Poverty and Despair in the Midst of Plenty: The Paradox of the Niger Delta - Armed Confrontation


The renaissance

The return to civilian rule in Nigeria in 1999 brought its share of blessings across the land: freedom of speech, assembly, and protest, the election of local administrators in states and local governments (as against sole military administrators deployed from other states), the spread of telecommunication technologies (internet, GSM services etc), and digital banking and digital currencies. At this point Nigeria, was open to the world for business, as sanctions were lifted and socio-economic activities resumed in full swing. This led to the cross fertilization of ideas in all spheres - the military, governance, activism, and, of course, nefarious activities such as militancy. Here we are in an era where you can speak and chat with a person half way around the world with just a dial or click of a button and one can get anything he/she desires with the right connection (dark web) and price. Thus, what the militant struggle lacked in terms of expertise and logistics they could easily make up for in an open society with a plethora of youths never short on ideas. The time had come for this ailing militant cause to get a boost from more vibrant youth who took charge of critical sections of the militant struggle, training, and retraining at terrorist havens in Libya, Sudan, etc. and with funds rushing in from major oil companies as they settled in. The new funds were put together for better weapons and logistics. 

 political map of Delta region

Political map showing the Niger-Delta region

 Cult groups: As politicians in the new democratic dispensation from 1999-present have jostled for support and vote in the nascent democracy, their individual and public confidence has been low. Politicians sought assurance against assassination attempts, and the trump card to sway results in their favor was ballot stuffing, ballot box snatching etc. which were perpetrated by rival politicians and parties. The perfect group(s) carrying out these nefarious activities were cult groups from tertiary institutions and neighborhoods sometimes made up of hardened criminals and thugs and different other groups of society’s misfits. These groups of tough and ruthless cut-throats carry out these acts to perfection and to the admiration of their sponsors (politicians) and intimidation of their opponents. It is said in some quotes that some politicians were members of such groups back in their days in the Nigerian institutions of higher learning where these groups operate. Thus the solidarity and outright belief in a cause to the death resonates well with them in the spirit of solidarity to a fellow member, or having gained sympathy of such groups or outright buying their services. There are two sides of the same coin. After their dirty jobs in elections come the financial and other forms of gratification from the winning politician, whether moneys, privy information, etc., some of which will go into rejuvenating their operations with better weapons and logistics. Each time they are out in operations during elections or sabotaging oil or any other infrastructure, their armed robbery gains more sophistication, making each of such operations deadlier than the last. A portion of these groups’ members are comrades in arms with militants in the Niger-Delta.

Political Thugs: With the high level of illiteracy in the country, due to the increasing number of uneducated children and youth alike, drop-outs from all levels of formal education are at a record high over the last decade. Nigeria’s exponential growth in population has put immense pressure on the country’s resources and on its already overstretched public services and infrastructure. With children under 15 years of age accounting for about 45 per cent of the country’s population, the burden on education and other sectors has become overwhelming. Forty per cent of Nigerian children aged 6-11 do not attend any primary school with the Northern region recording the lowest school attendance rate in the country, particularly for girls. Despite a significant increase in net enrollment rates in recent years, it is estimated that about 4.7 million children of primary school age are still not in school. As of 2008, the estimated population of pre primary-aged children (age 5) was 4.5 million, of which nearly 45 per cent or 2 million children were classified as out of school. The 2008 estimated primary-age population (6-11 years) in Nigeria was 24.7 million. Out of these, some 7.3 million constituting 29.6% of the total were out of school.

The junior secondary-age population (12-14 years) was about 10.9 million children in 2008, and of this group about 26%, or 2.8 million were classified as out of school.

Overall, about 10.1 million children who are supposed to be enrolled in basic education are not in school. In other words, almost one out of every three primary-age children are out of school, and roughly one out of four junior secondary-age children are out of school (UN 2008 report). 

Just imagine what in a decade or less these children will turn out to be with no education, no vocational skill, and no dreams. They are easy picking for politicians and terrorist groups waiting in the wings to recruit soldiers to their cause, as they are now seen as de-facto adults and in Africa, where child soldiers are a common scene in regional conflicts, this is a recipe for insecurity and disaster.

