Economies of Violence: Petroleum, Politics and Community in the Niger Delta, Nigeria

Michael Watts, International Studies, University of California, Berkeley

Research Grant, 2002

Petroleum in Nigeria has produced a combustible politics marked by violence. Rather than see oil-dependency as a source of predation or as a source of state military power, this research shows how oil capitalism produces particular sorts of enclave economies and particular sorts of governable spaces characterized by violence and instability. While the biophysical qualities of oil matter in this analysis, so do the powers of transnational oil companies, the character of “the oil complex,” and the ways in which oil as a territorially based and nationalized commodity can become the basis for making claims. Petrocapitalism operates through a particular sort of “oil” (a configuration of oil firms, the state, and oil-producing communities). The complex is strongly territorial, operating through local oil concessions. The presence and activities of the oil companies as part of the oil complex constitute a challenge to forms of community authority, interethnic relations, and local state institutions principally through the property and land disputes that are engendered, and through forms of popular mobilization and agitation to gain access to company rents and compensation revenues, and the oil revenues of the Nigerian state, largely through the creation of regional and/or local state institutions. The oil complex generates differing sorts of “governable spaces” in which contrasting identities and forms of rule come into play. In some cases youth and intergenerational forces are key; in some cases gender, in others the clan or the kingdom or the ethnic minority (or indigenous peoples), in some cases local chiefly or governmental authorities, and the forces of the local state. A striking aspect of contemporary development in Nigeria is the simultaneous production of differing forms of rule and governable space—different politics of scale—all products of similar forces and yet which work against, and often stand in direct contradiction to one another.

This research shows how oil capitalism produces particular sorts of enclave economies and particular sorts of governable spaces characterized by violence and instability.

This project focuses on three spaces: on chieftainship, the indigene or ethnic minority, and the nation. These social idioms are inseparable from oil, but their forms of identification and the robustness of their spaces are often incompatible. Standing at the center of each governable space is a contradiction: at the level of the oil-producing chieftainship, the overthrowing of gerontocratic authority and its substitution by a sort of violent mafia constituted by militant youth. At the level of the ethnic community is the tension between civic nationalism and a sort of exclusivist militant particularism (a sort of aggressive ethnonationalism). And at the level of the nation, one sees the contradiction between oil-based state centralization and state fragmentation, as oil becomes a sort of generalized equivalent put to the service of massive corruption. It is in this sense that the research invokes the idea of “economies of violence” to characterize rule (stable and unstable) in contemporary Nigeria. This project traces the varieties of violence engendered by oil, to elaborate the ways in which resources, territoriality and identity can constitute forms of rule, and understand the genesis of economies of violence that emerge from differing sorts of governable (or ungovernable) spaces.

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