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Niger Delta Fund Initiative: Political definition of N-Delta

Monday, September 15, 2003

 The Niger Delta is home to more than 10 million people. Major states, according to the 1991 census, recorded a population of 2,570,181 for Delta and 3,983,857 for Rivers and Bayelsa States.

Before oil became the issue in Nigeria and unwholesome politics influenced the true definition of the Niger Delta, it was less contiguous with the old Ahoada, Degema, Opobo, Ogoni, Brass, Western Ijaw and Warri Divisions. The agitation during and after the colonial era had always been for the creation of a district or political region in this area in order to allay the fears of ethnic domination by more populous ethnic groups.

Some people define the Delta in teams of its ethnography, as the region occupied principally by the Ijaw peoples together with a variety fo smaller ethnic groups including the Itsekiri, the Urhobo and Isoko peoples in the western part of the Delta. This definition does not allow for a territory with precisely defined boundaries, as the Ijaw people are to be found in areas far beyond the Delta whilst there are other ethnic groups inhabiting the interior extremities of the Delta.

On the other hand, many Nigerians perceive the Niger Delta as synonymous with the oil-producing areas of Nigeria. In their own thinking, the Niger Delta is the same as the oil-producing areas. In other words, the Niger Delta includes the folio states: Abia, Imo, Edo, Delta, Rivers, Bayelsa, Cross River, Akwa Ibom and Ondo. But an independent authoritative study by a non governmental organisation (even though by extension Government was involved), the Niger Delta Environmental Survey (NDES) in its first report (1997) gave a cartographic, ethnographic and political setting. The NDES’ political definition of the Niger Delta is synonymous with the Government’s definition under the Oil Mineral Producing Areas Development Commission (OMPADEC).

‘The 1958 Nigerian Constitutional provision for the Niger Delta inter alia states as follows:

To allay the fears of the minority indigenes of the Niger Delta and address the development needs of the peculiar terrain of the Niger Delta, before granting independence to Nigeria, the British Government proposed that the Niger Delta be declared a Special Federal Territory.

Linguistically, ethnographically and culturally, the Niger Delta of the pre-crude oil and gas era comprised a bewildering mix of ethnic groups. Among these, the communities of the Ijaw (in Eastern, Western and Central Niger Delta), the Ogoni, Itsekiri, Urhobo, Isoko, Ikwerre and Delta Igbo hit more headlines than others did. These are the several communities in the present-day Rivers, Bayelsa and Delta States as well as part of Ondo State. Misconceptions concerning the correct focus of the Niger Delta made more controversial, more complex and politically incorrect public debates on effective answers to the vexatious questions involved. For example, while presenting the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) Bill to the Senate, President Olusegun Obasanjo included Ondo, Imo, Abia and Edo States. Furthermore, Governors of various states as far as Anambra were jostling for inclusion in the Niger Delta. The episode became a comedy of errors and it made nonsense of whatever good intentions the governors may have had, on the issue.

But concerned people like Rev. Dadikumo Odondiri, the Secretary-General of the Ethnic Nationalities, spoke out:

There is a specific geographical location referred to as the Niger with a peculiar terrain and peculiar developmental needs. These states are basically Rivers, Bayelsa, Delta, Akwa Ibom, and parts of Edo, not even Ondo. We have a rural area (sic) in Cross River but the Niger Delta is a specific area inhabited by the Ijaws principally, the Isokos, Urhobos, Itsekiris, the Ogonis as well as some Kwale areas. These are the areas that ought to benefit.11

The fact that, over the years, money from the Niger Delta has been spent prospecting for oil in Sokoto, should not mean that Sokoto, if it has oil at all, should be included as a member state of the Niger Delta Commission.

In a paper submitted to the President of Nigeria by the World Environmental Movement for Africa (WEMFA), the President of the body, Dr Stephen Siniktiem Azaiki, stated inter-alia:

We have studied the position papers of the Bayelsa Leaders of Thought, the Movement of Concerned People of the Niger Delta, Major Isaac Adaka Boro’s papers and they hold almost the same views as the report of the WEMFA study on the Developmental Needs of 1995. It is our understanding that the Niger Delta, of truth, historically and cartographically is the present Rivers, Bayelsa and Delta States. But the geographical proximity and the gross neglect of Akwa Ibom could earn it a place in the proposed Niger Delta Commission.

