But the NDA’s attacks are only the most recent symptoms of the region’s longstanding problems. To understand the resurgence of violence, we need to examine the history and unrest in the Niger Delta.
What is the history of violence in the Niger Delta?
Armed militancy is only one part of the Niger Delta’s complex web of violence, as I found in my research. There’s rebel insurgency against the Nigerian state and multinational oil companies, such as that of the NDA. But there’s also political violence, gang rivalries and violent inter- and intra-communal conflicts. Politicians seeking political power mobilized and armed young men to intimidate opponents during elections when Nigeria returned to democratic rule in 1999. Competition by rival youth gangs led to violent confrontation in such cities as Port Harcourt. Leadership tussles in communities led to violence. When local goverments’ administrative headquarters were relocated, historical rivalries between ethnic communities reignited, leading to violence. My research found that the different forms of violence intersect.
Some groups involved in those internecine skirmishes transformed into groups rebelling against the government’s absolute control of the oil industry — and gained power by doing so. The groups that emerged claimed to represent the grievances of local communities against oil companies and the Nigerian government. These grievances include how local communities were marginalized as oil revenues were distributed; a failure to develop infrastructures in the area; and few or no oil job opportunities for locals.
Notably, in the 2000s, the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND) and other militant groups organized attacks on oil industry infrastructure. In doing so, the militant leaders gained more regional power and influence. Militant groups targeting oil industry infrastructure made the rebellion the key problem of the Nigerian government and oil companies in the Niger Delta.
The Nigerian government sent in its military to fight the rebels. Oil companies also used government forces to secure some locations. Apart from these military strategies, oil companies contracted with militant leaders or their proxies to protect their facilities — turning militancy into a high-end extortion racket that paid off.
Politicians similarly patronized armed militants during elections. In fact, one governor signed an accord with militants in his state at the peak of the insurgency. To secure their new positions of power in politics and the oil industry, militant leaders got rid of potential challengers in their communities, suppressing other would-be militant groups.
Despite the patronage, the militants occasionally attacked oil installations. They justified those attacks as an expression of the grievances of the Niger Delta people against the oil companies and the state, particularly at the lack of development. By doing so, they stayed relevant in their local communities and stayed visible in the media. My research found that in some cases, militant leaders used cash gained from militancy to help support non-militants in their communities.
How did the first insurgency end?
While president from 2007 to 2010, Umaru Yar’Adua initiated a peace process that was supposed to help the entire Niger Delta. The government promised to build roads, schools, hospitals and other community infrastructure and offered a process involving amnesty, disarmament, demobilization and reintegration for ex-militants.
This Nigerian government peace process became the most expensive such program in the world. Ex-militant fighters received monthly stipends averaging $400 and were enrolled in costly reentry and job training programs, both in Nigeria and overseas. The government also awarded contracts worth millions of dollars to ex-militant leaders to protect oil infrastructure — further amplifying those leaders’ power over both the oil industry and other parts of the economy.
But the peace process focused mainly on armed militants — and ignored the local violence that those militants had been controlling lest it threaten their newfound power. That oversight continued when Goodluck Jonathan replaced Yar’Adua as president in 2011. As a result, Nigerians learned that militant violence would be rewarded — and the only people who would benefit from any peace would be the militants and the politicians involved in distributing the peace process’s largesse. It was a corrupt bargain all around.
Nevertheless, the system did keep the Niger Delta region stable for five years.
What accounts for renewed violence?
But in 2015, Buhari’s government not only called an end to the ex-militants’ security contracts, but also started investigating some prominent militant leaders for alleged corruption. His government has also cut the reintegration plan’s budget — thus reducing payments for ex-militant fighters. He has also canceled one of his predecessor’s few development efforts, the construction of a maritime university that was supposed to create education opportunities and jobs for the local population in the maritime industry. Many locals see the cancellation of this university as an attempt by Buhari to deny the region development and educational opportunities. This is also the opinion of ex-militant leaders who claim to be acting in the interest of the local people.
Buhari disrupted the uneasy balance of patronage and power that sustained peace in the Niger Delta. And so the conflicts have begun flaring up again. And so has the anti-oil insurgency.
First, ex-militant leaders displaced by Buhari’s policies may be using violence to renegotiate with the state. Second, those with a history of violence but who hadn’t gotten any of the peace process’s dividends are now competing for the next round of protection money.
In other words, no matter what these groups may claim as their ideologies, they are looking to profit from the situation, too. The same dynamics are in play in Rivers and Bayelsa states.
No one yet knows how the Nigerian government will respond. It could send in its own police and military to try to defeat the militants. It could return to the corrupt use of patronage, protection contracts, and paying off the militant leaders, essentially co-opting them in suppressing discontent in the Niger Delta. Or it could even try to work with various groups and communities to answer some of the underlying grievances that roil the Niger Delta, including the lack of development in local oil communities, local participation in the oil industry, environmental degradation and increased revenue allocation to oil producing communities.
We will find out soon.