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Curbing Violence in Nigeria (III): Revisiting the Niger Delta
Curbing Violence in Nigeria (III): Revisiting the Niger Delta
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Buhari’s Nigeria: Boko Haram Off Balance, but Other Troubles Surge
Buhari’s Nigeria: Boko Haram Off Balance, but Other Troubles Surge
Report 231 / Africa

Curbing Violence in Nigeria (III): Revisiting the Niger Delta

The Niger Delta is rich in resources, but poverty, unemployment and pollution could reignite a rebellion that ended in 2009. Despite the Boko Haram insurgency in the North East, Nigeria must fulfil its promises of support for the southern delta’s economic development, social justice, and environmental regeneration.

Executive Summary

Violence in the Niger Delta may soon increase unless the Nigerian government acts quickly and decisively to address long-simmering grievances. With the costly Presidential Amnesty Program for ex-insurgents due to end in a few months, there are increasingly bitter complaints in the region that chronic poverty and catastrophic oil pollution, which fuelled the earlier rebellion, remain largely unaddressed. Since Goodluck Jonathan, the first president from the Delta, lost re-election in March, some activists have resumed agitation for greater resource control and self-determination, and a number of ex-militant leaders are threatening to resume fighting (“return to the creeks”). While the Boko Haram insurgency in the North East is the paramount security challenge, President Muhammadu Buhari rightly identifies the Delta as a priority. He needs to act firmly but carefully to wind down the amnesty program gradually, revamp development and environmental programs, facilitate passage of the long-stalled Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) and improve security and rule of law across the region.

The Technical Committee on the Niger Delta, a special body mandated in 2008 to advance solutions to the region’s multiple problems, proposed the amnesty program, whose implementation since 2009, coupled with concessions to former militant leaders, brought a semblance of peace and enabled oil production to regain pre-insurgency levels. However, the government has largely failed to carry out other recommendations that addressed the insurgency’s root causes, including inadequate infrastructure, environmental pollution, local demands for a bigger share of oil revenues, widespread poverty and youth unemployment.

Two agencies established to drive development, the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) and the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs (MNDA), have floundered. Two others mandated to restore the oil-polluted environment (particularly in Ogoni Land) and curb or manage hundreds of oil spills yearly, the Hydrocarbon Pollution Restoration Project (HYPREP) and the National Oil Spills Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA), have been largely ineffective. The PIB, intended to improve oil and gas industry governance and possibly also create special funds for communities in petroleum-producing areas, has been stuck in the National Assembly (federal parliament) since 2009. In sum, seven years after the technical committee’s report, the conditions that sparked the insurgency could easily trigger a new phase of violent conflict.

The outcome of the presidential election has also heightened tensions. While most people in the region acknowledge that Jonathan lost, some former militant leaders and groups accept Buhari only conditionally. For instance, the Niger Delta People’s Salvation Front (NDPSF), the civil successor to the militant Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF), claims Jonathan’s ouster was the product of a conspiracy by northerners and the Yoruba from the South West against the Delta peoples and the South East. Apparently influenced by that view, some groups are resuming old demands, hardly heard during the Jonathan presidency, for regional autonomy or “self-determination”.

Local tensions generated by the polls also pose risks, particularly in Rivers state, where Governor Nyesom Wike (of ex-President Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party, PDP) and ex-Governor Rotimi Amaechi (of President Buhari’s All Progressives Congress, APC) are bitter foes. With many guns in unauthorised hands, politically motivated assassinations and kidnappings for ransom, already common, could increase.

Policy and institutional changes are necessary but, if not prepared and implemented inclusively and transparently, could themselves trigger conflict. Buhari has declared that the amnesty program, which costs over $500 million per year, is due to end in December. He has terminated petroleum pipeline protection contracts that Jonathan awarded to companies owned by ex-militant leaders and the Yoruba ethnic militia, O’odua People’s Congress (OPC), and may streamline the Delta’s inefficient development-intervention agencies. He may also withdraw the PIB from parliament for revision. Some of this is desirable, even inevitable, but a number of former militant leaders and other entrenched interests threaten resistance and a possible return to violence. A perception that the government’s actions are reversing the Delta’s gains could aggravate local grievances and precipitate armed violence.

At its peak in 2009, the insurgency in the Niger Delta was claiming an estimated 1,000 lives a year, had cut Nigeria’s oil output by over 50 per cent and was costing the government close to four billion naira (nearly $19 million) per day in counter-insurgency operations. A resurgence of violence and increased oil-related crime in the Delta could seriously undermine national security and economic stability, which is already weighed down by the Boko Haram insurgency and dwindling oil revenues.

Nigeria’s newly elected President Muhammed Buhari gives a speech during a press conference, in Lagos, Nigeria, on 1 April 2015. Anadolu Agency
Commentary / Africa

Buhari’s Nigeria: Boko Haram Off Balance, but Other Troubles Surge

The peaceful election in March 2015 of President Muhammadu Buhari, a former army general, raised hopes that some of Nigeria’s most pressing security problems could soon be tamed. One year later, the new government has struck at the Islamist Boko Haram insurgency. But Nigeria is sliding deeper into other difficulties.

At his inauguration on 29 May 2015, Buhari pledged he would defeat Boko Haram and deliver greater security. He attacked the insurgents and – with help from Nigeria’s neighbours – has forced them onto the back foot, though the group remains resilient and the fighting has caused a major humanitarian crisis in the Lake Chad basin areas. Meanwhile, other security challenges are surging, particularly in the south east, Middle Belt and Niger Delta.

