MOST Ethno-Net publication: Africa at Crossroads


Africa at Crossroads: Complex Political Emergencies in the 21st Century,

UNESCO / ENA, 2001

State-Making and Internal Population Displacement:
Factoring the State into Forced Migration in Nigeria during Military Rule 

Okechukwu Ibeanu
P.O. Box 3106
Department of Political Science
University of Nigeria, Nsukka

This paper argues that the problem of population displacement in countries like Nigeria is not just to be understood as being of the state’s making, but, more fundamentally, as a problem of state-making. It questions the prevalent explanation of population displacement as a problem of state actions and wrong policy choices by state officials, arguing that such an explanation tends to be subjectivist, legalistic, and reifies the state. By so doing, this explanation pays inadequate attention to the determinant role of social forces in state-making and its consequences for population displacement. The paper reviews the process of state-making in Nigeria during the period of authoritarian-military rule. It identifies three forces as setting the limits of the process namely, the militariat, petrobusiness and communalism. The coincidence of these three yielded three major conflict fault lines in the country. These are conflicts in oil-producing areas, communal conflicts and conflict linked to democratisation. Much of internal population displacement in Nigeria during the period was the product of these state-making conflicts.

Internal population displacement has emerged as a major global problem since the end of the Cold War. In 1998, it was estimated that there were 20-22 million internally displaced people in the world, most of them in Africa (Hampton, 1998: xv; Schmeidl, 1998; Bennett, 1998: 28). The marked increase in this population has, understandably, been accompanied by an increased attention of the international community, policy makers and academics, resulting in a concomitant rise in research on Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) (Ludlam-Taylor, 1998). 

The predominant inclination in existing knowledge is to see the rising tide of internal population displacement as the fault of the state and the actions of those that run it. Factors such as human rights violation, poor policy choices, political instability, poor social and welfare provisioning and the inability of the state to manage social conflicts are commonly held accountable for the problem (Helle, 1998; McNamara, 1998). Having defined the problem as one of state management, recourse is then made to the establishment of a normative framework to guide state behaviour towards its citizens. It is not surprising that the Secretary-General’s Special Representative on IDPs has focused attention on the development of such a normative framework, culminating in the release of the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement in 1998 (UN, 1998; Deng, 1998). 

To be sure,  the “poor state management” thesis is not necessarily wrong because years of authoritarianism and corruption in Africa has led to rising state violence against citizens. However, it is inadequate for understanding the problem of internal population displacement. For one thing, it tends to reify the state and attributes to the state and its managers an independence of action that may not exist in reality. In other words, it obscures the fundamental social relations that shape the actions of the state. As such, the actions that are attributed to the state and subjects occupying its institutions are in fact the practices of social forces in struggle. For another thing, this approach portrays the state as always a finished project, thereby overlooking the fact of state-making and its dynamics. This is particularly significant in understanding the problem of displacement in Africa, where the process of state-making is still very much an unfinished project.

The central argument of this paper is that the problem of population displacement is not to be understood simply as a making of the state, rather, more fundamentally, it is a problem of state-making. We shall argue that historically state-making has been a displacement generating process (cf. Zolberg, 1985) and that the colonial pattern of state-making and its crises frame the objective conditions that deepen population displacement in Nigeria. 

Problematising internal population displacement: situating the state properly
The dominant perspective on population displacement locates it as a problem of "forced/involuntary migration". This perspective is based on a force-subject-migration reasoning. Implicit in this matrix is the idea that force (war, ethnic conflict, drought, etc.) acts in externality on a person (subject) as a push factor, leading to a rational, albeit kinetic/coerced, decision to relocate. This type of migration is usually distinguished from "voluntary migration" in which the force-subject-migration matrix is mediated by a "positive motivation" to move based on a rational assessment by the subject that life will be better in a new place. Here, force acts on the subject as a pull factor, this time from the destination (Kunz, 1973; 1981; Hansen, 1981: 190; Suhrke, 1983: 164- 5).

The force-subject-migration perspective on population displacement has many inherent weaknesses. In the first place, at a purely theoretical level, it treats force as being of the same magnitude in all cases. We do not know if different forces in all circumstances or the same force in different circumstances yield the same result - migration. Second, it does not consider the different capacities of subjects to absorb or contain force. In fact, even in physics from where this perspective has draw part of its inspiration, the concept of displacement incorporates the idea that not all molecules have the same velocity. Third, it treats all displacement as involving relocation.

Furthermore, the epistemological principles of subjectivism and the "rational actor" which inform this perspective are flawed. As a subjectivist outlook, it treats displacement as an individual matter, rather than a group one. This distorts the fact that individuals act principally as agents of social ensembles, and that the relationship between a social group and its individual members is a complexly structured one. Related to this is the problematique of the rational actor as the basis of social action. In this regard, "voluntary migrants" are distinguished from displaced persons on the basis that they have time to assess the situation rationally, unlike displaced persons whose movement is coerced and kinetic, like atoms in motion. The problematique of the rational individual as the basis of social action leads sociological research finally to a search for eschatological (finalist) explanations founded on the motivations of the conduct of individual actions, rather than the conflicting interests of social ensembles.

For one thing, the subjective will and motivation of individuals need not take precedence over their objective distribution into social ensembles with delineable interests and practices. Individuals are located in these ensembles as their agents, and in the final analysis the collective interests and practices of a social ensemble are not equal to the sum total of the interests and practices of individuals situated in it. For another thing, it is not particularly correct to assume that decisions are ever made under conditions of full information in which all possible alternatives are considered in a "rational-comprehensive" manner. As such, neither displaced people nor the so-called voluntary migrants have full knowledge of "conditions" and "alternatives" in the destination before relocating. Also, to suggest that displaced people lack a "positive motivation" to relocate does not help very much. The fact is that there is always a threshold for any threatened group (and individuals as their agents) beyond which continued stay in the current abode is an unacceptable option. Whether it is ten minutes before an invading army arrives or five years within which a wage level is incapable of sustaining a decent life is not very material. 

Above all, the distinction between "push forces" and "pull forces" as motivations for migration is also inadequate. It overlooks the dialectical relationship between push and pull factors. A push is at the same time a pull. Negative and threatening changes in the place of origin are assessed in terms of expectations and belief that life will be better and more secure in the destination. Therefore, we cannot distinguish displaced populations on the basis of the push-pull matrix.

