Crude Oil, Crude Practices, and Crooked Corporations: Petrocapitalism in the Niger Delta

Dumebi Obute

In his comparative essay on the extractive practices of the oil industry across the Niger Delta region of Nigeria and the Gulf of Mexico, Watts declared that the ‘Peak Oil’ moment was already upon us (2012: 438). The scholar employed the metaphor to flesh out the extant perversive temporality of the oil industry haunted by the spectre of commodity depletion, insatiable global demand, dwindling rates of discovery, combative response from locals and environmental activists, as well as the heavily polluted operating environments. Consequently, oil corporations are increasingly gravitating towards political hegemonies with authoritarian grit and essentially queueing behind their military apparatuses as exemplified in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the US/NATO military intervention in Libya in 2011. Similarly, oil multinationals queued behind the military intervention of the Nigerian state in the Niger Delta when the latter introduced the military Joint Task Force (JTF) in 2005. The deployment of the state’s instrument of violence was geared towards taming residents of the region who fervently protested the destruction of their environment and the brazen pillage of their patrimony by oil corporations in cahoots with the Nigerian state.

This article is a brief reflection upon the unique nature of crude oil in the Niger Delta where the commodity has taken on a new life of its own and significantly exacerbates toxic practices of state violence and environmental pollution. ‘As a territorial resource’, Watts has robustly argued that ‘oil is constantly in the business of creating new—and refiguring old—frontiers’ (446) underpropped by complex processes of dispossession, compromise, and violence. I will argue that the accelerated militarization of the Niger Delta from 2005 implicates a sinister cooperation between the postcolonial state and oil corporations, and covertly speaks to the ruthless history of state violence as a ‘normative infrastructure’ for this nexus (see also Gadinger and Liste in this issue). I evoke the Odi community massacre in 1999, the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995, and the Umuechem carnage of 1990 as instances of necropolitics by the Nigerian state in defence of Shell oil corporation and its toxic operation. Every incident of petroviolence in the region has a precedence and walks us back in time into the abyss of the brutal Nigerian Civil War in 1966. The preponderance of military hardware in the region has created a Marxist enclave of primitive accumulation where crooked corporations profit off the chaos on the ground.

While the ‘Peak Oil’ moment and its concomitant militarization of oil frontiers globally may underscore the current rapaciousness of oil corporations, the deployment of state violence to prop up oil extraction is the very history of crude oil in the Niger delta. In what follows, I will briefly highlight the history of the oil industry in the region championed by Shell under British colonialism and further outline the post-independence nexus between the industry and successive military juntas of the nation which advanced the culture of physical violence. I will subsequently examine the post-extractive environment of crude oil and the ruins left on its trail.


Crude oil: A dark history in the Delta

It is public knowledge that crude oil exploration in the Niger Delta was pioneered by Shell when the corporation first struck the black gold in commercial quantities in the region in 1956. What is scarcely emphasized however is the historical trajectory of the corporation from 1936 when it arrived Nigeria under the British colonial rule and the global context of Shell’s expansion at the turn of the twentieth century. These historical developments, I would demonstrate, not only gave the corporation a dominant footing over its host communities but also laid the ground work for the ecologically devastating operation of the corporation in the region. Sequel to the British amalgamation of the defunct Northern and Southern Protectorates for reasons of pure political expediency, the Nigerian nation was born in 1914. In the same year, the colonial regime promulgated the ‘Mineral Act’ to prohibit ‘non-British companies from operating in its colonies’ (Omoweh 2005: 107). Thus, Shell D’Arcy Company was incorporated through a joint venture between Royal Dutch Shell and British Petroleum (BP) as a capitalist instrument in colonial Nigeria. While Shell engaged the actual exploration and production process, BP’s interest was mainly concerned with exporting its share of the commodity regardless of Shell’s operating conditions on the ground. Moreover, the colonial project had violently reduced the locals to mere commodities whose labour and resources were meant to serve the imperial interest.

Furthermore, Shell’s arrival in Nigeria at the time must be appreciated within the broader global expansion of the corporation at the turn of the twentieth century which transformed it into one of the biggest oil corporations by the 1950s. In 1929, Shell acquired the New Orleans Refining Company (NORCO) built upon former plantation worked by enslaved Africans in the Mississippi Delta. NORCO’s acquisition expanded Shell’s downstream oil sector and fired up the corporation’s interest in the upstream sector, hence the arrival in the Niger Delta from 1936. Moreover, slavery had earlier established an economic route between the Niger and the Mississippi deltas when natives of the West African coast were shipped off into the plantation of the latter. Shell similarly exports crude oil extracted in the Niger delta into its NORCO refinery in the Mississippi delta. Therefore, the history of crude oil extraction in the Niger Delta is a covert vestige of slavery and colonialism, and the violence of these temporalities on the natives manifests in the environmental disasters that locals have to endure daily. I take a brief x-trail of the dark operating environment of the industry in the region below.

