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date: 30 October 2020

Oil and the International Politics of the African Statefree

  • Cyril ObiCyril ObiThe Africa Initiatives, Social Science Research Council


Recent discoveries of oil in some African countries have rekindled a debate about its place in development and international politics. The debate has pitched those viewing oil as a catalyst for development and a more assertive Africa in global politics against others who point to the negative impact of oil on older established African oil-producing states. Oil as a highly priced geopolitical and strategic commodity will for the foreseeable future shape relations between African petro-states and other global actors, particularly international oil companies and energy-dependent established and emerging global powers. The structural position of specific African petro-states in the global political economy and history, and the nature of their leadership, are defining factors in the diverse aspects of local and international politics, including the prospects for development and a more assertive Africa in international politics.


  • International Relations
  • Political Economy
  • International Relations


In over 10 decades of oil production in Africa (“New Discoveries for Egyptian Oil Producers,” n.d.; “More Than 100 Year Journey,” 2014), the international political economy of oil has evolved through several phases. During this time, oil-producing African countries such as Algeria, Angola, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Libya, Nigeria, and South Sudan have had to engage with and respond to the oil factor. The place of these countries in the international global order is largely defined by oil, which continues to occupy a highly strategic position as the most viable source of domestic, industrial, and automotive energy (Busby, 2006; Marchand, 2017). The central place of “black gold” as the “fiscal basis” of these African states, providing over 70% of national revenues and 90% of export earnings, has also served as the basis for the integration of their economies into the global oil market, making such petro-states important players in international politics in an oil-dependent, energy-hungry world.

However, it should be noted that although an energy-hungry world remains dependent on oil-producing countries, the oil states are also dependent on oil multinationals who extract and market oil globally. Such oil-exporting states remain vulnerable to fluctuations in international oil prices, with far-reaching impacts on their domestic politics and economies. As a relatively cheap commoditized form of energy and a source of immense political power, oil has had an extensive influence on international politics (White & Taylor, 2001, pp. 323–344).

At the local level, oil is significant as a strategic and economic natural resource that dominates and defines political power in many oil-producing countries, or petro-states. In African petro-states, oil is critical in shaping the power relations emerging from oil production and the distribution of oil profits and rents between contending social groups and classes and competing interests. In Nigeria, the Republic of Congo, Algeria, and Angola, state power is dominated by elites that have control over access to oil revenues and the regulation of oil operations. Given the high stakes in gaining access to or controlling oil—a source of immense wealth—its capture is the ultimate prize in the zero-sum struggles for political power. This is a factor that contributes to the rather violent nature of oil politics in some African petro-states such as Nigeria, Angola, Libya, South Sudan, Algeria, and the Congo (Obi, 2014; Watts, 2003, pp. 5089–5099). Given the high stakes in controlling oil as a source of vast wealth, a strategic commodity, and source of energy, oil politics has also been underpinned by a history of violence (Watts, 2003).

In Nigeria, oil politics partly finds expression in an unfinished nation-state project represented by a crisis of its oil-dependent federalism, marked in part by the struggle of the six oil-producing states in the Niger Delta region for local autonomy and control over oil revenues (resource control). These oil states demand the decentralization of federal power over the collection and distribution of oil revenues (Akpabio & Akpan, 2010; Oguine, 1999) and seek to control the oil produced from their region. This struggle, though pursued by a mix of protests and negotiations, has also involved the use of violence by insurgent militia groups in the Niger Delta to demand control over oil, and reprisals against them by state security forces (Obi, 2014).

The impact of oil on domestic politics and governance can also be seen in Africa’s largest producer of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and Europe’s second largest LNG supplier, Algeria, where oil and gas account for over 95% of export earnings and 60% of government revenues (Watanabe, 2017). Oil and gas production remains a critical factor in the government’s ability to maintain political stability and fund a formidable security apparatus (Lowi, 2009).

Another aspect of how oil impacts African petro-states relates to how their dependence on oil export earnings provides considerable leverage to global powers to influence their domestic political and economic policies, as well as international behavior. In this regard, during periods of low oil prices and economic decline, African oil-producing states are more likely to be amenable to international demands for political and economic reforms, particularly by oil-importing global powers.

To give two examples, recent reports place ongoing reforms in Algeria in the context of “three years of low oil prices” and the quest of the government to attract investments and raise revenues with which to respond to growing domestic pressures and “competition in its European market” (Chikhi & Markey, 2017). The same trend has been reported in the case of Africa’s second largest oil producer, Angola, where oil accounts for 95% of export earnings and 75% of government revenues (Corkin, 2017). There are reports of new political and economic reforms aimed at attracting new oil investments to Angola in the bid to shore up declining oil revenues. A similar situation holds true in South Sudan, where oil also accounts for 98% of government revenues (Kuol, 2018). Warring factions of the ruling party signed another peace agreement in 2018, partly under pressure from the international community, and partly to recover from huge losses in oil (national) revenues following five years of civil war (Hruby, 2018; Lewis, 2018; Mbah, 2018).