This problem exists across the board throughout the whole federation, but it is particularly endemic in the north due to the age-long disdain for Western education and preference instead for informal religious-based education such as the Almajiri system of education [The word “Almajiri comes from Arabic word “Al-muhajirun” which came from Prophet Muhammed to indicate those of his companions (Muhajirun) who migrated with him for the sake of Islam from Mecca to Medina. However, the name Muhajirun later came to refer to those knowledge seekers who move from one place to another in the quest for knowledge, like a Qur’an school teacher and his pupils]. In Nigeria, the Almajiri system started in the 11th century, as a result of the involvement of Borno in Qur’an literacy. Seven hundred years later, the Sokoto Caliphate was founded principally through an Islamic jihad based on the teaching of the Holy Qur’an. These two empires ran similar Qur’anic learning which, over time, came to be known as the Almajiri system of education. The Almajiri educational system was made under a Mallam (teacher) and Almajiri (pupils), where teaching and learning process are taking place. The Mallam have the privilege of taken children that are brought in from the nooks and corners of the entire country by their parents for Islamic education, with the accommodation and feeding of the child (Almajiri) being the responsibility of the Mallam. The increase in the number of Almajiri became a burden on the shoulders of Mallams who have taken more than what they can cater for. Consequently, the Mallam began to force the Almajiri(s) to beg for alms for their sustenance. Hence why Almajiri are found everywhere in society (markets, car parks, restaurants, university, street to street, and among others singing, begging, praying, appealing for alms) [Nigerian Educational Research and Development Council (NERDC)]. 

These groups students-cum-beggars neglected by society are known as and called by different names by different states and regions of Nigeria. In the north we have the Sara-Suka (literally meaning “cut and stab”) in Bauchi state, the “Yan kalare" in neighboring Gombe state, the “area boys” in Lagos, the “Agbero" in the south (Niger-Delta), etc. 

With all these, there is a steady stream of potential mischief makers during elections or any gathering of political or religious significance. Add to this illusionary dreams of a grandiose future, whether true or false, and you have an army ready to unleash mayhem and destruction under the “leadership” of higher institutions. Cult group members, along with the huge number of unemployed and underemployed in the country, are attracted or recruited to cushion the hardships they face daily. 

 Oil Theft and “Illegal” Refinery: This is a complicated angle, as the Nigerian nation, which is incapable of meeting its populace’s energy needs given the degradation of lands that would have been sources of livelihood with little or no compensation or royalties for the host communities of oil fields or its supporting infrastructure. Either from an instinct to survive or to fight injustice, different interest groups fund attacks on crude oil pipelines and steal the product for refining and sell it to the ever-hungry domestic market. This provides much needed finance for militant operations. The militants also engage in direct, illegal oil trade as they steal and sell stolen crude oil to anybody willing to buy, the same as ISIS does today. With no shortage of finance as a result of these clandestine operations, the problem of militancy will only grow until the root causes are addressed. These activities of illegal refining also further devastate the land.

Special Operations: Just like special forces of state actors, these militant groups are engaged in high level assassinations, money laundering, kidnappings, election engineering, cyber-crimes, etc. They are effective at these because the vast majority of their members are youths - energetic, sharp, clever, and determined. As has been carried by international news networks, one of the many problems of militant activities is the issue of kidnapping expatriates and locals alike and demanding ransom for their secure release. At the height of the militancy menace in the Niger-Delta, there were cases of kidnappings recorded daily. Though most of the hostages secured their release, very little can be attributed to the security services in the country. After the release, what is not reported fully is it is possible for the hostage to change hands again, since the Nigerian intelligence and security services, and even the armed forces are severely underpowered, under-equipped, and underfunded to provide or mount any serious threat to the activities of militant groups, or even remotely checkmate them. Thus, the militants rake in millions of dollars from such operations.

High seas piracy is another arm of their special operations, as it is also known that these militant groups are, at high stakes, armed and on the internal water ways and high seas of the economic zone of the country. They rob unsuspecting Nigerians, foreigners, and organizations for their valuables.

For an armed group without any advanced naval training - these are delicate operations only dared by established special units of a security service - but these groups carry out these kinds of operations to perfection.   

These factors have reinvigorated the militant groups of the Niger-Delta and forged them into an effective intelligence and fighting force, with far reaching implications for the social order and the entire coastal West African region. Curbing the activities of this organized and determined foe is by no means an easy task, as high unemployment, gross mismanagement by the political class and other elites evident in their flamboyant lifestyles, has built up discontent which feeds this giant and complex hydra creature of misery and anguish called the Niger-Delta militancy.