Crude practices: (Post) extractive environment

In this close-up shot of an abandoned massive oil infrastructure in the Niger Delta, the toxic emission engulfing the background brings into perspective the literarily dark operating standards of the oil industry in the region. The billowing smoke is symptomatic of the industrial scale pollution trailing petrocapitalism in the region and the over 13 million barrels of crude oil spilled in the delta since the commencement of oil exploration. The pollution in sight implicates the over 7,000 crude oil spill sites documented in the region as at 2013, and reinforces the reported 240,000 barrels annual spill rate from failures of oil installations and complicity of locals involved in the transnational organized crime of crude oil theft (Ordinioha and Brisibe  2013: 12). As Sontag admonishes, photographs ‘are a grammar [and] an ethics of seeing’ (Sontag 2005: 1). In this instance, the image communicates the ontology of crude oil in the Niger Delta marred by levels of pollution comparable to the satanic mills of London and Manchester of the Industrial Revolution.

The entanglement of the children to the abandoned facility speaks to the afterlife of oil extraction in the region and the communal struggle by locals to fashion a new life within the ruins of petrocapitalism. Upon a critical appreciation of this photograph, the oil facility stands out in the Niger Delta as a remarkable determinant of life and modes of existence in the region. Thus, we see the children within the oil facility in manner that their lives are shaped by crude oil politics, and their future is overtly preyed upon by the harmful practices of the oil industry. Under this condition, communal lives emblazoned upon the two children are transformed into precarious lives whose existence are endangered by the constant threat of obliteration either from the unseen violence of environmental pollution or the aggression of the military arm of the state on behalf of oil corporations. Local resistance against the dangerous environmental practices unmasks the crookedness of these corporation in the region. I briefly discuss this below evoking the instances of Saro-Wiwa’s execution, and the ethnic cleansing of the Odi community.


Crooked corporations: Shell in the Niger Delta

Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed by the military junta of General Sani Abacha in November 1995 after a kangaroo court trail of the activist and eight of his Ogoni kinsmen for the death of some locals under mysterious circumstances. In the public domain, it is grounded that Saro-Wiwa’s actual crime was his fierce local and international campaign against Shell for the despoilation of his Ogoni homeland. In his memoir, A Month and a Day (Saro-Wiwa and Boyd 1995), Saro-Wiwa elucidates the collusion between Shell and repressive military regimes of the Nigerian state stretching from the nation’s political independence in 1960. According to Saro-Wiwa, Shell relied heavily upon the military apparatus of the state to silence dissent in the region and enable the corporation to advance its operation. It is within such an unholy alliance that Saro-Wiwa was summarily executed by the Nigerian state for challenging the atrocities of Shell in the region. The corporation thereafter took steps to suppress any institution of legal action against it for complicity in the execution of the activist. However, Shell opted for a $15.5 million out of court settlement on the eve of the case at a federal court in New York in 2009. According to The Guardian, all was set for the prosecuting lawyers in New York to unmask how ‘Shell actively subsidized a campaign of terror by security forces in the Niger Delta and attempted to influence the trial that led to Saro-Wiwa’s execution’.

Comparable to the execution of Saro-Wiwa with the covert influence of Shell, the Nigerian military descended on the Odi community with disproportionate force in 1999 because of the civil unrest which followed the protest against the damaging environmental practices of Shell in the community. At the end of the military onslaught, the Odi community laid waste with over 2,000 fatalities – an entire community razed to the ground but Shell better positioned to advance resource extraction from the region. In essence, oil corporations in the Niger Delta operate behind the veil of very brutal state violence that imbricates the violent nature of colonialism and slavery in the region. While these temporalities historically laid the foundation of the oil industry in the region, the postcolonial state has fastened its nexus with the oil industry for economic gains at the expense of the locals and their ecosystems.


Omoweh, Daniel A. (2005). Shell Petroleum Development Company, the State and Underdevelopment of Nigeria's Niger Delta: A Study in Environmental Degradation, Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.

Ordinioha, Best and Brisibe, Seiyefa (2013). ‘The Human Health Implications of Crude Oil Spills in the Niger Delta, Nigeria: An Interpretation of Published Studies’, Nigerian Medical Journal 54(1): 10–16.

Saro-Wiwa, Ken and Boyd, William (1995). A Month and a Day: A Detention Diary. London: Penguin.

Sontag, Susan (2005). On Photography. New York: RosettaBooks LLC.

Watts, Michael J. (2012). ‘A Tale of Two Gulfs: Life Death, and Dispossession along Two Oil Frontiers’, American Quarterly 64(3): 437–467.

About the Author

Dumebi Obute currently researches Eco-Terrorism as an ostentatious hegemonic narrative for the de-legitimation of grassroot environmental movements. His research is affiliated to the 'Climate Change and Sustainability' policy field as well as 'Legitimation and Delegitimation in Global Cooperation' research group at the Centre. He completed his doctorate at the University of Tübingen where he explored the nexus between the Niger and the Mississippi delta regions of Nigeria and America respectively from enslavement to the environmental ruins of petrocapitalism. Between 2018 and 2022, he taught at the American Studies Program at the University of Tübingen, and he is the co-editor of the forthcoming volume 'Mediascapes of Ruined Geographies in the Global South'.