The United National Guiding Principles on IDPs generally follows this epistemology that has dominated the understanding of population displacement in the last half century (Ibeanu, 1999). The Guiding Principles define the problem of “internal population displacement” in terms of victims and circumstances, rather than the process itself. According to the document:
. . . internally displaced persons are persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border (UN, 1998).

To be sure, this definition improves slightly on the definition of refugees contained in the 1951 Convention in two ways. First, it recognises the conditions of people displaced by the so-called non-political factors like “natural disasters”. A good deal of the conceptual debate that has gone on in the past four decades over the 1951 Instrument has been about the expansion of the factors generating refugees. While many people have called for a recognition of the “non-political” factors and therefore expansion of the mandate of the UNHCR, others have tried to create new categories and labels such as “economic refugees” and “environmental refugees”. Secondly, the Guiding Principles go beyond the individualisation of refugee experience that underpinned the 1951 Convention, by recognising the group character of displacement, albeit in a contradictory fashion. According to the principles, “internally displaced persons are persons or groups of persons”. By adopting the notion of internally displaced persons, the Guiding Principles clearly set out to define individuals. At the same time, the principles speak of “groups of persons”, ostensibly recognising that displacement also has a group dynamic. However, it seems to us that there is a contradiction in defining internally displaced persons (individuals) as groups of persons. We think that this contradiction arises from a hangover of the subjectivist and legalistic traditions of the past four decades, which create a dilemma over the correct weight to accord to the individual and the group in displacement.

In defining legal persons (persons to be recognised as displaced), the Guiding Principles, like the 1951 Convention, are clearly addressed principally to politicians, bureaucrats and lawyers. In particular, the definition is conditioned by the concern of politicians to separate refugees from “other displaced groups”. Consequently, we have a definitional antilogy in which one social category (internally displaced) is defined based on the characteristics of another social category (refugees). In short, IDPs are refugees who have not crossed an internationally recognised border.

The GPs definition of displacement could be quite problematic in the African context, for State borders inherited from colonialism continue to be seriously contested. To define IDPs in terms of Africa’s volatile boundaries could contribute to the growth of irredentism and “affinity intervention”, that is cross-border action by one state on behalf of its ethnic “kith and kin” in other states. This would make the already unstable border relations in Africa even more precarious. Related to this, the definition could encourage the “internally displaced” to seek to cross an “internationally recognised border” as a means of getting support and assistance. This could heighten hostilities among African States especially where borders divide ethnic groups and there is already a history of border problems.

Perhaps most importantly, the GPs assign the main task of assisting and protecting IDPs to states. On that, the GPs are questionable on two grounds. First, they suggest that states can and/or are willing to provide such assistance and protection. This contrasts markedly from refugees for whom the international community has a principal responsibility. This could lead displaced people to opt for “refugeehood” instead of internal displacement. The consequences of displaced people consciously heading for an internationally recognised border would be enormous indeed. Secondly, it is paradoxical that the state, which is highly implicated in the internal displacement of people, is given the responsibility of protecting its own victims. This paradox is deeply rooted in the notion of non-interference and sovereign equality of states, which fails to recognise that the process of state-making is still very much in progress in many societies experiencing a high incidence of displacement. Consequently, while the vast majority of people in these societies are far ahead of the international community in conceptualising and addressing the problem of population displacement. While the people address the problem as one that is integrally linked to the transformation of the state (state-making), the international community tends to address it statically within existing political structures (non-interference).

Contrary to these prevalent notions, we shall try to understand population displacement as an expression of a specific social relation. It expresses a relation among social groups the interests of which tend to be antagonistic. It refers to the capacity of a social group to attain its interests, especially basic needs of its members, in relation to other groups. Any social ensemble that is consistently unable to attain these needs, usually because it is socially disadvantaged, is experiencing displacement. There is a strong tendency for such a group to move either en mass or as individuals. Displacement is therefore a relation in which a group loses control over the resources of society and the physical protection of its members. Although such a group is highly prone to migration, relocation is only an "extreme" manifestation in the long process of displacement. Other manifestations of displacement include starvation, mass suicide, denial of identity, vagrancy, etc. Indeed, displacement begins long before relocation takes place, if it takes place at all.

It is also in this context that we conceptualise “internal population displacement”.  Contrary to dominant formulations that suggest the constitution of a separate, regional theory of internal population displacement, we situate it within a global theory of population displacement. Internal should not be understood as defining a primary conceptual category as in the prevalent matrix of IDPs (internal) as distinct from Refugees (external). Neither should it be understood as a formulation of a regional theory of internal population displacement. Rather, it is only a way of inserting a purely secondary parameter into our theory of displacement, namely the exact location of a displaced and relocated population. What is primary is to correctly conceptualise the social relations involved in the displacement of people. Whether the displaced remain within the boundaries of a state or move across them is clearly a secondary theoretical issue. In other words, the idea of internal population displacement is useful only to the extent that it is situated within the general social relations of displacement as a marker of relocation. Movement across international boundary is only another marker.

Viewed in terms of social relations, we may surmise that first, a central issue in population displacement is group security: security of livelihoods, food security, security of identity, environmental security and, above all, physical security. Second, conflict is a principal factor in understanding displacement. The contradiction of group interests inherent in population displacement means that social antagonisms from time to time boil over into physical conflicts and violence, especially wars and social unrest. When this happens, relocation becomes an inevitable option. Finally, population displacement as a problem of the state needs to be properly problematised. In the modern society, the state frames, focuses and mediates social antagonisms. Its role is always to keep such antagonism within the bounds of order that is, preventing them from boiling over into open conflicts and physical violence. To achieve this, the state must always rise above the interests of social groups, forging consensus and acting as a guarantor of the collective security of all groups. By so doing, the state appears as autonomous, the representative of the collective and corporate interests of all groups - the people-nation. Population displacement is therefore most likely to occur in situations in which the state is unable to perform these functions.