The government’s hard-fisted reaction has alienated more youth and boosted the agitators’ ranks.

In the south east, Igbo secessionist groups are more stridently demanding restoration of the short-lived Republic of Biafra (1967-1970). Decades-long Igbo grievances have been aggravated by popular misgivings about Buhari’s intentions for the region. Demonstrators have been driven off the streets by the government’s arrest and continued detention of some leading agitators, notably Nnamdi Kanu who heads the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), and the security forces’ killing of unarmed protesters. But Buhari has not addressed the roots of the unrest. Instead, the government’s hard-fisted reaction has alienated more youth and boosted the agitators’ ranks, threatening more troubles ahead.

Nigeria’s Middle Belt is suffering increasing violence, involving pastoralists, cattle rustlers, agrarian communities, rural bandits and community vigilantes. Recent pastoralist-farmer clashes over land and water resources have produced more casualties: hundreds were killed in Benue state in late February, with about 100,000 displaced across seventeen of the state’s 23 local government areas. These clashes have also spread south, including a 24 April attack by herdsmen in Nimbo, Enugu state, which left over 40 ethnic Igbo residents dead. This is unprecedented in the south east, further stoking Biafran secessionist sentiment. The conflict has also prompted the resuscitation of long-dormant Igbo ethnic vigilantes, notably the armed Bakassi Boys, threatening further violence.

The Niger Delta’s fragile peace is unravelling.

The Niger Delta’s fragile peace is unravelling, too. An earlier insurgency died down in 2009 thanks to a presidential amnesty offered to militants. As the government sought to arrest and prosecute ex-militant leader Government Ekpemupolo (better known as Tompolo) on corruption charges, armed groups notably the little-known Niger Delta Avengers, and the even more obscure Egbesu Mightier Fraternity, have resumed attacks on oil industry assets, cutting the country’s output to its lowest in two decades. Both groups have sent the government their lists of demands, mostly for local control of oil revenues, threatening even more crippling attacks if they are ignored. The government’s response – deploying more military assets and threatening an unmitigated crackdown – portend an escalation of the violence.

Insecurity has been aggravated by a wrenching economic situation. The National Bureau of Statistics reports that the economy contracted by 0.4 per cent in the first quarter of this year, the first time since 2004, and analysts do not expect the second quarter to be any better.

Faced with the precipitous decline in the price of oil, Nigeria’s most significant export, Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) has not delivered on its many pre-election promises of early economic relief. As of 30 April, 26 of the country’s 36 states owed some or all of their workers monthly salaries, some for up to eight months. In March and April, Nigerians suffered some of their worst automobile fuel shortages in recent memory and the government’s decision this month to address scarcity by ending price controls led to a jolting 67 per cent price hike. Furthermore, the electricity sector is still hampered by poorly utilised generation capacity, high transmission losses and frequent outages, intermittently plunging the entire country into darkness. Recent pipeline sabotage by Niger Delta armed groups has further depressed the electricity situation.

Unemployment is rising: a federal police advertisement of 10,000 vacancies has drawn over one million applicants.

Nigeria’s national currency, the naira, has depreciated by over 70 per cent since this time last year, leading inflation to soar to a near six-year high of 13.7 per cent in April 2016. With workers’ purchasing power diminished and many businesses unable to access foreign exchange for their operations, companies are shedding staff. Unemployment is rising: a federal police advertisement of 10,000 vacancies has drawn over one million applicants. Economic desperation could heighten social tension and insecurity.

Some of these challenges are the results of years of misgovernance and corruption; others, such as the oil price plunge, are beyond Buhari’s control. But as the administration enters its second year, it needs to embark on several short- and longer-term measures to reverse the country’s dangerous slide.

President Buhari should particularly show greater empathy with aggrieved groups.

In the short term, government needs to consolidate the gains of its counter-insurgency campaign in the north east, while firmly advancing humanitarian and rehabilitation efforts for many affected communities. It must also address the deadly pastoralist-farmer clashes through a combination of security measures and promoting dialogue between these communities. Such measures may not address the fundamental drivers of the conflicts, but they could calm the country while lasting solutions are explored.

Furthermore, the government needs to de-emphasise forceful responses and explore existing political mechanisms to respond to discontent in the south east, Niger Delta and elsewhere. President Buhari should particularly show greater empathy with aggrieved groups.

The federal government needs to urgently deliver sustainable improvement in electricity supply and create the millions of quick impact jobs it promised before the 2015 elections. State governments must also channel their governors’ so-called security votes (funds worth millions of dollars appropriated ostensibly to pay for discrete responses to security challenges but often pocketed by state governors) into constructive use. They must slash extravagant privileges senior state officials undeservedly enjoy, cut wasteful spending, eliminate payroll fraud and pay workers when due.

Unless the government pursues comprehensive reforms, its gains in subduing Boko Haram will be short-lived.

For the longer term, the government needs to recognise that much of the current violence and insecurity stem partly from the highly dysfunctional police, judicial and penal systems; and partly from fundamental flaws in the country’s federal system. It needs to formulate and implement comprehensive security sector reform. President Buhari also needs to pursue constitutional and administrative reforms that will guarantee citizens’ rights, curb corruption, improve transparency and accountability, and enhance service delivery. He can readily find elaborate guides in the submissions of various high-level national reform conferences held over the years.

Unless the government pursues comprehensive reforms, its gains in subduing Boko Haram will be short-lived and Nigeria could encounter even more deadly violence ahead.