The Curse of Oil in Ogoniland



"Oil is a curse which means only poverty, hunger, disease and exploitation"

- Emanuel Nnadozie in Oil and Socioeconomic Crisis in Nigeria





            The Nigerian delta has some of the best agricultural land in Africa, as well as vast oil resources.  The area is densely populated by many different tribal groups, including the Ogoni people who have lived there for over 500 years.  Several oil companies, including Shell, set up operations in the 1950s and since then, the land, water, and air have been polluted to such a great extent that the Ogoni people’s livelihood is threatened.

The effect of pollution on the Nigerian delta has been great.  As a result of oil spills and industrial waste dumped into the Niger River Delta, fishing as a means of supplying food for the tribe is no longer an option because very few fish remain in the river.  The groundwater is contaminated and is not safe for drinking, and the rainwater cannot be collected for drinking because it falls as acid rain. Dr. Owens Wiwa, a medical doctor and human rights activist from the area says,We cannot drink the water from the streams, you can't drink rainwater and there is no piped water. Our right to drinking water has been taken away by the company, our right to farming has been taken away by the company, and our right to clean air has also been taken away by the company” (1). Developed countries such as the United Stated require mud from drilling to be enclosed in a containment well or land fill to prevent seepage. However, the Nigerian government permits oil operations to dispose of the drilling waste directly into the river (2).

The air has also been severely polluted. The natural gas that is a byproduct of drilling is flared off horizontally from five flaring stations, some of which are near homes and villages. Flaring is a process in which the gas is collected in batches and then combusted, creating a loud explosion. More dangerous in the long run is the massive amounts of carbon dioxide created by flaring off gas that could be sold or even donated to the local people for a cooking fuel.  Flaring, combined with the methane and soot produced by the two refineries, petrochemical complex, and fertilizer complex that are in Ogoniland produce low air quality linked to cancer, asthma, and other lung diseases.  The flaring has also been associated with reduced crop yield and plant growth on nearby farms (2).

The most immediate threat to Ogoni people is oils spills, which have damaged their land dramatically.  At least one hundred pumping stations and pipelines crisscross Ogoniland (1).  The pipelines run over farm land and through villages; leaks and spills are a common occurrence. From 1970 to 1982, 1,581 oil spill incidences were recorded in the Niger Delta, over 1.5 million gallons of which were a result of Shell’s 27 incidents.  While Shell runs oil operations in over one hundred different countries, 40% of the company’s spills were in Nigeria (3).  What little Shell has done to clean up these spills has been delayed and inadequate.  Blowouts (leaks resulting from cracks in the pipeline have gone for days without attention. 


Shell began drilling for oil in 1958. Ogoniland was not the only area affected by the Nigerian oil rush. The entire coastal region f Nigeria has been drilled for oil. As a result, 90% of Nigerian exports and 80% of government revenue comes from oil (3). In the proceeding thirty years, $30 billion in oil was drawn from Ogoniland. The central government received a portion of the profits, however none of the money ever reached the people of Ogoni. While Ogoniland was rich in fertile soil at the mouth of the Niger River and rested on one of the largest oil reserves in the world, the Ogoni people lived in abject poverty for the 30 years of Shell’s drilling. They had no electricity, no sewer system, and no water filtration. Schools and hospitals were non-existent. Without notice, a construction crew would arrive in the morning and tear up a planted field to run pipe across to continually develop infrastructure to support the drilling.  Flaring stations shot soot into the air from exploding natural gas next to villages that desperately needed energy for electricity and cooking. Oil spills caused massive fish kills, ruined the only potable water supply, and seeped into the fields, shriveling cassava and yams. The socio-economy of the Ogoni was destroyed while the wealth of their land was shipped away.

After more than thirty years of Shell Oil threatening their way of life, the Ogoni people finally organized and began to protest. In 1990 the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP) was formed with poet Ken Saro-Wiwa as president. MOSOP developed an Ogoni Bill of Rights, demanding environmental justice and opposing the method of allocation of oil funds. They also organized a number of peaceful protests.

