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

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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.

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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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Is Nigeria’s Boko Haram insurgency over?

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Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari announced in December that Boko Haram’s last remaining stronghold had been captured by the military (Image source: Chatham House)

In the final days of 2016, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari announced that the army had captured Boko Haram’s last stronghold in the remote Sambisa forest in the northeast of the country. President Buhari said the successful operation marked the ‘‘final crushing’’ of Boko Haram, bringing an end to the brutal seven-year insurgency which has killed 15,000 people and displaced more than two million.

The apparent defeat of Boko Haram follows a year in which the group appeared to be in turmoil after a dispute between two of its dominant figures. In August, long-time militant leader Abukakar Shekau claimed to still be in command, despite an earlier statement by IS – to whom Boko Haram pledged allegiance in 2014 – that he had been replaced as leader by Abu Musab al-Barnawi. The dispute was the strongest indication yet of a more widespread split within the terrorist organization, which had already been significantly weakened by a Nigerian military offensive over the past 18 months.

For some time, the long-running Islamist insurgency – which began in 2009 – has looked to be in a state of gradual decline: militants have been forced to retreat into their rural heartlands after being pushed back from the urban areas they once controlled by a regional coalition of troops from Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

However, the group have seemingly been on the cusp of defeat on several occasions in the past, yet each time have fought back – proving themselves to be more resilient than expected. This article looks back at the key developments and crucial moments over the last seven years of the insurgency, before asking how Boko Haram was able to emerge to control large swathes of Nigeria in the first place, and how it can be prevented from doing so again.

Since its emergence as a military force in 2009, Boko Haram has forged a reputation as a particularly brutal terrorist group, pressing its objectives through a wave of killings, bombings, and abductions across Nigeria. It gained widespread international media coverage in April 2014, after the kidnapping of more than 200 girls from their boarding school in the town of Chibok. This thrust the situation into the global spotlight, prompting widespread outrage and strong condemnation from Western governments. Since pledging allegiance to IS later the same year, the Boko Haram conflict has often been simplified and presented within the overall narrative of global Islamic terrorism; however in reality, the background to the militancy is complex, with many factors being responsible for the rise of Boko Haram and its sustained campaign against the Nigerian state.

Boko Haram was formed in 2002 by Muslim Cleric Mohammed Yusuf. Yusuf set up a religious complex consisting of a mosque and Islamic school with the aim of opposing Western-style education. The group set up its headquarters in the north-eastern city of Maiduguri, and became known by the local population as Boko Haram – which loosely translates from the local Hausa language as ‘Western education is forbidden’.

Based on its radical interpretation of Islam, Boko Haram’s aims quickly moved beyond just education and morphed into a wider, longer-term political objective: to overthrow the Nigerian government and establish an Islamic Caliphate.

In July 2009, Boko Haram shifted its focus to full-scale militant insurgency, launching a campaign of violence in Borno state, killing hundreds of people in attacks on marketplaces, police stations and government buildings. The response from the Nigerian military was immediate: security forces launched a sustained assault, seizing the group’s headquarters and killing its leader along with many of its fighters. At this point, Boko Haram appeared to be decimated; yet its fighters were soon able to re-group under a new leader, Abubakar Shekau.

Under the leadership of Shekau, recruitment soared and Boko Haram gained a reputation for committing acts of horrific brutality, launching a campaign of high-profile attacks throughout Nigeria. In August 2011, Boko Haram extended its reach to the capital, killing 23 people in a suicide bombing at the UN headquarters in Abuja. In January 2012, more than 100 civilians were killed in a single day of co-ordinated bombings and shootings in the town of Kano.

As the violence escalated, the government struggled to maintain control, leading former president Goodluck Jonathan to declare a state of emergency in May 2013, in the three northern provinces of Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa. Troops were deployed to the region to combat the growing militant threat, leading to Boko Haram fighters being pushed out of their urban base Maiduguri, retreating to the dense Sambisa forest and the Mandara Mountains close to the border with Cameroon.

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A coalition of West African states have undertaken a sustained military offensive against Boko Haram since January 2015 (Image Source:VOA)

However, the insurgency proved difficult to put-down, and attacks by Boko Haram continued. Militants once again emerged from their rural hideouts to launch attacks on towns and villages – looting property, carrying out mass killings, abducting women and girls, and conscripting men and boys into their army. In April 2014, the group launched its most notorious attack, kidnapping more than 200 girls from a boarding school in Chibok. Some of the girls have recently been released, but the whereabouts of many others remains unknown.

By the end of 2014 the group had pledged its allegiance to IS, and rebranded itself as IS’ West Africa Province. Despite this development, the Nigerian military continued to push back the jihadists. In recent years, many Boko Haram fighters have been killed and large quantities of weapons have been seized, leaving the group seemingly on the edge of extinction once more. Yet given its past resilience, Boko Haram’s demise is far from certain; and to avoid it rising up once again, a key question must be answered: how was Boko Haram able to emerge as a group powerful and resourceful enough to wage a sustained seven-year insurgency, which wrought havoc across large swathes of territory and threatened the Nigerian state?

A large part of the answer lies in its ideological pull to those who may be sympathetic to its core values: an extreme form of Islam based on Sharia Law, the desired creation of a caliphate, vehement opposition to the West, and the concept of waging war against the Nigerian state.

However, an often-overlooked, but ever-present set of underlying, inter-related factors was vital in driving recruitment and sustaining Boko Haram in the area of northern Nigeria in which it first sprung-up: poverty, underdevelopment and economic marginalization.

This same set of conditions has been a common feature in the emergence of many other groups which have fought against the State throughout recent history. This story is particularly relevant to many other countries in Africa – particularly those with vast natural resources such as oil and minerals – where economic growth has gone hand-in-hand with growing inequality. In this sense, Nigeria can be understood to be suffering from the ‘resource curse’ – a situation in which oil wealth encourages corrupt governance, resulting in vast inequalities between regions and social groups, leading to an increased risk of poverty-induced conflict. Nigeria is now Africa’s largest economy, yet it is also one of the continent’s most unequal societies: in the north, 72% of the population live in poverty, compared to just 27% in the south.

Some may contend that a combination of poverty, unemployment and hopelessness have created a strong sense of resentment amongst the northeast’s generation of disenchanted young men, making the area fertile ground for jihadist groups such as Boko Haram. This wide pool of potential recruits, along with the manipulation of religion by Boko Haram as a vehicle for mobilization, is a key reason as to why the insurgency was able to be sustained for so long.

At present, however, the group finally looks on the verge of defeat – with no major strongholds left and splits in its leadership, Boko Haram appears to no-longer have an effective command structure. Its remaining fighters are likely to splinter into smaller factions, with little capacity to operate beyond remote areas or pose a large-scale threat as they once did. However, despite successes in driving back the militants, the authorities should be wary: if the underlying conditions remain unchanged, the militancy is likely to lie dormant beneath the surface, only to re-emerge once more. A military strategy alone therefore cannot remove the threat entirely. To ensure peace prevails in the coming years, a long-term strategy is needed: one which also addresses the economic and social conditions which have sustained seven-years of insurgency.