By Michael Cruickshank, @MJ_Cruickshank
Following years of peace, violence has once again returned to the Niger Delta. While outrageously-named, groups like the Niger Delta Avengers and the Ultimate Warriors of the Niger Delta have begun a campaign of sabotage that is bringing oil companies and the Nigerian Government to their knees.
The Niger Delta, located in southeastern Nigeria, has long been a hotbed of unrest, oppression, and environmental destruction. From the so-called ‘Oil Rivers’ of the colonial period, to the civil war against the breakaway state of Biafra, all the way to the first decade of the 21st century, groups continued to clash over the region’s massive oil wealth.
Nigeria is Africa’s largest country by population, and its largest economy. The main driver of its substantial economic growth has been oil extraction from the Niger Delta region. The more recent conflicts ongoing in the Niger Delta have all come down to how this wealth is distributed. Locals from the region producing the oil claim to be receiving little benefit from their resources, while the government in Abuja lines its pockets.
The most of historically recent of these militant uprisings was led by the MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta). After a campaign of violence, sabotage and sea-piracy, in 2009 MEND was offered an amnesty by the Nigerian Government, and was given generous payouts in order to refrain from further militancy. However, the political winds have changed this year - these payouts have become reduced and irregular, and once again violence is on the uptick.
A new group calling itself the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) emerged in March this year, calling for the ‘liberation’ of the region, and condemning the excesses of MEND.
“We have a mandate that is clearly a departure of those old tactics of the defunct so-called MEND that was indulged in kidnapping, hostage taking, sea piracy, illegal oil bunkering, bank robberies and social crimes […] The wind of change in the Niger Delta struggle has come, we are are young, smart, and focused Niger deltans. Our mandate is to liberate the Niger Delta people; we don’t run after pipeline contracts.” said group spokesperson Brig. Gen. Mudoch Agbinibo in a statement.
Backing their words with action in the last few months, the NDA has mounted an escalating campaign of industrial sabotage against oil infrastructure in the delta. Oil and gas pipelines have been cut or bombed, while high output oil wells have been also targeted for destruction. As well, despite claims that it does not seek to kill Nigerian soldiers, it nonetheless has also been involved in several deadly shooting incidents with the country’s armed forces.
Recently, yet another group, calling itself the ‘Ultimate Warriors of the Niger Delta’ has also announced its presence, promising attacks against oil infrastructure unless the government hands over 60% of the region's oil blocks.
While both groups are new, they are already having a huge impact on the Nigerian economy. According to a new OPEC report released in May, oil production in the country is now at levels lower than anything seen in the past decade. The report directly attributes this fall in production to militant activity.
Bringing this oil production back online is a strategic necessity for the Nigerian Government and in the last few days, it appears President Muhammadu Buhari has begun taking reconciliatory action. Primarily, he has ordered engagement with local leaders in the Niger Delta region, presumably to open negotiation backchannels with militant groups. As well, he has reportedly ordered security forces in the region to cease fire.
For their part, the NDA put out a statement saying they were open to talks, however were unwilling to make concessions. Underscoring the seriousness of the situation, the group threatened to sink oil company ships should these negotiations be carried out in bad faith.
“If they refuse be heed to our advice will result to [sic] sinking of two their mother vessel as an examples to others. […] if need be we may review our earlier stance of not taking lives,” NDA spokesperson Brig. Gen. Mudoch Agbinibo proclaimed.
Within such a situation the Nigerian Government would do well to engage in honest negotiations with the groups in the Delta region, and enact legislation to help develop this impoverished region. While paying off the leadership of militant groups worked to undermine the MEND, it is clearly not a long term solution to local feelings of marginalization. Should deeper engagement not be forthcoming, violence could continue to escalate and the subsequent economic damage this would cause would have disastrous effects for Nigerians far removed from the conflict area.
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