By International Crisis Group
Violence in the Niger Delta may soon increase unless the Nigerian government acts quickly and decisively to address long-simmering grievances. With the costly Presidential Amnesty Program for ex-insurgents due to end in a few months, there are increasingly bitter complaints in the region that chronic poverty and catastrophic oil pollution, which fuelled the earlier rebellion, remain largely unaddressed. Since Goodluck Jonathan, the first president from the Delta, lost re-election in March, some activists have resumed agitation for greater resource control and self-determination, and a number of ex-militant leaders are threatening to resume fighting (“return to the creeks”). While the Boko Haram insurgency in the North East is the paramount security challenge, President Muhammadu Buhari rightly identifies the Delta as a priority. He needs to act firmly but carefully to wind down the amnesty program gradually, revamp development and environmental programs, facilitate passage of the long-stalled Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) and improve security and rule of law across the region.
The Technical Committee on the Niger Delta, a special body mandated in 2008 to advance solutions to the region’s multiple problems, proposed the amnesty program, whose implementation since 2009, coupled with concessions to former militant leaders, brought a semblance of peace and enabled oil production to regain pre-insurgency levels. However, the government has largely failed to carry out other recommendations that addressed the insurgency’s root causes, including inadequate infrastructure, environmental pollution, local demands for a bigger share of oil revenues, widespread poverty and youth unemployment.
Two agencies established to drive development, the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) and the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs (MNDA), have floundered. Two others mandated to restore the oil-polluted environment (particularly in Ogoni Land) and curb or manage hundreds of oil spills yearly, the Hydrocarbon Pollution Restoration Project (HYPREP) and the National Oil Spills Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA), have been largely ineffective. The PIB, intended to improve oil and gas industry governance and possibly also create special funds for communities in petroleum-producing areas, has been stuck in the National Assembly (federal parliament) since 2009. In sum, seven years after the technical committee’s report, the conditions that sparked the insurgency could easily trigger a new phase of violent conflict.
The outcome of the presidential election has also heightened tensions. While most people in the region acknowledge that Jonathan lost, some former militant leaders and groups accept Buhari only conditionally. For instance, the Niger Delta People’s Salvation Front (NDPSF), the civil successor to the militant Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF), claims Jonathan’s ouster was the product of a conspiracy by northerners and the Yoruba from the South West against the Delta peoples and the South East. Apparently influenced by that view, some groups are resuming old demands, hardly heard during the Jonathan presidency, for regional autonomy or “self-determination”.
Local tensions generated by the polls also pose risks, particularly in Rivers state, where Governor Nyesom Wike (of ex-President Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party, PDP) and ex-Governor Rotimi Amaechi (of President Buhari’s All Progressives Congress, APC) are bitter foes. With many guns in unauthorised hands, politically motivated assassinations and kidnappings for ransom, already common, could increase.
Policy and institutional changes are necessary but, if not prepared and implemented inclusively and transparently, could themselves trigger conflict. Buhari has declared that the amnesty program, which costs over $500 million per year, is due to end in December. He has terminated petroleum pipeline protection contracts that Jonathan awarded to companies owned by ex-militant leaders and the Yoruba ethnic militia, O’odua People’s Congress (OPC), and may streamline the Delta’s inefficient development-intervention agencies. He may also withdraw the PIB from parliament for revision. Some of this is desirable, even inevitable, but a number of former militant leaders and other entrenched interests threaten resistance and a possible return to violence. A perception that the government’s actions are reversing the Delta’s gains could aggravate local grievances and precipitate armed violence.
At its peak in 2009, the insurgency in the Niger Delta was claiming an estimated 1,000 lives a year, had cut Nigeria’s oil output by over 50 per cent and was costing the government close to four billion naira (nearly $19 million) per day in counter-insurgency operations. A resurgence of violence and increased oil-related crime in the Delta could seriously undermine national security and economic stability, which is already weighed down by the Boko Haram insurgency and dwindling oil revenues.
To prevent a relapse to conflict and to build durable peace in the Niger Delta
To President Muhammadu Buhari:
- