The Niger Delta has repeatedly produced natural resources that give the region a significant role in the global economy – from the slave trade in the sixteenth century to the palm oil trade in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and most recently, petroleum extraction since the mid-twentieth century. In Nigeria oil and gas, account for 35 percent of Gross Domestic Product, with crude oil representing over 90 percent of total export revenue. Over the decades, the petroleum industry has left a massive footprint on both the built and natural environments through its network of pipelines, terminals, flow-stations, well-heads, rigs, and ocean-going tankers. The petro-industry has generated local discontent due to its recklessness, and the disruption it has caused in these areas, where many minority communities happen live. As a result of oil spills, land dispossession, pipeline obstructions, and allegedly unfair revenue allocation, contentious relations have developed between these oil producing regions and both the Nigerian state and multi-national oil companies (MNOCs).

In the 1970s and 1980s, communities in the Niger Delta oil producing region had expressed displeasure with the government and oil companies primarily through non-violent means such as petition writing, advertisement of grievances in national newspapers, litigation, and calls for dialogue.1Ukeje, Charles. “Oil Communities and Political Violence: The Case of Ijaws in Nigeria’ Niger Delta Region.” Journal of Terrorism and Political Violence 13, no. 4 (2001): 15-36. After over three decades of failed attempts at peaceful resolution, the Delta has become an almost ungovernable region. Although violent incidents began in the late 1990s, it was with the emergence of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) that the descent into full-blown insurgency was complete. After a period of relative peace in the wake of the 2009 amnesty deal, a new militant group, the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) emerged in February 2016.2Ukiwo, Ukoha. “Timing and Sequencing in Peacebuilding: The Case of Nigeria’s Niger Delta Amnesty Programme,” Center for Research on Peace and Development (CRPD), KU Leuven, Belgium, Working Paper No. 36, 2015; Ikelegbe, Augustine  & Andrew Onokerhoaye, The Amnesty for peace in the Niger Delta: Political settlement, transitional Justice and Peace Building, Center for Population and Environment Development (CPED), Monograph series 13, Benin-City, 2016. The group has called for a greater share of oil revenues to go directly to the communities in the Niger Delta and it has employed violent tactics to achieve resource control.

Conditions in the Niger Delta – environmental, economic and political – have attracted considerable attention from policymakers and practitioners, both nationally and internationally. They have been particularly concerned with the paradox of violence amidst abundant natural resources; the so-called “resource curse.”3Watts, Michael. “Resource Curse? Governmentality, Oil and Power in the Niger Delta, Nigeria,” Geo Politics 9, no. 1 (2004). Escalating violent conflict in the Niger Delta has turned the region into one of the world’s major hotspots, caused radical volatility in the output of gas and crude oil, and helped place the country near the top of the global political instability index. The disruption of oil production in the region since the mid 2000s has had profound implications for the Nigerian economy, global oil and gas markets, and for Nigeria’s standing in the international community. The turbulence, insecurity, lack of accountability and transparency has made for a difficult operating environment for oil and gas companies and more generally, a hostile business climate, which has diminished Nigeria’s reputation as a destination for investment.4Watts, Michael. “Petro-Insurgency or Criminal Syndicate? Conflict & Violence in the Niger Delta,” Review of African Political Economy 34, no. 114 (2007).

While the lingering unrest, violence, and attendant loss of life and property pose a great danger to the economy and security of Nigeria, they have also adversely affected the social fabric, the governance structures, and the customary institutions of communities in the oil-producing regions. Though there had been a fragile peace in the Niger Delta from 2009 to 2016, the fact remains that many of the structural problems which gave rise to the first wave of insurgency have not been addressed. In short, prevailing conditions across the Niger Delta states do not represent an environment in which sustainable development can take place. Attempts at resolving this multi-faceted problem have yielded few results. Since the emergence of democratic rule in 1999 there have been several peace processes initiated by the government and various stakeholders whose recommendations are yet to be implemented. Meanwhile, agencies established to drive development in the region have either been politicized or allowed to fail.

The 2015 elections reignited ethnic and religious divisions in Nigeria’s fragile and complex federation. Before and during the election, there was anxiety over the apparent likelihood of violence. Instead of issue-based campaigns, the political space was inundated with inflammatory rhetoric, threatening messages, and mudslinging. While these anxieties, especially in the Delta, were calmed by former President Goodluck Jonathan’s concession of defeat, the APC-led government’s failure to unite the country after the tense election has heightened agitations by secessionist groups such as the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra, and has contributed to the proliferation of armed groups.

The situation has been compounded by President Muhammadu Buhari’s policy decisions. In addition to proposing to stop the amnesty program that facilitated a fragile peace and a rise in oil output, President Buhari has suggested that sections of the country which gave him 97 percent of votes and those that gave him 5 percent of votes may be treated unequally. He also terminated the petroleum pipeline protection contracts that Goodluck Jonathan awarded to ex-militants in the Delta and to the leadership of the Oodua People’s Congress (a Yoruba nationalist organization), and revoked a ten-year running public private partnership initiative which began in 2012 between the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) and Global West Vessel Specialists Limited (GWVSL), a company with links to an ex-militant leader.5International Crisis Group, “Curbing Violence in Nigeria (III): Revisiting the Niger Delta,” ICG, Brussels, African Report No. 231, September 2015. Similarly, the Federal Ministry of Transportation suspended all actions related to the establishment and commencement of the Nigerian Maritime University (NMU), established by NIMASA in Okerenkoko, Gbaramatu Kingdom – a hotbed of militant activity. In addition, budgetary allocation to development agencies in the region was drastically reduced in the 2016 budget. A perception of government policies as anti-Niger Delta, coupled with the arrest and trial of associates of Former President Goodluck Jonathan by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), has heightened tensions and contributed to the rise of the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA).

The renewed wave of petro-insurgency by NDA and the myriad ongoing agitations in different parts of the country are outcomes of the 2014 elections, exacerbated by the actions and inaction of the APC-led government. Despite having one of highest levels of military spending in Africa, the NDA is just one of many armed groups that have emerged in Nigeria since May 2015, not including terrorist activities in Nigeria. Over the past six years, the Islamic fundamentalist group Boko Haram has destroyed a large part of northeast Nigeria through sustained attacks. The last few years have also witnessed renewed activism and large protests by the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) demanding an independent “Biafran State,” gradually grinding the southeastern region to a restive zone. And despite having a Yoruba Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, the southwestern Yoruba socio-cultural group Afenifere continues to demand a restructuring of Nigeria.

In light of all these challenges, it is not merely the Niger Delta’s stability and relationship to the future of the Nigerian nation that is at stake, but the very foundation of Nigeria’s fractious, complex, and unstable federalism. While the Avengers’ petro-insurgency in the Niger Delta poses a serious threat, Nigeria’s future depends on how the government, as well as regional and global communities, tackle the sundry discontents, grievances, and ethnic animosities.


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