The difference between Oil Producing States and the Niger States is quite distinct and must neither be confused or used interchangeably. The Niger Delta Development Commission appears to have confused the Niger Delta with the Oil Producing States. Part 1 Subsection 2(1), which deals with the establishment of NDDC, and the persons who shall be members of the Commission clearly shows that what the Act intends to solve is the problem of the oil-producing states and not necessarily that of the Niger Delta per se.

Although the Niger Delta happens to fall into oil and gas producing states, she has her own peculiar perennial problems and terrain, which had been highlighted before oil and gas exploration in Nigeria. From the Berlin Conference in 1885, the Willink Report of 1958, and the World Conference on Environment and Development in 1978, it is clearly stated that neglect and extensive environmental damage cause poverty. To adequately address the problem, the 1999 NDDC Act should be re-captioned Oil Producing States Act while a special bill should be articulated to reflect the age-long views and aspirations of the Delta peoples. Let there be OMPADEC, which could admit any oil-producing state even as far as Bauchi or Sokoto if oil is found in their domain. The Niger Delta has a peculiar terrain and developmental needs that deserve special attention and the understanding of all. Freshwater swamp forests alone cover some 11,700km2 or about half of the delta, lowland equatorial monsoon 7,400km2, brackish water 5,400km2, sand barrier lands 11 ,400km all totaling 25,640km.2 Diverse animals and plant species, which are native to the area, are now threatened with extinction due mainly to very serious ecological degradation caused by over forty-five years crude oil exploration.

Former Senator David Dafinone, an Urbobo leader, a staunch, active spokesman of the Niger Delta, expressed the view that "any arrangement making Abia, Edo, Imo and Ondo states part of the Niger Delta amounts to an agenda to further marginalise the minorities."12

Before crude oil became the main source of Nigeria’s revenue and foreign income earner and hence an issue in Nigerian Politics, the Sir Henry Willink Commission described the Delta Region of the southern minority zone as "poor, backs Neglected." The Commission which was appointed by the British Secretary of State on September 26, 1957 defined and recommended as follows: "We were impressed, in both the Western and Eastern Regions, with the special position of the people, mainly Ijaw in the swampy country along the coast between Opobo and the mouth of the Benin River".

"We suggest that constitutionally it would be necessary to place on the concurrent list a new subject, which might be. "The Development of Special Areas"14 The commission said it all. The special area, mainly Ijaws residing between Opobo and the mouth of Bomo River need special development.

Even so, the Commission wrongly assumed the projection that 10 years of concrete development projects — physical environment, manpower and industrialization - would bring the peoples region into the mainstream of federalism and democracy. Forty-five years after being recognized as "the goose that lays the golden egg," the people and territory of the southern minority zone still remain "poor, backward and neglected." The plight of the people of the Oil Rivers Protectorate (1891-93) and later the Niger Coast Protectorate (1895) is much worse now than a hundred years ago. They are now marginalise and oppressed by greedy, despotic big tribe hegemonies that monopolize the reins of power. If the Niger Delta must be viewed as the settlement of the Ijaw ethnic nationalities, it should embrace such states as Rivers, Bayelsa, Delta, Akwa Ibom, Cross Rivers and Ondo States and no more.

If the foregoing analysis of the definition of the Niger Delta comes short of convincing, the following explanation may help us understand it better and clearly too. When a river enters a lagoon its current is checked, and it is obliged to flow more slowly. Consequently, it can no longer carry all its sediments. Much of this is deposited on the bed of the lagoon. Thus causes the formation of deltas.

