Nigeria: Oil and Dictatorship

Oil-rich countries are much less likely to be democratic than oil-less countries

By John Bacher | 1998-09-01 12:00:00

The current democratic upheavals in Indonesia and Nigeria both show the strengths and weaknesses of petroleum-financed dictatorships at a time of collapsing oil prices. Oil has helped despots cling to power despite strong democratic movements. Yet the strength of medium-sized petro-dictatorships is fading. In a previous article (Peace Magazine, May-June 1998) I described the world-wide connection between oil wealth and dictatorship. Here, I want to show this connection as it pertains to Nigeria, a ruthless dictatorship which receives 90 percent of its foreign exchange and 75 percent of its national budget from the sale of oil. The companies critical to the dictatorship's survival include Shell, the American Chevron Corporation, the Italian Agip, and the French Elf.

Nigeria has experienced democracy in only ten of its 37 years of independence from British rule. Freely-elected governments, best described as semi-democracies, ruled the country from 1960-1966 and 1979-1983. The other years have been a series of military dictatorships.

The Nigerian populace exhibits some strengths of democratic political culture. A strong civil society blesses Nigeria with committed democrats among journalists, teachers, church leaders, and the country's heavily persecuted trade union, environmental, and student movements. Yet, as in communist China, many people in Nigeria died pursuing democratic ideals.


Any movement toward a democratic political culture in Nigeria has faced challenges that were a direct result of the poisonous power of oil. Although oil income during the last years of British rule remained marginal, on the eve of independence in 1960 the prospects for control over petroleum wealth served to exacerbate conflicts among the country's political elite.1

Arguments over the distribution of oil wealth only increased after independence. These arguments precipitated the end of civilian rule in 1966 and that descent into civil war in 1967 and 1968, following the failed secession of Biafra. The Biafran Civil War, contested largely by Ibo secessionists and Nigerian federalists, was one of the bloodiest disputes over the control of oil revenues experienced in human history. Sources estimate two to three million casualties -- mainly civilian deaths -- resulting from disease and starvation created by the conditions of war.

The beginnings can be traced to the first years of Nigerian independence in the 1960s, when the increasing flow of oil wealth prompted Nigeria's northern political elite to demand a reversal in the manner of calculating federal payments to state governments. This formula had been established when Nigeria's economy was dominated largely by agricultural products, such as peanut oil.

The final break between Nigeria and the province which became Biafra in 1967 erupted from a dispute over the sharing of oil revenues. The southeastern and predominantly Christian and Ibo province tried to cut off oil revenues to the rest of Nigeria. The federal government's response was to divide the rebellious state into small administrative units. This was done with the backing of many small southern minorities, such as the Ogoni, one of Nigeria's approximately 250 linguistic minorities, who did not benefit locally from petroleum revenues dominated by the regional Ibo majority.2

Conflicts over oil revenues provoked the dispute and the battles were fought over control of oil fields, pipelines, refineries, and ports. Petroleum installations were often deliberately targeted in the fighting. Critical oil-flow stations were bombed and set aflame three times during the fighting, forcing widespread evacuations after explosions caused distant buildings to shake.3 Casualties were heaviest in the oil-producing districts, such as Ogoniland. Ten percent of the Ogoni people were killed in their Niger delta homeland where federalist forces clashed with Ibo-Biafran secessionists.4

Although a flood of oil revenues helped provide the basis for national reconciliation following peace in 1968, the benefit soon brought headaches. A sudden influx of petroleum wealth resulted in corruption and inequitable economic development. Nigeria's oil windfall was wasted on ill-considered schemes for giant industrialization projects based on heavily-subsidized steel and automobile industries. Neglected were the majority of the population -small scale farmers who produced both subsistence and export crops, which until 1969 were Nigeria's most important source of foreign exchange.


During the oil boom, Nigeria's small family farms became marginalized. Women and children largely ran the farms as men sought work in the cities' industrial-development schemes, which were heavily subsidized by petroleum wealth. During the decade of the 1970s, Nigeria's leading cities tripled in size, causing massive land speculation, unsanitary settlements, and escalating housing prices. A 700 percent explosion in car ownership in cities such as Kano resulted in traffic chaos. Automobile ownership, along with frequent jet trips for the favored elite, became the symbols of income inequality.

