By Adagbo Onoja
Ethnicity has become a completely problematic concept in the 21st century. Promoters of the specificity of meaning argue that a concept such as class necessarily offers a grand narrative which should attract our incredulity. The implication is that we must focus on smaller constellations of humanity such as ethnicity, gender, generations and territory, among others, to get a better idea of it all. However, these same promoters do not accept explanations informed by ethnicity, for example. They would allege essentialism as Professor David Campbell did to all the scholars who tried to interpret the war in Bosnia from that prism.
The Bosnian War had been such a bad dream for Europe which had already started shooting for the kind of multiculturalism cum cosmopolitanism Bosnia embodied in terms of Serbs, Croatians, Muslims and others. As a result, European scholars invested a lot of efforts in trying to represent the breaking down of Yugoslavia and war in Bosnia. That was when Campbell struck with his intellectual bunker breaking review piece in 1998 titled “MetaBosnia: Narratives of the Bosnian War”, charging the ten or so authors with reducing the complexity of the Bosnian conflict “to the banalities of ethnic essentialism in order to attribute responsibility to particular individuals or groups”. And that by doing so, the scholars were complicit in the constitution of the realities they could claim to have been merely describing. It has remained a classic of that scholarly camp.
As early as 1997, William Pfaff, the American journalist, had argued that the war in Yugoslavia was a war of histories, not of ethnicity because Yugoslavia did not exist as such before 1918 and there could, therefore, have been no ancient and irrational hatred between the ethnic groups in the conflict. He meant that whatever ‘primordial hatreds’ existed could only have been 20th century phenomenon. But it was David Campbell who had the professional, institutional and personality standing in academia to represent that claim in a way that it reverberated that powerfully, particularly by tying his charges to the permanent puzzle in epistemology: do facts exist independently of its beholder?
Of course, Campbell has got replies, including the one titled “MetaCampbell: The Epistemological Problematic of Perspectivism” in which Colin Wight, the author, convicted Campbell of the same charge he used against the others. Still, Campbell and his fellow travelers have sent a signal riskfying the deployment of ethnicity analytic. The risk is worse when the author is dealing with oil, whose global context is as unsettled as the domestic context in Nigeria or anywhere else. To make matters worse, the book’s coming has coincided with when Nigeria is experiencing it’s regular moment of self-tormenting.
It is in this context that Dr Moses Ekpolomo, the author of Ethnicity and Dynamics of Oil Conflict in the Niger Delta of Nigeria must be a brave warrior to publish a book which has gathered all the most problematic concepts in the world today in a single title: Ethnicity, Oil, Conflict, Niger Delta and Nigeria. Anyone of them is enough headaches. Here, he has five. But, both the book and the author are oven hot. While the author is a recent PhD holder from King’s College London, the book is less than a month on the shelf. We cannot resist it. But what is the book saying?
At over 400 pages, Ethnicity and Dynamics of Oil Conflict in the Niger Delta of Nigeria is a hefty one, containing in it several arguments. This review is, however, only interested in the leading argument with which the author saunters into the arena along with the evidence escorting that dominant argument in obvious anticipation of the Campbells that may waylay it in Nigeria and even in the UK academic universe where Ekpolomo is based.
Ekpolomo asks whether the prism of corruption, mismanagement of oil resources, lack of infrastructural facilities explain the reality of organised armed conflicts in the Niger Delta since the 1990s – militancy, youth restiveness, communal pressures and the spiral of contestations involving these entities against themselves, against international oil companies and the Nigerian State. He doesn’t think they do. He ventures with an alternative which accepts everything the proponents of Rentier theory of the state have said except that wherever they mentioned elite, he replaces it with ethno-regional or ethno-religious elite, thereby suggesting the particularity of the elite in question.
By his analysis, such features as corruption, mismanagement, lack of infrastructural development and instability do not explain the spiral of violent contestations in the Niger Delta but ethnicity variable does because it is the ethnic division that has worked to systematically drive pattern of oil resource allocation in such a way that shifts the distribution of oil revenue in favour of cronies from the ethnic base of ascendant ethnic group at the expense of other ethnic groups. That is, he’s not challenging the Rentier state argument that governing elite of states which survive on unearned income or income which no one worked for autonomise themselves from their citizens who are not tied to the state through taxation, for example. Such governing elite are tempted to tighten state security apparatus to sustain authoritarian grip and to move state power from being about service delivery to “allocation of rents”, to cronies and faithfuls, leading to corruption, lack of transparency and bad governance generally. Petro-dollar states are, therefore, almost always unstable. What he has thus added to the theory is the ethnic specificity or qualifier to the governing elite, either as winners or losers.
