As security observers and policymakers focus on the ongoing terrorist insurgency in northeast Nigeria, new threats to the stability of the Niger Delta are emerging. The Niger Delta region has witnessed relative calm since the proclamation of amnesty on June 25, 2009, by former president of Nigeria Umaru Musa Yar’adua and the subsequent implementation of a disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) program, which the Nigerian government has rated very highly. This perceived success is premised on the increase in production of crude oil from a meager 600,000 barrels per day during the height of the insurgency to about 2.5 million barrels per day since the declaration of the amnesty and the cessation of militant hostilities.1Interviews with DDR official in the Niger Delta.

The motives behind Nigeria’s amnesty policy

The federal government of Nigeria needed desperately to end the hostilities and secure the oil infrastructure in the Niger Delta. Many commentators had said the government faced two options: the use of military force or pacification of the militants. A third option would have been to define an inclusive development policy to address the fundamental cross-cutting issues that fueled the insurgency. The government was focused, however, on a quick win approach. It sought “peace” by any means necessary, including offering amnesty while also threatening the use of brutal state force. The insurgent leaders and fighters in the region accepted amnesty.

Notwithstanding the Nigerian state’s celebration of increased production of crude oil, it is important to note the Niger Delta peace process is ongoing. It is fragile, however, and indications are that the region is still prone to implosive violence.

What the amnesty and DDR programs have achieved in the Niger Delta

The Niger Delta amnesty and DDR have “taken care of” about 30,000 youths in the region, but others remain at loose ends. The militancy was accompanied by other forms of organized violence, such as cultism and sea piracy, yet the amnesty targeted only insurgent fighters and their networks. This left out other youths who are also vulnerable to violent mobilization.

What the amnesty and DDR programs cannot achieve

Observers make easy reference to the Niger Delta amnesty and DDR program in discussing the security situation in the region. The amnesty program is not a security institution, however. Although it creates opportunities for improved security in the region, the responsibility for maintaining law and order is not within its mandate or that of the DDR program. Also, as no clear links have been established between current security challenges and ex-militants, we cannot link the identified security threats to any shortcomings in the implementation of the amnesty. The security, development, and politics in the Niger Delta region are the most potent factors that could lead to an outbreak of violent hostilities in the region.

Why we should be concerned about the Niger Delta

Despite the implementation of the amnesty and DDR, the conditions that gave rise to the militancy still exist in the Niger Delta, particularly the high rate of unemployment among youths. Their political marginalization continues, as well; even where youths are incorporated into the ongoing political process, they are mobilized as thugs and foot soldiers for prominent politicians in the region. Importantly, it was this form of political engagement that provided the resources for the initial militant mobilization in some parts of the Niger Delta.2Human Rights Watch, “Criminal Politics: Violence, “Godfathers,” and Corruption in Nigeria,” October 12, 2007, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2007/10/11/criminal-politics, accessed November 3, 2014.

The threat of lack of opportunities for male youths

The large mass of vulnerable, unengaged youths in the Niger Delta provides the needed capacity for mobilization around clandestine activities. Already, a good number of youths have found themselves participating in the illegal artisanal refining of crude oil in the local creeks, an industry that may lead to organized conflict, despite the participants’ having framed their narratives around resource rights. The continued use of the military to end artisanal refining will attract violent confrontation from the youths who are involved in the process. Such confrontation is inevitable in an environment where opportunities in the formal economies are limited and people lack the capacity to engage in them.

The return of sea piracy and criminality in the creeks

Another immediate threat to the region’s fragile peace is organized sea piracy, which increased following the end of militancy. Locals in the riverine villages of the Southern Ijaw Local Government area in Bayelsa State reported about twenty pirate attacks between November 2013 and February 2014,3Interview with community chiefs in Southern Ijaw Local Government Area, January 12, 2014. and about ten more in May and June 2014.4Telephone interviews with locals in Southern Ijaw Local Government Area, June 20, 2014. In July, state security operatives guarding an oil flow station repelled a major attack, in which the pirates tried to steal the machine gun on the security gunboat.5“JTF, Police Repel Pirates Attack on Oil Installation in Bayelsa,” Vanguard, July 25, 2014, http://www.vanguardngr.com/2014/07/jtf-police-repel-pirates-attack-oil-installation-bayelsa, accessed November 3, 2014.