Agricultural investments made by Nigeria's oil dictatorship were ill-considered. State investment in agriculture did not go to small family farms but rather to oil-subsidized, mechanized state farms, including the National Livestock Production Company, the National Grains Production Company and the National Rootcrop Production Company -- all of which proved wasted and efficient.5 Irrigation schemes with harmful-environmental impacts provoked widespread peasant revolts and ruthless repression. Considerable revenues also were wasted in the construction of money-losing, Soviet-designed steel mills. These were developed to facilitate another failed development scheme -- an African car industry. In 1975 the production of Volkswagens began in Lagos. Until the 1983 oil bust, this "car of the masses" proliferated in Lagos, though the small Nigerian elite preferred smuggled Mercedes-Benz products.6

The steel and automotive industries of Nigeria are only possible through massive subsidies obtained from petroleum wealth. Since the country lacks sufficiently high-grade coal and iron ore, its steel industry relies on imports, making Nigerian steel twice the world price. Investing large sums of money in failing factories has prevented Nigeria from investing surpluses in profitable foreign securities, a tactic other oil-rich states use successfully. 7


Corruption eroded any beneficial impacts of oil wealth. Many construction projects, financed by the oil boom, were ruined through the use of inferior cement. Buildings would collapse and roads would wash away because of the use of poor products. In the army and police forces, corruption encouraged a crime wave. Scandals hit the nation over the importation of pharmaceutical drugs with long-past expiration dates.

In 1979, public protests facilitated the restoration of democratic and civilian rule, ushering in a period described as Nigeria's "Second Republic." Unfortunately, the Second Republic, which saw the restoration and demise of democracy in Nigeria, coincided with a period of "boom and bust" in world oil production and prices under the OPEC Cartel. \Then the oil bubble burst, the discredited and frequently corrupt democratic politicians in Nigeria faced many obstacles in imposing the national sacrifices demanded by the sudden drop in petroleum revenues.

In any country dependent on oil revenues, an oil bust is a poor situation in which to consolidate democracy. Especially in Nigeria, lacking was the development of stabilizing programs such as aid and land reform for small farmers; public health; and social welfare. Nigeria's population had a lower per capita income in 1983 than at the start of the OPEC-induced oil price windfall a decade earlier. The oil bust only exacerbated the civil war.


Conflicts over oil enlarged tensions between the predominantly Muslim north and Christian south. Muslim fundamentalism began as a political force in 1977 near the start of the country's second period of democratic rule. As in Middle Eastern Arab or Islamic majority dictatorships, Nigerian movements hardly tried to make democracy work. Rather, a separatist movement in the dominant Hausa homeland of Kano was fostered. Many of the positive social justice teachings of Maitatsine, the Nigerian Islamic fundamentalist prophet, were similar to the reformist, environmentally-oriented ideologies of Catholic base communities in Latin America and the Gandhian movement in India. Maitatsine stressed a life of voluntary simplicity, encouraging followers to undertake gardening for food self-sufficiency in rapidly growing Kano. The movement also challenged the prevailing brutality of the police and military.

Unlike Gandhians, however, Maitatsine's followers did not select technologies on the basis of environmental impact. Bicycles were condemned because they were not mentioned in the Koran. Yet lack of scriptural blessing did not lead to a condemnation of contemporary weapons.

Emulating Iran's movement, fundamentalism in Nigeria as prescribed by Maitatsine suffered, as well as did freedom, from this hatred of bicycles and blessing of guns. While the West's imperialism was denounced, its weapons were not.

Many of Maitatsine's reformist and democracy- building prescriptions for Nigeria's poor were overwhelmed by authoritarianism and fundamentalism. Nigeria's Islamic fundamentalism, despite its local roots, was greatly influenced by the examples of other oil-rich Islamic states. Muslim organizations during the Second Republic, especially those of students, were frequently divided into Saudi Arabian and Iranian factions. The Iranian revolution in particular provided a tragic example that encouraged the Nigerian movement, at the end of military rule in 1979, to attempt an armed overthrow of its secular state rather than try to make democracy work.

Maitatsine's failed armed revolt in the ancient city of Kano resulted in about 5,00() deaths and 15,000 injuries and forced 100,000 people to be homeless. Maitatsine was killed and almost 1,000 of his supporters were imprisoned. Nevertheless, Islamic fundamentalism continued to disrupt democracy in Nigeria until it was overthrown by a military coup in 1983.


In Nigeria, as with democratic movements elsewhere, freedom and environmental protection have been linked. Nigeria's execution of the environmentalist and democratic statesman Ken Saro-Wiwa symbolizes this union and nothing has united the world's ecology and human-rights movements more than his execution at the hands of the Nigerian government. Protests facilitated Greenpeace, Amnesty International, the Sierra Club, and Human Rights Watch to counter paid advertisements by the Nigerian government in the U.S. press. A fund was set up by the Goldman Foundation in Saro-Wiwa's name to protect other persecuted-environmental activists around the world.

