Eco-Justice and Rights to ‘Resource Control’

Lamenting on the oil exploration in the Niger Delta, an Ogoni royal, Chief Leton says: 

We have woken up to find our lands devastated by agents of death called oil companies. Our atmosphere has been totally polluted, our lands degraded, our waters contaminated, our trees poisoned, so much so that our flora and fauna have virtually disappeared. We are asking for the restoration of our environment, we are asking for the basic necessities of life—water, electricity, education; but above all we are asking for the right to self-determination so that we can be responsible for our resources and our environment.[3]

[3] Cited in Phia Steyn, “Oil, Ethnic Minority Groups and Environmental Struggles Against Multinational Oil Companies and the Federal Government in the Nigerian Delta Since the 1990s” in Marco Armeiro and Lise Sedre, ed. A History of Environmentalism: Local Struggles, Global Histories. (NY: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), 62.

The Niger Delta is the largest wetlands in Africa and one of the largest in the world.  It encompasses over 75,000 square kilometres.[4] According to a special report by the Human Rights Watch, the Niger Delta is a vast flood plains built up by the accumulation of centuries of silt washed down the Niger and the Benue Rivers. It composes of four main ecological zones—coastal barrier islands, mangroves, fresh water swamp forests, and lowland rainforests—whose patterns vary according to seasonal flooding.[5]

[4] Ebiegberi Alagoa,  et al. ed. The Early History of the Niger Delta (Hamburg: Helmut Buske Verlag, 1988), 22.

[5] Human Rights Watch, The price of oil: Corporate responsibility and human rights violations in Nigeria’s oil producing communities (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1999).

The Niger Delta area of Nigeria has been for over two centuries a site for conflict between the minority ethnic groups in this area and foreign and national governments and international business conglomerates. This is because this area is one of the richest parts of Africa in terms of mineral and agricultural resources. This conflict and tension go back to the time of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Before oil was discovered in this area, it had boasted a flourishing trade in palm oil organised through the ‘house system’ of local administration. It was the palm oil trade that brought British merchants to this area and led to the forceful annexation of this territory by the British colonial forces which gave the region the name, Oil Rivers Protectorate.

The agitation for minority right in this area has been as old as the Amalgamation of the Southern and Northern Protectorates of Nigeria in 1914 by the British Empire. This agitation for their rights to resource control, led the British colonial government set up the Willink Commission in 1956 to look into the complaints of the minority ethnic groups in Nigeria especially in the Niger Delta Region. The heart of the matter is self-determination: whether the state or the indigenous communities have rights over the oil wealth in their communities and what percentage of the oil wealth should be given to the local community. The ecological question centered on the prevention of the environment from further degradation, clean-up of oil spillage, and threats to health, etc. The final concern dealt with development of the oil-producing communities themselves and their continuing marginalization in the Nigerian state.

There are many indigenous peoples in the Niger Delta who are opposed to the presence of the oil companies in their land on the basis of their religious conviction that oil exploitation is also inflicting deep wounds to the spirit of the ancestors which inhabit these mangroves and swamps. How the indigenous communities of the Niger Delta fought for their rights offer some lessons on local resistance. It demonstrates that the force of alternate sources of influence and control could emerge when minorities leverage their indigenous approaches to resistance against state or international actors. The Ogoni indigenous people led by Ken Saro-Wiwa, who co-founded and led the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP) became the most visible coordinated resistance against oil exploitation and environmental degradation in the Niger Delta in the 1990s.

Between 1990-1993, the Ogoni, who number about 500,000, mobilized themselves in mass action to successfully resist what the leader of this group Wiwa calls a genocide and ‘the dying soul of Ogoniland’[6] when he said:

 If you take away all the resources of the (Ogoni) people, you take away their land, you pollute their air, you pollute their streams, you make it impossible for them to farm or fish, which is their main source of livelihood, and then what comes out of their soil you take entirely away… if more people in Ogoni are dying than are being born, if Ogoni boys and girls are not going to school… then surely you are leading the tribe to extinction.[7]

Three steps were taken by the Ogoni people in their fight. First, there was a massive education and information campaign on the devastating environmental impact of oil exploration in Ogoniland which had 59 oil wells in its land; the injustice of this condition; and the fact that this condition could never be changed by the Nigerian government or the oil companies who are benefiting from the despoliation and destruction of Ogoniland.

[6] See Eghosa, Osaghae, “The Ogoni uprising: Oil politics, minority agitation and the future of the Nigerian state,”African Affairs94 (376), 325-344. See also Daniel Omoweh, Shell petroleum Development Company, the State and Underdevelopment of Nigeria’s Niger Delta: A Study in Environmental Degradation (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, Inc, 2005).

[7] Ken Saro Wiwa,  Interview with Tell Magazine. Lagos, Nigeria, 1993.

Second, there was a clear definition of the goals and strategies of the movement. It is important to underscore the fact that the leadership of MOSOP adopted a non-violent approach. It was such an irony that this movement’s leader, Saro-Wiwa, was later executed by the state for what many have called a judicial murder. The mission of the group was defined in the 1990 Ogoni Bill of Rights.  It stated clearly that Ogoni are “a separate and distinct ethnic nationality,’ and wanted to participate in the state as a separate entity.[8] This right to self-determination implies other rights: to have the last word on economic resources, to protect and develop their local languages, to adopt traditional spirituality and local knowledge in protecting the environment from further degradation, etc.

[8] Osaghae, “The Ogoni Uprising,” 326.

Third, the movement was built on mass mobilization using the traditional modes of social networking, communal participation, solidarity, collaboration and constant appeals to ethnic identity as tied to survival and the common good.