This is what marks out the state in developing societies. Conflicts and insecurity characterised by state violence constitute a principal causal factor in population displacement in these societies. To be sure, conflicts and insecurity are two sides of the same coin for conflicts always arise in contexts in which groups and States perceive their security to be under threat. Here, security should not be seen exclusively in the realist tradition solely in terms of the state and military power. Instead, social security, which encompasses the security of groups and individuals, needs also to be stressed. In this regard, security from poverty, hunger, disease, ignorance, arbitrary power, fear and want, both for groups and individuals/households, constitute cardinal issues in the security discourse. In fact, there is an organic link between the security of the state and social security. This point is usually overlooked by authoritarian regimes in the Third World because they privilege state security over everything else. Without social security, conflict becomes the order of the day, thereby threatening the security of the state. This is particularly so in countries where human development is declining precipitously. It is not surprising that such countries experience high levels of violent conflicts as well as population displacement. 

It is a principal responsibility of the state to guarantee social security for all groups through the management of their contradictory claims to resources and conflicting perceptions of conditions necessary for their security. An examination of the state in developing countries like Nigeria shows that it has been unable to effectively rise above, mediate and manage these conflicts by non-violent means. Instead, the state itself has become an instrument used in the name of regional, ethnic, religious, class, clan and other special interests. It has become deeply embroiled in social struggles as a partisan supporting some groups against others. This state also tends to be authoritarian in character, partly because groups that control it resist demands to broaden the base of power and participation.

The partisanship and authoritarianism of the state impact profoundly on conflicts. In the first place, social relations are particularly violent and conflictive for a privatised state becomes the instrument of groups in prosecuting social struggles. Next, state violence becomes a principal variable in social conflicts. The repression unleashed by a privatised state against targeted groups has become a major cause of conflict. Moreover, since the state has become essentially a repertory of violence used against specific groups, instead of a repository of all the interests of the people-nation, the violence that it vents in conflicts is devastating in terms of social cost. Finally, state violence makes conflict resolution very difficult.

All these also hold grave consequences for both state security and social security. First, because the state is privatised and parcelled out to groups and interests, the private security of individuals and groups is increasingly projected as the security of the state. Second, internal security of the state, which consists in the use of limited force or violence in the maintenance of internal order, by contrast becomes an unending cycle of conflict and violence as state violence leads to resistance by targeted groups, which leads to more state violence and more resistance. Third, the capacity of the state to contain external aggression tends to decrease as a result of internal insecurity and spiral of violence created by state aggression against targeted sections of society. Growing social strife and insecurity among victims of state violence create a fertile ground for the internationalisation of internal conflicts. Fourth, environmental security also decreases tremendously. On the one hand, we find that violence and internal strife undermine the ability of people to protect the natural environment. In fact, there is a positive correlation between environmental stress and social stress. On the one hand, in situations in which entire villages are destroyed by marauding armies and private militias, or where people are generally impoverished, environmental protection will be the least of their concerns. On the other hand, state violence fuels the inefficient exploitation of natural resources as the privileged employ the state to perpetuate unsustainable use of natural resources and degradation of the environment.

The state-making dimension
The problems of conflicts, state violence and insecurity in countries like Nigeria, which generate population displacement, are organically connected to the experiences of these countries with state-making. State-making involves both vertical relations and horizontal relations (Ake, 1997). The first set of relations has to do with the imposition of domination over independent social formations by bringing them together into one polity dominated by the centralising power. These relations include:
- the imposition of a chain of command;
- extraction of political allegiance and social surplus;
- making and enforcement of laws;
- transformation of the subordinated social formations into a coherent economy and polity; and 
- elimination of the resistance of the subject formations to the hegemonic-centralising power.

On the other hand, horizontal relations have to do with struggles for domination and subordination among constituent social forces in the emergent state. These find expression in:
- the renewal of primordial identities and solidarities;
- communal competition among subject communities for access to central power, especially competition among communities that were antagonistic prior to their common subjugation to the centralising power;
- strategies for evading the state’s demands and coercion;
- alliances and projects for local empowerment;
- cultivation by groups of new exclusivist identities and solidarities; and
- manoeuvres for forms of exclusivity by which the elite of particular groups and communities attempt to disable potential competitors.

State-making in Nigeria has to be understood in terms of these relations. Still as a capitalist state, these vertical and horizontal relations have to be situated first and foremost in the genealogy of capital accumulation worldwide. Like all organic systems, capitalism has historically grown or expanded both intensively and extensively, the former usually preceding the latter. The period of intensive growth of capital as a social force was characterised by the creation of national markets under a single central state. This process which took place in Europe mainly between the 16th and 18th Centuries A.D. is clearly distinguishable from the fragmentation of the state and economy, and the parcelling out of state power as prebends under feudalism. 

The stage of extensive growth of capital is the stage of “internationalisation” and, later, colonialism. Propelled principally by crisis “back home”, it was based on a logic of accumulation with measured social transformation and minimal social responsibility. At this stage, there was really no need for the complete dissolution of pre-capitalist social forces, institutions and solidarities as in the stage of intensive growth of capital, when these were tabooed and systematically wiped out (Zolberg, 1985; Ibeanu, 1993a). Consequently, in the colonies there was a great deal of preservation effect on the pristine order in a new symbiosis with capital, especially where the precapitalist order ensured accumulation without responsibility. As a result, the emergence and hegemony of the market-oriented, formally free and autonomous individual as the subject of economic and political organisation was only partially realised. Thus, the vast majority of colonised peoples at this stage of expansion of capital, whether in the urban or rural areas, continued to exist as agents of pristine social forces and solidarities. In Nigeria, the strongest manifestations of these are ethnic groups. In other countries communalism has taken other forms like race, religion or a combination of cultural factors.

The problem with these pristine forces is that they have a tendency towards exclusivism, totalitarianism and authoritarianism. They invariably define people as “in-group” and “out-group”, and lay claim to the total control of the lives of members of the “in-group”. They become even more exclusivist and totalitarian as they are assailed by new capitalist culture and solidarity, which tend to threaten their exclusiveness and contest the total control of their members. This is worsened by the divide and rule strategy of colonialism, which sought to keep the various communal ensembles apart in order to dominate them. Above all, the massive power of both colonial capital and the colonial state, which in many cases were used only to breach the liberty and well being of the colonised, only served to heighten anxiety and drive people deeper into the embrace of communalism. Paradoxically, this anxiety of the colonised had a dialectical character. On the one hand it was marked by a proclivity to “avoid” the Leviathan colonial state, while on the other hand it was marked by a predilection to make a fetish of its power and nurse a deep desire to inherit it on behalf of sectional, pristine interests.

