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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Ijaw 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 Ijaw are risk of both rebellion and protest. The group faces significant political and cultural restrictions as well as repression, which are factors encouraging rebellion. They are at risk of rebellion because of history of protest, some violence, territorial concentration and repression. The government has thus far neglected Ijaw concerns; however efforts at negotiation and reform and absorption of the group into Nigeria’s democratization process could alleviate these risks. The government should focus on balancing the demands of the community with the interests of the oil companies operating in the Delta region. Conflicts between the various ethnic groups in the Niger Delta also reflect the problems that each group has with the federal government.


Analytic Summary

The Ijaw are the indigenous ethnic group in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. The group has a distinctive language. Group members are either Christian or animist. While the Ijaw do no face any significant cultural discrimination, they do experience high levels of economic and political exclusion (ECDIS01-03 = 4; POLDIS01-03 = 4).

Under British colonial rule, the Igbo group was favored. As calls 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.

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. The new military government was popular with northern Muslims. In August 1985, Ibrahim Babangida took power in a peaceful coup. During the 1980s, religious overtones became more and more important in the rivalries between the Hausa/Fulani and Yoruba and Ibo.

By 1987, Babangida announced that he was preparing to turn the government back to civilian rule. During the preceding two years, unrest was growing between Muslims and Christians, and there were sporadic outbreaks of violence. 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. Voter turnout was reportedly low, but the elections were thought to be free and fair. 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. Violent protests and strikes took place over the next two years in an attempt to return Abiola to power. He 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.

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. 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.

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. Nigeria's oil industry accounts for 90% of its export earning, and even the smallest disruption has been threatening to the government. 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. 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. The Niger Delta is 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.

Of the ethnic groups in the region fighting for greater control over their resources, the most famous is the Ogoni whose leader Ken Saro Wiwa was executed by the Abacha regime in November 1995. The Ijaw were more numerous, vocal, and militant than the Ogoni in the late 1990s. The Ijaw have mobilized since at least 1992, when the Movement for the Survival of the Ijaw Ethnic Nationality adopted its charter. However, until 1997, the group was relatively quiet. What sparked its increasing militancy after the end of 1997 was the movement of local government headquarters from the Ijaw town of Ogbe-ijoh to the Itsekiri area of Ogidigben. The Ijaw community feared that favoring the Itsekiri would undermine their position in the region, and further restrict access to government and development. After the movement of local government seats throughout Nigeria, there were outbreaks of fighting between ethnic groups, and those in the Delta region have continued to the present because the issue has yet to be resolved. Other groups involved in ethnic conflict in the Delta region include the Urhobo, who sometimes are allies of the Ijaw, and the Isoko.

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’s 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 paradox mentioned above was demonstrated by violent clashes (and subsequent fatalities) that occurred in 1999 between the Ijaw and the Itsekiri and Urhobo, despite the fact that the Ijaw were aligned with both groups against companies such as Shell Oil and the Nigerian government. In 2003, severe clashes broke out between Ijaw and Itsekiri, raising to the level of communal warfare in which hundreds died and thousands were displaced (COMCON03 = 6).

While the Nigerian government has become more democratic in recent years, the Ijaw have not benefited from this. The group remains excluded from the mainstream of Nigerian politics, economy and society. In 2002 and 2003, the Ijaw complained about malpractices in the voter registration process. Security forces in the Delta region regularly engage in torture, killings and confiscation of property. The group also experiences poor public health conditions and environmental decline, resulting from the activities of oil companies in the Delta region. In 2001 and 2002, there have been reports of intragroup violence, primarily over economic issues. The group engages in regular protest activities against the government and oil companies (PROT01, 03 = 2, PROT02 = 3). As a result, they face government repression and high levels of police and military presence.

The Ijaw are represented by a number of both conventional and militant organizations. Groups such as the Movement for the Survival of the Ijaw advocate a more peaceful approach to influencing the government. Exile organizations, such as the Ijaw National Council USA, also lobby the Nigerian government on behalf of the group. Groups such as the Ijaw National Congress and a variety of Ijaw Youth movements have resorted to more militant activities. Such actions include against the rival Itsekeri community and oil facilities in the Niger Delta. In 2003, attacks against oil facilities reached particular serious levels (REB01 = 1, REB03 = 2).

Only the most extremist Ijaw groups are demanding complete political independence for the Niger Delta region. The group is primarily concerned with receiving more economic opportunities and resources. They are also pressing for greater compensation from oil companies and protection from polluting activities. In addition, the Ijaw demand greater political representation.



Africa South of the Sahara. 1995. Published by Europa.

IRIN. Integrated Regional Information Network of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Weekly updates for the West Africa region. 1996-1999.

Lexis/Nexis. 1990-2003. Reports from various news services including BBC, Reuters, Inter Press Service, Africa News Service, Xinhua News Service.

Nigeria, A Country Study. 1992. Helen Chapin Metz (Ed.). Library of Congress.

U.S. State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (1995-2003)


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Information current as of December 31, 2006