Niger Delta: pipeline attacks fuel fears of a return to militancy

Niger Delta (1)
The Niger Delta – a lucrative oil-producing region in southern Nigeria – is vital to the country’s economy (Image Source: Flickr, Sosialistisk Ungdom)

A spate of attacks on oil pipelines since the emergence last year of a new armed group – the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) – has sparked fears of a return to militancy in Nigeria’s long-troubled southern oil-producing region. The attacks have dented oil production and focused the attention of President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration on the Niger Delta, where the last large-scale insurgency ended after an amnesty deal was signed between the government and rebels in 2009.

Despite the agreement initially being effective in dampening down the insurgency, the underlying causes of the region’s strife – endemic poverty, inequality and economic underdevelopment – have been allowed to fester over the past eight years, providing fertile ground for the emergence of the NDA and leaving the Niger Delta facing the very real prospect of a return to conflict.

In April 2016, the newly-formed Niger Delta Avengers pledged to ‘’take the struggle to new heights’’, and proceeded to carry out a spate of attacks on oil installations in the following months. The group’s membership structure is shrouded in obscurity; however, the NDA is thought to include former rebel fighters from several now-defunct groups – such as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) and the Niger Delta People’s Salvation Front. The NDA emerged soon after President Buhari’s decision to cut funding for the 2009 amnesty programme, which had promised monthly cash handouts and training for former militants.

The NDA has demonstrated a significant level of planning and expertise in its operations, carried out in pursuit of its stated goal to ‘’cripple Nigeria’s economy’’ through attacks on energy installations. In February 2016, it blew up an underwater pipeline operated by Shell before going on to attack two Chevron export terminals. In November 2016, the group also blew up three pipelines carrying 500,000 barrels of oil a day to a Shell terminal in Bayelsa state. The spate of attacks over the past twelve months appears to have had the desired effect, causing the country’s oil production to drop to 1.65 million barrels per day, in comparison to the projected output of 2.2 million.

While attacks against oil installations are now at an eight-year high and causing significant damage to Nigeria’s fragile economy, this type of militant activity in the Niger Delta is far from a new phenomenon. Across several decades, the area has spawned a number of militant groups seeking to disrupt the energy industry, motivated by desire to fight for rights of the region’s citizens against a long history of perceived marginalization at the hands of local elites and western energy companies.

Despite the Niger Delta bringing in billions of dollars in oil revenue, the vast majority of the region’s 31-million inhabitants continue to live in abject poverty, with few job opportunities and a lack of access to basic infrastructure, education and health services. More than half of the population survive on less than $2 per day and less than 50% have regular access to safe drinking water.

Trapped in a life of poverty and economic insecurity, the people of the Niger Delta continue to experience the feelings of vulnerability and helplessness which have driven cycles of violent conflict for decades. The upsurge in pipeline bombings since the emergence of the NDA serves as a worrying reminder of the tensions and frustrations which lay just beneath the surface, in a region which has long suffered the ills of the ‘resource curse’.

The current tensions can therefore only be understood within the context of the Niger Delta’s history as an oil-rich yet poverty-stricken region, in which the local population has received few benefits from the energy industry. This unequal relationship originated during the colonial era, when European countries asserted their control over trade in the region, signalling the beginning of a long-history of resentment from the marginalized local population. British firms Shell and BP began oil exploration in the 1950s, sparking tensions as the Delta’s Ijaw ethnic majority were excluded from the rewards of the oil wealth. This profound sense of inequality became further ingrained after Nigeria’s independence in 1960, as British, Dutch, French and Italian oil companies extended their dominance of the energy sector.

As the century progressed, it became clear that the oil companies and political elite were receiving the bulk of profits from the Niger Delta’s resources. Tensions within the local community over the perceived unfair distribution of wealth soon translated into active resistance, characterized by the emergence of the first armed militias, such as the Niger Delta Volunteer Force (NDVF).

A new wave of militant groups emerged in the 2000s, deploying violent tactics including bombings and kidnappings, which pushed-up world oil prices and focused international attention. In 2009 however, militant leaders signed up to a ceasefire and government-sponsored amnesty process, which resulted in up to 30,000 former militants receiving monthly handouts from the state.