The international community has also been involved by its high oil stakes in African oil-producing countries in the bid to ensure uninterrupted oil supplies and protect massive oil investments by international oil companies. Such calculations partly explain why Nigeria, Africa’s largest oil producer, received a mere “slap on the wrist” for the military government’s annulment of a free and fair presidential election in 1993, followed by the incarceration of the winner of the election. In the same way, another Nigerian military regime executed nine Ogoni ethnic minority campaigners and environmental rights activists, despite international appeals for clemency, in 1995. The international community and the oil multinational targeted by the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) protests, Shell, preferred to condemn the government’s action but made sure that no oil sanctions were imposed on Nigeria (Lewis, 1996; Pegg, 2015).

Similarly, the international community tolerated the stoppage of vote counting and eventual annulment of free and fair elections by the military in Algeria in 1992 when it appeared that the Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), was heading toward electoral victory in national elections (Hamouchere, 2018). No serious sanctions were imposed on the country, and its oil industry continued to pump oil and gas into the international markets. More recently, oil has reportedly been a strategic consideration in shaping the role of the international community, including China, in brokering peace talks between warring factions of the ruling party in South Sudan (Hruby, 2018). With the signing of another peace accord, it is expected that oil will begin to flow from the country, and international oil companies can expect returns on their investments after a prolonged hiatus.

In Nigeria, as in other oil-producing African countries, struggles over access to and control of oil have fanned the embers of divisive politics. In some cases, it has fueled agitation for access and control of oil by alienated or excluded groups, framed in the discourse of ethnic minority and environmental rights. A notable case of this relates to the initially nonviolent agitation of Niger Delta ethnic minority movements, particularly MOSOP, based on protests against a Nigerian federal government dominated by (non-oil-producing) ethnic majority groups, and an international campaign against foreign oil companies in the 1990s. The MOSOP uprising was, however, severely repressed by government forces following the execution of nine Ogoni activities in 1995 (Obi & Oriola, 2018, pp. 2–3).

By 2006, the protests had assumed a violent dimension in the Niger Delta with the emergence of an insurgent militia group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), which attacked oil infrastructure and forced cuts in oil production and exports, setting off reverberations across the global oil market. The attacks disrupted the operations of major international oil companies that were forced to shut in oil production and spend a lot more on securing oil facilities. The resultant loss in profits and revenues to the companies and the state, the ensuing stalemate in hostilities, and pressures from the international community on the Nigerian government to remove the crippling threat to oil supplies destined for the global oil market contributed to the granting of a presidential amnesty to the Niger Delta ethnic minority militias in exchange for peace in 2009 (Obi, 2014).

Another aspect of the conflict over oil relates to the relationship between local and international actors, and the environmental and socioeconomic impact of the operations of the oil industry on local and host communities. Many local groups protest against the international oil companies for not hiring locals and for the destructive impact of oil operations on the environment and local livelihoods; meanwhile, the state and oil companies partner to extract oil from the region and seek to suppress local protests to allow the free flow of oil. At the same time, local groups elicit the support of international nongovernment organizations (NGOs) to campaign against oil companies and the Nigerian state, while some state officials blame some oil companies for not living up to their corporate social responsibilities to the communities. Thus the conflict over oil assumes contradictory forms and involves complex alliances in which various actors seek to advance opposing interests defined by their position to oil at a given point in time.

Oil dependency also reflects a power relationship at two levels: first, the petro-state relies largely on multinational oil companies that dominate the managerial and technical aspects of oil production and exports. In spite of the long history of the oil industry on the continent, its oil-producing states are yet to assume full control of the technological aspects of oil production, develop domestic capacity to manage its environmental fallouts, or venture into global operations. In more ways than one, they remain locked in a global division of “oil labor,” where African petro-states largely supply crude oil and gas to global markets while Western oil multinationals and state oil corporations from emerging powers such as China and India extract, produce, and market most of the oil from the continent globally, and in some cases re-export refined petroleum products and bi-products to African oil-producing countries.

