Despite the amnesty deal offered to Niger Delta militants in 2009, a combination of greed and complex, unaddressed grievances could result in a dramatic return of instability to the region. One of the most prominent militant groups, MEND, has ramped up threats in recent months indicating a resumption of hostilities.
For years, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) has been behind kidnappings and attacks on energy industry targets inside Nigeria. MEND first emerged in late 2005, when it took credit for bombing a Shell oil pipeline and kidnapping four foreign workers. Since then, it has carried out numerous attacks on pipelines, killed many soldiers and kidnapped hundreds of foreign employees – putting a significant dent in Nigeria’s oil exports. The group has demanded: control over all natural resources in the Delta; reparations for environmental damage; and a larger share of the energy revenue for the region’s people. MEND also loots oil and sells it on the black market.
Despite the group’s apparent popularity, estimates of its actual manpower and strength vary. Since it has often functioned as an umbrella organization for several militant groups, the emergence of new field commanders to lead new attacks is always possible. And while it is probably the most significant, MEND is not the only threat to stability in the Delta. In May and June 2011, unidentified groups or gangs resumed a series of kidnappings, robberies and other attacks that seem unrelated to the oil industry.
MEND’s renewed calls for violence and attacks on oil and gas installations in the past couple of months can hardly come as a surprise; the group has long warned oil companies that the conflict is not over. Given MEND’s demonstrated ability to disrupt oil production, a return to violence would not only destabilize the region, but energy prices globally.
Roots of the conflict
While some believe that the roots of the conflict are primarily religious or ethnic, the underlying causes include extreme poverty, high unemployment and the high stakes of the struggle to control resources and political offices. Despite billions of dollars in revenue from decades of oil production, many of the inhabitants of the Niger Delta remain deeply impoverished, living on less than a dollar per day. Along with poverty, a lack of educational and employment opportunities and endemic corruption, the Delta has a history of political fragmentation and disputes over land ownership and fishing rights – all of which have resulted in violent confrontations. Political competition, especially intense over federal offices, has historically also resulted in violence.
Environmental degradation from years of operations and spills is another significant issue, as many of the region's inhabitants can no longer earn a living as fishermen,further aggravating the situation. These Delta communities are also divided politically from the Nigerians living in other regions who only experience the benefits of oil extraction.
As a result of these factors – and no little greed – there are several militant groups working to terrorize the foreign oil companies into leaving the country, so as to pressure the government into giving them more control over the oil and gas reserves. With their willingness to negotiate with kidnappers and pay large ransoms ($250,000, on average) for captured workers or occupied installations, the companies have inadvertently made targeting them into an extremely profitable enterprise. They too must accept responsibility for the situation.
Though there has been conflict in the Niger Delta for decades, the easy availability of weapons in the late 1990s made several groups much more powerful and violent – including MEND, the Niger Delta Peoples Volunteer Force (NDPVF), the Joint Revolutionary Council (JRC) and the Movement for the Survival of the Ijaw Ethnic Nationality (MOSEIN). With their new firepower, these groups offered “security” services to officials and candidates running for office. When appropriately paid, these groups would protect a candidate or allow an event to take place; when not paid, a candidate was in danger, or an event would be disrupted. This coincided with a loss of influence and respect for local leaders, as it became obvious that they were being bribed by the foreign oil companies or the government.
The 2009 amnesty program brokered by President Goodluck Jonathan pardoned the militants and sought their disarmament, rehabilitation and reintegration. Despite criticism, by June 2011, 26,358 militants had joined the program – with the significant exception of a number of MEND members. Though the process undoubtedly reduced incidents of violence, and improved stability in the region, inhabitants of the Delta have since begun doubting the government’s true commitment to the process of peacebuilding.
The main criticism of the plan has been its perceived failure to address militants' grievances and demands to create employment or educational opportunities, while facilitating economic development in the region. Also, the rebels have interpreted their failure to renegotiate an energy profit-sharing agreement with the oil companies as a lack of the government’s commitment to peacebuilding and development in the region. In fact, MEND has just asked the federal government to investigate the Post Amnesty Committee, calling it “absolutely clueless of the Niger Delta issues [sic]” and “a ploy to plunder … resources.” Some activists suggested that the amnesty plan was only a half-hearted measure undertaken by a government desperate to introduce some level of stability to the energy market and to increase Nigeria’s plummeting oil exports. Failure to address these militant grievances pose serious dangers to a tenuous peace: faced with a lack of employment prospects, the former rebels, who are often young, uneducated and professionally untrained would likely reengage in militant activities.
The complex political, military, economic and environmental realities of this conflict translate into a difficult process of reconciliation, reconstruction and peacebuilding in the Niger Delta. It is unlikely that the amnesty in its current form will be enough to create a sustainable peace. Economic grievances are most acute and must be addressed to avoid the risk of renewed violence. The government of Nigeria will have to cooperate with other conflict parties to develop a solution acceptable to all sides, including to the Niger Delta communities. A fairer distribution of oil revenues, development projects that focus on education and training, and enhanced environmental protection would be good starting points.
For countries that lack effective political institutions and governance, natural resources can often be a curse. In the case of the Niger Delta, enhanced economic and political developments and decreased corruption will be pivotal to transforming these natural resources into a blessing. Successful engagement with the wealthy foreign energy giants who operate in the area could be crucial, providing the foundation for stabilization and positive long-term changes. In the end, however, it will be local communities and leaders who ultimately will be the driving force behind any lasting transformation.