As part of its specific historical constitution as a specific moment of the global domination of capital, the colonial state generally does not exist as an objective force standing above society and holding its antagonisms in a balance. This is quite unlike the state that emerged from the intensive stage of growth of capitalism in Europe (Ibeanu, 1993a). All through history, the constitution of capitalism has always been an authoritarian project. From the ‘enclosures’ in Europe through the ‘conquistadors’ in Latin America to the colonial pacification of Asia and Africa, force, brutality and repression, rather than dialogue, discussion and bargaining have been the initial driving forces behind the constitution of the hegemony of capital. However, once constituted by an initial act of force, economic domination becomes increasingly routinised and autonomous, through the market. At the political level, the emergent “community of commodity bearers will necessarily evolve executive power as an independent public force administered in strict conformity to the rule of law” (Ake, 1985:2). In this way, a “civil society” emerges and political domination also becomes autonomised, institutionalised and legitimised. 

Contrariwise, in the colonial setting, colonised peoples were neither seen as equal commodity bearers with Europeans nor integrated into a national market. Instead, they were perceived as occasional petty commodity producers and consumers of European finished products. At the political level, only the white-settler population initially, and much later a few indigenous urban dwellers, were part of civil society and therefore subject to the rule of law. Consequently, the vast majority of the indigenous peoples of the colony remained outside of “civil society”. This gave the colonial state a dual character. One part, a smaller part, was for the citizen, was autonomised and functioned according to the rule of law. The larger part was organised under the rubric of Native Authority, existed for the colonial subjects, who were organised into communal groups, and functioned principally to conquer and keep these native-subjects down (Mamdani, 1996). In this part of the colonial state, state violence reigned supreme. Unfortunately, at independence it was the Native Authority part of the colonial state, rather than the civil authority part that survived. Because it was never really accepted by most groups as the guarantor of their collective security, its constitution and functioning remains widely contested. This contest is expressed both vertically in the relation between the state and constituent groups, principally communal groups, and horizontally in the relation among communal groups.

As a result of its history, there was no question of evolving, routinising and institutionalising principles for the non-arbitrary use of the Native Authority part of the colonial state. In the post-colonial era, this state passed into the hands of a pseudo-capitalist class that was seeking to become economically dominant. It then became for its controllers a powerful instrument for acquiring private wealth, and a monstrous instrument in the hands of individuals and communal ensembles for pursuing private welfare to the exclusion of others. The major task of state-making in Nigeria has been to transcend this anti-democratic Native Authority state that is prone to conflict. Incidentally, the process of transcending that state is itself fraught with displacement-generating conditions.

State making and authoritarian rule in Nigeria: militariat, petrobusiness and communalism 
During the period of military rule which ended in May 1999, state-making in Nigeria was principally expressed in the synergetic convergence of three forces: the militariat, petrobusiness and communalism (in its ethnic and religious forms). Singly, they represent the major political, economic and cultural contents of state-making, and jointly they set the limits and congealed the crisis of state-making in Nigeria. By the militariat we designate the Nigeria’s dominant social category. Although the ascendance of the militariat was set in motion by the persistence of military rule in Nigeria in the past thirty-two years, it is by no means exclusively a military ensemble. In terms of its class character, the militariat articulates positively with the business (comprador) classes. This positive articulation arises, principally, from the fact that militariat draws the bulk of its members from among the comprador. Secondly, they are united by their interest in the maintenance of authoritarian rule generally and military rule in particular. Thirdly and most specifically, corruption manifesting predominantly in public works contracts is also a uniting factor. 

Apart from the comprador, the militariat as a social category also draws members from other classes and fractions including in particular the professionals (petty bourgeoisie) and foreign business interests, especially those investing in the crude oil sector. Although the petty bourgeoisie is presently the weakest element in the militariat, it is a traditional supporter of the emergence of the militariat. As the class that inherited the colonial state, the petty bourgeoisie has always supported a “strong state”, ostensibly because it is only such a state that could engender rapid economic transformation required in the post-independence era. More correctly however, because of its engagement in petty commodity production and inheritance of the colonial state, the petty bourgeoisie inevitably required a militarist state capable of continuing the regimentation and control of labour began by the colonialists. Indeed, petty bourgeois politics was responsible for the politicisation of the military in the first place. However, this class has increasingly lost its social dominance, so much so that Nigerians widely speak of the disappearance of the middle class. The economic reforms of the 1980s (Structural Adjustment Programme) were particularly conducive to the pauperisation and paling of the petty bourgeoisie (Asobie, 1993). 

The interest of foreign business classes in the rule of the militariat is most forcefully linked to the petroleum industry in Nigeria. The bulk of foreign private investment in Nigeria is in this sector of the economy. With the presence of international oil giants like Shell, Elf Aquitaine, Mobil, Total and Chevron, this sector remains a money-spinner for foreign capital. However, it is also a very volatile sector because of increasing hostility of local host communities towards the practices, especially environmental impact, of these oil-prospecting companies. Here, foreign capital in the industry enlists the militariat as a means of cowing down their increasingly hostile host communities and to continue to exploit crude oil at low monetary cost, which usually translates into a high environmental cost and repression for the communities. The second area in which the interests of foreign capital and the militariat coincide is the huge foreign indebtedness of Nigeria which stood at $32.5 billion in 1996, with a repayment arrears of over $15 billion. Working with the militariat has ensured that this debt, accumulated mostly in profligacy, will not be repudiated. Nigeria presently spends N44 billion (about $500 million) annually in servicing this external debt.

Finally, the militariat, enlists both military personnel and civilians. It is important to point this out in order to avert the illusion that links militarism in Nigeria today exclusively to the direct occupation of the state by the military. Surely, the project of the militariat does not necessarily need to be realised through military rule. In fact, the current strategy of the militariat is to appropriate the legitimising value of democracy, as shown in its claim since 1986 of transiting to democracy.

