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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
Instruments of Pain: Conflict and Famine
Instruments of Pain: Conflict and Famine
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.

Men unload boxes of nutritional supplements from a helicopter prior to a humanitarian food distribution carried out by the United Nations World Food Programme in Thonyor, Leer county, South Sudan, on 25 February 2017. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola
Statement / Global

Instruments of Pain: Conflict and Famine

For the first time in three decades, four countries, driven by war, verge on famine. Over coming weeks, Crisis Group will publish special briefings on Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria. Each conflict requires tailored response; all need increased aid and efforts to end the violence.

The last time the UN declared a famine was in 2011, in Somalia. The last time it faced more than one major famine simultaneously was more than three decades ago. Today we are on the brink of four – in Yemen, Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan.

The spectre of famine is primarily the result of war, not natural disaster. According to the UN, more than twenty million people, millions of them children, are at risk of starvation. This is happening in man-made crises and under the Security Council’s watch. In some places, the denial of food and other aid is a weapon of war as much as its consequence. Combatants’ fighting tactics often make the problem worse.

Both sides of Yemen’s conflict, for example, fight with little to no regard for the local population. The Huthis and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s forces, on one hand, and their opponents in the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, on the other, have repeatedly strangled the flow of aid and commodities to areas controlled by their rivals. The impending Saudi-led push to recapture the Red Sea coast, including the port of Hodeida – the main entry point for imports on which much of the country depends – and the battle that offensive will provoke risk creating another major chokehold on supplies.

Critical norms, including adherence to International Humanitarian Law, are fast eroding. For the first time in a generation, most indicators suggest the world is becoming more dangerous.

Elsewhere, too, the actions of governments and their opponents exact high humanitarian tolls. In north-east Nigeria, Boko Haram’s attacks on rural communities and the destruction wrought by fighting between its insurgents and the military caused the acute food crisis. The curtailing by Lake Chad basin states of economic activity, aimed at weakening the insurgency, has damaged communities’ livelihoods and increased their vulnerability.

Fighting in South Sudan often involves indiscriminate killing of civilians, sexual violence and pillage by state and non-state armed actors alike. Civilians in Southern Unity state must constantly flee armed groups, rendering them unable to farm or receive assistance and creating conditions for famine. Many resort to hiding in swamps; to seek food is to risk attack. 

The risk of famine is thus closely tied to the spike, over recent years, in war and its fallout, particularly mounting human suffering. Critical norms, including adherence to International Humanitarian Law (IHL), are fast eroding. For the first time in a generation, most indicators suggest the world is becoming more dangerous.

The Nigerians, Somalis, South Sudanese and Yemenis over whom famine looms have already suffered intense, in some cases protracted conflict. The impact on those most affected is more than a passing tragedy. The displacement, destruction to livestock and local communities and the threat of a lost generation, without education or socio-economic prospects, hinder prospects for building sustainable peace.

Beginning today with publication of the special briefing Instruments of Pain (I): Conflict and Famine in Yemen, and continuing over the next few weeks with similar special briefings on South Sudan, Nigeria and Somalia, Crisis Group will describe these crises’ roots and the measures necessary to prevent their further deterioration. Each requires a unique response: challenges of access and funding vary, as do ways to quiet and eventually end the wars that have increased risks of famine. Each special briefing will offer detailed prescriptions.

Overall, though, governments of the states affected and their backers should:

  • show far greater respect for IHL, particularly by allowing in aid and protecting those delivering it. They must avoid tactics that contribute to the risk of famine, like the Hodeida offensive, the curtailing of Lake Chad basin trading or predation in Southern Unity state;
     
  • increase and sustain funds for relief efforts. Shortfalls are not the only financial challenge – in Yemen, for example, the central bank’s failure to pay public sector salaries has left many Yemenis unable to buy food that is available. But humanitarian efforts in all four crises are chronically underfunded; and
     
  • renew efforts to calm violence and bring those conflicts to a sustainable end. The spike in war over recent years, which has already caused more civilian casualties, mass displacement and terrorism, now threatens to starve millions. Without redoubled efforts to end those conflicts, 2017 promises to be not the low-water mark, but rather a way-station on the descent to something far worse.