Oil politics in Africa is therefore inextricably intertwined with globalization and international oil politics. As Africa’s leading oil producer and exporter, and the world’s 11th leading oil producer and member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), a country like Nigeria is a critical player in international politics, but the “logic of globalization also finds expression in the refraction of global power in its local politics” (Singh, 2014, p. 330; Rudra & Jensen, 2011). Oil has also been critical to Nigeria’s national unity, stability, cohesion, and economic growth since it became the chief national revenue earner in the early 1970s. This also suggests that oil endowment is an important contributory factor to Nigeria’s capacity to operate as a regional power in West and Central Africa and the Sahel, and also projecting power into the Gulf of Guinea and beyond. Several international relations scholars have noted the link between Nigeria’s oil power and its foreign policy (Ogunnubi, Onapajo, & Isike, 2017).

Although other African oil producers share some of Nigeria’s traits, there are differences of form and degree in the extent to which oil shapes their international politics. Many pundits are quick to associate activist and rather autonomous foreign policies with periods of oil booms occasioned by high international oil prices, and less-robust foreign policy geared toward reversing the effects of shrinking oil export earnings and growing domestic pressures. Either way, oil looms large in strategic and geopolitical terms over the international politics of all African petro-states. However, this article focuses on Nigeria, which makes an ideal case study for understanding the nexus between this strategic commodity and international politics in the current phase of globalization.

As Africa’s most populous country, it is clear that developments in Nigeria, particularly its oil-rich Niger Delta region, impact the global oil industry. Indeed, the existence of global oil operations in this restive locality, and the targeting of the infrastructure of globally integrated oil operations as well as a global audience by local protesters, is partly informed by the vulnerability of this soft underbelly of a local source of global oil supplies. The growing consumption of oil globally continues to aid the reproduction of a mode of (hydrocarbon-based energy) production that is simultaneously driven and resisted by violence in various parts of Africa and the developing world, including the Niger Delta. Therefore, an understanding of the ramifications of the political economy of the oil industry is critical in defining Nigeria’s place and its development prospects in the emerging global order.

This article is divided into four broad sections. The “Introduction” outlines the ways in which the political economy of oil influences politics in Africa, including Nigeria, showing its connection(s) to international politics based on the economic, strategic, and geopolitical importance of oil at the national and international levels. It is followed by the second section, “Conceptual Issues: The Political Economy of Oil,” which addresses the conceptual issues that underpin the political economy of oil and its linkages to international politics. The third section, “The Evolution of the Oil Industry in Nigeria From Oil Concessions to State Participation,” critically analyzes the evolution of the Nigerian oil industry and unpacks the various dimensions of how the petro-state engages local and international politics and its broader ramifications. The fourth section is “Oil Politics in Nigeria: Local Refractions of the Antinomies of a Petro-State,” and the section “Conclusions: Problems and Prospects” sums up the arguments and examines the prospects for the Nigerian petro-state and international politics.

Conceptual Issues: The Political Economy of Oil

Petroleum constitutes a core element of the current industrial age. According to Busby (2006, p. 35), the discovery of oil and the invention of the internal combustion engine revolutionized human existence in the 20th century and continue to impact other aspects of society in the 21st century. As the most viable source of energy in the world (Busby, 2006, p. 27), oil acts as a catalyst of industrial production and manufacturing, human mobility and transportation, energy, and military power. Synonymous with power, it is the energy source around which modern capitalism revolves.

According to (“The Oil Industry,” 2009), “It lubricates the mechanisms of both national and international politics. Those who can consistently get their hands on the most oil, at the best prices . . . will rule.” It stands to reason that the stakes in controlling oil are very high, and constitute a key element of the energy security interest of the world’s emerging and established powers that are leading consumers of oil, as well as the corporate interests of some of the world’s largest and globally integrated oil companies, with subsidiaries or partners engaged in upstream and downstream operations across many countries.

As an object of power and a source of great wealth, the struggle for the control of oil across the world has historically been bound with extreme violence and associated with political dominance (Watts, 2003, p. 51). Violence is deployed in the quest for control and domination of oil-rich territories or to provide support to unpopular governments that are willing to provide uninterrupted oil supplies to powerful energy-dependent countries or international oil companies. Also some the consequences of oil production for the environment and governance tend to be associated with violence, particularly when oil leads to environmental pollution and degradation with adverse impacts on health and livelihoods, or help to fuel the excesses of authoritarian governments keen to maintain a stranglehold on oil wealth.

Short- to medium-term projections hold that the demand for oil will continue to grow, even if oil-producing states in the developing world no longer enjoy the same level of influence they had during the heydays of the “OPEC revolution” in the decade of the 1970s, when, because of OPEC’s leverage, oil prices quadrupled and member-states had a larger say in the sharing of national oil revenues. On the other hand, speculations about the imminent end of the oil age have not come to pass as demand continues to grow in the face of expanding consumption across the world, as well as the introduction of new technologies for extraction and recovering oil. Also the emergence of new global energy giants—mainly state oil companies from China—means that the global oil industry traditionally dominated by Western oil multinationals faces new contenders, with implications for global energy politics (Obi, 2017a, 2017b).

It is, however, important to note that the power relations between international oil companies and African petro-states continue to marginalize the people in communities of developing countries from which they extract oil (Obi, 2014; Pegg, 1999; Watts & Ibaba, 2011). Such people have no say in the operations of companies; often lose prime land, waters, and livelihoods to the adverse environmental impacts of oil operations; and lack the resources to seek redress or adequate compensation. Inequitable power relations spawned by international oil production contribute to growing inequality between and within countries, the violation of people’s rights, fueling grievances, alienation, and violence. These culminate in socioeconomic and ecological crises and feed a vicious cycle of resistance, repression, and violent struggles over oil.

Oil extraction and production by international oil companies, operating in partnership with national oil corporations of African oil-producing countries, continue to threaten local cultures, and livelihoods of poor rural peasants, indigenous peoples, and ethnic minorities. In spite of local protests, the high premium placed on the search for and access to uninterrupted supplies of cheap oil as a highly prized “commodity of power” means that transnational oil interests often ride roughshod over the rights of local people. For petro-states in the developing world, particularly in Africa, their role in the political economy of oil is a function of their level of integration into the global oil market, the history and structure of their domestic oil economies, and the agency of petro-elites.

At the core of the political economy of the oil industry lie the oil multinationals and globally integrated state oil corporations that dominate the complex integrated operations of the industry on a global scale. They are collectively among some of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful corporations. The international companies, backed by their home governments and shareholders and considerable annual turnovers, tend to have leverage over the petro-states within which they operate. Three of the world’s leading oil companies, Exxon Mobil, Chinese state-owned Petro-China, and Chevron, with revenues of $236.8 billion, $274.6 billion, and $129.9 billion, respectively (Coleman, 2017), dwarf the African petro-states with which they do business, and they are always several steps ahead of their local partners, be they national oil corporations or indigenous oil companies that rely on foreign technology, management, and technical skills. This relationship between unequal oil partners has significant implications for oil politics—local and global.

With greater difficulties in discovering new oil fields and the introduction of new technologies of oil production, growing demand has ensured that the stakes in finding and controlling the world’s remaining oil continues to define the energy security agenda of the United States, the European Union (EU) countries, and Japan, and the rapidly expanding economies of China and India. This is a scenario that defines one of the substantive issues in international politics—the struggle to gain access to and dominate sources of the world’s most viable and strategic source of energy, oil.

This section would be incomplete without questioning some of the perspectives to the political economy of oil based on the resource curse discourse (Lalji, 2007; Obi, 2016; Sala-i-Martin & Subramanian, 2013; Watts, 2003), the paradox of plenty, or rentierism. Of these, the resource curse approach, which seeks to establish a correlation between resource endowment and violent conflict, corruption, and underdevelopment, is perhaps the most influential. It attempts to explain the way(s) oil impacts politics, fueling authoritarian governments and unaccountable leaders who tend to enrich themselves and their cronies from state-controlled oil revenues, and exclude the rest of the populace from the benefits of oil endowment. Omeje faults the resource curse approach on the basis of its “ahistorical narrativism and the over-simplification inherent in its state-centric explanation” (Omeje, 2016, pp. 95–97). The other weakness of this approach is that it confers on oil an agency that it does not possess in real life, and is overly deterministic, leaving no space for the possibility that oil endowment can, under certain conditions and contexts, yield different outcomes.

Rentierism, on the other hand, is used in explaining the behavior of petro-states as political formations that live off oil rents. The approach frames such states as being unaccountable to citizens and characterized by high levels of corruption, poverty, lack of transparency, and authoritarian rule (Akpomera, 2015, pp. 156–158; Obi, 2016). Similar to the resource curse, rentierism tends to offer a distorted narrow and deterministic reading of politics and development in petro-states. It reduces oil to the role of a driver or sole motivator of negative social outcomes associated with violent conflict, corruption, and lack of development (in spite of oil wealth). Such analyses often gloss over historical specificities or manage to obscure the dominant social relations of production and asymmetrical power relations underpinning the control of oil and shaping its impact on society, not the other way around.

Although the international politics of petro-states reflects the place of those states in the global political economy of oil, it is underpinned by a combustible mix of violence, strategic energy interests, and a gulf between powerful energy consumers keen to secure uninterrupted supplies of cheap oil from less-powerful oil producers and exporters largely located in the developing world. Although some petro-states have developed considerable agency in exercising greater control over the oil found in their territories, and harnessing its economic and strategic value, others have not been able to do so.

No two petro-states are exactly the same; neither are the ways in which they engage international politics. Narrow readings of petro-state political behavior in relation to the domestic and international arenas cannot therefore be an exact science. Political trajectories and outcomes are shaped and influenced by several factors: historical, political, and economic, including the nature of their integration into global oil production and accumulation of wealth. As the case of Nigeria shows, it is underscored by the highly asymmetrical relations between the oil multinationals (backed by their home governments) and the Nigerian petro-state that presides over an extraverted oil economy and is dependent on the multinationals. In spite of the recent entry of state oil corporations from China, South Korea, India, Brazil, and other parts of the global South into the Nigerian oil scene, the fundamental mooring of its political economy is largely shaped by its international politics. While professing an activist Afrocentric foreign policy as a putative regional hegemon, the global political economy of oil places limits on Nigeria’s ability to transcend its structural position of a supplier of cheap oil to the global oil market and places a high premium on capturing power over the petro-state as the ultimate prize of national politics.

The Evolution of the Oil Industry in Nigeria From Oil Concessions to State Participation

Although the search for oil in Nigeria had its roots in the first decade of the 20th century, when the country was under British colonial rule (Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation [NNPC], n.d.; Shatzl, 1969; Soremekun & Obi, 1993), it was not until 1956 that oil was struck by Shell BP at Oloibiri (in present-day Bayelsa state). Oil exports commenced two years later and shortly before the country’s national independence in 1960. From its inception, the oil industry in Nigeria was dominated by Western oil multinationals that integrated the country into the global oil market as a supplier of cheap crude oil.

The Nigerian oil industry was built on an ethos and structure that served the interest of an external market, at the behest of the world’s largest and most powerful oil companies, particularly Shell BP (later on Royal Dutch Shell), Mobil, Gulf (later Chevron), Texaco, Elf (later Total), and Agip (later ENI). In the early days, local participation, including indigenous technocratic capacity, was virtually absent. It was not until the early 1970s, after the end of the Nigerian civil war and in the wake of the oil boom, that the Nigerian state took steps to increase its share of profits and rents accruing from oil production by oil multinationals, and created a national oil corporation to participate in, and regulate, the industry.

Nigeria’s international politics at the time was influenced by its membership in OPEC. The country benefitted from OPEC’s “oil activism,” which saw the organization operating at the peak of its power like an oil cartel and imposing biting oil embargoes on the West over the Middle East crises and the Palestinian question, and also use of its domination of global oil supplies to quadruple the price of crude oil in the 1970s. This translated into an oil boom in OPEC-member states, including Nigeria, and tremendously buoyed its Afrocentric foreign policy.

While the Nigerian state, then under military rule, enacted a series of decrees aimed at asserting “entire ownership and control of all petroleum in, under or upon any lands in Nigeria” (Petroleum decree No. 51 of 1969, cited in Obi, 2010, p. 223; Obi, 1997, p. 141), it also embarked on a Pan-Africanist foreign policy, of which one of the highlights was providing leadership and resources for the struggle against the apartheid white minority regime that was oppressing the black majority in South Africa. In pursuit of ownership of oil, the state took up equity participation in the local subsidiaries of oil multinationals operating in the upstream and downstream sectors of the oil industry through a series of joint venture agreements and risk and production sharing contracts. In addition, it embarked on a policy of indigenization of the managerial cadre of oil companies and exclusively reserved certain aspects of the downstream oil sector to Nigerian citizens. This also included state construction of three national oil refineries, in addition to acquiring one originally built by Shell BP, and construction of a nationwide network of oil pipelines and depots.

The post–civil war partnership between the Nigerian state and oil multinationals cemented the integration of the state into the global political economy of oil. Although the joint venture agreements (JVAs), and later on the production sharing contracts (PSCs) and risk service contracts (RSCs) signed between the state and oil companies, appeared to be to the advantage of the state, the companies had considerable technological and strategic leverage over the state that could easily be manipulated to build their profits into the costs of oil production. This partnership between the Nigerian state and oil multinationals, in spite of cosmetic changes over the decades, remains ridden with contradictions. The oil multinationals retain their domination of the technology and management of the industry and have access to the most prolific oil acreages in the country. The relatively few Nigerians that occupy top management or executive positions of oil multinationals are integrated into a transnational oil elite and have mastered the art of implementing policies drawn up in headquarters.

In spite of efforts aimed at liberalizing the oil sector and diversifying the national economy, including ongoing changes in the portfolio of oil investments in the upstream sector of the oil industry, some multinationals are getting rid of onshore oil investments in the face of growing insecurity in the oil-producing Niger Delta region, growing security costs, and changing corporate and strategic priorities. In spite of the recent shift, the upstream sector of the Nigerian oil industry is still dominated by international oil companies—Shell, ChevronTexaco, Exxon Mobil, Total, and Agip. However, oil acreages recently surrendered or sold off by oil multinationals are being increasingly taken over by indigenous oil companies, such as Aiteo, Eroton, Nigerian Petroleum Development Corporation (NPDC), Oriental, and Seplat Newcross, some of which are headed or owned by former Nigerian personnel of oil multinationals, the NNPC, or retired top public officials or ex-military generals.

It can be argued that with the eclipsing of OPEC by recent developments in the global oil industry, including the coming on-stream of new non-OPEC oil-producing states, new technologies for extracting oil from shale or tar sands, and internal dynamics within some non-OPEC countries such as the United States, have considerably reduced the organization’s clout and influence. In this context, many petro-states in the developing world have become less inclined to use oil to leverage foreign policy in the pursuit of collective goals. Rather petro-states like Nigeria have become more pragmatic players, focusing more on domestic politics, where the stakes in the struggle for oil continue to grow while the country strives to retain and expand its role of supplying cheap oil exports to global oil markets in exchange for revenues and a share of oil profits.

Oil Politics in Nigeria: Local Refractions of the Antinomies of a Petro-State

There are also political risks associated with the ways international oil companies and their African petro-state partners alienate the people of oil-producing communities, a situation that is compounded by the environmentally deleterious and polluting impact of oil operations that destroy local livelihoods and impoverish local communities, fueling widespread anger and protests. Aggrieved locals often take out their frustrations on foreign oil companies either by blocking oil installations or through the action of militias and armed groups that attack or kidnap oil company personnel, and sabotage or steal oil from ruptured pipelines, which adversely affects oil operations and exports. The response of the African petro-state and its capacity to mediate the conflict between the company and inhabitants of oil-producing communities has been laden with contradictions and failed or unresolved conflicts.

It has been argued elsewhere that the politics of the Nigerian state has two faces (Ibeanu, 2002). In the context of this section, the focus is more on the internal or domestic, and less on the global “face,” of the politics. Even then, it should be understood that in relation to certain strands of the globalized logic of oil-based extraction and accumulation, “power is refracted in different directions through domestic configurations within societies, such that constellations of social and political forces are embedded historically and institutionally” (Singh, 2014, p. 330). In the Nigerian context, globalized oil logic finds expression in the ways strands of the global political economy of oil are refracted into, and merge with, or are co-opted by the petro-state and actors, all contesting for power over oil.

There are two broad dynamics at play in oil politics in Nigeria. The first has to do with the intensification of the factional struggles over the control of oil revenues, framed as competition for power at the federal level, or as the campaign for self-determination or resource control, led in the main by the Niger Delta ethnic minority elite faction (Oguine, 1999, pp. 115–118) agitating for access to and control of the bulk of the oil revenues realized from their “oil-producing region.” This is a struggle dating back to the pre-independence era, culminating in the first, but abortive secessionist attempt during the “seven-day revolution” led by Isaac Adaka Boro. Boro and his small group of insurgents tried unsuccessfully to secede from Nigeria after declaring a “Niger Delta Republic,” hoping to control the oil in the region, but were defeated by federal troops.

The second had to do with the securitization of the oil in the Niger Delta by Western powers and transnational oil elites, concerned that increased ethnic minority militant attacks and criminal activities in the volatile region may undermine their strategic energy interests and disrupt access to uninterrupted oil supplies (Ukeje, 2011). They are therefore not hesitant to militarize their security response to perceived threats to strategic energy interests by contributing toward reinforcing the capacity of the Nigerian petro-state and private security companies to protect global assets in an oil-rich locale.

The repression of the nonviolent protest movements of the Niger Delta was very pronounced, particularly the MOSOP that waged a campaign of local resistance and sought to mobilize international opinion against oil multinationals and the Nigerian state for violating Ogoni rights to oil and for polluting their lands. The largely nonviolent protest was suppressed by the Nigerian military following the execution of MOSOP leader Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni ethnic minority activists (Obi & Oriola, 2018, p. 2; Pegg, 2015, pp. 607–614). The case of MOSOP has been well studied and is not further explored in much detail here. What is clear is that the movements of the 1990s, including those by other Niger Delta movements such as Chikoko and the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), have been replaced by more militant and insurgent groups that are nimble in deploying a lethal combination of violence, opportunism, criminality, and publicity to pursue their mixed motives, often underpinned by the quest for a slice of the “oil pie” (Obi, 2017a; Watts & Ibaba, 2011). The widespread poverty, extreme inequality, state repression of protest, intra-community conflicts, and the militarization of politics have provided a fertile breeding ground for alienated, unemployed, and marginalized youth, some of them with university educations and with a platform to join armed groups and militias that tap into widespread frustration and anger against the state and the oil multinationals and attack the oil industry.

