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Assessment for Ogani in Nigeria

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Ogani in Nigeria, 31 December 2003, available at: [accessed 30 November 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
Nigeria Facts
Area:    923,768 sq. km.
Capital:    Abuja
Total Population:    110,530,000 (source: unknown, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

The Ogoni have some of the risk factors associated with rebellion: a history of protest, group concentration and government repression. Nonetheless, they do not have a history of rebellion. Given that the group is very small and that the current government has taken some, labeling limited steps to address their concerns, it is unlikely that militant activity will occur in the near future. The group does however have a long history of protest against the Nigerian government and oil companies. Factors encouraging protest include a history of protest, government repression and economic grievances.

Analytic Summary

The Ogoni of Nigeria are a small ethnic group, comprising less than 1% of the total population of the country. They belong to the Ibibio, or Semi-Bantu, linguistic group, which comprises only 6% of Nigeria's population . The Ogoni have their own beliefs and religion. They are also identifiable as a group due to the physical characteristics. As a result of their small size, a history of poor relations with the Nigerian government and group concentration in a volatile area, the Ogoni are an organized and cohesive group.

The group has received much attention in recent years because of their struggle for compensation from Shell Oil and the Nigerian government for damage to their lands caused by the oil industry. Nigeria's oil industry accounts for 90% of its export earning, and even the smallest disruption has been threatening to the government. They are located in the Niger Delta, in the far south of the country, and they have not moved very far from their traditional territory . The Ogoni had autonomy over their territory until 1914, when Britain consolidated the area. Since that point, the other larger ethnic groups in the country have dominated them, due to their small numbers. The British practiced indirect rule in Nigeria as they had in much of the rest of their colonial states. However, for various reasons, the British favored the Ibo, and this favoritism led to further conflict with other groups when the Ibo were placed in authority positions in the north and southwest. As the press for independence intensified, the Ibo came to support the National Council for Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), led by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. The Yoruba mainly supported the Action Group (AG), and the Hausa/Fulani supported the Northern People's Congress (NPC). The NCNC and NPC formed a coalition that led the country to independence in 1960. The AG was largely marginalized from the federal government during the early years of independence, which led to a renewal of Yoruba factionalism. In January 1966, an Ibo-lead coup took control of the government.

In 1967, disputes between the eastern Ibo region and the government led to a declaration of secession by the eastern region. The independent state of Biafra was declared on 30 May 1967. Led by Lt-Col Ojukwu, the Biafra war lasted until January 1970, when Biafran troops surrendered. It is estimated that 100,000 casualties resulted from the war itself, and that an additional 500,000-2,000,000 civilians died, mainly from starvation, as a result of a blockade by the federal government.

Following the Biafra war, civilian rule was restored for a brief time in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Power became more and more entrenched in the hands of northerners during the 1980s and 1990s. On 31 December 1983, Muhammad Buhari led a military coup and banned all political activity in the country. The new military government was popular with northern Muslims. In August 1985, Ibrahim Babangida took power in a peaceful coup. During the 1980s, religious overtones became more and more important in the rivalries between the Hausa/Fulani and Yoruba and Ibo.

By 1987, Babangida announced that he was preparing to turn the government back to civilian rule. During the preceding two years, unrest was growing between Muslims and Christians, and there were sporadic outbreaks of violence. In June 1993, presidential elections were held in the country. Two parties were allowed to contest the elections: the National Republican Convention (NRC) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP). The former was led by a northerner Alhaji Bashir Othman Tofa, an economist and businessman. The latter drew large support from the Yoruba community and was led by a prominent Yoruba businessman, Moshood Abiola. Voter turnout was reportedly low, but the elections were thought to be free and fair. When it became apparent that Moshood Abiola, a prominent Yoruba businessman from the south, was going to be the victor, Babangida declared the elections null and void. Abiola declared himself president, but later fled the country in the wake of death threats against him. Violent protests and strikes took place over the next two years in an attempt to return Abiola to power. He eventually returned to the country and was subsequently arrested on charges of sedition. Nigeria plunged into its worst crisis since the Biafra war from 1967-70. Babangida resigned in August 1993. The government was taken over by an interim council, but the real power was in the hands of General Sani Abacha, then secretary of defense. He led a very oppressive regime under which thousands were jailed and countless numbers killed, particularly in the Niger Delta.

In the early 1990s, militant activism in the Niger Delta region had emerged as the main strategy in the struggle of the people for a greater share of oil-generated wealth. The Niger Delta region consists of a number of administrative states, including Rivers, Delta, and Bayelsa, and is characterized by numerous waterways and mangrove swamps. Until 1993, the Ogoni were politically inactive. Their campaign against Shell oil and the Nigerian government began in June 1993, when thousands of Ogoni held a peaceful protest. Shell shut down some of their operations in the area as a result of continued protests by the Ogoni.

In 1994, four pro-government Ogoni were killed in political violence connected to the national constitutional conference elections. Author and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other leaders of the Ogoni-based Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) were arrested in connection with the deaths. Saro-Wiwa and the others were tried for murder. In an extremely controversial and widely criticized move, they were subsequently executed.

Beginning in 1996, the government of Sani Abacha began to divide Nigerian administrative states into smaller units, and move the headquarters of some administrative units to different cities. These moves led to a rise in conflict between the communities of the Delta region who, already concerned about the lack of development of their communities, felt that the loss of local government offices would give them even less access to resources than they already had. Those in the Delta region have continued to the present because the issue has yet to be resolved. Groups involved in ethnic conflict in the Delta region include the Ijaw, the Urhobo (who are sometimes allies of the Ijaw), and the Isoko.