Of course, he didn’t make the shift mechanically but in a sophisticated claim which has to be quoted at length, “… natural resources and oil as a foremost source of revenue for economic development of Nigeria creates a condition in which oil rents transcends power and authority in the course of the country’s political development. Whoever controls power invariably controls the oil rents, hence the nature of distributive politics. This has resulted in various regional elements in Nigeria’s power politics struggle for control or equitable share of the nation’s oil resources and rent by using religious and ethnic differences and this ensuing political contestation essentially manifest itself in overt conflict directed at each other and at the federal centralisation of power to deny minority groups a sense of belonging to the state”., (p. 256). He moves on to demand of all those who investigate the issue of resource conflict to de-emphasise the ruling elite and transfer that emphasis to the structures and institutions that compose the state.
What is new in this book is thus the ‘amendment’ to the Rentier theory of the state that this book habours. As against Terisa Turner, the leading scholar in the explanation of instability in Nigeria in terms of hegemonic brawl within the elite along with transnational corporations, Ekpolomo is saying instability is a function of competition for power along ethnic lines. That is, he gives ethnic specificity to the class or elite character of the brawl, thereby displacing corruption, mismanagement, lack of infrastructural development and instability as explanatory models.
He offers some empirical reasons for the position in the fact that there is no native rights in granting certificate of occupancy; there is no compensation for farmers and land owners for losses to their land from oil companies; they are frequently evicted and their property destroyed to make way for pipeline construction and there occurs conflict of interest federal, state and local authorities as a problem in oil revenue sharing. In the end, small ethnic groups and other minorities are under-represented and oppressed by those in power in all spheres – social, political, economic and oil industry, (p. 323).
The result of the spiral of conflict is the ‘tragedy of endowment’ or ‘resource curse’ or the ‘Dutch disease’ Nigeria suffers in that Nigeria has not been able to convert tremendous wealth into prosperity for all because of conflict of interest among competing ethnic interests, marginalisation, resentment, blocked investment, retarded growth and the impossibility of elite consensus.
From this synthesis, he lands in Chapter Seven of the book which was devoted to answering the question of what happens to Nigeria in the aftermath of oil. Oil would not last forever. Some oil producing nations are already experiencing that, with attendant fall in revenue and associated social tension. Second is the situation in which the state is only about sharing oil revenue rather than rapid social transformation; where federalism is a victim instead of agency for conflict resolution, law and order and political integration of the about 250 ethnic groups. Third is the global dynamics of Nigerian oil, with particular reference to OPEC oil politics, the shale gas factor and the oil price instability. Interestingly, it is in this chapter that the argument of the book was most forthrightly formulated than anywhere else in the entire text. What is italicised above inferiorises the versions on pages 17, 18 and 19 where the direction began to emerge.
Totalising the constellation of on-going conflicts and contestations into what he calls a volatile mix, he draws attention to the inference making the rounds about Nigeria becoming an African Yugoslavia by 2050. Adopting a list of the sore points two other Nigerians developed as fuelling separatist and ethnicist tendencies, he comes up with resource control politics; insistence on true federalism; Nigeria’s non secular status, (not clear); rotation of power; claims of marginalisation; insistence on convocation of national conference to dissolve the federation and adoption of regional structure. Using four ethnic groups – Igbo, Ijaw Yoruba and Hausa-Fulani, he tries to show how each connects to the list, producing a discordant picture.
A fuller discussion of other disruptions in the oil sector from newer conflicts in the Niger Delta, court cases against oil companies and a fuller picture of an emergent Nigerian ‘Dutch Disease’ form part of this chapter. Locking these into a 2016 IMF assessment summed up by the idea that “if you want to test the stability of the Nigerian federation, remove the oil revenue and the state will collapse within six months”, he emphasises continuous engagement with the canons already listed by the government to be informing its reform of the sector. With that, he was done. That is as far as the dominant argument is concerned. For, there are several other themes explored in the book.
The author is very conscious of how he came by his ethnicity argument. It is his synthesis of discursive data from a vast and diverse population – oil companies, staff of relevant federal and state ministries, community leaders, militants, women groups and basically every stakeholder in the conflict. Using techniques and ethical models of checking exaggeration and contrived evidence, he arrived at what is a subjective but aggregate standpoint of the study population. In this book, the author was synthesising what the people he interviewed told him about why there is conflict in Nigeria’s Niger Delta. To safeguard his claim against the inherent weaknesses of that methodology as well as the fluidity of meaning, he has put a contextual caveat to the argument of the book in terms of space and time.
The question would be what readers make of this grand argument. That argument is what would make this book great in the eyes of some readers but its drawback in the eyes of others. As every argument implies its own solutions, Ekpolomo’s book must be engaged in terms of what the implications could be. In part 2 of this review on Monday, we shall fully engage this oven hot book by an emerging academic of Nigerian oil.