Author:Umukoro, Nathaniel


In almost every region of the world, governments violate the basic human rights of their citizens through the use of torture and by stifling freedom of speech, assembly, and religion, among other things. (1) The situation is no different in Nigeria, especially in the Niger Delta, where crude oil is produced. Ranked fifth globally in oil production, Nigeria has earned more than $340 billion in oil and gas revenue since the 1970s. (2) Yet 70 percent of its population presently lives on less than one dollar per day, 43 percent have no access to clean water, and insurgents in the oil-producing Niger Delta threaten the stability of the Nigerian state. (3) Additionally, both military and civilian governments in Nigeria have been accused of gross human rights violations in the Niger Delta. (4) The failure of these regimes to ensure respect for human rights has contributed to several cases of violent conflict.

The persistence of human rights violations and violent conflict in the Niger Delta since Nigeria gained independence in 1960 has led some scholars to describe the area as an unfortunate region. From 1966 to 1970, it was the scene of the Biafran War, a civil war that led to the death of about 2 million people. Most of these deaths occurred as a result of hunger and disease. Despite international protests, the military regime of Gen. Sani Abacha executed nine Ogonis, including renowned human rights activist Kenule Saro-Wiwa, in 1995. (5)

The death of Gen. Abacha in 1998 led to the appointment of Gen. Abdusalami Abubakar as the military head of Nigeria. Although the regime successfully handed over power to a civilian government, it was not free from accusations of gross human rights violations in the Niger Delta. For example, on January 4, 1999, Opia and Ikenyan, two small communities of about 500 people each in the Warri North area of Delta State, were attacked by about 100 armed soldiers. Human Rights Watch Report indicates that the traditional leader of Ikenyan, who went to negotiate with the soldiers, was killed, as was a seven-year-old girl. Many other persons were victimized in this incident. (6)

The introduction of civilian administration in Nigeria on May 29, 1999, was expected to improve respect for human rights in the country. (7) President Olusegun Obasanjo recognized the need to address past human rights violations, and his government initiated some actions related to transitional justice. The first major effort of the civilian government during this period was the inauguration of the Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission, popularly known as the Oputa Panel, to investigate all cases of human rights violations in Nigeria and to submit a report to the federal government. This article examines actions related to transitional justice aimed at addressing past human rights abuses in the Niger Delta, identifying gaps and making recommendations for improvement.


As Kabiru S. Chafe rightly notes, "the primary requirement for debating anything is to understand first and foremost the critical thing being talked about." (8) Consequently, this section clarifies the concepts of human rights violations and transitional justice.

Human Rights Violations

Human rights violations occur when state or nonstate actors abuse, ignore, or deny basic human rights, including civil, political, cultural, social, and economic rights. Some scholars of human rights violations have attempted to standardize ways to measure them. For example, Hilde Hey grouped human rights violations by their severity using the categories of "extremely severe," "severe," and "less severe." (9) Hey includes genocide in the category of extremely severe violations and gross human rights violations and acts of state repression in the category of severe violations. (10) She argues that whereas the victims of gross human rights violations "need not be a collectivity, but may be individuals," genocide involves "the killing of a collectivity, in whole or in part, thereby destroying the cultural identity of that collectivity." (11) This type of killing is often motivated by a group's deep-rooted perception that the continued existence of individuals who belong to certain other groups may threaten the existence of its own collectivity. Robert Melson argues that ideology is a central theme in genocide and that the perpetrators' perceptions of the victims are the cause, not the activities of the victims. (12)

Transitional Justice

The term transitional justice has been defined in different ways. The UN's working definition refers to "the full range of processes and mechanisms associated with a society's attempts to come to terms with a legacy of large-scale past abuses, in order to ensure accountability, serve justice and achieve reconciliation." (13) Naomi Roht-Arriaza defines transitional justice as the "set of practices, mechanisms and concerns that arise following a period of conflict, civil strife or repression, and that are aimed directly at confronting and dealing with past violations of human rights and humanitarian law." (14) The International Centre for Transitional Justice defines transitional justice as "the set of judicial and non-judicial measures that have been implemented by different countries in order to redress the legacies of massive human rights abuses. These measures include criminal prosecutions, truth commissions, reparations programs, and various kinds of institutional reforms." (15) This definition encapsulates more of the components of transitional justice than other definitions. These include a process to bring perpetrators of mass atrocities to justice and to punish them for the crimes committed; a reparation process to redress victims of atrocities for the harm they have suffered; a truth process to fully investigate atrocities so that members of the society can learn what happened during the repression/conflict, who committed the atrocities, and where the remains of the victims lie; and an institutional reform process to ensure that such atrocities do not happen again. (16) Transitional justice processes have been used successfully in peacebuilding activities in African countries such as Rwanda and South Africa.


Since most cases of gross human rights violations in the Niger Delta were associated with oil production, it is pertinent that we consider the historical context of the production of that commodity in Nigeria. Before the discovery of oil, Nigeria was known for agriculture. The development of the oil industry in Nigeria can be traced back to 1908, when the Nigerian Bitumen Corporation, a German company, began exploration activities in the Araromi area of Western Nigeria. These pioneering efforts ended in 1914 because of World War I. Oil-prospecting efforts resumed in 1937, when Shell DArcy (the forerunner of Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria) was awarded the sole concessionary rights for the whole territory of Nigeria. In 1956, Shell discovered oil in commercial quantities at Oloibiri in the Niger Delta. In 1958, production and export of oil from the Oloibiri field, which was located in present-day Bayelsa State, began with an initial production rate of 5,100 barrels of crude oil per day. (17) This occurred two years before Nigeria gained political independence.

Oil production in Nigeria since independence has been characterized by conflicts between multinational oil corporations and the communities where oil is produced. This has resulted in gross human rights violations by the government. Several scholars have documented and analyzed the confrontations related to oil production between host communities and multinational corporations, on the one hand, and host communities and the government, on the other. For example, Cyril I. Obi studied how oil extraction and the dispossession of the people of the Niger Delta resulted in killings, the sabotage of...

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