The Oil Producing Community Identity in Nigeria: A Politico-economic Resource

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2009

25 Pages


The Oil Producing Community Identity in Nigeria: A Politico-economic Resource

Babajide Ololajulo

Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Nigeria


This paper focuses on the socio-political and economic issues involved in the production of oil producing and non-oil producing communities as categories of identification in Nigeria. Using Ilaje people of Ondo State as a case, this paper, through qualitative methods of study, examines the factors of history, elite politics, and the state in identity formulation and the effects which the construction of the “other” among a supposed homogeneous group has on the existing forms of social relationship. It is established from the study that though the advantage of the oil producing community identity is utilized to attain political and economic height, the identity remains subordinate to a much larger and inclusive Ilaje identity. Generally, this paper is a reflection on how identity is manipulated even in the local context to suit competition for resources. It discusses the cultural creation of space and its hegemonization in quest of making exclusive and optimum advantage of resource in the space. The paper concludes that even when the spatial differentiation is yet to generate any remarkable conflict, the feelings of “oneness” appears to have been sufficiently weakened.

Keywords: Nigeria, oil producing community, identity manipulation, resource competition, Ilaje


During the last two decades, the struggle to own and control the oil resources in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria produced the oil producing states as an identity phrase that include the entire Niger Delta region and other states like Ondo, Abia, and Imo as a common entity. At the local level, the oil producing areas/communities nomenclature is also derived to differentiate oil bearing areas/communities from other non-oil bearing areas/communities. This differentiation occurs in spite of the fact that the vast oil resources of Nigeria can not be said to constitute common property regimes in which a group of individuals can act as a private owner, sharing property rights and creating a regime of common property rights for common pool goods (McKean, 1996). However, the growing agitation of ethnic minorities of the Niger Delta region for resource control, the “our oil” notion, and the bifurcation of local communities along oil producing and non-oil producing categories tend to lend credence to the idea of a definitive owners who though do not control resource extraction, consider themselves positioned to appropriate both the political and economic benefits that may emanate from oil exploitation. The oil producing state/community identity, in that regard, may just be an effort toward assuming ownership and control of oil resources. This paper is, therefore, focused on those concerns that emanate from the construction of an oil producing community identity among a more or less homogeneous Ilaje people of Ondo State, Nigeria, and the consequences which a construction of the “other” have for the collective Ilaje identity and other existing forms of social relations. The paper specifically addresses the newly constructed spatial dichotomy and how it is exploited by the state and the class of political elite as a political and economic resource for self preservation.

Identity has been thought of as a social construct often formulated on the basis of the past and present experiences of a group of people. Scholars like Cohen (1974), McDonald (1968), Peel (1989), Hall (1990) and Lawuyi (2004) view identity from the ethno-historical perspective, believing that a people’s joint action can be explained within the context of past experiences, which they shared. This, however, has not implied that the exigency of a current situation cannot inform identity formulation or negotiation. Aderemi Ajala, arguing in this direction opines that “identity is …most likely to depend on the realities of the past as well as on the demands of contemporary socio-cultural relations, making individuals or a group of individuals to be identified with a common course” (Ajala, 2008: 150). From the aforesaid it may be suggested that when a people’s contemporaneous behaviour is based on a historical alliance, there is the very tendency of their acting collectively to protect a future. In that wise, identity, though, basically constructed on shared past experiences and existing realities, cannot but contain elements of prospective and futuristic concerns.