One consequence of the emergence of the militariat is the de-professionalisation and corporate decay of the Nigerian military. For the modern military organisation, professionalism is marked by group spirit, rationality and initiative, efficient and intensive training, advancement based on skill, discipline, civilian domination and non-interference in politics. Corporate decay, on the other hand, is indicated by rigid exclusivity, intrigue, intellectual stagnation, corruption and political interventionism. General Salihu Ibrahim, Nigeria’s former Chief of Army Staff,  summarises the corporate decay of the Nigerian military in the following terms:

. . . I make no pretence of my disdain of the involvement of the military in the political affairs of this country. I hold the strong view that any military organization that intends to remain professional and relevant to its calling has no business meddling in the political affairs of its country. . . . It is quite an open secret that some officers openly preferred political appointments over and above regimental appointments no matter the relevance of such appointments to their career progress. . . . this political interest group, who though very small in number, constituted themselves into a very powerful pressure group, unfortunately to the detriment of the service, and, of course, their colleagues. The end result of the collective actions of this pressure group was the visible decline in professionalism, morale and discipline in the Nigerian Army (Quoted in Hutchful, 1995: 8).

Corporate decay expressed in political interventionism of the Nigerian military has been a big impetus to communal politics.  The political battle line becomes increasingly drawn between the communal (ethnic, clan and religious) group(s) perceived to control specific military regimes (in-group) and those that are underprivileged (out-group). This perception tends to be widespread and persistent despite cross-ethnic recruitment of personnel and cultivation of support by Nigeria’s military regimes. Such gestures are seen variously by the “out-groups” as gimmickry, manipulation, tokenism or survivalist stunts designed to cover the ethnic character of the regimes. 

A more serious link between military rule and communalism in Nigeria is to be found in the role(s) of ethno-political organisations in the democratisation process. Military rule is marked by many years of ban on political parties and muzzling of independent organisations and power centres in society. This means that ethnic organisations are the most potentially effective political organisations that could emerge quickly and with minimal prompting, as political liberalisation is embarked upon by the military regime. This is so for two reasons. For one thing, their recruitment base, that is ethnic homelands, is fixed and exclusive to them. For another thing, the catalyst for ethno-political organisations to emerge is readily present: an elite that preys on the fears and anxieties of ordinary people mobilising them by raising the spectre of ethnic domination (Ibeanu, 1997). As such, communal entrepreneurs mobilise clan, ethnic and religious sentiments in an attempt to win state power. State power, in turn, guarantees access to petrodollars. Enter petrobusiness the third dimension of the troika. 

By petrobusiness we mean dominant social groups that are the beneficiaries of the oil industry, national and foreign. These are to be found as oil contractors, joint venture partners, consultants, and marketers. Petroleum exploration in Nigeria dates back to the first few years of this century. Organised marketing and distribution started around 1907 by a German Company, Nigerian Bitumen Corporation. In 1956, the Anglo-Dutch group Shell D'Archy discovered oil in commercial quantities at Oloibiri, a town in the Niger delta. By February 1958, Nigeria became an oil exporter with a production level of 6,000 barrels per day. Other multi-national oil companies have since joined Shell (now Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria - SPDC), and at peak production in the 1970s, Nigeria's output was two million barrels of crude oil per day.

Today, crude oil is produced in nine States of the country namely, Rivers, Bayelsa, Delta, Edo, Imo, Abia, Akwa-Ibom, Cross-River and Ondo. The old Rivers State, which is where the Ogoni and a number of other minority ethnic groups live, account for over half the total crude oil production of Nigeria. Shell remains the largest producer in Nigeria. Recently, the company reported that in all it had 94 oil fields covering an area of 31,000 square kilometres in the Niger delta from which nearly one million barrels of oil were produced daily (Shell, 1995: 1).

After four decades of political independence from Britain, the Nigerian economy is one that continues to pursue essentially the colonial project of export of primary products and import of finished ones, especially consumer goods. Even the import substitution industrialisation of the 1970s, which only served to deepen Nigeria's external economic dependence, has virtually collapsed, heralding a return to the very pure form of the colonial economic scheme. At the centre of this dependent economy is crude oil. Crude oil exports account for about 90% of Nigeria's external earnings, and with domestic economic activities remaining rather epilieptic, crude oil accounts for over 80% of all national wealth. This over-dependence on oil revenues has focused demands on the system and sharpened contradictions among different communal groupings in Nigeria. This is particularly so because most of the oil comes from ethnic minority areas and the politics of oil inevitably locks into the politics of communalism.

State-making. and population displacement under the military: some evidence
The convergence of the troika of the militariat, petrobusiness and communalism in the project of state-making in Nigeria has been at the heart of displacement-generating conflicts. Three categories of these conflicts are particularly significant. They are:
- Conflicts linked to crude oil production.
- Communal conflicts. 
- Conflicts linked to democratisation and end to military rule.

Some of these are old conflicts that are re-emerging in new circumstances shaped by the rule of the militariat, while many others express recent developments in the country's political economy. A survey of these conflicts show that they resolve into three major types: conflicts surrounding crude oil mining and refining, communal conflicts, including ethnic and religious conflicts and conflicts thrown up by the democratisation process, especially over decentralisation and political representation. It is estimated that about 1.2 million Nigerians have been displaced in these conflicts (Ibeanu, 1998a: 49-51).

(a) Conflicts in oil-producing areas
In the recent past, Nigeria's "oil belt", which lies along the Guinea coast and several miles inland to the south-east and south-west of the country, has literally been a hot-bed of war. Conflicts have arisen between oil prospecting multi-national companies and local communities, between the state and local communities and among local communities. Many of these conflicts have been on for as long as ten years and still remain unresolved. Thus, in many oil-producing communities there remains a strong presence of military and police detachments, and systematic state repression, sometimes taking the form of extra-judicial killings, has remained a fact of life in these communities.

On 1st November, 1990, Nigerians woke up to the news that the village of Umuechem in Rivers State had been razed by the para- military Mobile Police Force, killing at least twenty villagers in the early morning carnage. The killings were reprisals against the villagers for demonstrating against the multi-national oil giant, Shell. The villagers of Umuechem were irked by the destruction of their environment by Shell installations. In fact, the Umuechem problem is only one of many cases in which local people protesting against environmental pollution from crude oil mining and refining have been confronted by the repressive organs of the state. Between 1976 and 1980, official records show that Nigeria experienced 784 incidents of oil spillage, involving over 1.3 million barrels of crude oil. In one incident at the Texaco- Funiwa-5 installation, about 421,000 barrels of crude oil were spilled, polluting about 1,200 square miles of coastline, mangrove swamps, rivers and creeks from which 321 villages of 230,000 people made a living. In the Ogoni case, which has become widely documented, 30 million barrels of crude oil were indiscriminately discharged on farmland from Shell installations in 1970 alone (Earth Action, 1994). A document released by the Shell Oil Company itself claims that "in Ogoni from 1985 up to the beginning of 1993, when we withdrew our staff from the area, 5,352 barrels of oil were spilled in 87 incidents." (Shell, 1995). But other independent sources give much higher figures. According to Earth Action (1994), there had been more than 2,500 minor and major oil spills in Ogoniland between 1986 and 1991, including a major one in which Shell dallied for forty days before patching a ruptured pipeline.

