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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Ogoni in Nigeria

View Group Chronology

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 three of the risk factors associated with rebellion: a history of protest, territorial 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 initiative, though delayed and limited in scope, 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 the Shell Oil company. Factors encouraging protest include: a history of repression by the central government, environmental degradation due to natural resource extraction and exploitation, and economic marginalization.


Analytic Summary

The Ogoni of Nigeria are a small ethnic group, comprising less than 1 percent of the total population of the country. Linguistic experts classify the Ogoni languages of Khana, Gokana and Eleme as a distinct group within the Beneu-Congo branch of African languages or, more particularly, as a branch in the New Beneu-Congo family. They belong to the Benue-Congo linguistic family tree, which comprises only 6 percent of Nigeria's population. Many also speak English, as the colonial language of their traditional areas of residence (LANG = 1). The Ogoni have their own beliefs and religion. The traditional Ogoni religion, the Yaa tradition, honoring the land, has been in steady decline since the early 1900s due to Christian missionaries. They are now primarily Christian, making them distinct from the plurality Hausa and Fulani, who are Muslim (BELIEF = 2). 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 oil spillage. Nigeria's oil industry accounts for 90 percent of its export earning, and even the smallest disruption has been threatening to the government. The Ogonis are located in the Niger Delta region in the city of Port Harcourt. Port Harcourt is the capital city of Rivers State, Nigeria. The Ogoni have not moved very far from their traditional territory (GROUPCON = 3). The Ogoni had autonomy over their territory until 1914, when Britain consolidated the area into the Nigerian Protectorate (AUTLOST = 1.25). Since that point the other larger ethnic groups the Ibo, Hausa/Fulani and Yoruba have dominated the economic and political scene in Nigeria.

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. Ogoniland was occupied by Biafran troops during the conflict.

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. In August 1985, Ibrahim Babangida took power in a peaceful coup.

By 1987, Babangida announced that he was preparing to turn the government back to civilian rule. 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. 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. Abiola 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, where the Ogoni are concentrated.

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 had been under civilian rule for only 14 years of its existence as an independent state. Presidential elections were held in March 1999 in which former military leader and Yoruban Olusegun Obasanjo was declared the victor. 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 the majority of the region are without basic infrastructure, due to 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. In the past, nonetheless, the group is still excluded by the majority of the country in political and economic matters due to historical neglect, and no policies were in effect to remedy the situation (POLDIS01-03 = 2). However, in recent years there have been negotiations involving representatives of the Ogoni's, Shell Oil and the Nigerian government to take redressive action to compensate the Ogoni for years of environmental degradation. (POLDIS04-06 = 1)

The different ethnic groups in the Niger Delta region have faced severe repression by the government both before and after the transition to democracy in 1999. In 1999 there were reprisal killings by military and police units in the Niger Delta, torture and rape was used against the the different ethnic groups in the region. 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 was led by Ken Saro-Wiwa before his execution. The MOSOP strategies for change involved nonviolent means. 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 seems to not receive much considerable material support from other kindred groups or transnational organizations. There is much rhetorical support from exiled Ogoni's in other areas of the world, such as Canada, U.K. and the U.S. 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 years 2004-2006 have seen continued protests. (PROT04 = 2; PROT05 = 3; PROT06 = 1) There is not a history of rebellion (REB04-06 = 0).

There are some political restrictions on the MOSOP's activities; however, there has been an increase in the number of conventional political parties representing the group. The Ogoni continues to face significant economic discrimination (ECDIS04-06 = 3) and political disadvantages due to their historical marginalization (POLDIS04-06 = 2). While there were no intercommunal group conflicts in the 2001 -2003 period, there were a few instances of intragroup fighting over leadership and land ownership issues in previous years. However, recently there has been no evidence of infighting or conflicts with other ethnic groups (INTERCON04-06 = 0; INTRACON04-06 = 0). The group main demands continue to be the ones that have had historical importance for the Ogoni: limited autonomy within the Nigerian state, political rights, and funds for group development and compensation from the government and Shell for land use and pollution (POLGR04-06 = 3; ECGR04-06 = 2).



Chapin Metz, Helen, ed. 1992. Nigeria, A Country Study. Washington, DC: Library of Congress.

Lexis/Nexis. Various news reports. 1990-2006.

Kpone-Tonwe, Sonpie. 2001. '"Leadership Training in Precolonial Nigeria: The Yaa Tradition of Ogoni." International Journal of African Historical Studies. 34:2. 385-403

Human Rights Watch. Various reports. 2001-2003.

Pyagbara, Legborsi Saro. 5/12/2004. "The Ogoni of Nigeria: Oil and Exploitation." Minority Rights Group., accessed 3/8/2007.

Naanen, Ben. 2003. "Progress of the Ogoni people in Nigeria towards the attainment of the International Development Targets (IDTs) for poverty, education and health." Draft report for the "Indigenous Peoples and Socioeconomic Rights' Expert Workshop. Commonwealth Policy Studies Unit.

United States Department of State. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Nigeria, 2001-2006.


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Information current as of December 31, 2006