Due to Saro-Wiwa’s fame, these protests received international media attention. MOSOP claims that, in response, Shell used the Nigerian army to silence the Ogoni people. Shell repeatedly denied contributing financially to any armed forces, but eventually consented that in specific cases they had paid for daily rations of patrolling troops. Whether Shell made a direct contribution to the troops is a trivial point considering the massive amount of money that the oil company was providing the Nigerian government who controlled the soldiers. Both Shell and the Nigerian government had much at stake in keeping the protesters quiet. However, the frustration of the Ogoni people had brought them to a point of no return.

Despite repression and attacks on villages, MOSOP managed to rally over 300,000 Ogoni people to a peaceful protest in January of 1993 (3). Saro-Wiwa was arrested and held without charges. In April, another protest 10,000 people strong came as a response to a new pipeline run through a freshly planted field. By the beginning of May, Shell had decided that the political unrest and bad press was not worth the effort and pulled out of Ogoniland.

Sadly, the story does not end there. The withdrawal of Shell may at first appear to be a victory for the Ogoni. However, all of the pipelines and oil pumps remained and continued to leak and “blow out”. Shell was called in a number of times to make repairs to the pipes, but the company did nothing. The movement was successful in driving out Shell, but it still had not attained any of the goals of the Bill of Rights written by MOSOP. Protests against the government continued and violence erupted between tribes and against the government. Four government officials were killed one night. Though he most likely had nothing to do with the killings, Saro-Wiwa was arrested for the murders and executed along with eight other MOSOP officials in 1995. 


Political boundary of Nigeria

Tribal boundaries in Nigeria


The Nigerian Delta is one of the most densely populated areas in Africa. There are many different tribes in the region, the Ogoni being one of the largest. Approximately 500,000 Ogoni people live in the 404 square miles of Ogoniland where they have been for at least 500 years. ( Still they are a small minority in Nigeria where the total population of 134 million is made up of over 250 ethnic groups ( The Ogoni are a diverse group made up of six kingdoms which speak four main languages. While these languages are related, they are not understood by all kingdoms (

The Ogoni have a close connection to the land and water, both physically and spiritually. The traditional lifestyle of the Ogoni is based on fishing in the river waters and farming yams and cassava on the fertile land of the delta. While the land is perfect for agriculture, the value of the crops is still small and most farming is done for subsistence, not profit. But the land and water are more than a food source for the Ogoni; they are the center of their culture and religion. The Ogoni practice animism and worship the river as a god. The consumption of their land by oil drilling operations and the resulting pollution has forced many Ogoni off of their land. As a result of the forced removal, over 100,000 Ogoni have sought refuge in the neighboring country of Benin

Key Actors

Shell Nigeria is one of the largest producers in the Royal Shell Group, which consists of over 1,700 companies. Shell Nigeria collects 80% of its oil from the Nigerian Delta. They have largely ignored the needs and well being of the Ogoni and other tribes living in the areas where most of there profits come from.

Nigerian Government has been labeled as Shell’s lackey by the international press. This accusation has largely been proven to be true based on the government’s dependence on oil money, which makes up 80% of government income. The government also takes action to attack and repress the peaceful demonstrations of its own citizens against a foreign corporate entity.

Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP) is the strongest force of opposition to Shell and the Nigerian government. While many other NGOs, such as Amnesty International and Greenpeace, have been involved, the efforts of MOSOP drew the attention of these groups and the international press. In being able to rally 300,000 of the half million population of the Ogoni, they are truly the voice of the people. 

Strategies & Solutions

The nature of international environmental justice cases make them difficult to react to. Large corporations like Shell are usually based outside the country affected and the location is often chosen because of either its inability to recognize and prevent environmental destruction or the governments willingness to trade the safety and health of its people for financial opportunity. The Ogoni faced both of these challenges. Fortunately, they had two things in their favor. First, they had strong community ties. In an area where tribal boundaries are well defined if not well represented by geopolitical borders, the 500,000 Ogoni lived in a relatively small area. While it took over 30 years for the tribe to recognize the environmental and socio-economic effects of oil production and refining, they were able to organize a large portion of the population (60% of the Ogoni participated in the largest demonstration). Secondly, an internationally known figure, Ken Saro-Wawi, was willing to head up the effort. Saro-Wawi used his international stature to attract media attention to the plight of the Ogoni and travel to inform the world of the efforts of MOSOP in fighting the destruction of Ogoniland by Shell. Sadly, he eventually gave his life fighting for the rights of the Ogoni.

