The Niger Delta Militancy Challenge

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The original intentions of the amnesty initiative need to be sincerely addressed to ensure stability in the oil fields of the Niger Delta, writes Vincent Obia

A new form of militancy is emerging in the Niger Delta that has little to do with the core Niger Delta question, and everything to do with political partisanship. This much was clear when in a statement this month previously unknown Niger Delta Avengers said some prominent Niger Delta politicians who supported President Muhammadu Buhari at the last presidential election must apologise to the people of the zone.

“President Buhari, the director-general of the State Secret Service, and the All Progressives Congress candidate in Bayelsa State, Timipre Sylva, should apologise to the people of the Niger Delta region and family of Late Chief DSP Alamieyesegha for killing him with intimidation and harassment because of his party affiliation,” NDA, reportedly, stated in a release this month listing conditions for a halt of its on-going onslaught on the oil infrastructure in the Niger Delta.

The group also stated, “The only Nigerian maritime university sited in the most appropriate and befitting place – Okerenkoko in Delta State – must start the 2015/2016 academic session immediately.

“The Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amechi, should apologise to the Ijaws and the entire Niger Delta people for his careless and reckless statement about the citing of the university in Okerenko.”

Though, NDA also tried to appeal to feelings in the Niger Delta by referring to issues like the Ogoni clean-up and the amnesty programme, the group’s politically partisan motivations were obvious.

NDA and another new group, Red Egbesu Water Lions, have carried out a series of attacks on the oil facilities in the Niger Delta in the last few months. NDA recently bombed Chevron’s valve platform, an offshore oil facility located near Escravos in Abiteye, Warri South West Local Government Area of Delta State. The attack was closely followed by another on Chevron’s three swamp flow stations in Warri South-West council area.

The Nigerian government sees these newcomers to militancy as a threat that should be crushed by all means. Elements within the administration are suggesting heavy-handed measures they believe should be deployed to finish up the nascent threat to the soul of Nigeria’s oil-centred economic monoculture. But such draconian measures cannot produce the permanent solution to the problem that the country needs badly, as experience has shown.

The military regimes before the Fourth Republic elected severe strategies, which they often called wasting operations, in dealing with the situation in the oil-rich Niger Delta. But such measures merely produced a graduation of the problem from civil protests to armed struggle, with untold consequences for the country.

To successfully tackle the resurgent militancy in the Niger Delta, therefore, the federal government needs to rejig its intervention strategy in the zone with a view to tailoring it towards a permanent solution to the Niger Delta question. Of particular importance here is the presidential amnesty programme.

The late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua had declared the Niger Delta amnesty project on June 25, 2009 as a five-year programme of “Disarmament, Demobilisation, and Rehabilitation or Reintegration” for armed agitators who accepted the offer of amnesty. The disarmament and demobilisation phases of the programme, which are mainly security-based, have been largely achieved. But the federal government has seemed to renege on the processes that underlie achievement of the reintegration phase, which is development-based.

To make up for its lack of commitment to the development component of the amnesty programme, the government has seemed to focus excessively on those who carried arms and ignore others in the Niger Delta who, though equally affected by the devastating consequences of oil production in the area, chose not to be armed combatants. The vast majority of the people, who were not covered by the disarmament and demobilisation phases, ought to feel the impact of the amnesty project under the reintegration phase. This phase was meant not only to disincentivise the former combatants from militancy, but also to create a strong disincentive to armed agitation and concomitant criminalities for the locals generally.

Several issues bordering on development, environment, economic justice, and land and resource ownership rights in the oil-rich region had been agreed with the federal government as part of the amnesty project. They included the East-West road, the Lagos-Calabar railway line and coastal road, construction and establishment of new towns with modern facilities in the Niger Delta, as well as establishment of tertiary institutions to bring education closer to the people in the coastal communities of the region. These projects, apart from the East-West road, which is yet to be completed, have largely remained pipe dreams.

The United Nations Environment Programme report on the environmental restoration of Ogoniland has been swept under the carpet by the Nigerian government since 2011. Though, in August last year, Buhari launched an effort to begin the Ogoni clean-up, and there are reports that the exercise would begin next month. The issue of environmental degradation in the Niger Delta due to oil activities is an explosive problem that has been allowed to fester, while occasionally being exploited as a tool of politics.

The consequence is the continuous emergence of fringe groups trying to appeal to the popular sentiments, like NDA is doing.

The Buhari government has responded to the renewed militancy in the Niger Delta with acerbic rhetoric, which tends to signal that the administration is pinning its hopes on the military or strong-arm solution. Just a few days ago, Special Adviser to the President on Niger Delta and Coordinator of the Presidential Amnesty Programme, Brigadier-general Paul Boroh (rtd), stated, quite surprisingly, that the amnesty office is not a political office. “The office is a security office, first and foremost, not a political office,” Boroh said on an NTA programme. Misconceptions like this constitute a hindrance to the Niger Delta peace effort.

But the stakes for the government’s election of coercive methods are high. The military option may inflict a huge blow on the capacity of NDA and other groups to launch attacks now. But it could end up widening the conflict by further splintering the militancy, making it hydra-headed, creating sympathy for the fighters, and complicating efforts at political settlement.

The Buhari government should return to the original purpose of the amnesty initiative, which is the pivot of the search for a political solution to the problem of militancy in the Niger Delta.