Armed Ijaw Militants in Nigeria


The Ijaw (also known as the “Ijo”) are a collection of peoples residing mostly in the forest regions of the Niger River delta in Nigeria, and numbering several million individuals.

Niger Delta Area in Nigeria
Niger Delta Area in Nigeria

The Ijaw speak 9 closely-related Niger-Congo languages, all of which fall under the Ijoid branch of the Niger-Congo tree. The primary division between the Ijaw languages is that between Central Ijaw and Western Ijaw, the most important of the former group of languages being Izon, which is spoken by about 1 million people, while the most prominent member of the Western Ijaw group is Kalabari, which has about a quarter of a million speakers.

The Ijaw were one of the first of Nigeria’s peoples to have contact with Westerners, and were active as go-betweens in trade between visiting Europeans and the peoples of the interior, particularly in the era before the discovery of Quinine, when West Africa was still known as the White Man’s Graveyard because of the endemic presence of malaria. Some of the kin-based trading lineages that arose amongst the Ijaw developed into substantial corporations which were known as “Houses”; each house had an elected leader as well as a fleet of war canoes for use in protecting trade and fighting rivals. The other main occupation common amongst the Ijaw has traditionally been fishing.

Formerly organized into several loose clusters of villages which cooperated to defend themselves against outsiders, the Ijaw increasingly view themselves as belonging to a single coherent nation, bound together by ties of language and culture. This tendency has been encouraged in large part by the environmental depradations that have accompanied the discovery of oil in the Niger delta region which the Ijaw call home, as well as by a revenue sharing formula with the Federal government that is viewed by the Ijaw as manifestly unfair. The resulting sense of grievance has led to several high-profile clashes with the Nigerian Federal authorities, including kidnappings and in the course of which many lives have been lost.

One manifestation of ethnic assertiveness on the part of the Ijaw has been an increase in the number and severity of clashes between Ijaw militants and those of Itsekiri origin, particularly in the town of Warri. While the Ijaw and the Itsekiri have lived alongside each other for centuries, for the most part harmoniously, the Itsekiri were first to make contact with European traders, as early as the 16th century, and they were more aggressive both in seeking Western education and in using the knowledge acquired to press their commercial advantages; until the arrival of Sir George Goldie’s United Africa Company (later renamed the Royal Niger Company) in 1879, Itsekiri chieftains monopolized trade with Europeans in the Western Niger region. Despite the loss of their monopoly, the advantages already held by the Itsekiri ensured that they continued to enjoy a superior position to that held by the Ijaw, breeding in the latter a sense of resentment at what they felt to be colonial favoritism towards the Itsekiri.

The departure of the British at independence did not lead, as might have been expected, to a decrease in tensions between the Ijaw and the Itsekiri. With the discovery of large oil reserves in the Niger Delta region in the early 1960s, a new bone of contention was introduced, as the ability to claim ownership of a given piece of land now promised to yield immense benefits in terms of jobs and infrastuctural benefits to be provided by the oil companies. Despite this new factor, rivalry between the Ijaw and the Itsekiri did not actually escalate to the level of violent conflict between the two groups until the late 1990s, when the death of General Sani Abacha in 1997 lead to a re-emergence of local politics.

The issue of local government ward allocation has proven particularly contentious, as the Ijaw feel that the way in which wards have been allocated ensures that their superior numbers will not be reflected in the number of wards controlled by politicians of Ijaw ethnicity. Control of the city of Warri, the largest metropolitan area in Delta State and therefore a prime source of political patronage, has been an especially fiercely contested prize. This has given birth to heated disputes between the Ijaw, the Itsekiri and the [Urhobo] about which of the three groups are “truly” indigenous to the Warri region, with the underlying presumption being that the “real” indigenes should have control of the levers of power, regardless of the fact that the members of all three groups with ostensibly equal political rights in their places of residence.

Although the Ijaw are now primarily Christians, with Catholicism being the variety of Christianity most prevalent amongst them, the Ijaw have elaborate traditional religious practices of their own. Veneration of ancestors plays a central role in Ijaw traditional religion, while water spirits, known as Owuamapu figure prominently in the Ijaw pantheon. In addition, the Ijaw practice a form of divination called Igbadai, in which recently deceased individuals are interrogated on the causes of their death.

Ijaw religious beliefs hold that water spirits are like humans in having personal strengths and shortcomings, and that humans dwell amongst the water spirits before being born. The role of prayer in the traditional Ijaw system of belief is to maintain the living in the good graces of the water spirits amongst whom they dwelt before being born into this world, and each year the Ijaw hold celebrations in honor the spirits lasting for several days. Central to the festivities is the role of masquerades, in which men wearing elaborate outfits and carved masks dance to the beat of drums and manifest the influence of the water spirits through the quality and intensity of their dancing. Particularly spectacular masqueraders are taken to actually be in the possession of the particular spirits on whose behalf they are dancing.