MOSOP organized the people for non-violent protests on numerous occasions and brought the complaints to the Nigerian government, which eventually resulted in the withdrawal of Shell from Ogoniland. They made their complaints and concerns clear through the Ogoni Bill of Rights, which help the rest of the world understand and sympathize with their dilemma. Through these efforts they were able to gain the support of large international organizations like Greenpeace and Amnesty International who in turn staged protests against Shell in cities around the world.

However, while Shell’s withdrawal shows the power of massive peaceful protest, this victory did not achieve the goals MOSOP had hoped for. Today, oil continues to spill onto farmland, and the river and drinking water are still polluted. In September 2003 yet another pipeline ruptured, spilling oil onto farmland and into a stream which then caught fire. Shell had trouble reaching the site to do repairs because of angry youths chasing them away. A spokesman for Shell blames this latest “blow out” on vandalism by locals.

Shell’s departure also did not reduce the violence against the Ogoni. In fact, attacks on the village have increased since Shell left. Perhaps in an effort to prove their ability to control the population and prevent more demonstrations against remaining oil operations, the Nigerian police force has continued to raid villages, killing and raping villagers, and arrest protesters without pressing charges. 2000 Ogoni have been killed and thousands more fled the state. The Ogoni came into conflict with neighboring tribes in the time after Shell’s withdrawal. Though it was labeled an “ethnic conflict” by government authorities, the sophisticated weaponry used by other tribes indicates that the government most likely played some role in these battles.

It is likely that the event that most benefited the Ogoni was the election of 1996. The Ogoni claim that they were prevented from running for local government seats. As a result, the Ogoni refused to participate in the election. In spite of their frustrations with the electoral process, the resulting elected Obasanjo party has been committed to democracy, human rights, and good governance. In 2001 MOSOP was invited to a human rights investigation of the Nigerian military. While the military adamantly denies any role in murder and rape in the villages or instigation in tribal conflict, the fact that these investigations are taking place at all and that MOSOP is recognized by the government and invited to participate are good signs. 


The Ogoni have, against seemingly all odds, done an amazing job of organizing the majority of their population to demonstrate as well as increase awareness of their plight internationally. Forcing a giant corporation such as Shell into retreat shows the great power of a united front. However, as discussed above, Shell’s departure did not solve the problems of the Ogoni. The environmental destruction still remains and continues. Furthermore, Shell has been working with the Nigerian government and has returned to the delta region in hopes of restarting and increasing operations. With a government more committed to democracy, it is a good time for the Ogoni to pursue legitimate political channels and possibly seek elected local positions. Now that they have shown their commitment and the support they can generate, the government may be more willing to contribute the income from oil on the local people.

It would be of great benefit for the Ogoni and all other tribes in the delta region to find ways to work together. The history of conflict and tension between tribes gives the central government an excuse to use heavy-handed tactics and ignore the needs of the people. The Ogoni proved capable of uniting a large group of people and it would be to their benefit to expand that unity to other tribes.

Finally, Shell has shown some willingness to aid development in the area. Though they have broken such promises numerous times in the past, it would be a huge step forward for the Ogoni to work out some sort form of agreement with the oil companies. As the world’s oil reserves are depleted, demand for Nigerian oil will only increase. The oil companies will find a way to reach the oil and the existing infrastructure in Ogoniland makes that area even more lucrative. Ogoni people are still furious with Shell and have been accused of vandalizing the pipeline and chasing away workers who come to make repairs. Perhaps the most promising recommendation is that the Ogoni need to work with the oil companies to allow oil drilling in a way that does not destroy their environment and livelihood, and require the Nigerian government to adequately regulate the operations.