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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Boko Haram on the Backfoot?

On 25th February 2015, 11 days in to the six week postponement of Nigeria’s general election on the grounds of the insecurity posed by Boko Haram, President Goodluck Jonathan was reported as stating that the “tide has turned” in the battle against the Islamist group. Although the president has been known to make similar statements in the past, such as the numerous times the Nigerian Government has claimed to have killed Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, in this instance there appears to be some evidence behind the president’s statement. The increased regional cooperation in the fight against Boko Haram seems to be greatly improving the Nigerian military’s ability to capture towns and areas previously under the group’s control. For example, on 25th February 2015, the Chadian military reported that it had killed 207 Boko Haram fighters near a Nigerian town close to the border with Cameroon and regional forces have reported capturing eight major towns in recent weeks, including Baga, the site of a massacre brought to the world’s attention by Amnesty International in early January 2015. Although large areas of the northeast, particularly in Borno state, are still under Boko Haram control and the campaign against the group is likely to be a long arduous process, these signs are undeniably positive.

At first glance it appears that Nigeria’s electoral commission’s decision to postpone elections might be vindicated and the northeast of the country will be substantially more secure on 28th March than on 14th February. However, on 24th February 2015 Boko Haram demonstrated its continued threat by launching twin suicide bomb attacks in Potiskum and Kano, the largest city in the north, which claimed at least 26 lives. As elections loom, the president has taken to commenting on such attacks, and a statement from his office read “President Goodluck Jonathan condemns the reversion by the terrorist group Boko Haram to the callous bombing of soft targets…in the wake of the rapid recovery by Nigerian troops and their multinational allies of areas formerly controlled by the sect”. This statement is correct in pointing out that the attack on 24th February does appear to represent a reversion to the group’s original tactics and it could be an indication of the group’s future strategy in response to the Nigerian military’s successes in the northeast. As the Nigerian military continues to regain territory it increases the likelihood that Boko Haram will resume their original strategy of conducting hit and run attacks from the Sambisa Forest and launching suicide bombings in towns and cities across the northeast. Thus, it seems that Boko Haram may turn its focus back on to “soft targets” rather than the Nigerian military. However, this raises the question of what are soft targets?

This year’s general election was postponed on the grounds that the security of the election could not be guaranteed in the northeast of the country. However, if the effect of the Nigerian military’s offensive against Boko Haram is to move the group’s strategy towards targeting “soft targets” the threat to polling stations is likely to be the same or possibly worse. Polling stations are the type of “soft targets” Boko Haram may well be turning its attention to and the threat is likely to spread beyond the area under its control, as was shown in Kano on 24th February 2015. Thus, although the postponement appears to have aided Nigeria in its fight against Boko Haram it is questionable what impact it will have on the security of the elections, which was the reason provided for the delay. A six week offensive may be long enough for the Nigerian military to regain some of the territory held by Boko Haram, but the campaign to defeat the group and return security to the northeast of the country will be a much longer process.

Six weeks to defeat Boko Haram, Really?

Bring Back our Girls

On 7th February 2015, one week before elections were set to take place, Nigeria’s electoral commission (INEC) announced that it was postponing elections for 6 weeks. The reason provided for this postponement was that INEC had received a letter from the national security adviser warning that the security of the elections “could not be guaranteed” due to the Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast of the country. The letter requested a six week delay to election proceedings so that Nigeria’s military could secure this region before elections take place.

The ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) supported INEC’s motionand President Goodluck Jonathan described it as not a “big deal”, which is unsurprising seeing that the request came from within the current administration. However, the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) heavily criticised the action referring to it as a “major setback for democracy”. APC members also alleged that this was a ploy by the PDP in order to help it secure another electoral victory. Although the PDP were quick to deny these allegations, with its spokesperson, Olisa Metuh, quoted as stating that the PDP “did not stand to benefit from it”, there did appear to be growing support for a postponement within the PDP prior to the announcement. In January 2015, President Jonathan’s national security adviser, Sambo Dasuki, urged the electoral commission to delay the elections whilst speaking at Chatham House. Furthermore, the PDP’s leader in Lagos state, Olabode George, similarly stated his support for a postponement in January 2015, despite previously dismissing suggestions of a delay in 2014.

