The Niger-Delta: Armed Activism Turns Hybrid and Politicized Warfare
Hence we are now here
Nigeria, like most regions of the world, has proven to be very unforgiving to those who depend solely on diplomacy to achieve their goals. Hence the reason for renewed hostilities by different militant groups of this region, who are pitted against the federal government and major oil companies operating in Nigeria. This struggle has given rise to a multitude of militant groups and individuals that championed the cause of the Niger Delta first to their benefit and, if any profit was left over, to the benefit of the region and its people. Prominent among these active militant groups are the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), the Niger Delta Volunteer Force, and many other smaller groups at the helm of which are the Government of Ekpemupolo (AKA Tompolo) and Alhaji Mujahid Asari Dokubo, who rose quickly to prominence in the early 2000’s as freedom fighter of the Niger Delta during the height of hostilities. Their operations hampered the activities of oil giants that operated in the region, halting operations that resulted in disruptions to the supply of the commodity. In turn, this cost the oil corporations dearly, at the same time denying the federal government in Abuja and state governments across the federation the much needed revenues and funds to “execute projects across the federation” and run the government whilst filling their pockets in the process. The crisis led to a drop in oil output by about 40% between 2003 and 2004 and about 33% in early 2006.
In April 2004, Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) cut production by about 370,000 bpd in the Western Delta. Since 2006, SPDC has cut down production capacity to about 2mbpd” (Thomas, 2008). The crisis in the region brought into sharp focus the nature of relations between the Nigerian state and oil, the MNOC’s (multi-national oil companies) and their host communities, as well as the nature of MNOC relations and contributions to the host communities. As should be expected, the government response was harsh at the time, as they tried to hammer (“problems such as this are nails to them”) through their will and quell the rebellion, taking a cue from the military regime before them in their methods of quelling dissent. Only this time it boomeranged as the government and oil giants suffered casualties of their own. In their renewed struggle, the militants demonstrated that they are a foe who is more prepared, organized, and disciplined with a longevity that was lacking in earlier rebellions. Though the government will hit them, and destroy one or two camps and in so doing disrupt their operations, militants will quickly regroup, strategize, and strike back. This surrounded them with a sense of danger and invincibility and a reputation for terror in the wake of each strike. This influenced the government’s exercise of restraint and a new sense of caution. Thus, the government was caught flat-footed in the diplomatic sense of conflict resolution, as it became clear that it lacked the know-how to deal with such security problem beyond military means. Thus, it became clear to the government that these groups were nothing like the easy rebellious groups and pushovers of Isaac Boro or Ken Saro Wiwa, but a capable fighting force with a means to fight long-term guerrilla style and occasionally conventional too. The costs resultant of their attacks, by very conservative terms, were upwards of a billion US dollars. Then came calls from different segments of Nigerian society and also the international community for a new approach to handling such problems, with most advocating dialogue, which is partly because they saw no clear military solution and fretted over the continuous disruption of sources of revenues flowing back to their countries. Their companies in Nigeria were bled dry as they faced attacks.
The government of president Olusegun Obasanjo adopted a carrot and stick approach, as they held series of meetings with factions of different groups amid low intensity hostilities between government forces and militant groups. This approach achieved mixed results. Local ceasefires were secured but failed to achieve the elusive goal of zero violence, which created a situation devoid of the ideal conditions for smooth operations of the oil companies in the region.
The amnesty regime
In 2007, the government led by the administration of late president Umaru Musa Yar’adua issued a presidential amnesty and then kickstarted the presidential amnesty program (PAP). This was designed to encourage different militant groups and individuals to drop their arms and pursue peaceful means of advocacy, while the government for its part would be responsible for rehabilitating former fighters of the various militant groups through training in acquiring skills in productive ventures, and a social package. In turn, militants were to commit to non-violence in the pursuit of their demands. In addition, the government was to pay more attention to the problems of the region, and in light of that the government established the Ministry of the Niger Delta with the duty of looking into the problems and challenges of the Niger-Delta in a bid to provide solutions and, at the same time, advise the government on strategic issues that concern the region.