The militarization of politics in the Niger Delta means that oil largely helps to fuel a brand of politics that operates much like war, in spite of the country’s return to democratic governance in 1999 (Obi, 2017b; Ogundipe, 2017; Olufemi, 2015; Onoyume, 2017; Owolabi & Okwechime, 2007). Within seven years of democratic rule, the oil-producing Niger Delta region had been gripped by a full-blown insurgency. Although the actual fighting involved militias who partly funded their campaign from stolen oil or by extracting tolls from oil operators, there was little doubt of their connections with some Niger Delta elites who were well positioned to use the violence unleashed by insurgent groups like MEND as a bargaining chip with the petro-state–international oil company partnership.

Militias such as MEND targeted the symbols of the state and the arteries of its lifeblood, oil pipelines, and installations, and sought to attract the attention of an international audience. Although it is tempting to conclude that MEND intended to seize power over oil, the real picture is more complicated. Its struggles tended to find expression in a mix of motives. In this regard, the “greed versus grievance binary” or discourse is of little analytical value as it is difficult to ascertain the boundaries of greed and grievance in the murky politics of the highly contested petrolized space. In terms of rhetoric, most of the Niger Delta militias have mastered the use of grievance to mobilize support against the state–oil partnership, local traditional rulers, chiefs, and elites that are reportedly colluding with the state–oil alliance to betray their people in exchange for payoffs, contracts, and lucrative appointments.

In other instances community-based militias have engaged in intercommunity conflict over land, or the opportunity and power to engage with officials of the state or oil companies over matters related to payment of compensation money (for environmental pollution and damage) or the distribution of local contracts. In other instances, intra-communal conflicts involving local gangs are turf wars over the control of oil pipelines, or over the ownership or control of oil-rich territory. The picture is further complicated by evidence that militias are not altogether driven by altruistic motives. Based on exigent calculations, some studies show that they are not averse to colluding with other factions of the elite to opportunistically pursue shared but narrow interests.

For example, when the conflict between the Nigerian state and MEND became stalemated around 2008, it was some of these Niger Delta elites with a good knowledge of the militia camps in the creeks that were instrumental in getting the major militia leaders to enter into dialogue with officials of the Nigerian state. Such discreet negotiations eventually culminated in the declaration of a Presidential Amnesty Program (PAP) for all militias that agreed to “drop their guns in exchange for peace” in 2009. It is therefore not unexpected that as part of the dividend of the deal with some ex-militia commanders, they came by great wealth after being awarded lucrative security contracts by the state and oil companies. They subsequently abandoned the life of struggle in favor of living in splendor and building up a power base in local Niger Delta oil-producing communities (Ebiede, 2017; Eke, 2015; Oluwaniyi, 2018).

Despite the Presidential Amnesty, followed by the emergence of Goodluck Jonathan as the first elected Nigerian president from the Niger Delta, his exit from power after losing the 2015 elections sparked renewed oil conflict in 2016 between the military and the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA), another insurgent militia Niger Delta group (Ebiede, 2017; Obi & Oriola, 2018, p. 32; Onuoha, 2016, pp. 5–7; Oriola & Adeakin, 2018, pp. 138–140; Soriwei, Adetay, & Akinloye, 2016). Although the renewed insurgency petered out within a year, following assurances that the PAP payouts to ex-militants will not be stopped; and the stepping up of several special military operations in the region, protests, and attacks continue to occur episodically in the Niger Delta.

Thus the trajectories of oil politics in the Niger Delta reflect the mix between the militarism, opportunism, and the militarization of resource governance in the region. In spite of the expansion of democratic space to accommodate a vast array of elected and appointed political office holders and non-military actors, high levels of political violence persist both for expressing grievance or protest, or as deployed by the state and private security apparatuses of oil companies seeking to protect and facilitate the conditions for oil extraction.