External actors

As a former military leader of Nigeria, the late General Sani Abacha said “no insurgency or rebellion survives for more than 24 hours without state support.” This has been proven true in different conflict hot spots around the world, such as with the Houthis (Yemen) and Hezbollah (Lebanon) with support from Iran, and Saudi Arabian support for the Syrian rebels/terrorists/freedom fighters. The Niger-Delta militants have undoubtedly received foreign support from state or organizations on their behest to what ends and interests they have in the region. Direct state sponsors may not be the case, but tacit support from those states can be said to exist, as their nationals supply weapons and equipment to militant groups in the Niger-Delta, maybe just for economic reasons, but true none the same. With their ability to steal oil, and have access to substantial finances, there will be no shortage of foreign black marketers in the arms trade that will line up to do business with the militants


Agitation and different calls by stakeholders and interests’ groups of the Niger-Delta has revolved around resource control, which is responsible for the rise in the number of community incidents and disturbances of great concern, particularly as violence and hostage-taking, as well as the scale and sophistications of attacks all increase. A major cause of the underlying discontent is the community’s sense of grievance that a fair share of oil revenues has not been returned in the form of developmental projects to the oil-producing areas. Their argument is that, as this is practiced in other parts of the world, revenues generated from oil in these areas are to be domiciled in the states that such activities are carried out in and, on their own part, royalties are paid to the central government in Abuja as against the present arrangement, where they receive a little above 13% of oil proceeds along with allocations to every state part of the monthly state subvention. Of course, there are other, differing views from the one advocated by the Niger-Delta stakeholders and activists. This argument doesn’t sit well with the other regions, especially the north and the federal government, as well as other states. As others argue, prior to the discovery of oil, the country depended on commodities from other regions of the country and all regions benefitted, but nowhere is this argument more logical than in the Jos-Plateau in central Nigeria, which in the early 1900’s was a critical source of foreign exchange. Decades of tin mining have left its landscape devastated with over 3000 mining ponds, a painful reminder of the past sacrifice for the country with no commensurate benefits of development in either human, capital or infrastructural terms.

The legacies of that era have robbed the locals of valuable farmlands and are too glaring to ignore (anthropogenic hills, mining ponds), accompanied by the endless pains it brings, as year in year out there are reported cases of deaths of loved ones and livestock from drownings in these man-made lakes.

So the argument for resource control loses traction in views of this argument amongst countless others, and the argument is also championed more by those states that solely depend on the monthly subvention for their existence and viability. They constitute the majority against resource control, because they are nothing more than political creations for administrative convenience, quasi-political rewards, and a tool for domination over the political landscape of Nigeria.

A lost Generation of Leaders of the Niger-Delta

The failings of the government at the state and local levels, along with the stakeholders of the Niger-Delta, is another factor that has encouraged a rise in militant activities and is of great concern, as it is well known that the states of the Niger-Delta receive the highest state subvention/subsidies, yet still face the endemic problems of dilapidated social infrastructures and basic amenities. In some cases, a total absence of such plagues most communities of the Niger-Delta states. Thus, the question routinely asked is what have these governors been doing with all the huge cash allocated to them (compared with other states of the federation). Observers and analyst opine that, since the return to democracy, the coffers of these states has been well stocked, though that assertion is not entirely true. What is generally believed is that these governors deliver far below par. For the wondering mind, the answer can be found or can been seen in the luxurious and affluent lifestyles these governors and political elites of those states live. A case in mind is the trial and conviction to imprisonment of James Ibori in a London court. Passing his judgement, the judge described the accused as “a rat/thief in government house.” While he continues serving jail time, his colleagues and counterparts back home still receive VIP treatment with their loot and even aspire for higher political offices. Thus, to a  certain degree this explains the rot and near collapse of social amenities and infrastructures in the states of the Niger-Delta, which continue to fuel discontent among the general population and radicalize some youths into militants.

In the wake of the major oil companies

The case against big oil such as Royal Dutch, Shell, Chevron, Exxon Mobile etc. is erroneously misconstrued to be the degradation of the environment and indirectly the people Niger-Delta, but the size and detailed terms of the contracts that allows these oil companies to operate in Nigeria are at best hazy. As I once discussed with a friend who had better insights into the dealings of the oil sector, he said that the daily output of oil in Nigeria, as is known to the general public, is at best an estimate, and worse a sham. In fact, they produce far more than is officially recorded or stated. Those contracts are also unclear about the responsibility of the oil companies to their host communities and the Nigerian constitution is docile as to how to deal with erring companies. Thus, in a region in which they make billions of dollars, around them is death, despair and decay in which they are active actors to its present state. Though people will argue that it is not these company’s responsibility to provide basic amenities, others will argue that basics such as portable drinking water, hospitals, and articles for consumption is what they can and should handle and rightly so. But they continue to drill and make even more money to the detriment of their hosts communities. This is truly a classical parasitic relationship, only that in this case the parasite is bigger, meaner, and more powerful than the host.