At the initial stage, the amnesty program was well received by all parties. Militant groups keyed in and the frequency and intensity of violence and attacks in the Niger Delta dropped significantly, albeit besides small criminal attacks and incidences of robbery and kidnapping with no direct links to militant activism. At this time, the oil companies enjoyed relief from the fear of attacks and carried out their operations to the mutual benefit of both parties (the government and oil companies).
However, the ceasefire would be short lived, as the monster of insurgency once again raised its head. The amnesty program ran into trouble waters, as there were complaints emanating from some quarters led by groups and former fighters who alleged that even after laying down their arms and accepting the amnesty offer, they were not properly treated by the program.
This continued to fester until the death of President Yar’adua in 2010, and continued on the assumption of presidential office by his vice president, who is incidentally a son of the region. As the problems continued brewing within the program, there was no deviation from the status quo. The situation continued to be relatively peaceful, although complaints from ex-militants of non-inclusion in the amnesty program mounted along with months of unpaid social packages (200$). This situation continued until the end of President Goodluck Jonathan’s term. This was partly due to the fact that the president was himself from the Niger Delta and Nigeria’s client-patronage system, which builds on ethnic interests above all else. When the time came that the president was facing an insurgency rebellion in the northeast that was severely undermining his government, his “kin” in the Niger-Delta did not exacerbate his government’s problems by torpedoing the governments amnesty program even though its failing was visible in some areas were visible. At least they did not publicly or with a show of force exacerbate the situation. Therefore, “hush-hush” discontent continued amongst dissatisfied militants, even as their commanders made billions from the program. The program’s failures were shunned and kept away from public light in a bid to not undermine a fellow Niger Deltan president and in a bid not to make him look weak and render his position untenable in the Nigerian political arena, or so they thought.
Another component of the amnesty was Goodluck Jonathan’s government’s expansion of the program to include the hiring of the services of these ex-militants to guard critical oil infrastructure against criminal saboteurs. This was of course logical at the time, firstly because it engaged ex-militants in a productive venture, and secondly due to their efficiency, since the creeks and the delta was their home turf. They had a better understanding of the terrain and could easily spot any threat, as the people, communities, and the organizations that operate there are familiar to them. This is in contrast to the Nigerian navy which draws its personnel from across the nation, some of such personnel having never crossed the Benue river, thus having a very limited understanding of the environment. On the other hand, the problem it created was that it gave these militant groups near financial autonomy and freedom, and secondly it gave them a lot of intel on the operations and infrastructures of government and the oil giants, maybe even classified ones.
The spoils of militant activism
As has been said many times at many forums, the oil of the Niger-Delta has created immense wealth which before went to the oil corporations, government, and the political elites. But that all changed after the return to democratic rule in 1999, as now on the list of beneficiaries were the Niger-Delta political and business elites, (the 8 and 6 years of rule by Olusegun Obasanjo, and Goodluck Jonathan respectively created new business elites of southern extraction, as against the domination of northern interest as contractors and businessmen a resultant effect of the long northern military rules of the seventies through to the nineties). The north still maintained a lead but now they could be challenged by the relative newcomers. Secondly, the activities of the militancy and the amnesty program of late president Yar’adua and Goodluck created much wealth and influence for the indigenous people of the Niger-Delta, especially a new layer of militant commanders and their associates, forging a new power structure. Thus, the spoils of the militant activities didn’t change much for the common Niger-Deltan on the streets of Warri or Port Harcourt, but created a new generation of “super militants”, local folklores heroes with power and respect among the locals for whom they claimed to fight, but who still die from diseases resulting from complications due to the contaminated water and lands they live on. Depending on the perspective, the struggle paid some dividends, but the spoils still lie with the elites and militants’ top hierarchy, who are billionaires today. For example, Alhaji Mujahid Asari Dokubo is rumored to have been receiving 10 million dollars per annum from Abuja as payment for the “federal pipeline security fee” of the rivers state. The same goes for the Government of Ekpemupolo (AKA Tompolo), whose former leader is now a citizen of the Benin republic and has moved his assets out of the Niger-Delta and built several schools and a university in his newfound home with nothing for his Ijaw brothers in the creeks of the Niger-Delta. But some will argue that the region now has a voice and that its indigenous people have also benefited directly from the the oil sector albeit little, and that the political and business elites provide a voice for them in Abuja (which they formerly lacked completely).