These incidents persist in spite of the well-known negative environmental impact of crude oil mining and refining. Pollution arising from crude oil spillage destroys marine life and crops, makes water unsuitable for fishing and renders many hectares of farm land unusable. Brine from oilfields contaminate water formations and streams, making them unfit as sources of drinking water. At the same time, gas flaring in the vicinity of human dwellings and high pressure pipelines that criss-cross farmland are conducive to acid rains, deforestation and destruction of wildlife. In addition, dumping of toxic, non-biodegradable by-products of oil refining is dangerous to both flora and fauna, including man. For instance, metals that at high concentrations are known to cause metabolic malfunctions in human beings, such as cadmium, chromium, mercury and lead, are contained in refinery effluents, which are constantly discharged into fresh water and farmlands. They enter the food chain both by direct intake in food and drinking water, and indirectly. For example, fish is known to store mercury in its brain without metabolising it. Human beings run the risk of eating such contaminated fish (Nwankwo and Irrechukwu, nd).

In reaction to such horrifying ecological damage and life- threatening risks, the victims often react violently against the state and oil companies. In July 1981, 10,000 villagers in Rukpokwu blocked the routes to 50 Shell oil wells, while the inhabitants of three villages in Egbema seized Agip installations at Ebocha. In October, 1989, oil drilling equipment worth ten million Naira ($1 million) belonging to Elf Aquitane, was destroyed by angry villagers at Oboburu in Ahoada area of Rivers State. Two expatriate engineers were among 22 people seriously injured in the fracas (Ibeanu, 1993b).

As a result of the centrality of crude oil production to the survival of the privileged classes and state officials, state violence is unleashed on the restive villages in reprisal. The Ogoni case, which culminated in the killing in 1995 of Ken Saro Wiwa and eight other Ogoni leaders, after a mock murder trial, has been widely reported (Ibeanu, 1998b). A secret memo titled “Operation Law and Order” from one Major Paul Okuntimo, Chairman of a state internal security task force, to the Military Administrator of Rivers State shows that state violence against the Ogoni was well-orchestrated and directed at protecting Shell. According to Okuntimo in the memo, “Shell operations are still impossible unless ruthless military operations are undertaken for smooth economic activities to commence” (Mitee, 1997: 17).  Ever since, systematic repression of Ogoni people by the Nigerian state continues unabated. A strong military presence in many Ogoni communities is a pointer to the high state of insecurity in the area. In  November 1996, Ogoni youths attempted to mark the first anniversary of the hanging of Saro-Wiwa and the other Ogoni activists. The security forces immediately stepped in and brutally stopped the celebration. In the process, two people were killed and 70 were injured. More recently in August, 1997, an Ogoni villager was shot and killed by a soldier, ostensibly as a result of an "accidental discharge". Reliable estimates put the number of Ogonis killed in this lingering crisis between 1991 and 1997 at over 5,000. Another ten thousand have been forced into exile in other parts of Nigeria and abroad, including 1,000 who are in a camp in Benin Republic.

Many other communities in the Niger Delta continue to suffer the same fate as the Ogoni. In 1995, Human Rights Watch/Africa documented the case of systematic repression and violence in three communities of the Delta namely, Obagi, Brass, Nembe Creek and Rumuobiokani (Human Rights Watch, 1995: 34 - 38). In August 1997, over 10,000 youths from across the Delta demonstrated at Aleibiri in Ekeremor Local Area of Bayelsa State to demand an end to all Shell activities in the Niger Delta. Aleibiri was chosen as the focus of the demonstration because, according to the youths, Shell has refused to clear an oil spill that occurred there on 18 March, 1997. Surely, the future points to even more conflicts between the state and oil companies on one hand, and local communities on the other, in spite of repeated claims by government that peace has returned to the area. Speaking at the Aleibiri gathering, a community leader and retired Navy Lieutenant, Chief Augustine Anthony, said “the people would fight until there is freedom in the Niger Delta because we have been exploited for so long” (Guardian, 18/08/97).

The latest upsurge of violence and displacement in the Niger Delta took place between mid-1998 and January 1999 in Bayelsa State. Bayelsa State, one of the main petroleum producing States in Nigeria, is inhabited by the Ijaw, an ethnic minority. What became known as the first Egbesu war began when an Ijaw youth leader was arrested and detained by the military Governor of the State during the rule of General Abacha. He was held without trial in the Government House (the military Governor’s official residence) for distributing “seditious” documents questioning the financial probity of the Governor one Navy Captain Olu Bolade. In reaction, a group of youths said to be members of an Ijaw cult, the Egbesu, stormed the Government House in Yenagoa, disarmed the guards and released their leader. Many residents of Yenagoa that we spoke to, including policemen and soldiers, believe that members of the cult were able to break into the well-guarded Government House because they wore charms that made them impervious to bullets. The success of the first Egbesu war obviously enhanced the profile of the youths and the cult, and encouraged more young people, many of whom were unemployed (youth unemployment in Bayelsa State is very high), to join the protests. In a matter of weeks, the invincibility of the Egbesu had spread throughout Ijawland and beyond. The success of the Egbesu youth in the “first war” also logged into wider demands by the Ijaw for more petroleum revenues. Prior to the Egbesu, the demands for more petroleum revenues had been vociferously made by the Ijaw National Council and the Movement for the Survival of Ijaw Ethnic Nationality (MOSIEN). The formation of MOSIEN was largely influenced by MOSOP, the Ogoni organisation.