In a related analysis of oil politics in the Niger Delta, Schultze-Kraft (2017) explores the connections between “political settlements and organized violence and crime.” He argues that “it is impossible to dissociate the renegotiation and reproduction, indeed robustness and stability of Nigeria’s extractive political settlement from organized violence exercised by political, economic, and military elites associated with the federal government, as well as a range of state and non-state actors in the oil bearing delta regions, including the militant groups.” This helps to contextualize the relationship between oil, politics, and the use of violence to negotiate power. It also facilitates an understanding of how elite coalitions organize themselves to contest for power, partly using the threat of or capacity to mobilize violence when negotiating their place in relation to asserting power over state-controlled oil revenues.

Violence is therefore not just the means to but is also embedded in the end, winning the ultimate political prize—power to control and distribute oil revenues. However, this perspective to local politics in the Niger Delta is unable to unpack the specificities of how political settlements include local refractions of the political economy of transnational or global capital. While describing some of the organizing principles of complex elite political configurations in the context of contestations over high oil stakes, there is still a need to unravel the ways in which local refractions of the dialectics of global oil power reflect the antinomies of a fractious petrolized Nigerian state.

Conclusion: Problems and Prospects

The foregoing sections point to how the Nigerian petro-state engages international politics, reflecting both the nature of its integration into the global political economy of oil and the local refractions of global oil politics. While noting how contestations for oil power fuel violent politics, it also underlines how fractious petro-elites engage in zero-sum struggles for the capture of state power, giving it a rather unstable character. The state is therefore both a source of immense wealth and power, rendering it an “over-politicized” space, where competing and complementary interests strewn across local, national, and global levels and spaces constantly seek to struggle, negotiate, leverage, or seize power over oil.

The foregoing situation is further complicated by the multiethnic elite factions competing for power and gives some African petro-states limited cohesion and leverage to act as a major force in international politics, bound as they are to the vagaries of the global oil market and multiple pressures emanating from within their ruling elites and popular pressures “from below.” The petro-state’s international politics is therefore largely influenced by shifting fortunes in the global market, the strategic calculations of the ruling petro-elites, and the leverage of the oil multinationals that dominate the oil industry and play a key role in reproducing its integration into the global political economy of oil.

The Nigerian case helps illustrate how oil continues to play a central role in shaping the capacity of other African petro-states to engage in international politics, perhaps even going as far as setting limits on their forays into the international arena and keeping them within the global division of oil labor that consigns petro-states in the developing world to the role of suppliers of crude oil and gas to the global market. It is not possible to fully come to terms with Nigeria’s international oil politics without paying close attention to politics in the Niger Delta, both as a localized space for refracted globalized power relations over oil and a localized terrain where social forces agitating for minority rights and resource control are engaged in a set of complex struggles over oil power. These political forces are often ambivalent, pitched against the petro-state, which relies on a mixture of violence, and colluding with it in negotiating political settlements for access to power and control of oil.

In this connection, it is therefore impossible to completely separate the local from global politics in Nigeria, a case that equally holds true for other African petro-states like Angola, Algeria, Gabon, Libya, and South Sudan. However, it is also impossible to simply assume the global political economy of oil is completely free of local co-optation and manipulation by African states, which also influence the politics of an international community that is addicted to oil and keen to ensure uninterrupted supplies of oil and lucrative investments in the growing African oil sector.

Contestations over oil power in the various African petro-states will continue at various levels and intensities to shape their domestic and international politics in the world for the foreseeable future. This scenario also holds true for African new oil states such as Ghana, Mauritania, South Sudan, Equatorial Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Uganda, Kenya, and Mozambique, who are keen to avoid the mistakes of the older oil states such as Nigeria, Angola, Algeria, and Gabon. It is a bit early to tell if the “new kids on the block” will be better insulated against the cyclical oil shocks in the global oil market, build effective institutions for managing their oil wealth, or effectively curtail the pervasive influence of oil over politics. The early indicators suggest greater awareness of Africa’s new oil states of the need to harness oil endowment to national development goals and good democratic governance, but the structure of oil investments remains largely dominated by international oil companies and the export of crude oil and gas, making them no less vulnerable to the influence of fluctuating global oil prices and global oil companies.

The key driving elements of oil and the international politics of African oil states, old and new, will largely be influenced by the economic, energy security, and strategic significance of oil. It will also be shaped by global politics related to climate and environmental changes linked to oil pollution and global securitization of the continent. It also partly suggests that Africans, both from oil-rich and non-oil-producing countries, will continue to bear the brunt of oil politics, particularly the price fluctuations, and the militarization of oil extraction and the security of petro-states. Petro-politics has so far failed to transform African oil-producing countries, which remain intricately tied to the global political economy of oil. The prospects for any radical change or development will for the foreseeable future hang between the complex petro-politics and a clear shift in the balance of power between the highly fractious elites that have captured power in African petro-states, African people, and the centers of power in the global political economy of oil.


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