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The Niger Delta Oil Wars Are Unlikely To End Soon

The Nigerian government announced in August that it had resumed amnesty payments to former militants in the Niger Delta, many of them members of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) (Naija Headlines, August 4). It had significantly reduced the amount of money available for such payments in late 2015 and claimed to have suffered a technical hiccup delaying payments in early 2016, resulting in accusations from the militants that Abuja was failing to abide by the arrangements agreed upon in the 2009 Presidential Amnesty Program (PAP) (Information Nigeria, August 2; The Leadership, November 29, 2015; Punch, February 24).

The decision to resume payments to the insurgents was indicative of an increasing desperation on the part of the government to reduce the level of violence in the Niger Delta and enable oil production to return to pre-conflict levels. Violence in the region since the start of 2016 has cut oil production to a near-30-year low, a serious concern for the government, which relies on oil for two-thirds of government revenue and nearly all of its export earnings.

About 30,000 former fighters are now receiving amnesty payments of $206 per month, on the condition that they end their attacks on pipelines in the Niger Delta (Information Nigeria, August 2). However, it remains uncertain whether this will lead to a genuine decrease in violence in the Niger Delta and unlikely that the reintroduction of amnesty payments will change the dynamics of the conflict in the Delta.

Different Groups, Diverse Demands

The main difficulty with attempts to end conflict in the Delta through the resumption of amnesty payments is that numerous militant factions in the region never received amnesty payments in the first place and were excluded from the PAP. This was one of the main contentions of the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA), who distanced themselves from MEND when they first emerged in early 2016. The NDA claimed that MEND commanders had never cared about the Niger Delta and had grown rich from the amnesty payments without redistributing the money to the foot soldiers of the rebellion (Niger Delta Avengers, May 3). It claimed to be different, although there are several indications that the NDA is composed of many former MEND fighters – not least that NDA attacks escalated significantly after the government halted amnesty payments and began arresting those linked to corruption within the program (The Paradigm, January 16).

Despite this, there remain a number of NDA members and other insurgent groups in the Delta that are outside the PAP, undermining the government’s calculation that the militants will reduce attacks as a result of the resumption of payments.

The demands of the Delta insurgents are diverse, ranging from calls for the release of former National Security Adviser Sambo Dasuki and pro-Biafran leader Nnamdi Kanu, to more general demands for the redistribution of oil wealth to Delta residents (Vanguard, May 19; see Terrorism Monitor, September 16).

Government Dialogue

Partly as a result of these diverse demands, the government is conducting a dialogue with insurgents and seeking to ensure that a ceasefire the NDA called on 20 August is upheld (Punch, August 21). Pursuing negotiations may be challenging, however, as the militants are often erratic in their approach to talks. For example, in June the government announced it had negotiated a one-month cessation of hostilities with the insurgents, only for the militants to deny this and say they would not countenance further talks without the presence of international mediators (This Day Live, June 21; Vanguard, June 22).

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Such moves show just how fragile attempts at engaging militant groups in the Delta can be. [1] Indeed the militants often seem intent on avoiding engaging in a serious dialogue with the government. The NDA has made special requests for negotiators in the conflict, but mostly these demands have been dismissed. Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka stated on September 27 that he would not be involved in a mediator role, despite the NDA’s requests (Sahara Reporters, September 27).

The government will struggle to negotiate in a more fulfilling manner with the insurgents as long as there continue to be so many different factions of fighters in the Delta. After the NDA emerged in early 2016, a number of other militant groups claiming to fight for similar causes also appeared in the region.

Among those who announced their demands for independence in the Delta and a greater share of oil revenues for residents were the Red Egbesu Water Lions and the Joint Niger Delta Liberation Force (Vanguard, May 19; This Day Live, June 8). The official demarcation between the groups is unclear, with a large degree of overlap between various forces and some insurgencies seemingly run by the same commanders (Nairaland, May 18; This Day Live, June 2).

The presence of so many different groups “makes it incredibly difficult to track who the government should, or actually will be, dealing with,” according to Sola Tayo, Associate Fellow for the Africa Program at Chatham House. [2] Additionally, it means that meeting everyone’s demands and negotiating a truce or establishing an all-encompassing dialogue will be challenging.

In the meantime, the government may seek to increase military pressure in the Delta in order to push the NDA into a more self-serving peace agreement (see Terrorism Monitor, September 16). There are plans to increase the number of troops in the Delta to around 10,000 by early 2017, which would put the military at a distinct advantage in the region (Africa Confidential, September 23).

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Production is also due to restart at two major oil pipelines, Forcados and Qua Iboe, in the coming weeks, potentially changing the government’s interpretation of the economic risk factors involved in prolonging the conflict (Africa Confidential, September 23).

An Unlikely Peace

The overall failure of government efforts to result in genuine peace or an end to pipeline attacks in the Niger Delta is borne out by events in the past couple of weeks in the region. On September 28, local media reported that a group of NDA militants had clashed with security forces in Owerri; while on September 23, the group claimed responsibility for forcing a halt in activities at the Bonny crude oil export line (Vanguard, September 29; Niger Delta Avengers, September 24).

President Muhammadu Buhari announced this month that he was determined to secure peace in the Niger Delta and that he would ensure that this occurred during his presidency (The Nigerian Observer, October 1). He also claimed to have established negotiations with all of the militant groups in the Delta (The Nigerian Observer, October 1).

These claims are a positive sign and suggest the government continues to be eager to reach an agreement with insurgents, though it seems highly unlikely that pipeline bombings and low-level violence in the region will be brought to a halt in the coming months. The sheer number of factions involved, combined with the diverse and complex demands of the groups make this challenge one of the hardest Buhari will face during his time in office.

By Jessica Moody via Jamestown.org

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