The political economy of oil exploitation has been well explicated in the literature. Emphasis on economic growth to the detriment of sustainable development has been the hallmark of Nigeria’s economic policy. Works on the new political economy have, therefore, featured themes that range from environmental impact of oil exploitation, inter and intra ethnic conflicts (that arise from the struggle for control of oil-rich areas), impact of exploitation on the sociocultural system to struggle for resource control. For instance, Eteng (1998) and Imobighe et al (2002) write about the violence that enveloped the Niger Delta on account of oil exploitation. The fighting among ethnic groups who compete against one another for claims to oil-rich areas is given prominence in their account. Furthermore, the potential benefits of links to the oil industry are identified as factors that have exacerbated conflicts within and among the oil bearing communities. Obi and Okwechime (2004) however, underscore the impact of globalization on inter-ethnic relations in the Niger Delta region. The scholars opine that the structures and processes of globalization such as capital have, since the end of the 1980s, fed into, and consequently escalated inter-ethnic tensions and conflicts across the oil-producing communities of Nigeria’s Niger Delta. Interestingly, discussions on the oil exploitation induced conflicts have centered mainly on inter and intra ethnic groups struggle for control of oil rich areas. State and elite factors were also identified as playing prominent roles in the conflicts. However, it appears as if most of these studies treated the Niger Delta region as a homogeneous unit, wherein every part is adjudged oil producing. Consequently, such studies have largely ignored the relationship between the areas designated oil producing and those categorized as non-oil producing; especially when political and economic benefits are derivable from oil producing status.

The primary data reported in this paper are derived from in-depth and key informant interviews conducted during a dissertation fieldwork in Ilaje Local Government Area, Ondo State, Nigeria between 2003 and 2005 and a follow-up study conducted in 2007. Other sources utilized are books and archival materials. There are over one hundred villages that make up Ilaje land. These were sampled along oil producing and non-oil producing communities during the initial study, with twenty villages (ten from each categories) constituting the study locations. On the other hand, data was sourced only in Igbokoda, the local government headquarters during the follow-up study. The possibility of reaching people competent to provide information on our subject matter within this space informs the decision. Meanwhile, it is not unlikely that some views presented in this paper are subjective. This can be ascribed to the level of familiarity established with the study area before and after the fieldwork.

The study area

Ilaje local government area of Ondo State lies along the Atlantic coast of Nigeria and is situated 133km south of Akure, the state capital. The entire area lies between Longitude 4°28′ and 5°1′ east of the Greenwich Meridian and Latitude 5°51′ and 6°21′ north of the Equator. It is bounded in the southwest by Ogun Water-Side Local Government Area, Ogun State, and in the southeast by Warri-West local Government Area, Delta State. The northwest and the northeast are bordered by Okitipupa local Government Area and Ese-Odo Local Government Area respectively, both in Ondo State. The local government is made up of about one hundred small towns and villages with the prominent ones including Igbokoda, the local government headquarters, Mahin, Ayetoro, Ugbo-Nla, and Zion-Pepe. The 1991 population census of the Federal Republic of Nigeria puts the population of the area at about 270,000. The coastal part of the local government, which forms about 70 percent of the total land area consists mainly of mangrove swamps and rivers, and is flooded during raining season. There are three ecological zones and these include lowland rainforests, freshwater swamp forests, and mangrove forests. In the riverine areas, houses are built on stilts with networks of boardwalk connecting a village. There are virtually no roads and as such the main mode of transportation is water. Dugout canoes and modern speedboats are common features of the transport system. Ilaje local government is occupied wholly by Ilaje people, a Yoruba subgroup.

By reason of environment and other social determinants, the people are commercial fishers in the main, though a significant portion of the population engages in local gin (ogogoro) distilling and marketing, mat making, timber felling, commercial water transportation, and farming to an extent. In the mid 1970s, oil exploration activities were carried out in the hinterland and as early as 1980, Chevron Nigeria Limited, known by then as Gulf Oil commenced exploitation operation off the coastline. Since then, the issue of oil royalty and compensation usually referred to in the local parlance as “oil politics” has taken a central place in the people’s discourse. At inception, only a few elite in conjunction with a traditional ruler were the beneficiaries of oil companies’ patronages, but today several interests are represented and catered for in the sharing of oil largesse. However, like in the distribution of any scarce resource, factors of exclusion have since been introduced into the appropriation of accruing economic and political benefits.