The death of  the dictator Abacha in June 1998 and improvements in human rights and expansion of the political space made it possible for  Ijaw demands to become more openly articulated and massively pursued. The first Egbesu war had guaranteed a central role for the youth in this new dispensation. This became clear in late 1998 with a spate of hijacks of oil installations in the Niger Delta by Ijaw youths. This phase of resistance, as the youths called it, culminated in a grand Convention of Ijaw youths in Kaiama town.  The meeting issued a document addressed to the government and oil companies requesting more local control of oil revenues and better environmental practices. The Kaiama Declaration also gave the government until 31st December 1998 to respond positively to their demands. The government upped the ante with a spate of condemnations and threats to use force against the youths. In his new year/budget broadcast on 01 January 1999, the Head of State General Abubakar, gave indications of a military action against the youths. Since early December 1998, there had been massive military build-up in Bayelsa State by the government, including the positioning of frigates in the Gulf of Guinea. Throughout December 1998 and early January 1999, Bayelsa State was virtually in siege and the atmosphere was tense. The second Egbesu war was inevitable. It started when Ijaw youths participating in a cultural festival were confronted by military men in Yenagoa, the capital of Bayelsa State. In the ensuing violence, which lasted for over one week, many Ijaw youths lost their lives in Yenagoa and Kaiama, property worth millions of Naira was destroyed and scores of people were displaced. 

(b) Communal conflicts 
The dominant strategy of rural economic transformation in Nigeria, which centres around large-scale agricultural projects and oil exploration, has meant increasingly that more and more peasants are being displaced from the land. In addition, antiquated agricultural practices among peasants, dwindling profit margins and increasing cash outlays on the reproduction of family labour (food, shelter, education, etc.) have meant that even more land has to be brought under cultivation by peasants. In oil-producing areas, the alienation and abuse of land by petro-business have heightened land hunger and degradation, and squeezed peasants off the land.   The net result has been an unprecedented rise in violent conflicts among peasants in different villages and regions over borderlands and fishing waters. Specifically in the oil-producing areas, monetary compensation paid by oil companies and government have also catalysed violent conflicts as villagers contest the ownership of land on which crude oil is mined.

Virtually all the States of the country are recording increasing numbers of such conflicts, usually in rural areas. Some of them take on an ethnic character, for example the Jukun-Tiv conflict in the Wukari Local Government Area of Benue State, the Zangon-Kataf conflict involving the Kataf and Hausa-Fulani ethnic groups in Kaduna State, the Bachama-Hausa conflict in Adamawa State, as well as the conflict between the Agila of Benue State and Igbo of Enugu State, among many others. This rural manifestation of ethnicity is unprecedented. Ethnicity in Nigeria has historically been an urban phenomenon (Nnoli, 1978; 1996; Egwu, 1997). Its rural manifestation not only suggests the expansion and deepening of ethnicity, but it has led to a rising tide of  internally displaced who receive little or no support.

To be sure, in many cases the conflicts have been among members of the same ethnic groups, living in the same States. For instance among the Igbo of Anambra State, there have been conflicts involving loss of many lives between Achina and Akpo, Adazi-Nnukwu and Nri, Amawbia and Awka, Onitsha and Nkpor, Unubi and Uga, as well as Aguleri and Umuleri. However, the ethnic character of the communities in conflict and whether or not they belong to the same administrative entities, tend to affect the seriousness of the conflicts (Table 1). It seems, for instance, that the most serious conflicts are those involving communities belonging to different ethnic groups, located in different States and Local Government Areas. By contrast,  the least violent conflicts are those among communities of the same ethnic origin, located in the same State and Local Government Area.


Table 1: A matrix of  communal conflicts in Nigeria

Ethnic Group 
Local Govt.
Total Conflict Score (t)
Conflict Rating
Same (1) 
Same (1) 
6th (Lowest)
Same (1) 
Same (1) 
Different (2) 
Same (1) 
Different (2) 
Different (2) 
Different (2) 
Same (1) 
Same (1) 
Different (2) 
Same (1) 
Different (2) 
Different (2) 
Different (2) 
Different (2) 
1st (Highest)


** Conflict coefficients { xi } are given in {  }: 
Ethnic group has a conflict coefficient of  3, State has a coefficient of 2 and Local Government has a coefficient of 1. In other words, issues involving ethnicity are likely to be more conflictive, followed by those involving State and Local Government respectively

* Community coefficients ( yi )  are given in (  ):
Same community has a community coefficient of 1, while Different community has a coefficient of 2. In other words, disagreements involving parties in the same community are likely to generate less conflict than those involving parties in different communities.

The conflict score is derived from:

      t = x1y1 + x2y2 + ...... + xnyn (1)

In effect, we can hypothesise that conflicts involving communities belonging to the same ethnic group and living in the same State and Local Government Area are likely to be less violent and generate fewer displaced people. On the other hand, conflicts involving communities of different ethnic origins, located in different States and different Local Government Areas are likely to be most violent and displace most number of people. Still, there have been instances in which conflicts among communities belonging to the same ethnic groups have been of  “high intensity”. For instance, the conflict over Otu Ocha land, between the two Igbo communities of Aguleri and Umuleri, both in Anambra State and Anambra Local Government Area has been waged with utmost fierceness as would be found in conflicts involving people of different ethnic origins.

In many cases, disagreements over farmland, grazing fields and fishing waters, sometimes dating back many decades, have been at the heart of these communal conflicts. In the oil-producing areas, such as the Niger Delta, land areas in which crude oil deposits have been found are increasingly the source of conflicts. For example, the conflict between the Ogoni and Asa-Ndoki, Nembe and Kalabari, as well as Ogoni and Okrika are directly and indirectly related to the “politics” of oil exploration in the area, particularly competition for monetary compensation for land acquired by oil prospecting companies.

Long-standing disagreements over land and other resources among communities are always the remote cause of these conflicts, even if other trigger-causes exist. A few cases are illustrative. In Akwa-Ibom State, the two communities of Ashanti in Ibinono-Ibom local area and Ekpemiong in Ikono local government area clashed over a contested area of land on 24th December, 1996. In the conflict in which guns, machetes and explosives were freely used, at least 12 persons were killed and property running into millions of Naira was destroyed, including 17 residential houses. The Christmas eve “war” was a renewal of a fifteen-year old conflict over the land. On April 9, 1997 in Geno village near Bukuru in Jos South Local Government Area of  Plateau State, a violent conflict broke out between the indigenous Berom villagers and the immigrant Hausa farming community. The immediate cause was the killing by an Hausa farmer of a Berom boy whom he accused of stealing from his farm. However, the more fundamental cause was a long-standing struggle over control of the land between the immigrant Hausas and the indigenous Beroms. Twenty-five people were killed in the fray, 120 others were seriously injured, while over five thousand were displaced.  In July, 1997 in the recently created State of Bayelsa, a communal clash, described as being of  “warfare proportions”, ensued between the three communities of Beletiama, Liama and Igbabelen. Even though the immediate reason for the bloodletting was given as the death of a Liama woman, suspected to have been murdered by unknown people from the two other communities, there is a long history of disagreements over fishing waters among the people of the area. 

