Nigeria: A Violent Window of Opportunity
Nigeria: A Violent Window of Opportunity
Fighting among Boko Haram Splinters Rages On
Fighting among Boko Haram Splinters Rages On
Op-Ed / Africa 4 minutes

Nigeria: A Violent Window of Opportunity

Why troubled times are the perfect chance to calm the Niger Delta.

A YouTube video released last month has caused quite a stir in Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta. The spokesman for the militant group Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) e-mailed out the clip, which depicts two young brothers -- one already dead, the other unarmed and begging for his life. A soldier asks the living boy, lying on the floor near his deceased brother, where he is from. "Bonny," he replies, an oil-producing community in the region. Without pause, the soldiers shoot him twice in the head.

That kind of violence is shocking not so much for its rarity as for its banal familiarity in the Niger Delta, where conflict is today at its height. For nearly a decade, groups such as MEND have attacked oil production infrastructure, usually taking pipelines offline for brief periods. But in the last several months those attacks have picked up -- both in frequency and intensity. Confrontations between the militants and the military are increasingly common, and civilian casualties in nearby communities have been devastating. Oil production has fallen drastically.
Yet strange as it sounds, now might be just the time to resolve one of the region's longest-standing violent conflicts.

The roots of the violence are clear: an abundance of oil combined with a surplus of instability. Poverty and unemployment are pervasive in Nigeria, particularly in the delta. Years of an unresponsive federal government have encouraged minorities -- both ethnic and economic -- to form militias and gangs to secure a share of the country's massive oil wealth. In the Niger Delta, this problem is particularly acute. Communities there have lived for decades with the pollution that comes with proximity to aging oil wells. Even as they've watched the crude pulled from their land, just 13 percent of the oil revenues is earmarked for the people in the delta states.

For the last decade, criminal and political militants, have used everything from targeted attacks to oil bunkering to hostage-taking to make clear their discontent. The result is the current violent situation. In February, for example, an 11-year-old girl was killed while trying to protect her 9-year-old brother from kidnappers. MEND and other militant groups have promised to continue kidnappings and attacks until the government agrees to peace talks.

Unfortunately, a succession of Nigerian governments has undertaken only sporadic efforts to redress local grievances and bring the conflict to a halt. The current administration of President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua promised to attack the Niger Delta issue early; he acknowledges the desperate situation in the delta and has even visited there himself. But since his inauguration in 2007, Yar'Adua's strategy for addressing the problem has been unclear and ineffective. One of his solutions, a newly created Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs, simply adds more layers of bureaucracy to an already over crowded problem.

Up to now, the government has also been stepping up military attacks. But the pervasive civilian casualties have meant that the delta is more unstable and angrier than ever. In May, for example, civilians were caught between militant groups and the Nigerian military for only the most recent time in a long history of collateral damage. The military Joint Task Force (JTF), a special-operations unit set up to curtail violence in the delta, has reportedly killed hundreds of civilians and displaced thousands more.

Diplomatic attempts at ending the violence have been half hearted. Just this Monday, the government dropped charges against senior militant leader Henry Okah, who had been in custody for gun running since 2007. MEND's response has been to declare a 60-day cease-fire -- conditional on the pull out of the JTF.

Okah said on Tuesday that he doubted other militants would accept the government's amnesty offer unless Nigeria was willing to begin peace talks under international auspices, dissolve the JTF, and end attacks on Niger Delta communities. The government's offer was also contingent on a halt to attacks by the militants. The state has so far been silent on whether it would consider third-party-managed peace talks.

What's needed are real political agreements on wealth sharing, amnesty, and development for the impoverished communities from which oil is extracted and militants are born -- and now could be the time to make them. The recent drop in oil prices and the rise in militant attacks have started to hurt the government -- contributing to a huge loss in oil revenue estimated at $27 billion over a nine-month period last year alone. Between 2006 and 2008, shutdowns due to attacks saw average production drop 1 million barrels per day, yielding billions of dollars in losses. With the latest attacks on pipelines last month affecting nearly half of the region's normal output, the decline may have hit its worst levels. In other words, the government might finally have a strong financial motivation to negotiate.

Third-party mediation will be essential, and U.S. President Barack Obama's new assistant secretary for African affairs, Amb. Johnnie Carson, would be a good fit to shepherd the process forward. A respected Africanist, he has the credibility to put hard conditions on the table: a workable amnesty linked to the release of hostages and a long-term halt to violence; an increase in oil revenues to the delta; a detailed plan for better accountability for financial flows at the state level, including credible action against the networks of oil bunkering that link the militants to senior local and national politicians; a disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration program for militants, facilitated by the United Nations; a replacement of JTF military forces with civilian police; and an international commitment to help monitor the final accord.

Nigeria cannot afford to have peace efforts fail again. Until a compromise is reached and peace is found, everyone loses.

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