Consistent governments had in the past neglected and abandoned Ilaje land due to its difficult terrain. Before 1980, there was virtually no government presence in the entire local government. Then, of the over one hundred villages that constitute the local government area, only Igbokoda had a medical dispensary which hardly functioned due to lack of basic supplies and drugs. Similarly, prior to 1974, there was not a single secondary school, and as at 2005, only Igbokoda and Atijere were connected to the national electricity grid. Water supply was a major source of worry to the people as they lived a paradoxical life of ‘water, water everywhere, but none to drink.’ There was not any part of the local government where pipe borne water runs. The few communities situated on land depends on wells, while in riverine areas, people traveled many kilometers in groups to search for clean water from the creeks. In recent times, the local government has benefited from development efforts of intervention agencies set up to address the hardship confronting people living in the oil producing areas of Nigeria. Between 1993 when the Oil Mineral Producing Areas Development Commission (OMPADEC) was established and 2001 pockets of physical infrastructure projects sprang up across the local government. The Ondo State Oil Producing Areas Development Commission (OSOPADEC), which was set up in 2001 had equally awarded a contract for the construction of a major highway to link up the riverine communities with Igbokoda. These current efforts, notwithstanding, Ilaje land remains largely underdeveloped, lacking basic infrastructural facilities and is devoid of tertiary economic activities.

Unfortunately, in the same manner Ilaje land is lacking in development attention, so also it has been ignored in the literature. Though it stands as a strategic area in Nigeria (occupies about 80km stretch of Nigeria coastline) and despite its being the only oil producing area in the entire southwest geopolitical zone, no notable ethnographic work has been published on it. In fact, the identity of Ilaje as a Yoruba subgroup could be said to have assumed prominence after the 1998/1999 violent crisis between them and the Ijaws, another Niger Delta ethnic group.

Prior to oil exploitation activities and development intervention by specialized agencies like the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), Ilaje identity had existed within the larger Yoruba identity as a level of social classification, like other Yoruba sub-identities such as Ekiti, Ijebu, Egba, Ondo, Ijesha, Oyo and others. Among Ilaje people, the local ideology organizing space is rested upon four communities – Mahin, Ugbo, Aheri, and Etikan, though only two (Mahin and Ugbo) are widely considered as the traditional settlements where other villages have spread out. Identities, even if at a lower level were, therefore, also established under the rubrics of the Mahin-Ugbo differentiation in a manner that there are Ilaje-Mahin and Ilaje-Ugbo. The two subgroups according to oral tradition migrated from Ile-Ife, the cradle of Yoruba people. The migration of the Mahin group was dotted with sojourn in places that included Benin, and in a similar trend the Ugbo party was said to have made brief stops at several locations (Lawson Akintokun, 23 December 2004). Ilaje, even as two major subgroups is culturally homogeneous. The people speak the same dialect of Yoruba language and maintain similar social structure. They live together in many of their communities and inter-marry. In buttressing the level of social cohesion that exists among the people, an informant affirmed that a “true” Ilaje person is often expected to be connected with both Mahin and Ugbo. Connection here implies bearing kinship ties with the two subgroups. This assertion turns out to be credible when about 90% of my informants claimed affiliation with the two subgroups.

Identity construction in space

Often associated with identity formulation is the idea of space (the locale and domain of identity). For instance, the oil producing community identity is expected to be located within the oil producing communities, a space made unique by the act of resource extraction and physical boundaries. An identity borne in relation to an oil producing community is thus formulated on the basis of a people occupying a resource-defined space. Such identity, by implication, should exclude individuals living immediately outside the oil producing communities. “Outsiders” are on that account kept out from the socio-political and economic gains or losses that accrue to the identity. However, the bearers of the oil producing community identity may deliberately subsume it under a much larger identity which encompasses individuals and groups outside the resource-defined space but with whom common ancestry is borne (Ololajulo, 2006). This scenario is further made possible when there is a rival group inhabiting a space that falls outside the resource space. In this circumstance, the identity, rather than being defined strictly in terms of physical/geographical bounds or a resource space may, therefore, be specified wholly by sociocultural parameters. With political and economic power becoming more associated with the oil producing community identity, there is a tendency for tension to be building up in local areas on account of resource-defined spatial differentiation, especially if operation areas of oil companies are disputed.


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The Oil Producing Community Identity in Nigeria: A Politico-economic Resource
University of Nigeria  (University of Ibadan, Nigeria)
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Nigeria, oil producing community, identity manipulation, resource competition, Ilaje
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Babajide Ololajulo (Author), 2009, The Oil Producing Community Identity in Nigeria: A Politico-economic Resource, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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