Theses Doctoral

Rogue pipelines, oil and amnesty: the social life of infrastructure in the Niger Delta

Gelber, Elizabeth

In October 2009, the Nigerian government signed a cease-fire and amnesty agreement to end a decade-long conflict with local militias in the Niger Delta agitating for greater political participation. Only one year later, as the new peace deal was celebrated as a success, the former conflict area became host to a lucrative and burgeoning illegal bunkering operation.

These practices, diverting oil from the legal oil infrastructure to an alternate set of pipelines and refineries, implicated former militants, government soldiers and oil company managers alike. What linkages exist between the dissolution of a political armed social movement and the new rash of pipeline breaches? The events in the Niger Delta are often depicted as the outcome of contest to control oil rents by the state, transnational oil companies and indigenous population. However, this project explores the obverse and often overlooked dynamics undergirding eruptions of violence and protest: the ecology of economies, labor practices and practical relationships that have flourished around the oil infrastructure.

Tracing the ways these complex social worlds are anchored in the material and institutional practices of production, rather than a contest for oil rents, the dissertation exposes how nodes of control in the Niger Delta are rendered increasingly porous, rather than defined by discrete actors and interests. Based on 21 months of fieldwork in the Niger Delta, I argue that the lifeworlds entwined with the technological infrastructure help unsettle the dominant arguments about rent-dependant oil states and state violence. They point instead to how practices seeking to delimit the space of extraction and operator liability such as community development initiatives, community subcontracting agreements and safety and security policies have produced hidden perils and exclusions under the rubrics of inclusion, peace and collaboration.

This argument is developed over the course of several ethnographically grounded chapters. The first offers a material history of how the oil infrastructure became literally and figuratively embedded within Nigeria’s social and political life. Successive chapters follow as production practices are reconfigured institutionally, materially and discursively around a set of rogue pipelines and illegal refineries in the wake of the amnesty. I explore the constellations of oil community development regimes and the promotion of Nigeria’s “new” democracy; the explosion of oil theft and the concept of the oil economy; and increasing securitization and subcontracting practices. The dissertation demonstrates how these shifting arrangements, seeking to manage spaces of extraction, also generate alternate imaginaries of power, sovereignty and economy and that they render possible interventions, such as large-scale oil bunkering systems, which often exceed any single locus of control.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Larkin, Brian
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 11, 2015