The attempt to steal the machine gun was a manifestation of a scramble for weapons by these pirates. Following the disarmament of former insurgent groups, the region was purged of small arms as well as heavy weapons. With the growing struggle for space within the prevailing illicit economies, however, a new arms rush has surfaced.6“SSS Seizes Arms in Port Harcourt,” The Nation, January 31, 2014, http://thenationonlineng.net/new/sss-seizes-arms-in-port-harcourt, accessed November 3, 2014. While seizures of arms have been reported, no clear information has emerged on the number of weapons still in the hands of nonstate interests.

Politics of 2015, stability, and the Niger Delta peace process

The 2015 electoral process is also very crucial to the peace and security of the Niger Delta. Besides the amnesty and DDR, the presidency of Goodluck Jonathan has also provided some stability for the oil-rich region. Situations that would previously have led to major violence are carefully managed by regional stakeholders who support his government. However, the narrative that presents the Islamic terrorism in northeast Nigeria as a plot to grab power from Jonathan7Zainab Usman, “Boko Haram and The Competing Narratives,” Al Jazeera, July 3, 2014, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/07/boko-haram-competing-narratives-20147214431799763.html, accessed November 3, 2014. has gained traction among informal networks within the region. This perception could lead to organized violence. While former militants may or may not take up arms again, if Jonathan loses the election, then the struggle for more oil rents between stakeholders in the Niger Delta and the federal government could intensify, which might have negative consequences for the ongoing peace process in the region.

Peace is not inevitable in the Niger Delta

The observations here call for renewed focus on the Niger Delta. Another insurgency in Nigeria would threaten the capacity of the country’s security forces to guarantee its stability and add to an already long list of conflicts in resource-rich regions, which will in turn influence the cost of energy in the global markets.

To avert another phase of violent conflicts in the region, a number of steps are needed:

• The federal government of Nigeria should keep its promises to increase development funding in the region. Funding is not enough, however. The government must also monitor the implementation of development projects to ensure they achieve the desired outcomes and urgently engage in security sector reforms to improve the effective policing of waterways and rural communities.

• The state governments in the Niger Delta should empower traditional authorities in ways that promote traditional values important to the stability of local communities. They should also increase funding of development projects in the rural areas and identify marginalized youths to mainstream them into the society and give them a part to play in the security and development of their communities.

• Oil multinationals should redefine their corporate social responsibility (CSR) to involve more marginalized youths. CSR should go beyond engaging local power structures to identify the informal networks created by marginalized youths—i.e., the foot soldiers and purveyors of violence—for the purpose of survival.

• International development organizations and foreign governments should also commit more resources to identifying the informal youth structures in the region. It is not enough to seek out the already existing networks that participate in the mainstream of society; rather, they need to connect with the marginalized youths driven to its periphery who are more likely to engage in violence. Genuine attempts to understand their situation should lead to an informed policy design.

• International development organizations and foreign governments should go further to engage all levels of government with these policy designs. They should not do the work of the governments in Nigeria; rather, they should advise them based on a clear understanding of the current dynamics of the region.

Finally, as both national and international observers and policymakers focus on northeast Nigeria, they must not ignore signs of the possible recurrence of conflict in the Niger Delta region. Another full-scale insurgency in the Niger Delta could drive the Nigerian state closer to the cliff. The current threats are the same as those that led to the last phase of insurgency, and they serve as signposts indicating that, if effective action is not taken, insurgency will come again—it is just a matter of time.

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