Whilst this had the effect of stabilizing the situation, the underlying issues remained unresolved and the negative impacts of the oil industry did not disappear. In recent years, frustrations have gradually risen as companies have failed to clean-up a legacy of environmental damage, lost livelihoods and broken societies. Due to repeated oil spills, traditional fishing and farming activities have become almost impossible across large swathes of once-fertile land.

A 2011 UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report recommended that oil companies spend $6bn cleaning up contaminated farmland, providing further legitimacy to the long-standing complaints of environmental degradation by local people.

According to human rights group Amnesty International, the four worst-polluted sites mentioned in the UN report – Bomu Manifold, Boobanabe, Barabeedom Swamp and Okuluebu – remain heavily polluted. Activists say that the 7000-km long network of pipelines passing through the region is rapidly ageing and in need of urgent repairs to prevent leaks. However, the oil companies argue that the theft of oil by militants is largely to blame for the environmental damage.

Niger Delta (2)
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has cut funding to an amnesty scheme by 70%, raising concerns of a renewed insurgency (Image Source: Flickr, Chatham House)

In light of these issues, tensions under the surface have once again become visible in the form of the latest wave of attacks by the NDA. President Buhari last year promised a tough response, stating: ‘’we will deal with them [Niger Delta militants] in the same way we dealt with Boko Haram’’.

However, a response of further securitization and militarization may serve only to perpetuate the cycle of instability which has been prevalent in the Niger Delta for decades, adding to the failure to address the root causes of conflict. Short-term, militaristic solutions ignore the fact that in a region plagued by the mismanagement of its oil wealth, the ills of the resource curse are long-lasting and difficult to avoid, creating problems which have become endemic in nature.

Approaches aimed solely at short-term stabilization to facilitate the free flow of oil, serve only to create a temporary peace and delay an inevitable return to insurgency. There remains an urgent need to address the underlying drivers of conflict which have for too-long been left unresolved: the unequal distribution of oil revenues, institutionalized corruption and patronage, economic underdevelopment, environmental damage and the loss of traditional livelihoods.

The government has recently indicated it may be willing to pay greater attention to these underlying drivers, with President Buhari and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo making high-profile visits to the region. This visible diplomacy is designed to reassure locals that the central government is now listening to their concerns and taking account of their interests, whilst President Buhari has also indicated that the controversial amnesty scheme many now be maintained. These developments indicate a potential shift in the government’s strategy in the early months of this year – away from one being based solely on military force, towards one based on wider engagement.

However, despite the increased interactions between government officials and local stakeholders in the Niger Delta, resolving the underlying drivers will remain extremely difficult due to the ingrained and intractable nature of the issues involved.

At the state level, corruption remains endemic in Nigerian politics, facilitating the continued dominance of the political elite whilst preventing faster progress in regional development. At the local level, the political economy of violence is deeply entrenched in society, leaving the financial incentives for militancy looking attractive in the absence of alternative employment opportunities.

The prevalence of these norms creates a mutually-reinforcing cycle in which key stakeholders in the government and local populations often have vested interests in the continuation of instability, which poses a significant obstacle to productive peace negotiations.

The emergence of the NDA and the recent upsurge in militant activity, must therefore be viewed as a continuation of the historical pattern of violence in the Niger Delta; the causes of which are complex, multiple and overlapping. Attempts at resolution are likely to be fraught with difficulty, as the negative impacts of resource management in the region have fostered deeply-ingrained tensions between the local population, the oil industry and government officials.

The murky politics of the energy sector continue to represent the largest obstacle to peace in the Niger Delta: rent-seeking and poor governance in this arena have fuelled decades of underdevelopment, exacerbating the inequalities which result in a disenfranchised population resorting to violence. For as long as the region’s inhabitants remain excluded from the benefits of oil wealth, the government will struggle to end the destructive cycle of poverty, marginalization and hopelessness which looks likely to spawn further waves of militancy.

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