Since the deposit of sediments is brought about by the speed of a river, it is bound to happen when a river flows into the sea. If strong tidal currents sweep the mouth of a river, much sediment is carried away and spread over a large area of the seabed. But when a river enters a sea where the tidal range (i.e. the difference between high and low tide) is small, the absence of strong currents causes the sediment to be steadily deposited at its mouth. As Pertins and Stembridge put it, "new land is built up, which owing to its resemblance to the Greek letter (delta) is called a delta." 15

In the course of time, as more and more sediment is deposited, the delta reaches out farther and farther towards the sea, and across it the river cuts fresh channels to provide outlets for its waters. Such channels are called tributaries. The Niger Delta, bulging out into the Gulf of Guinea between the Bight (Bay) of Benin and the Bight of Biafra covers more than 10,000 square miles, and has a shoreline of about 200 miles of its fourteen main tributaries. The tributaries chiefly used for shipping are the Forcados and Bonny Rivers.

This is a thoroughly satisfactory explanation of the Niger Delta by non-Nigerians and renowned scholars who wrote prior to the Nigerian Civil War and pre-crude oil era. They explained the Niger Delta without bias and that explanation should be upheld.

The Niger Delta is principally peopled by the Ijaw ethnic nationality. As Sir Willink’s report puts it, "The declaration of the Ijaw is an opportunity of putting forward plans for their own improvement." According to the erstwhile Rivers State Leaders of Thought, the peoples of the enlarged Niger Delta are:

a. Ijaws of Western Ijaw


b. Ijaws of Brass Division

c. Ijaws of Degema Division

d. Ogonis and Elemes of Ogoni


e. Ikwerres and other tribes in Port Harcourt

f. Etches, Ekpeyes, Ogbas, Egbemas, Engennes, and

Abuas of Ahoada Division,


g. Obolos and Opobians of

Opobo Division.

In addition to the Ijaws of Western Delta are the Isokos, the Urhobos, the Itsekiri and part of Kwale. Akwa Ibom State, on the eastern part of the Delta, has been included due to similarities of terrain and backwardness she shares with the core Deltans. Today, it is peopled by the indigenes of Ikot Abasi, Oron, Mbo, Uqua Ibeno, Eket, Ibibio, Anang, Efik, etc.

The issue of population distribution or density, and the pattern of settlement in the Niger Delta are largely determined by the availability of dry land as well as the nature of the physical landscape of the region. The Niger Delta region has a low relief and poor ground drainage. This factor is responsible for the paucity of settlements of considerable size in the heartland of the Delta. Large settlements are found in the interior parts of the Delta where drainage conditions and accessibility are better. The mangrove swamp zone, interspersed by islands of dry land, such as Port Harcourt, Sapele, Ughelli and Warri, present habitable settlements located at the head of the navigable limits of the coastal rivers or estuaries. On the contrary, settlements at the sea front are made particularly difficult by their poor accessibility to the major population centers in the hinterland.

Another inhibiting factor is that most brackish water eco-zones are impossible to live in. However, due to reclamation, dry land is created in the fresh and brackish water eco-zones for urban expansion. For instance, Nembe waterside in Port Harcourt, Warri, Nembe Town, Ogbia and Brass are largely built on sand-fill. It is noteworthy that this is not a modem phenomenon because nineteenth century European visitors to Warri commented on the spacious land mass. Much of modern Sangana is built on the sand dredged from the Sangana canal. Dredging, canalization and other human activities affect groundwater quality and movement in certain areas of the Niger Delta. In addition, due to the poor permeability of the sub-soil, villages and bigger settlements often get flooded from the back-swamp side before the river reaches its peak.

In general, it is not an easy task to give the exact up-to-date population figures of African countries owing to unreliable statistical data. However, available statistics show that the population of the principal Niger Delta states in Nigeria have been on the increase. As the 1991 population census indicates, the overall figure for these states is put at about 8.9 million

The consequences of oil and gas exploration arising from air, water and environmental pollution may affect the fertility and life span of the inhabitants in such a manner that fecundity may fall and the birth of abnormal babies and plants may increase. Average life span of the inhabitants may drop as well. At a Port Harcourt meeting of stakeholders summoned by NDES in October 1995, a community leader from Warri drew attention to the inability of oil operations to alleviate poverty. On the contrary, he argued, oil boom has brought more doom than ever before. This is a critical viewpoint that gives cause for concern. Indeed, malnutrition is a major problem especially among children in the Niger Delta. Water-related diseases and waste disposal practices constitute serious problems throughout the area. A study of the six major causes of death in Nigeria (measles, malaria, pneumonia, tetanus, dysentery and tuberculosis) indicate that the coastal area constitutes a zone of disproportionately high mortality proneness to these diseases. Other diseases affecting the people of the Niger Delta include worm infestation, gastroenteritis, hypertension and sexually transmitted diseases, especially among adolescents.