As noted earlier, the Niger Delta is also the home of the vast majority of Nigeria's oil wells, and for 30 years, multi-national oil corporations (MNCs) have been extracting oil from the country. The groups in the region have long alleged that the wealth of the region has led only to problems for them as the oil companies pollute their land and waterways, and the government does not return enough of the oil revenues to the region either to clean up the damage of the oil companies or to promote development in general.

Sani Abacha died in June 1998. Within a month of taking power, the new military leader, Abdusalam Abubakar, released some political prisoners, held talks with opposition groups, and announced that general, multi-party elections would be held in order for a civilian president to take over. As of 1999, Nigeria was under civilian rule for only 14 years. Presidential elections were held in March 1999 in which former military leader and Yoruban Olusegun Obasanjo was declared the victor. The Ibo boycotted the legislative elections in February 1999 and urged their kin to vote against Obasanjo in the presidential elections, claiming that he could not represent Ibo interests. Shortly after the election, he set up a panel to investigate the abuses of the previous 15 years of military regimes. In the Delta region and the Muslim north, thousands were killed in communal conflict or anti-state activity during the 1990s.

One paradox in the Delta region is that the ethnic groups of the region are often in conflict with one another over resources and government access, yet are also allied against the government and the oil companies in the Delta in various organizations. These include the Chikoko Movement, comprised of Ijaw, Itsekiri, Ogoni, Andoni, and Ilage, and the Odua' People's Congress, a national self-determination movement advocating greater federalism. Beginning in 1997, these organizations were very active in pressuring the government for a greater share of oil revenues, and for greater political and economic control over their land. They are often militant, seizing oil installations and kidnapping oil workers. Their actions against the state itself are rarely violent, though their members are often involved in violence against rival ethnic groups.

The Ogoni are confronted with both demographic and ecological disadvantages. Compared to the majority of Nigerians, they suffer worse and continually declining health conditions, have a lower life expectancy, and face environmental problems due to the high levels of pollution in the Niger Delta. Due to the repressive actions taken by the Nigerian government in the past and present, many Ogoni have left the region entirely. Many of the restrictions that the Ogoni faced have been removed since the elections of 1999 and international awareness of their plight. Nonetheless, the group is still excluded by the majority of the country in political matters due to historical neglect, and no current policies are in effect to remedy the situation (POLDIS01-03 = 2).

The group has faced severe repression by the government both before and after the transition to democracy in 1999. In 1999 there were killings by the government in the Niger Delta, torture was used against the group, and there was a saturation of military presence. The Nigerian military effectively sealed off the area to outsiders after the Ogoni became vocal in their demands, and Ogoniland became a militarized region. In 2000 an Ogoni leader's house was destroyed and he was arrested. As of the end of 1999, at least 2,000 Ogoni had been killed since their peaceful protests against Shell Oil began. In the period 2001-2003, the level of repression against the group seemed to have decreased, although some arrests and high degree of military and police presence continued.

The group has managed to avoid conflict with other ethnic groups in the region recently, since it appears that most of the groups in the region have common enemies in the large oil companies in the Delta, and the government. This has not always been the case for during the early 1990s there was communal conflict between the Ogoni and Andoni, another small ethnic group in the south.

The main group representing the Ogoni is the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), which had been led by Ken Saro-Wiwa before his execution. The group has consistently accused Shell of causing major environmental damage to the area. Shell denies the problem is as big as the Ogoni claim, but independent environmental assessments of the area before it was closed to outsiders in 1993 support the Ogoni claim of extensive environmental damage. Some of the damage includes leaking pipelines, polluted water, oil in villagers' fields, air pollution, flooding resulting from the building of canals for the oil industry and disruptions of fresh water supplies. The Nigerian government has long refused to negotiate with MOSOP, claiming it was not a legitimate organization. Further, the oil companies of the region appeared at times to be in complicity with the government, possibly even involved in some of the violence against the Ogoni people. The group also relies on support from exiled Ogoni in other areas of the world, such as Canada. Additionally, there are many non-governmental organizations which work to promote the condition of the group and provide information on their campaign against Shell.

Until 1993, the Ogoni were politically inactive. Their campaign against Shell oil and the Nigerian government began in June 1993 when thousands of Ogoni held a peaceful protest. These protests have continued through to the year 2003 (PROT01 = 3, PROT02-03 = 2). The group has managed to always keep their protest activities peaceful and have never reverted to militant strategies to protest their situation.

There are some political restrictions on the MOSOP's activities; however, there has been a increase in the number of conventional political parties representing the group. The Ogoni continues to face significant economic (ECDIS01-03 = 4) and political disadvantages due to their historical marginalization. While there were no intergroup conflicts in their period, there were a few instances of intragroup fighting over leadership and land ownership issues. The group main demands continue to be the ones that have had historical importance for the Ogoni: limited autonomy, political rights, and funds for group development and compensation from the government and Shell for land use and pollution.


Africa South of the Sahara. 1995. Published by Europa.

Lexis/Nexis. 1990-2003. Reports from various news services including BBC, Reuters, Inter Press Service, Africa News Service, Xinhua News Service.

Nigeria, A Country Study. 1992. Helen Chapin Metz (Ed.). Library of Congress.

Human Rights Watch, various reports. 2001-2003.

U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. 2001-2003.

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