Oiling Over the Cracks: The End of Peace in the Delta

In 2009, the International community watched as the Niger Delta took a break from the violence that had plagued the region for a decade. In the midst of plummeting oil prices and a state of emergency, former President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua had declared an amnesty and unconditional pardon on persons associated with militant activities in the Niger Delta. At the time, this programme was widely applauded for bringing peace to a region defined for so long by the masked militant armed with the ubiquitous Kalashnikov. Indeed, over the past seven years, Boko Haram replaced the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) in national and international headlines and the oil-producing region was referred to only in regards to the recent plunge in global oil prices.

However, as predicted at the time by conflict analysts, this programme’s strategy of divide and conquer “sticks and carrots” has failed to secure a long-term peace. And when in March 2016, the Delta resumed its place in the international media as a region inflicted with instability, many were left unsurprised. For a programme that benefited just a small minority and one which failed to address the root cause of the conflict, the long-term outcome was never likely to be a positive one. And this recent resurgence in violence, headed by a new group – the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) – is symptomatic of a long-line of such failures by the federal government to implement an effective strategy to deal with the Niger Delta question. This is evident when you study this group’s rhetoric and how it has strayed unremarkably from that of the early peaceful movements of the Okigwe and Owerri divisions in the 1950s; to the later Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP). Nor, despite the deliberate distancing by former leaders, has the NDA’s rationale drifted drastically from that of its predecessor, MEND.

The basic tenets remain the same: the government should expel international oil corporations operating in the Delta; there should be an immediate clean-up of the land; employment opportunities should be opened up to marginalized minorities; and environmental and economic development should be allowed to occur. All this should be coupled with economic remediation for the fallout of 50 years of living with the international oil industry. The oil industry’s presence in Nigeria was steeped in contention from early on and it is perhaps not surprising that enmity has underlined the inhabitants’ relationship with the government and oil corporations. Since oil was discovered in Oloibiri in 1956, the Nigerian government (as a majority shareholder in the oil industry) has accumulated over $1.6 trillion in revenue. Yet, whilst the “sweet” Delta crude that runs beneath the region’s labyrinth of waterways has lined the pockets of the elite in Abuja for decades, the people of the Delta remain some of the poorest in the world. It is the feeling of exclusion that this paradox has created that has provoked years of conflict and is a principal reason for the latest perturbation of peace.

Indeed, the notion of exclusion is an important one to get to grips with when trying to understand the complex situation in the Delta. Exclusion from employment; exclusion from education; exclusion from oil wealth; exclusion created necessarily through an entrenched system of neo-patrimonialism; exclusion from adequate resources to combat the environmental fallout of the extractive sector; and finally exclusion from the amnesty programme. All these elements have combined to create a melting pot of tension. And although the current groups in the Delta differ in superficialities – in essence they are all united by this concept.  As such, it is not the close of the amnesty progamme per se that is to blame for the current resurgence in violence. Rather it must be seen as just the latest element in a complex concoction of ingredients that have been simmering in the Delta over the past 50 years.  Indeed, when President Muhammadu Buhari announced the winding up of the scheme in 2016 – due to Nigeria’s bleak economic outlook – the region had already been suffering from smaller scale and largely unreported attacks on oil installations. For example, in April 2015, gunmen reportedly killed nine people and wounded two before setting fire to a major oil pipeline. The group that carried this out – “Urhobo Gbagbako” – does not align itself to either MEND or the NDA and does not seem to have launched an attack since. However, it provides an indication of underlying tensions that were beginning to boil over as early as April last year.

Additionally, many of the majority youths who have taken up arms were not even recipients of the Amnesty Programme. And, in fact, they were recipients of very little over the 7 years of relative peace. Development promised to the region by former President Goodluck Jonathan – an Ijaw himself – was never delivered and the citizens of much of the Delta would certainly not have been recipients of the oil proceeds. Unemployment remained the same and parts of the region continued to witness the disastrous environmental impact of the extractive sector. Thus, whilst the 2009 amnesty had temporarily stemmed the tide of resentment for one swathe of the populace – by 2016 another generation of discontented youths were assembling and it is these young men who now pose the greatest threat to stability. As such, whilst it is highly likely some disillusioned amnesty beneficiaries are entangled in this latest violence, disorder would have occurred with or without Buhari’s announcement to draw the programme to a close. Put simply, if, as many believe, former MEND Commander Government Ekpemupolo (Tompolo) is using his current predicament with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to fan the flames of disorder for his own ends, he would not have had to look very far to find sympathetic ears amongst the disillusioned and marginalized youths of the Delta.