Many APC members claim that this shift towards support for a postponement on the part of senior PDP figures indicates that the delay is politically driven and a result of the first serious electoral challenge the PDP has had to face. This argument is given greater credence by the fact that before the announcement on 7th February 2015, proponents of an election delay, including Dasuki, had argued that it should be postponed in order to allow more time for voter card distribution. Thus, insecurity caused by the Boko Haram insurgency appeared to be used as a secondary justification for delaying elections after it became clear that INEC would not postpone the elections on the grounds of voter card distribution. Moreover, the level of the security threat posed by Boko Haram has not suddenly increased in the past few weeks. Although it has increased over the past year, this has been a consistent unfolding situation of which the government and security forces have been fully aware. It is also a justification which can be used continuously until Boko Haram are eradicated, which raises fears that another postponement may follow in the future.

As a result of this, a number of rumours and accusations have been spread about the motivations behind such a delay. This has included the allegation that the PDP plan to remove INEC’s chairman, Attahiru Jega, and replace him with someone who would help the PDP rig the election. Although the PDP have strongly denied this allegation and maintain their support for Jega, allegations such as this gain a lot of traction in countries like Nigeria, where elections have so often been marred by accusations of electoral fraud and corruption. Even some of the PDP’s primaries in late 2014 were surrounded by such allegations. Furthermore, accusations of plans to commit electoral fraud are likely to be stronger this year due to the fact that these are the closest fought elections since Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999. Despite only forming in 2013, the APC has made substantial ground in Nigerian politics, drawing together previously divided opposition parties and receiving a number of defections from the PDP, which has caused the eradication of the PDP’s majority in the National Assembly. In the APC’s presidential primary its members voted unanimously in favour of former military head of state and runner-up in the country’s past three presidential elections, Muhammadu Buhari. Although there is a certain degree of reservation concerning Buhari’s military past and alleged association with radical Islam, his reputation as an anti-corruption disciplinarian seems to strike a chord with a large section of the Nigerian electorate. Buhari’s APC has positioned itself as a viable alternative to Jonathan’s PDP, whose popularity has been severely damaged by a number of corruption allegations and its inability to deal with the Boko Haram insurgency. It appears that even voters who are unsure about supporting Buhari may support the APC because of their disappointment at the record of the current administration. Thus, this year’s election is set to be very close with a small majority for either the PDP or APC being the most likely result, if it is held at all.

Indeed it is questionable what effect a limited postponement will have on the election results. Although a delay will certainly favour the wealthier PDP in terms of campaign budgets, the perception that the party was behind the delay has the potential to damage their popularity further and play into the hands of the APC. This was illustrated by comments made by former President and senior figure in the PDP, Olusegun Obasanjo, on 10th February 2015. He warned against the delay, suggesting that it might have been planned, and was quoted as stating “why shouldn’t I support him” in reference to Buhari. This was then followed by his resignation, or possibly expulsion, as argued by the Ogun State chapter of the PDP, from the party on 16th February 2015. There is also the possibility that the extra time will be used to enable electoral fraud, as alleged by certain APC members. The risk of this has definitely increased due to how closely-fought the elections are projected to be but any large scale electoral fraud would draw considerable condemnation from the international community and cause protests across Nigeria. Nonetheless, merely the perception of electoral fraud can have its own consequences.

With regards to the official reason for calling the postponement it is highly unlikely that the Nigerian military will be able to secure the country’s northeast region in 6 weeks from an insurgency which is in its sixth year. Although military successes against Boko Haram will help to boost the PDP’s waning popularity, it will also highlight its previous failures against the group over the past year. A degree of improvement can be seen with the increase in regional co-operation but Boko Haram continues to launch attacks on towns and villages across the northeast. Furthermore, on 17th February 2015, the group released a video in which their leader, Abubakar Shekau, explicitly vowed to disrupt the elections. In the video he stated “this election will not be held even if we are dead…Allah will never allow you to do it”. It is therefore highly likely that even after the six week delay elections taking place in the northeast will suffer from a similar insecurity to that which existed on 14th February.

The most likely outcome of the postponement is increased political tension and in turn a greater likelihood of election violence. This has already been made apparent by reports of an explosion and gunshots at an APC rally in Rivers State on 17th February 2015. Furthermore, although Buhari’s initial call for calm following the postponement helped to prevent any large scale unrest, people still took to the streets to protest against INEC’s decision. These protests were overwhelmingly peaceful but if it appears that the PDP are attempting to use this time to create an artificial advantage or possibly initiate another postponement the ensuing protests may be harder to control. Moreover, due to the competitiveness of the election, a longer campaign will increase the probability of accusations concerning electoral fraud and intimidation. This will create a tenser post-election environment, which is more conducive to election violence. Furthermore, this is exacerbated by Nigeria’s struggling economy which has been hit hard by the fall in global oil prices. This will help to accentuate societal pressures, particularly if the winning party is perceived to be favouring states controlled by them in terms of proposed austerity measures, and increase the probability of political violence.