Key Findings

  1. Oil corporations in the Niger Delta seriously threaten the livelihood of neighboring local communities. Due to the many forms of oil-generated environmental pollution evident throughout the region, farming and fishing have become impossible or extremely difficult in oil-affected areas, and even drinking water has become scarce. Malnourishment and disease appear common.
  2. The presence of multinational oil companies has had additional adverse effects on the local economy and society, including loss of property, price inflation, prostitution, and irresponsible fathering by expatriate oil workers.
  3. Organized protest and activism by affected communities regularly meet with military repression, sometimes ending in the loss of life. In some cases military forces have been summoned and assisted by oil companies.
  4. Reporting on the situation is extremely difficult, due to the existence of physical and legal constraints to free passage and free circulation of information. Similar constraints discourage grassroots activism.

Executive Summary

There is a long and terrible record of environmental destruction and human rights violations in the oil-producing regions of Nigeria. The gross level of environmental degradation caused by oil exploration and extraction in the Niger Delta has gone unchecked for the past 30 years. Evidence shows that the oil companies operating in Nigeria have not only disregarded their responsibility towards the environment but have acted in complicity with the military's repression of Nigerian citizens. The profit-driven collusion between multinational oil companies and the past and present Nigerian governments has cost many lives and continues to threaten the stability of the region.

The authors of this report spent ten days in the Niger Delta (Sept. 8-18, 1999) visiting communities that have been affected by the operations of the following multinational corporations: Shell, Mobil, Agip and Elf. Plans to visit areas in Delta State near Chevron Corporation facilities were canceled due to the instability in those areas. However, while in Nigeria, we interviewed individuals who gave personal accounts alleging Chevron's involvement in recent killings in the Delta. We also met with a group of U.S. lawyers who were in Nigeria at the time gathering information to substantiate lawsuits against Chevron in U.S. courts.1

During our visits, we met with community residents, leaders of community groups, and state and local government officials. Despite efforts to arrange meetings with representatives of the oil companies, we were only granted one meeting with a representative of Shell. Based on the testimonies of those we met, as well as on our own observations, we conclude that oil extraction and the related operations of multinational oil corporations pose a serious threat to the livelihood of the people of the Niger Delta.

Tensions in the Niger Delta continue to erupt into violence as natural resources vital to local communities' survival are destroyed by oil operations. Environmental and social justice for the people of the Niger Delta remain central issues for achieving peace in the region. As long as people's calls for justice continue to be ignored and resisted by both multinational oil corporations and the Nigerian government, the situation in the Delta can only deteriorate. Many ethnic groups in the Niger Delta have produced declarations and bills of rights that call for autonomy in the management and control of local natural resources. We believe that the survival of a large number of Niger Delta communities is now dependent on their ability to establish their entitlement to local resources.


Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, is also one of the best endowed in terms of natural resources. Yet, it is one of the poorest countries in the world. As is the case with many oil-rich developing countries, oil reserves have proved a mixed blessing for Nigeria. Since 1974, only 14 years after independence, oil production for export has been by far the main source of revenue for the government. Today, oil sales account for more than 40 percent of GDP, 80 percent of the government's budgetary revenue, and more than 95 percent of exports. With an average production of approximately 2 million barrels per day, Nigeria is one of the world's largest oil produc-ers. However, due to a persistent fall in oil prices, Nigeria's external debt has risen to an unprecedented level in the last decade; inflation is rampant, and per capita GNP has fallen to levels comparable to or lower than those estimated in the mid 1960s, when oil exploration began in earnest..

The oil industry has expanded in Nigeria at the expense of other previously important production sectors, such as agriculture and manufacturing. This has created regional imbalances and an increasingly unequal distribution of wealth between different sectors of society,2 deepening the potential for conflict in this complex multi-ethnic nation.

The Niger Delta, one of the world's largest wetlands, and the site of most of Nigeria's biodiversity, is also the area where the main oil reserves are found. Almost one third of Nigeria's oil is shipped directly to the US. Most of the balance is sent to other countries, mainly in Europe, and very little remains in Nigeria for refinement and consumption. During the last four decades, hundreds of billions worth of crude oil have been extracted from the Niger Delta wetlands, earning huge profits for a privileged few, while virtually robbing the affected communities of both life and livelihood.

In addition to a clear lack of access to this locally produced resource, the inhabitants of the Niger Delta region have seen few benefits from the large-scale operations carried out in the proximity of their communities. In fact, in their comprehensive 3-year long study, Human Rights Watch states that "Despite the vast wealth produced from the oil found under the Delta, the region remains poorer than the national average; and [] the divisions between the rich and poor are more obvious in the areas where gas flares light up the night sky."3

Though oil companies claim that their operations are carried out according to the highest environmental standards,4 it is indisputable that they have had a severe impact on the environment, and on agricultural and fish production throughout the Niger Delta region. Many communities report they rarely receive any or sufficient compensation for land taken by oil companies, or rendered useless by oil spills, acid rain, and other forms of pollution.5 Moreover, protests against environmental degradation and loss of land rights by local communities have frequently met with violent repression by the various police and security bodies with the complicity of the oil companies.

The main multinational oil companies operating in the region are Shell (accounting for more than 40 percent of the volume of production), Mobil and Chevron, in that order. Other companies with significant presence in the Delta are the Italian company Agip, France's Elf-Aquitaine (commonly known as Elf), and Texaco. All of these companies operate on the basis of a joint venture with the Nigerian government.

Nigeria is a country with approximately 300 different ethnic groups, each with its own language, culture, customs and traditional forms of government (see map 2 at the end of this report). The people we encountered during our trip identified themselves with their ethnic group before identifying as Nigerian citizens. Both oil companies and the government/military benefit from, and in some cases exploit, ethnic differences in the Delta, which divide and weaken local communities.

Even before independence, politics have been dominated by the three majority groups: the Yoruba, who are predominant in the west, the Hausa-Fulani, in the north, and the Igbo, in the south. Many minority communities of the Niger Delta feel they have been excluded from political participation and the economic and social benefits enjoyed by dominant majority groups.

The country of Nigeria came into existence in 1914, when two British colonial protectorates were amalgamated into one territorial unit. This act arbitrarily brought together hundreds of distinct ethnic and political groups. The country gained its independence in 1960. Since then it has been ruled primarily by military dictatorship. The most repressive regime was the one of General Sani Abacha (1993-1998). Upon Abacha's death in 1998, General Abdusalami Abubakar took control for a short period and allowed elections to proceed. Although it was acknowledged that there had been widespread fraud during the elections, the pressure to transition Nigeria to so-called democratic rule was so great that the election's results were certified by international observers. On May 29, 1999, former General Olusegun Obasanjo became Nigeria's first civilian president since 1993. When our delegation arrived, Obasanjo had been in office for 100 days.