Fighting among Boko Haram Splinters Rages On
Fighting among Boko Haram Splinters Rages On
Op-Ed / Africa 4 minutes

Niger Delta Fumble

After five years of serious unrest in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, the government in Abuja is launching a major security crackdown to bring order to the area. The unrest in an oil-producing region in a major west African state is a serious problem both inside and outside the country's borders. Which is why it matters that the government's plan won't work.

There can be no doubting the seriousness of the conflict in the delta. Grievances on the part of local populations over environmental damage and low levels of development escalated in 2004 with the emergence of organized armed militant groups, often linked to local politicians, who demand more resources for the region. They have targeted oil companies, which they accuse of being complicit with a negligent government, and have engaged in a protracted fight with security forces. Criminal groups, often engaged in kidnappings, are now as prominent as the politically motivated militants, and criminal and political motivations have become blurred.

The situation has the potential to become a humanitarian crisis. The unrest is an impediment to Nigeria's economic development; oil output has fallen 38% since 2006 thanks to the conflict and government revenues are down as a result. Violence in the delta also threatens regional stability. Last year, a group looking a lot like a Niger delta gang carried out a bank raid in a town within Cameroon near the Nigerian border. The capital of Equatorial Guinea, Malabo, suffered a spectacular attack by a gang in speedboats who went as far as shooting up the presidential compound. The real motives of this attack remain unknown, but the gang is widely suspected of having links to Niger delta militants and other criminals.

Since coming to power in 2007, Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua's response to the region's troubles has been incoherent, indecisive and unproductive. In the first months of his administration, he proposed a Niger Delta Summit. Lengthy preparations ate up valuable time and energy that could have been devoted to real dialogue with community leaders, but the summit never happened. Then in September 2008, he established a Technical Committee to review options for resolving the crisis. In December the committee submitted a report to the president recommending a number of measures related to youth disarmament, an amnesty for militants, accelerated progress on the region's infrastructure, including electrical power, and more independent regulation of oil pollution. But, aside from some as yet unspecified plans for amnesty for delta militants, nothing has been done.

Now, within the past few weeks, Mr. Yar'Adua appears to have decided on a strategy based on defeating the militants militarily. The president has implemented a massive increase in manpower and equipment for the so-called Joint Task Force, a force tasked with maintaining order in the area and combating militancy and kidnapping. The force is composed of army, navy, anti-riot police and more recently air force elements. This has been followed by a sustained but poorly targeted offensive against militants. Military helicopters have shelled and shot up militant bases. Neighboring villages have been targeted in subsequent manhunts for militant targets.

Militants have responded in kind, killing 12 soldiers in one ambush on May 21, according to several press reports. Specifics are hard to verify at present, not least because journalists and, until recently, aid workers have been barred from the operation area, but details are starting to come out. Hundreds of civilians may have been killed, with many more wounded and thousands displaced.

History suggests this military ramp-up will have little lasting effect. Previous strong-arm measures, such as a military offensive in September 2008, have done little to degrade the militants' capacity effectively or permanently. Instead, military operations have only further militarized the region and undercut moderate civil society voices calling for peaceful change from within the very Niger Delta ethnic groups where the violent militants draw support. The wide availability of small arms, the delta's difficult mangrove swamp terrain, and widespread local anger at government policies -- which current civilian casualties are already exacerbating -- all indicate that things may be little different this time round.

Instead of pursuing yet another military solution, Mr. Yar'Adua may want to consider a different path. To start, he could order an immediate ceasefire and begin a gradual withdrawal of the Joint Task Force. Certainly, it is clear that some elements of Niger delta militancy have become criminal. To ensure basic law and order in the force's wake, Abuja needs to put in place a better-trained police force accountable to appropriate civilian authorities. On the political side, the Nigerian government must acknowledge the genuine grievances of the delta's populations and address the multiple needs of the area. The Technical Committee's recommendations would be a good starting point.

The most controversial issue will be the division of oil revenues between the federal and local governments. Abuja currently returns only 13% of the delta region's oil wealth to local leaders. Delta moderates and militants alike argue this percentage should be much higher, while leaders from other Nigerian regions that are also dependent on delta oil money strongly disagree. The task force recommended 25%. While the exact figure needs to be negotiated taking country-wide views into account, an increase would be justified on grounds such as the environmental damage to the delta area caused by the oil exploration.

Community leaders in the delta also have called for stronger action on oil sector pollution, improved youth employment schemes and for infrastructure development. Such measures will also be necessary to give young people a sustainable alternative to militancy.

The Nigerian government's aggressive response to the problems of militancy in the Niger delta stands in contrast to its apparent unwillingness to lay out a clear plan for developing the region, or to engage with community groups. By foregoing opportunities for dialogue in favor of an attempted military solution, the government merely is perpetuating a vicious circle of violence. Without a sustained political effort, Mr. Yar'Adua's current security crackdown will have only a very short-lived impact. That will be a tragedy for the country, and an economic and strategic problem for the region -- and the Western importers of Nigerian oil.

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