By Raimah Amevor, ACD Analyst
At the beginning of 2016, militants in the Niger Delta region once again declared war on the federal government and international oil companies (IOCs) by resuming attacks on oil pipelines, bringing oil production to its lowest rate in more than two decades. There are currently nine attacks a month on average, for which new militant group the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) has been largely responsible. However, the multitude of active groups in the region makes it difficult for the government to effectively organise peace talks.
The present situation in the Niger Delta is not significantly different from previous periods in the region’s history. Disgruntled citizens are fed up with damage to their environment and the lack of opportunities, resources and infrastructure, while an oil-rich elite, including corrupt government officials, pays lip service to development initiatives. In 2009, former president Umaru Yar’Adua reached a historic peace deal with militants that resulted in the Presidential Amnesty Programme (PAP). The PAP gave former militants opportunities to enrol in vocational and entrepreneurial training while giving them monthly stipends. The programme has had varying degrees of success, but the failure of the government to employ an exit strategy has further exacerbated the issue. In addition, the change of political power to the All Progressives Congress (APC) in May 2015 publicly revealed the extent of financial mismanagement by the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), set up in 2000 to address the needs of citizens, and Nigeria’s state-owned oil company the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC).
The NDDC had debts of 300 billion Nigerian naira (US$1.51bn) as a result of unfulfilled contracts, and was accused of being unable to account for 183.7bn naira (US$922.19m) between 2008 and 2012. In the last 16 months of the previous administration’s tenure, the organisation had also refused auditors access to its accounts. In further evidence of the controversy around development initiatives, an August 2016 report by the Ministerial Technical Audit Committee on the contracts awarded by the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs found that the 700bn naira spent on 427 development contracts in 2009–15 had yielded few results. Only 12% of the projects had been completed, with 18% of the contracts stalled and 70% of the projects still in the construction phase.
The activities of IOCs in the Niger Delta continue to be more of a hindrance than a benefit to the local community. In January 2016, NGO Friends of the Earth Nigeria criticised Shell for its slow and poor response to the Adibawa oil spill in July 2015. Also in early 2016, two community organisations appealed to President Muhammadu Buhari to intervene in cases of unpaid compensation by Shell and ExxonMobil. The Niger Delta General Claimants Forum alleged in February that, nearly 20 years on, ExxonMobil had failed to pay US$16.6bn in compensation to victims of the 1998 Idaho oil spill in Akwa Ibom state. In early March, the Artisan Fisherman Association of Nigeria reported that Shell was yet to pay a fine of US$3.6bn for the Bonga oil spill of 2011, which severely affected the fishing communities of five states in the region – Delta, Bayelsa, Rivers, Akwa Ibom and Ondo.
It is clear that since the PAP, not enough has been done to tackle the deep developmental grievances of the local population. However, while the challenges persist, what is striking about the renewed militancy is the time frame within which groups have decided to take up arms. In February, one month after the NDA launched its first attacks on some of the country’s largest crude oil export pipelines, the group released a press statement to officially launch what it called ‘Operation Red Economy’, the aim of which is to bring Nigeria to an economic standstill through continuous attacks on the country’s key pipelines. In the statement, the NDA criticised the actions of Buhari’s government, stating that the APC had not made a genuine commitment to fight corruption in the country, and was instead targeting sympathisers of former president Goodluck Jonathan. The NDA also accused the new government of doing little to address the structural drivers of conflict, namely the economic and social development of the region. The group’s key demands included secession of the Niger Delta region from the rest of Nigeria; a 60/40% split of the ownership of oil blocks between indigenous non-indigenous peoples; the clean-up of Ogoniland and other polluted areas and compensation for the affected civilians; as well as the continuation of the PAP, which is due to end in two years’ time.
The accusations and the ultimatum given to Buhari came less than 12 months into his presidency, within which time he had dissolved the NDDC board, restructured the NNPC (which recorded a profit for the first time in many years in May 2016) and placed the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)’s recommendations for the clean-up of Ogoniland as a priority. The implementation of the clean-up was officially launched in June 2016. Experts have said that the restoration is likely to be the most wide-ranging and long-term oil clean-up exercise ever undertaken, and that it could take up to 25 years before the area’s ecosystems are fully restored. Although there has been a continued cycle of underdevelopment in the region regardless of the party in power, the renewed militancy following the ending of Jonathan’s leadership under the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), coupled with the proactivity of Buhari’s government so far suggests that the militants are motivated more by political sabotage than genuine resentment and anger regarding the development of the region.