Ijaw and Oil Companies in Nigeria

A new, armed grouping, calling itself the People’s Volunteer Force of the Niger Delta has recently declared “a total war against the Nigerian state”. This is an armed group of Ijaws. The Ijaws are one of the tribal groups that inhabit the Niger Delta region. The rebels have aimed their anger at the foreign oil companies operating in the region. They accuse companies such as Shell and Agip of having “collaborated with the Nigerian state in acts of genocide against our people.”

Oil Production in Nigeria
Oil Production in Nigeria

They have called on the accused companies to stop all operations and have warned all foreigners to leave the area. The leader of the Volunteer Force, Mujahid Dokubo Asari, has said that their struggle will continue until they achieve “self-determination for the Ijaw people.”

These people have been branded as terrorists by the Nigerian regime, and tanks, planes, helicopters and thousands of troops have been carrying a de facto war for some time now. The area is too important for the Nigerian regime to let go of. The Ijaw people have been pounded into the ground in order to guarantee the continued flow of oil to the imperialist masters. The problem for the western media is that the Ijaws are Christians. So there can be no talk of “Islamic terrorism” or “Al-Qaeda” here. In fact among many of the Nigerian state officials who have made millions, and continue to oppress these people, are Muslims. Maybe that is why the plight of the Ijaws very rarely gets onto people’s TV screens in the West!

The irony of the Niger Delta region is that while it is literally floating on oil its people are among the poorest in Nigeria. And that is saying something, for Nigeria is one of the poorest countries in the world. Port Harcourt is one immense mass of slum dwellings, where people are still using candles to see at night. Unemployment is at astronomical levels. The discovery of oil in this region has brought no benefits to the local people. On the contrary it has actually worsened their living conditions. The rivers have been polluted. The fish in the local rivers used to be one of the main sources of food for the poor. Now that has gone. Agricultural land has also been heavily polluted and can no longer be used to grow food.

Life for the mass of the people in Delta State has become desperate. But the people at the top have only been concerned with one thing: maintaining military control of the area – at all costs! They have terrorised the local people. Terrible massacres have taken place, with thousands of people losing their lives.

Oil was discovered in Nigeria back in 1956. Since then Nigeria has made something like $400 billion. This could have not only solved all the problems of Nigeria, but of the whole of black, sub-Saharan Africa! The Nigerian people could easily be among the richest in the world. Instead the money has been stashed away by greedy officials. The people have not see a cent of this immense wealth.

Armed Ijaw militants in Nigeria (AP/George Osodi)
Armed Ijaw militants loyal to Dokubo Asari stand guard with charms around their necks holding AK-47 rifles at Okorota, near Port Harcourt, Nigeria, Friday June 25, 2004.
The militants took up arms to fight for the right of the common people of the oil rich Niger Delta who are often ignored.

While all this has been going on the foreign oil companies, those who have benefited the most, have continued to back the Nigerian elite, the so-called Nigerian “ruling class”. This ruling class in 44 years of independence has been totally incapable of developing Nigeria. They have played no progressive role whatsoever. They are merely tools in the hands of the imperialists. Their job is to hold down the Nigerian masses and make sure the wealth flows out of the country and into the hands of the imperialists. In exchange they get to take a share of the loot.

It is the terrible condition of the masses in Delta State that has led over the recent years to a spate of attacks on the oil companies, on their pipelines and on their technicians and managers. The youth organised resistance groups to fight back. Part of their actions involved the kidnapping of workers of the oil companies. The response of the regime has always been – and continues to be – absolutely ruthless. It would send in the troops and butcher hundreds in response to one kidnapping.

The oil companies are now claiming innocence, but it is common knowledge that often private militias have been financed by these oil companies to carry their dirty work for them. They have also been involved in backing one small ethnic group against another to quell the rebellions. Thus what from outside may seem inexplicable ethnic conflict, has a logic to it. The western media like people in the advanced countries to think that all this is a reflection of the uncivilised, backward, tribal society of black Africa. It is nothing of the kind!

What seems to have sparked off the recent conflict was the killing of hundreds of people, accused of supporting the rebels. The rebels have accused some of the foreign oil companies of being behind these killings. They seem to have passed on information about the rebels to some of their local friends who then went in and did the dirty work. This would not be the first time that such a thing has happened.

The present threats have forced Shell to close one of its plants. Last week it reduced output by millions of barrels and evacuated 235 of its workers. Other oil companies are keeping a careful eye on developments and preparing to do the same as Shell if necessary. In reality what is happening is that the Nigerian army is stepping up its operations and the oil companies have strengthened their armed guards to make sure production continues as much as possible.