Another Time, Another War: The Avengers
Terrorist/freedom-fighting insurgencies in different hot spots around the world have proven to be a difficult problem to solve and eradicate, especially when the issues at stake are a labyrinth of complexities backed by a belief or ideology propelling such activities. The above assertion is indeed true for the long struggle in the Niger Delta waged by different militant groups. Consequentially, the hostilities was bound for a comeback following the brief ceasefire during the amnesty program which, judging by Niger Delta standards was a peaceful period indeed. As 2016 set in, the peace and amnesty program suffered a relapse as a new group resumed hostilities upon distancing itself from its forbearers (MEND and NDPVF). But terming themselves self-serving freedom fighters did little to change the problems of the Niger Delta. With renewed vigor and sophistication, they unleashed a hailstorm of attacks on corporate oil infrastructures in the Niger Delta, much to the chagrin of the government. Known as the Niger Delta Avengers, they soon earned the right to use the title, as their attacks came in a lightning fast fashion and were well-coordinated in both sophistication and scale. This plunged the oil production of the country well below 60% at a point (June/ July 2016). With oil prices down globally and the nation in deep recession with an accompanying high inflation, a situation I term “resflation”, their attacks hit hard on the Nigerian economy. Common Nigerians could barely afford essential household commodities. A forceful reply was not wise, as past experiences had shown, giving credence to the African saying that “a man does not crush an ant on his scrotum out of anger.” Of course, the government issued strongly worded warnings, and some reactive security services were deployed and clashed with the militant group for the purpose of signaling resolve to defend interests.
The central issue here that should be noted is the frustration of which there was enough to go around the Niger Delta and Nigeria as a whole. This new force drew its fighters from dissatisfied ex-fighters in different groups of the region who were frustrated with the government’s failure to fulfill its part of the amnesty program. Age-old agitation of the worsening daily living conditions of the people in the Niger Delta, who have little to show for despite all the wealth the region has given the Nigerian nation. The Niger-Delta avengers soon made their demands known to the nation, and they included:
- The immediate implementation of the 2014 National Conference resolution. Failure to do so would lead to the breaking-up of Nigeria.
- President Buhari, the director-general of the State Secret Service and the All Progressives Congress (APC)’s candidate in Bayelsa state and Timipre Sylva should apologize to the people of the Niger Delta region and the family of Late Chief DSP Alamieyesegha for killing him with intimidation and harassment because of his party affiliation.
- The ownership of oil blocks in Nigeria must reflect 60% by the oil producing people and 40% for the non-oil producing people.
- The only Nigerian Maritime University situated in the most appropriate and befitting place, Okerenkoko in the delta state, must start the 2015/2016 academic session immediately.
- The minister of transportation, Rotimi Amechi, should apologize to the Ijaws and the entire Niger Delta people for his careless and reckless statement about the citing of the University in Okerenkoko.
- Ogoniland and all oil-polluted lands in the Niger Delta must be cleaned up, while compensation should be paid to all oil producing communities.
- Radio Biafra director and Independent Peoples of Biafra leader, Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, should be released unconditionally.
- The Niger Delta Amnesty Program must be well-funded and allowed to continue to run effectively.
- All APC members indicted for corruption should be made to face trial like their counterparts in the Peoples Democratic Party.
- All oil multinationals and foreign investors should observe these demands, as their business interests in the country will be the first targeted.
These demands, though true in some cases, were too much ground for Nigeria to give. Let us attempt to dissect and see how genuine these demands are and what chances they have if any in being realized in pursuing a conducive working environment for oil giants in the country
- Although a wonderful document in itself published after the 2013 National Conference under the PDP government, but with present political intricacies, it has little chance of being achieved, as it does not fit into the political ideology of the APC which is largely a merger of political parties seeking to dominate the government.
- Inconsequential and will not happen, at least not publicly.
- Not possible with a northern president - too close to call.
- Possible but not happening at least in the time specified, but at a later date definitely.
- Not happening, at least not publicly
- Possible, hoping it’s not a political point-scoring exercise that will later be abandoned.
- Slim possibility if any
- Possible with the right pressures being applied, but with the government distancing itself from any and all programs initiated by the last government, the future of the amnesty program looks bleak at best.
- Slim possibility if any and too close to call, since even though the president is known for his strong will, politics is dicey. If he pursues this path at all, it will haunt him in the next general elections.