Furthermore, it is a similar sense of exclusion that has prompted the re-emergence of pro-Biafran agitators, whose very presence and increasing association with the recent conflict in the Delta, has the potential to propel the current disorder into something quite devastating. The southeast region of Nigeria has struggled for decades to find its place in the nation state and its position remains as fragile now as it ever has been. The oil industry’s presence has complicated this over the years – but the calls for separation have not infiltrated oil related protests in the Delta since the 1960s. It is not clear the extent to which NDA and pro-Biafra agitators are interrelated and presently it appears that the association between the two causes is primarily originating from the NDA. The agitation of the NDA is not directly aligned with Nnamdi Kanu or the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) – a majority Igbo group fighting for secession. The NDA and Ijaws’ complaint have always been centered on resource control and “true” federalism, where it is believed that their farmlands have been divided into oil blocks among Nigerians at the exclusion of Ijaws.

However, the NDA’s call for the release of Kanu is telling and the pairing of these two groups against a common enemy and their mutual interests in re-working the federation make it a powerful matrimony. To rub salt in the wound, the recently reported killing of pro-Biafra protesters in Onitsha is not only alarming but is likely to have drawn these groups closer together. This was demonstrated by a pronouncement from the NDA, which stated, “the Federal Government should know that the more attacks on Biafra, the more aggressive we become. This is a war that involves all of us”.  Events surrounding the “Onitsha massacre” are still unfolding, yet historians and those alive to remember Nigeria’s bloody civil war first hand will no doubt be drawing some alarming parallels with a not too distant past. This is particularly the case given the increasingly controversial presence of the military in the region against the backdrop of recent allegations that Buhari is pursuing a “northern agenda” through retiring senior southern officers in the armed forces and a growing sentiment for secession in the southeast. It is hoped that enough people remember the cataclysmic effects of the Biafran War to prevent a similar scenario playing out.

The NDA mean business and with oil prices at an all-time low, so too will the Buhari administration. The Nigerian government’s next steps are critical. Some groups in the region are already pledging to lay down arms and enter into dialogue, whilst the NDA remains adamant that until their demands are met, no such discourse will occur. What is clear is that using military might to address the challenges is not a long-term solution and has the potential to antagonize an already dire situation. Heavy-handed brute force has historically underlined the relationship between state and citizens in the Delta and has only ever worked to alienate the latter. Indeed, it was the violent suppression of the early peaceful protests and the inability to forge sufficient lines of dialogue that lead many men to replace the protest placard with the Kalashnikov. Since the formulation of MOSOP in 1993 – the government persistently used force against protestors from the administration of Ibrahim Babangida to that of Sani Abacha, escalating but not abating in 1998 with the state execution of Ken Saro Wiwa.

When all means of peaceful protest and attempts at dialogue were exhausted, it is little wonder that in recent years militants took up arms. This fact helps to explain militancy in the Delta; behind many of the NDA agitators is a political subject who feels compelled to use an AK47 to restore their rights. The fact that the majority of these men are not simply violent criminals is indicated by militant groups’ strategies in the region and that, to date, and historically in the Delta, citizens tend not to have been deliberately harmed through militant activity. The sole aim is to disrupt oil supply not to harm the population – either international or domestic. For groups that are relying heavily on international support and favour for their cause, killing innocent citizens would not be conducive.

That said, the NDA, like MEND before them, have singlehandedly brought the country’s already trembling oil supply to its knees. To avoid further escalation, the government will need to move fast. However, development and allocation of revenue to the region is the only long-term solution and given the state of the country’s budget sheet, spending more money will be a bitter pill to swallow. Buhari may need to look to the international community for monetary support and will need to avoid another miscalculated amnesty solution to provide temporary relief to a problem in a region that could take years to heal.

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