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Niger Delta: History, states, population and importance to Nigeria

Niger Delta: History, states, population and importance to Nigeria

Nigeria comprises six geopolitical zones – North-Central, also known as the Middle Belt, North-East, North-West, South-East, South-West, and the South-South, popularly known as the Niger Delta. According to Niger Delta Budget, apart from the Middle Belt, the Niger Delta Region, NDR, is the most studied region of the world. There are many works of literature that were inspired by the happenings in the region.

Most of the material comes from the developmental struggles in the region, which is ironically where the nation gets most of its oil revenues from. The Niger Delta region is a gold mine for Nigeria. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the indigenous people who suffer the after-effects of neglect and lack of defined oil mining policies.

What is Niger Delta?

Wikipedia describes the Niger Delta as the delta of the Niger River sitting directly on the Gulf of Guinea on the Atlantic Ocean in Nigeria. The Niger Delta includes all six states in the South-South region, two states in the South-East, and one state in the South-West. These states are rich in crude oil, which serves most of Nigeria’s exports and GDP.

The Niger Delta is sometimes called Oil Rivers because it was once a major palm oil producer. It was the British Oil Rivers Protectorate from 1885 until 1893 before it expanded and became the Niger Coast Protectorate. Furthermore, the region has made international headlines for decades with reports of pollution, mostly from oil spills by multinational corporations in the petroleum industry. This environmental disaster has led to a very low quality of life in the region, with most people in poverty. As a result, there have been major conflicts between the people through the Niger Delta militants and the government/oil corporations.

History of Niger Delta

Before the arrival of European merchants, the Niger Delta was inhabited mainly by the Ijo peoples, who lived in small creekside fishing villages ranging from two hundred to about a thousand inhabitants. The head of the village was called the Amanyanabo (or Amakasowei), elected by the heads of the various wards or patrilineages. After the slave trade was introduced, the region expanded into trading kingdoms like Bonny, Owome (New Calabar), Okrika, Brass (Nembe), Efik trading state of Old Calabar, and the Itsekiri kingdom of Warri.

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The people traded well with other hinterland people, mainly the Igbos and Ibibios. The Igbos traded dried fish and salt for fruit and iron tools. However, the slave trade disrupted these activities as slave traders brought salt, dried fish, and new consumer goods such as cloth and metal utensils to buy slaves among the region’s people.

After the slave trade was abolished, attention was shifted to trading in palm oil. The Niger Delta was the British Oil Rivers Protectorate from 1885 until 1893, before the area expanded and became the Niger Coast Protectorate. It later became a part of the eastern region of Nigeria in 1951. The majority of the Niger Delta people were from the colonial Calabar, Itsekiri, and Ogoja divisions, the present-day Ogoja, Itsekiri, Annang, Ibibio, Oron, Efik, Ijaw, and Ogoni. Crude oil was discovered in 1956 and has grown to become central to Nigeria’s economy.

Crude Oil in the Niger Delta

The then Eastern Region had the third, fourth and fifth largest indigenous ethnic groups in Nigeria, including Igbo, Efik-Ibibio, and Ijaw. However, a crisis began in the region when the Igbo majority expelled from office one of the pioneer nationalists for Nigeria’s independence, Prof. Eyo Ita.

Ita was an Efik man from Calabar and was said to be one of the major advocates for the minorities in the region (Ibibio, Annang, Efik, Ijaw, and Ogoja) to create a state of their own called the Calabar-Ogoja-Rivers (COR) state. After his expulsion, Ita left The National Council of Nigeria and Cameroon (NCNC), the ruling political party in the region, to form the National Independence Party.

In 1961, present-day southwestern Cameroon, located in Akwa Ibom and Cross River, separated from Nigeria, while the north kept northwestern Cameroon in Nigeria, in present-day Adamawa and Taraba states. Till this day, there is a dispute between Cameroon and Nigeria over the small territory of Bakassi.

Another crisis in the region began when Isaac Adaka Boro declared the Independent Niger Delta Republic just before the Nigerian civil war. Also, before the civil war, Southeastern State ( made up of colonial Calabar division and colonial Ogoja division) and Rivers State were created. These two states became states for the minorities of the old eastern region, while the majority Igbo of the old eastern region had East Central state. The southeastern state was later divided into present-day Cross River and Akwa Ibom States. Rivers was also divided into present-day Rivers and Bayelsa states.

However, the entire eastern region suffered heavily from the 1967–1970 Nigerian Civil War after the region declared an independent state of Biafra. The crisis continued in the region after the war as local communities demanded environmental and social justice from the federal government. Ken Saro Wiwa and the Ogoni tribe led the struggle. The people protested against the lack of economic development like schools, good roads, and hospitals in the region, despite all the oil wealth created. Ken Saro Wiwa and nine other oil activists from the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) were later arrested and killed under Sani Abacha in 1995.

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The struggle continued long after their deaths with the emergence of the Niger Delta militants. These militants adopted harsher measures by bombing major oil facilities in the region, kidnapping and killing government officials and foreign oil expatriates. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), a large militant group in the region, carried out most of the activities to force the government’s hand.

Eventually, the government caved and introduced initiatives to help the region. They include the Niger Delta Development Commission, a government initiative, and the Development Initiative, a community development non-governmental organization based in Port Harcourt. In August 2009, the Nigerian government under President Umaru Yar’adua granted amnesty to the militants who made many drop their weapons for a presidential pardon, rehabilitation programme, and education.

Niger Delta states

Nger Delta states in the map of Nigeria
Source: International Business Times

Here are all nine states in the Niger Delta:

  • Abia State (South-East)
  • Akwa Ibom State (South-South)
  • Bayelsa State (South-South)
  • Cross River State (South-South)
  • Delta State (South-South)
  • Edo State (South-South)
  • Imo State (South-East)
  • Ondo State (South-West)
  • Rivers State (South-South)

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Niger Delta population

Niger Delta land area and population size

The Niger Delta is home to over 30 million people according to a 2006 consensus by the National Population Commission. The image above is a breakdown of the population in each state of the region.

Why is the Niger Delta important?

  • The Niger Delta has substantial oil and gas reserves. Oil mined in the area accounts for 95 percent of the country’s foreign exchange earnings.
  • Niger Delta is also biodiverse, with its mangroves providing carbon sequestration capacity and supporting a wide variety of plant and animal life, as well as the agriculture and fishing on which many in the region rely for their livelihoods.
  • The Niger Delta is still important for the South-East, a region that is still struggling with integration with other parts of the country. South-East is also the smallest region in Nigeria which makes alliance with their closest neighbours in the Niger Delta very important.

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Nonye is a Thespian, screenwriter, creative writer and an unapologetic lover of books, great movies and sports. She has over 10 years experience in content writing on entertainment, movies, sports and lifestyle. Nonye is currently a content writer at Blackdot Media and founder of
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