One important variant of communal conflicts involve ethno-religious groupings. Such conflicts often occur in the Northern parts of the country between Moslems and Christians (Williams, 1997). Since the North predominantly adheres to the Moslem religion, their Christian adversaries tend to belong to other ethnic groups, often from the Southern parts of the country. The result is that these conflicts, though primarily religious, also take on an ethnic character. In recent times, there have been major religious conflicts in Kano, Bauchi, Yola and Kaduna, among many other cities in the North. Sometimes, radical Moslem sects like the Maitatsine group erupt these conflicts, targeting both Christians and other Moslem sects. There is little doubt that the worsening social security conditions in Nigeria is leading more and more people into these revivalist and millenarian sects in both the Muslim and Christian religion. They are not only ultra-conservative in approach but accept Holy wars as divinely ordained. The future points to even more population displacement from ethno-religious conflicts in Nigeria.

(c) Conflicts linked to democratisation
Perhaps the most common conflicts in Nigeria today are linked to the process of transition from military to civilian rule. Not only has the state targeted many opponents as individuals, but there have been many other conflicts involving groups. The most significant, however, are numerous conflicts associated with decentralisation of government, particularly the creation of new local administrative areas (Local Government Areas). For one thing, their creation has opened up a number of old inter-communal rivalries, some dating to the colonial era. For another thing, the enormous power that people have come to associate with government, especially the tendency for people who occupy political position at all levels of the state to amass personal wealth and influence, has made “government”, even at the very local level, a highly contested terrain. In addition, because of the tendency of  governments in Nigeria to focus attention only on certain areas, generally urban centres and the capital city in particular, to the negligence of the vast rural areas, the location of the capital (the seat of government) of any new local government area is hotly contested. This contest is particularly fierce if communities belonging to different ethnic groups are involved. Moreover, some local communities and/or ethnic groups see in the creation of local governments an opportunity to free themselves from overbearing neighbours. Others see it as an opportunity to get back at rivals. Still others see it as a denial of their right to self-determination, especially where their request for a local government is denied. The situation is worsened by the manipulation of old inter-communal rivalries by politicians who seek office in the newly created local councils. It was therefore to be expected that the creation of  181 new LGAs in the country in late 1996, as part of the transition to democracy, would unleash a new fury of violence across the country.

In Ondo State, the relocation of Akoko South West Local Government headquarters from Oba-Akoko to Oka , a neighbouring town, almost resulted in violence in April, 1997. Oba-Akoko indigenes fiercely protested the move, including a protest march by women who stripped to the waist chanting war songs. The government’s quick positioning of military forces in the area nipped what would have been a disaster in the bud. The people of Warri were not as lucky. The relocation of the headquarters of the Warri-South Local Government Area from Ogbe-Ijoh, an Ijaw town, to Ogidigba, an Itsekiri town, provided an instant flash to light the tinder-box of a long-standing ethnic conflict between the Ijaw and Itsekiri ethnic groups.  After close to one month of war in April 1997 in which many people were disembowelled, beheaded or drowned, between two hundred and one thousand lost their lives on both sides, and another 50,000 took refuge in neighbouring towns and States like Sapele, Bayelsa, Rivers and Ondo.

In Osun State, the Ife and Modakeke have been bitter rivals since the 19th Century. This old animosity has flared into violence now and again over the past twenty years. However,  the creation of a new Ife East Local Government Area  in October, 1996  and the location of its headquarters, set the stage for a new carnage among these two Yoruba sub-ethnic groups. The first announcement by government located the capital of the LGA at Enuwa, which is in Ile-Ife and close to the palace of the Ooni (traditional ruler) of Ife. The Modakekes protested to government and the headquarters was relocated to Modakeke by a decree, further protests by Ife followed. Subsequently, government sent the headquarters to a supposedly neutral place, Oke-Ogbo. The Modakekes claim that this area is in fact in Ife. What then followed was months of carnage in which at least 500 people have died or are missing, over 100 houses have been razed and at least 10,000 are taking refuge in other places. 

Early in 1997 in Benue State, the Mbagwaza and Utange communities in Ushongo Council area engaged one another in a bloody conflict, ostensibly as a result of a dispute over a locust bean tree. It began as a quarrel between persons from the two communities concerning rights to the tree. Within hours the conflict had become a full-blown war. A closer investigation however shows that the remote cause of the carnage was the recent local council election in which  the candidate of the United Nigerian Congress Party, the party supported by the Utanges and widely seen as having the blessing of the military government, won against a Grass Roots Democratic Party candidate who was supported by the Mbagwaza. At the end of the "war", the two communities were virtually destroyed. It is estimated that  in Utange alone, 400 compounds were razed and 10,000 people were displaced to neighbouring towns of Katsina-Ala and Adikpo.

We set out to explore the link between state-making and population displacement in Nigeria. We argued that the pattern of state-making from colonial times, when it was dominated by the Native Authority, to the present dominated by the militariat, petrobusiness and communalism, has been conducive to massive internal population displacement. Our empirical evidence also showed that presently the major trajectories of conflict relate to these three forces, namely, petroleum production, communal relations and democratisation. 

Still, the link between these conflicts and state-making is a dialectical one. On the one hand, state-making generates these conflicts. However, these conflicts are also part and parcel of the people’s attempt to create a popular state. Such a state is one in which population displacement and its consequences are minimal. As such, both the causes and consequences of population displacement are being shaped in the process of state-making in Nigeria. These issues cannot be resolved by “normative frameworks” provided by “guiding principles”. Instead, their resolution calls for concerted international effort in support of popular reforms of the authoritarian state inherited from colonialism by underdeveloped countries.

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© The ideas and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author
and do not necessarily reflect the views of UNESCO.

© Les idées et opinions exprimées dans cet article sont celles de l'auteur
et n’engagent pas la responsabilité de l´UNESCO.