While some of Buhari’s economic policy decisions are questionable, the president inherited a dire situation that was always going to get worse before it got better. Hardly enough time has passed for civilians in the region to assess the true impact of Buhari’s new policies and initiatives. What should have mattered at the time when the NDA began its attacks was how seriously Buhari was taking the plight of those in the Niger Delta and what strategy had been put in place for the development of the region. Considering some of the actions he has taken since gaining power, the NDA’s accusations appear to be at best misguided and at worst full of self-interest.
Strategically, the NDA has ensured that its attacks result in minimal civilian casualties, and it has made clear that this is a fight against the establishment and the IOCs entrenched in the system. The militants have strong bargaining power, given the challenges that plague the region and the fact that oil is the country’s main resource. As long as those in power fail to address the imbalances in the region there will always be a reason for young men in the region to take up arms, whether as a means of gaining power and access to money or for more altruistic purposes. The government must therefore conduct peace negotiations in a way that does not give preferential treatment or direct policies to just those committing the attacks as a way to appease them, or indeed focus on policies that target individuals.
The chairman of the parliamentary committee responsible for investigating the holders of oil-mining leases recently recommended that indigenous communities should be given the opportunity to acquire oil blocks that had been illegally acquired, which would help to calm tensions in the region. In theory, the recommendation sounds fair and appropriate given the current circumstances. However, in reality those with the purchasing power and/or connections that would enable them to obtain oil blocks would most likely be close to the negotiation table or already part of the established elite. There is no guarantee that simply placing oil-block contracts in the hands of indigenous people would have favourable results. However, it would undoubtedly make a select few people extremely wealthy and once again ignore the structural drivers of the conflict. In tandem with such policies, the government must also pursue community-based policies that provide the general population with the skills, infrastructure and opportunity to increase their standard of living.
The peace process has already been fraught with accusations of mismanagement as countless militant groups race to be part of the talks with the federal government. On 16 June, a federal government delegation led by Petroleum Minister Emmanuel Ibe Kachikwu visited representatives of various militant and community groups in the Niger Delta region in order to hear their concerns. However, it was only in mid-August that the most violent group, the NDA, announced a ceasefire – but warned that it will continue asymmetric warfare during the ceasefire if the government uses its security agencies to arrest, intimidate and harass civilians, suspected NDA members and Ijaw communities – and agreed to begin dialogue with the government. The large number of militant groups exacerbates the complexity of the peace negotiations. As one announces a ceasefire, another springs up with ultimatums and violent activity. As the NDA was finally agreeing to hold talks with the government, a new militant group, the Niger Delta Justice Defence Group (NDJDG), began a pipeline-bombing campaign that ultimately rendered any previous ceasefires redundant. While all the groups claim to be fighting for the same cause, coordination between the groups is weak and they seldom want to be represented together. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), the former militant group that was key in the 2009 negotiations, has been the public face of the forthcoming peace talks despite not having committed any attacks since 2013, and is repeatedly denounced by the NDA. The NDA and many others do not recognise MEND’s authority and seem unlikely to accept any solutions posed by the group.
The Nigerian government faces a true test of its leadership in how it handles the delicate issue of the Niger Delta crisis among the countless other challenges facing the country. Numerous bodies and international stakeholders have already warned the government and the military against taking a hard-line approach and the use of excessive force in finding militants. Despite the warnings, the threat of military crackdowns persists. In such circumstances, the deployment of troops is inevitable and often necessary, thus the military should focus on rebuilding damaged civilian relations that enable local communities to feel protected rather threatened by their presence. Addressing the root causes of the unrest in the region has always been the only way to sustainable peace in the Niger Delta. However, the current economic crisis means that Buhari desperately needs to employ a mixture of short- and long-term solutions that cushion the effect of the recession on civilians who already face severe challenges, while addressing the developmental issues in the region.