Over the last three decades, the Gulf of Guinea (GoG) has developed into a maritime crime hotspot. Crude oil theft and piracy became commonplace, with highly-organized criminal networks selling stolen crude oil to clients across the world. The backdrop to this is decades of ethnic conflict and successive Nigerian governments finding it difficult to impose law and order across the Niger Delta. In the center of this conflict sits the Ijaw people, an ethnic group of around 4 million people with a proud maritime heritage.
Background: the Maritime Heritage of the Ijaw in the GoG
When Westerners first arrived in the GoG, the Ijaw people were among the first people they contacted. They had long been a maritime people, fishing and exploring all around the Niger Delta for possibly as long as 7,000 years. This made them ideal as go-betweens with people of the interior. By the early and mid-twentieth century, before Nigerian independence, the Ijaws had developed substantial corporations with fleets of merchant vessels and war canoes, escaping much of the heavy-handedness of the colonial powers.
Black Gold In the Niger Delta
With the coming of independence and the discovery of huge reserves of oil and gas in the Niger Delta, things changed for the Ijaw. Neglect by the Nigerian government and the presence of powerful corporations sent much of the Ijaw population into poverty, although many still remained in maritime careers, their skills becoming highly sought-after. Others trained in the petroleum industry. Perhaps inevitably, these conditions led to increasing inter-ethnic tensions, which, by the end of the 20th century, had developed into open conflict.
Developing Conflict and the Ijaw Professional Diaspora
By the early 1990s, the Ijaw and other minority groups in the Niger Delta had come to resent what they saw as their exploitation by oil companies granted licenses by a distant and uncaring central government. In 1998 the Ijaw Youth Council issued a declaration to oil companies, demanding they cease their activities and withdraw from Ijaw territory. This led to direct armed conflict with the oil companies as Ijaw activists and militias turned off pipelines and conducted sabotage against oil installations. This conflict remains mostly unresolved to this day and continues to impoverish the Ijaw as their most skilled people have left the country in large numbers, taking their maritime and petrochemical knowledge to nations across the Western world.
Hope for the Future?
In recent years, the Ijaw have mostly mellowed their positions, becoming advocates of peaceful resistance and brokering peaceful relations with other ethnic groups with whom they previously had disputes. In fact, they threw their weight behind the current governor of Delta State in the latest elections, a man of Itsekiri extraction, although an Ijaw candidate could easily have won the contest.
This position comes from a desire that candidacy should not be based on ethnicity. Unfortunately, this has led to disagreement with the leaders of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) who appear to be selecting candidates based on rotating between candidates from different ethnic groups. On this basis, Ijaw leaders rejected the results of the primaries for the 2023 gubernatorial election.
Although this remains contentious, armed conflict doesn’t seem to be on the cards, and violence, in general, is at much lower levels than in previous years. The Niger Delta seems to be becoming more stable, and encouragingly, no piracy has been reported in the GoG for two consecutive quarters.