Saro-Wiwa's protests emerged from some of the worst environmental devastation by petroleum in the world. In the Niger Delta, unlined toxic waste pits caused contaminants to seep into drinking water, also driving fish away. Acid rain has destroyed much of the fertility of farmland. Nigeria also is one of the world's leaders in greenhouse gas emissions of carbon dioxide and methane.

Much of Nigeria's natural gas is burnt off through gas flaring in violation of the country's environmental laws, which require gas, if unused, to be re-injected into the ground. The flaring of gas, which takes place daily, is so bright that some children in the Delta say they have never experienced a dark evening. The noise from the flaring contributes to hearing loss, destruction of plant life, and deposition of soot on homes.

Oil pollution is forcing the death of the Niger Delta's mangrove wetlands. Mangrove vegetation is being replaced by exotic palm trees, useless for the native fish and wildlife, which are vanishing.

Saro-Wiwa's Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) closely allied itself to Nigeria's-democratic opposition. In 1993 the organization staged the world's largest environmental rally, which involved 300,000 people, wearing green twigs as garlands, marching to symbolize their environmental struggle. Among MOSOP's demands was the burying of exposed pipelines and an end to gas flaring.


When the Nigerian military nullified the election of Mashood Abiola in November 1995, the military dictatorship of General Ibrahim Babangida withdrew all Ogoni police from their homeland, replacing them with officials from other districts. Nigerian soldiers destroyed 27 Ogoni villages, murdering 2,000 and leaving 30,000 homeless.

This incident resulted in the arrest of Saro-Wiwa and seven other MOSOP leaders, who were subsequently executed. Investigative reporters forced Shell to admit that the company imported guns used by soldiers in the military coup d'etat, underwrote the costs of the operation, and paid salary bonuses.

In April 1996, the United Nations sent a special mission to Nigeria to investigate the execution of MOSOP's leadership. Nigerian officials responded by arresting 18 surviving MOSOP leaders, preventing them from meeting the U.N. mission. They have remained in prison for three years.

Although a few nations, including Canada, have applied sanctions against Nigeria, the limited response of the international community to the continued terror and dictatorship in Nigeria underscores the power of oil. Until the death of K.O. Abiola and the subsequent violence that ensued, the country's repression and well-documented human rights abuses have been sorely absent from much of the world's media, which are largely controlled by oil-consuming states. International attention focused on the possible use of toxins in the death of Abiola, ignoring the broader reality that Nigerian prison life is always dangerous. Another important potential leader for a democratic Nigeria, former Nigerian Vice President Musa Var'Adu, died in prison in December 1997 of unknown causes. Some 10,000 prisoners died in detention from 1990 to 1995, largely because of unhealthy jail conditions. Chris Anyanwu, a journalist convicted of treason in a 1995 show trial, is seriously ill in prison in the northern city of Kaduna.

Yet the situation in Nigeria is not hopeless. Since the end of genocide in Rwanda and Burundi, United Nations and OAU interventions, for all their considerable failures, have kept current levels of conflict in Africa at a low level of intensity. Moreover, Nigeria's heroic democratic movement has been able to sustain the flame of freedom in the difficult circumstances of an oil-rich state. Aiding the country's embattled democratic movement are the current low prices of world oil, which erodes the ability of autocratic elites to cling to power by manipulating petroleum wealth. The United Action for Democracy, as its name suggests, brings together Nigerians from diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds to champion the cause of freedom, despite the military's attempts to manipulate ancient hatreds and divisions. Pirate radio stations have also been able to broadcast into Nigeria sporadically. Freedom may well be at hand.

John Bacher is an environmentalist and peace researcher in St. Catharines.


1 Helen Chapin Metz editor, Nigeria: A Country Study, Washington: Library of Congress, 1991, p.46.

2 Michael Witts, "Black Gold, White Heat: State violence, local resistance and the national question," in Steve Pile and Michael Keith, ed. Geographies of Resistance. London: Routledge, 1997), p.41.

3 Ken Saro-Wiwa, Genocide in Nigeria, (London: Soros International, 1991), p.58.

4 Aaron Sachs, "Dying for Oil," World Watch, May/June, 1996, p. 120.

5 Alan Gleb, Oil Windfalls Ble sing or Curse? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), p.245.

6 Jonathan Mantle, Car Wars )New York: Arcade Publishing, 1995), pp 92,203.

7 Sarah Ahmad Khan, Nigeria: The Political Economy of Oil, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994, pp. 190-200.

Peace Magazine Sept-Oct 1998

Peace Magazine Sept-Oct 1998, page 12. Some rights reserved.

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