It may be pertinent to add that the federal and state governments have embarked on various projects like the Expanded Programme on Immunization (EPI), Universal Basic Education (UBE), and increased Children Tax Allowance to lessen the economic burden and reduce childhood illnesses and infant mortality. Available evidence shows that maternal mortality is high-about 9.4/1000 births. It is equally observed that the majority of those who die are illiterate mothers, especially those who do not have access to adequate antenatal care.

The structure and age distribution of any population is of great economic significance. This is because not all members of the population are actively productive. Labour supply depends mainly on the productive sector of the entire population. If a larger percentage of the entire population is composed of children, it means that the government will have to provide more for education and health care. On the other hand, if the entire population comprises more of old people, the government has to provide for such amenities required by old people like pensions, old people’s homes. Between children and old people are members of the working class. Understandably, where the active youths constitute a sizeable proportion of the entire population, the government has to provide employment opportunities, among other things.

Owing to lack of reliable statistics, an analysis of the trend in population growth and distribution is hampered by gaps in data. However, in comparison to the 1963 census figures, the population growth trend in Rivers, Bayelsa and Delta States is clearly appreciating. The regular influx to the oil-producing states in search of employment opportunities, access to education, social amenities, health facilities, potable water, etc may well account for this. According to the 1991 census, the old Rivers State is slightly more urbanized than Delta, with 31% versus 25% of their respective populations living in urban areas. Population growth rates in both states are estimated to be around 30%. Since oil drilling began in the 1960s, migration into the region has greatly increased and there is high population density on habitable land in the riverine and coastal areas.

Land and human population density are important in relation to development pressures mounted on the Niger Delta. A map in recent World Bank report defining the environment, and spelling development strategies for the Niger Delta, shows a population density of 1.95 persons per hectare in Rivers and Bayelsa states and 7.12 persons for Akwa Ibom. In truth, however, the density of Ogoni land alone undoubtedly matches that of neighbouring Akwa Ibom State. Rural population densities on limited islands of dry land in the freshwater eco-zone appear to be equally high. The situation is made worse because most of water eco-zone (about 20% of the Niger Delta) is uninhabitable. The twin townships of Ogbolomabiri and Bassambiri, which make up Nembe, are a good example. They are packed onto two largely sand-filled islands surrounded by mangrove forests that virtually merge with the sea. Available agricultural land is a few tens of hectares so that, apart from local shellfish, all the required food has to be brought in from other towns.

The major human occupations in the Niger Delta may be considered under three main headings, namely primary, secondary and tertiary occupations. The major traditional primary occupation includes farming and fishing, while secondary occupations include industries like gin distillation, textile weaving, boat carving etc. Tertiary occupation includes trade and commerce, transportation etc. Even so, oil exploration by multinational companies has since become the major production activity in the region.


The Niger Delta contributes to the national economy not only in petroleum and gas but also in agricultural production. The major indigenously derived food resources are classified as follows:

a. Food crops: yam, cassava, maize, rice, cowpea, melon, groundnuts, potato etc.

b. Tree crops: oil palm, rubber, coconut, raffia palm, cashew; pawpaw, etc.

c. Livestock: goats, pigs, rabbits, fish, etc

This system is also known as subsistence crop farming. It involves the traditional peasant who clears, cultivates, plants and harvests his land through manual labour supplied by himself and his family members. Farm yields are harvested, processed and stored to feed the family and, if possible, provide seeds for the next planting season.

The size of the farm per household may range between one and three acres, and it is usually cultivated with traditional farming tools like cutlasses, hoes and machetes. One peculiar nature of the Niger Delta is that the soil is rich and water is always available for cropping.

© 2003. Vanguard Media Ltd.