Disruption has been reduced in the oil-producing Niger Delta but violence continues to simmer and will continue to play a role in Nigerian politics, writes Ed Reed
What: Violence in the Delta has fallen since late 2016.
Why: Militants have secured a seat at the table, at state and federal levels.
What next: A degree of violence will continue but it is unlikely to return to 2016 levels in the near term.
Militancy in the Niger Delta dominated the country’s oil industry in 2016, driven by the Forcados closure, which took its toll on Royal Dutch Shell but also on smaller independents. Various groups played a part but the spotlight was dominated by the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA), driven by a media-savvy campaign.
Hostilities largely ended in December, though, with the groups backing away from violence and agreeing to talks with the government. This was driven through high-level talks, combined with the resumption of amnesty payments. Sporadic incidents remain, although it can be hard to tell the difference between saboteurs and oil thieves, but in the whole, the situation is much improved.
These payments, worth just over US$200 per month per militant, are paid to around 30,000 former fighters. Although the programme has been criticised for inefficiency, it does seem to have played a significant role in damping down violence, particularly given the lack of employment opportunities in the Niger Delta.
From the top
“Government intervention can be said to be largely responsible for why the Niger Delta militants have reduced their activity lately,” said the University of Michigan’s Omolade Adumbi. He noted Nigerian Vice President Yemi Osinbajo’s role in holding talks with the various stakeholders in the region. “In doing this, he embarked on a tour of the Delta in December where he held consultations with the various groups in the area. For example, rather than focus on just the militants, the acting president included elders, civil society organizations and various other groups in his consultation.”
Adumbi told NewsBase Intelligence (NBI) that it was important the idea of peace in the Niger Delta was not just driven by negotiating with the militants. “The temporary pause in the amnesty programme that guarantees payment of stipends and award of ‘security’ contracts to ex militants was responsible for the resumption of hostilities. The resumption of payments of ‘peace stipends’ to the ex-militants can also be said to be responsible for why there is a cessation of hostilities by the militants.”
The federal government has provided both the carrot, of talks with officials and amnesty payments, and the stick of military force. While the army has a number of human rights abuses and corruption scandals hanging over it, local forces have proved somewhat effective at cracking down on militants and various parts of the oil theft network, which shares links with militancy.
One official claimed last week that the armed forces had shut down around 500 illegal refineries over the last six months. The army has had an impact on cracking down in the Niger Delta but a number of reports suggest some soldiers are implicated in oil theft.
While the work of the federal government has been instrumental in bringing a reduction to the violence, states also have a role to play in reducing militancy.
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), the militant group that operated in 2006-09, had the ability to act across several states in the Niger Delta. This is unlike the more recent groups. The NDA, for instance, operates from the creeks around Warri, in Delta State. While it has been able to carry out attacks with some ability further afield, its strength is localised.
Militant groups and leaders have been co-opted into state-level politics. A number of former militants have been transformed into politicians.
Farah Dagogo, who was linked to Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, is serving in Rivers State House of Assembly; Kingsley Otuaro, an associate of Government Ekpemupolo, known as Tompolo, is the deputy governor of Delta State, and Joshua Maciver, a former Ijaw militant, has been appointed to be the chairman of the Southern Ijaw local government area (LGA), in Bayelsa. Furthermore, Rivers’ governor, Nyesom Wike, is seen as holding a close relationship with Ateke Tom.
As such, there is a growing sense that there is a symbiotic relationship between the state governments and the militant groups. While this has been the case in the past, it is becoming more pronounced.
“It’s in no one’s interest to bring down production, but militants gain a seat at the table through their capacity for violence,” a fellow at the Centre for Democracy and Development, Matthew Page, told NBI. “The system incentivises violent actors.” The militants’ cause mixes genuine grievances – such as environmental destruction and a lack of employment – with criminal intents, he continued.
Groups such as the NDA gain political advantage by using their high-profile activities, in combination with a media campaign that involves both social media and bombastic press statements. Name recognition brings political power.
Militants in the Niger Delta gain further legitimacy from acting as quasi-states for local communities, by providing services and denying assistance from other sources.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has not been seen for around two months, he left Nigeria for medical treatment in London, leaving his vice president, Osinbajo, in charge. Given the lack of news – or even pictures – from Buhari it seems likely that he is severely ill.
The next presidential election is expected to be held in February 2019. As such, campaigning should start in early 2018, although there have already been some signs of jockeying for position. Given the interconnections between militant groups and local politicians, it is likely that the “boys” from the Niger Delta will play a part.
The states in the Niger Delta have largely kept cordial relationships with the federal government, even though there are political differences. The Niger Delta has deep links with the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which lost the last presidential election to Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC).
Michigan’s Adumbi called for the Nigerian state to tackle the “human and infrastructural deficits in the Niger Delta”. The academic cited a lack of investment in education, health and other facilities as driving the militancy. “Many of the Niger Delta communities see the wealth that their resources generate for the Nigerian state on a daily basis but are completely excluded from the benefits of it. The Nigerian state [needs] to invest heavily in infrastructure in the region,” he went on, to provide employment for locals. “Finally, the Nigerian state would need to start thinking seriously about a life without oil.”
Militancy has become a means to an end. Carl von Clausewitz described politics as the “continuation of war by other means”. In Nigeria, though, war and politics cling to each other, trapped in a vicious cycle from which there appears to be little chance of escape.