Disenfranchised Nigerians, it seems, have a flair for the dramatic.
On Thursday June 23, a militant group calling itself the Aswana Deadly Force of the Niger Delta joined the Niger Delta Suicide Squad and Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) in threatening to completely shut down Nigeria’s oil production. The NDA is the most well-known and active group in the region and has successfully decreased the country’s oil output by 800,000 barrels per day – about a third of total production – by attacking oil platforms and bombing petroleum pipelines. The Niger Delta has a history of civil strife that was mostly quelled in 2009 after a government amnesty program. However, in recent months a resurgence of violence in Nigeria’s oil heartland has shaken this peace and rattled the country’s economy.
The Niger Delta’s history of turmoil is grounded in economic disparity. The oil produced in the Delta accounts for two-thirds of federal revenues but little of that wealth has trickled down to the region’s residents. Rights to the petroleum are public, not private, so locals do not have a stake in corporate investment or capital development. The public funds earmarked for the Delta are often drained by graft, corruption, or extortion before they reach local communities. Meanwhile, unchecked industrial pollution and oil spills have damaged the worth of other natural resources in the region, harming the farming prospects and decreasing the quality of life for the local population. Although the oil companies have employed many locals in well-paying positions, the sheer size of the Niger Delta’s population – estimated to be 40 million people – means that these jobs have barely put a dent in the economic needs of locals.
Changes in politics and heavy-handed government actions have also contributed to unrest. In 1967, Nigeria fractured along ethnic and cultural lines, with much of the Niger Delta seceding to form the Republic of Biafra. Biafra was rapidly blockaded by the central government, with food and medicine in short supply until 1970, when it was forcibly reintegrated by the Nigerian military. Biafran nationalism has simmered in the Delta ever since.
In 2003, these grievances came to a head as the region’s first armed militias began to emerge. Initially, a collection of disparate groups fought each other nearly as much as they fought against the government but within a few years a group known as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) began to crystallise. MEND served as an umbrella organization, absorbing many of the other guerrilla groups operating at the time. The group established a clear strategic objective: to “totally destroy the capacity of the Nigerian government to export oil,” until the government gave more local control to the inhabitants of the Delta.
Struggling to contain MEND, in 2009 the Nigerian government launched a lucrative program which promised amnesty and an outsized stipend (hundreds of dollars per month – most Deltans make a dollar or less per day) to any militants who turned in their weapons and forswore violence. In an attempt to address some of the root causes of the conflict, the government added job training to the amnesty program and offered pipeline security contracts to some of the groups more receptive to negotiation. Initially, this program was met with rapid success as nearly 15,000 footsoldiers exchanged their weapons for amnesty.
However, recent events have fanned the embers of the Niger Delta crisis. One of these factors was the 2015 election of President Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim from northern Nigeria who replaced replaced Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian born in the Niger Delta. In his May inaugural address, Buhari quashed hopes for an extension of the amnesty program by announcing an end-date by December (although this has since been extended). In October of the same year, the Nigerian government imprisoned Nnamdi Kanu, the president of a neo-secessionist movement called the “Indigenous People of Biafra” and a popular figure among residents of the Niger Delta. Activists have alleged that Kanu is being held extrajudicially, and Nigerians living in the Delta have staged several protests demanding his release.
The political upheaval and endurance of local economic grievances have provided rallying cries for the resurgence of militancy in the Niger Delta. Chief among these militants are the Niger Delta Avengers, who have called for the release of Nnamdi Kanu and made statements in support of the Indigenous People of Biafra. In a move reminiscent of MEND, the Avengers have also publicly announced their intention to completely shut down Nigeria’s oil production.
Perhaps because of this similarity, many journalists and some security experts have suggested that the Niger Delta Avengers sprang out of MEND, which was neutered and mostly disbanded in the wake of the 2009 amnesty program. However, both the NDA and a former MEND leader have refuted such a connection and the NDA’s support of Biafrian nationalism also suggests ideological divergence between the groups.
While the Avengers may not have evolved out of MEND, they appear to be utilising some of the same tactics; both MEND and the NDA have been recognised for perpetrating complex, sophisticated attacks. In February, the group successfully bombed an underwater pipeline, severing it. On May 4, the NDA successfully targeted a critical offshore node in Shell’s pumping system, affecting the entire network. The group’s attacks have resulted in a significant drop in Nigeria’s oil production, which in May dropped to its lowest point in two decades.
What does seem certain is that peace and stability will not come to the Niger Delta until the underlying causes of insurrection are addressed; the existence of militant groups is a symptom of broader economic inequality and lack of opportunity across the Delta. Addressing the fundamental issues behind the emergence of guerrilla groups is absolutely critical for the political and economic integrity of the country.
Oil makes up more than 70 percent of the Nigerian government’s revenues. Amid historically low oil prices, Abuja’s finances would have been strained without the turmoil in the Niger Delta; the collapse in Nigeria’s oil output has triggered an economic crisis. In the first three months of 2016 the annual
core inflation rate hit double digits while GDP contracted by 0.4 percent. Instability in the Delta also wards off foreign investment, which has cratered. In June, Nigeria’s central bank floated the country’s currency – which had previously been pegged to the US Dollar – in an attempt to attract foreign investment and reduce the public spending necessary to maintain the peg.
The 2009 amnesty measures successfully bought off the militants for a few years, but in order to effect lasting change, future programs will need to focus less on payments – which are a short-term solution at best – and more on sustainable, long-term rehabilitative programs like job training and economic development in the region.
Colin is the Analysis division’s all-rounder editor, specialising in counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency issues.