- No chance of even a remote possibility, as violence has never been a hindrance to oil exploration in the world. Congo and Iraq are good examples. They will make do with the amount they can drill in such conditions.
How powerful are the avengers? It’s difficult to say whether they are more effective in their destructive ability than MEND and NDPVF before them, but in their tenacity to be violent and sophisticated, they seem to have built on the traditions of their forbearers and have boasted of new capabilities which they threaten to use against the president when he was to write off the Ogoniland cleanup program. This prompted him to cancel the trip last minute. His security team must have had strong grounds to believe so, or they were just being cautious. For the first time, militants threatened a missile attack on Abuja. It would not be out of place to believe that they may have gotten their hands on some surface-to-surface or surface-to-air missiles. If this were the case, this would dramatically boost their capabilities. Just like how the Houthi rebels in Yemen can possess such missiles, it is entirely possible that the militants do possess such weapons, since they have either the financial capacity or the means to acquire such weapons.
Nigerians hope that the situation will not spiral out of control to warrant the confirmation of such weapons in their inventory, much less the use of such weapons.
Another fear is that the militants have made allies from different sections of the armed struggle in the Niger Delta. One of the press statements which they made available to the press says: “A consolidated group of militants under the aegis of the Joint Niger Delta Liberation Force (JNDLF) yesterday threatened to launch six missiles in the Niger Delta. The group said it would begin the testing of its six missiles, which would last for three days, starting on June 7, 2016. Though it did not disclose the nature of the missiles, it warned that no airplanes should fly in and out of the country within the period. The weapons are, according to the group, capable of hitting any object despite its size.” This makes the group truly formidable to an extent that I pray we don’t live to find out. They also happen to avoid collateral damage to the civilian populations in their attacks, which they have managed to keep to the barest minimum if at all. This undoubtedly shows improved training, experience, equipment, and operational procedures, which may indicate state sponsorship or a foreign partner or even both. This will have the effect of drawing more sympathizers to the cause as long as the problems of the region persist and the casualties among civilians are kept low.
There is a political angle to the situation as well, since the reelection bid of Goodluck Jonathan was such a loss to the region as they lost their touch on power. There are assertions and theories that dissatisfied politicians of the region are giving tacit support to the group, if not outright sponsoring its activities. This view seem strong and plausible bearing in mind the use of regional insecurity to blackmail the political structure of the country into giving power to the most restive region, but another angle is that this group is independent of any kind of support whatsoever from the region’s political and business elites, but is instead an endeavor completely of the making of the group’s volition. This is possible especially if we view it from the perspective that they see the benefits their predecessors gained from violent campaigns for resource control. They will also want to have such benefits for themselves. Of course, there are different perspectives to this, but how the group manages its successes if any will determine their place in history either as true freedom fighters that turned around the situation of the Niger Delta, or just another set of opportunists who exploited a bad situation for themselves, making it worse.
Some of the allies of the Avengers have made entered the spotlight and are threatened even worse repercussions as part of the Niger-Delta Greenland Justice Mandate (NDGJM), who have claimed to make the attacks of the Avengers, in their own words, look like a child’s play. This was made public when the president was meeting with elders and stakeholders of the region in Abuja on Tuesday. They claimed that the group with which the president is engaging in talks with does not represent the interests of the region, but is party to the region’s woes. Thus, they have distanced themselves from the resolutions from such a meeting, as it is not binding on them. This could be just another splinter group out of many that exist in the region with self-seeking interests. They took credit for the most recent attack in the region on Wednesday, November 3rd, and called the Trans-Forcados pipeline attack a mere warning in addition to more plans to attack even more critical oil infrastructure with the target being cutting oil production to below 500,000 barrels per day. This just adds to the problem. The Avengers, for their part, have so far kept true to their threats and have kept the pressure on oil infrastructures steady. On October 25th, 2016, they blew up the Chevron Excravos export pipeline at Excravos offshore.
These attacks will continue until the underlying issues of resource control, environmental degradation, and social welfare amongst others are addressed. But this must be a multilateral effort involving all actors across the board in the Nigerian state in order to truly eradicate these problems and bring peace and dignity to an erstwhile devastated region with growing tension and increasing needs.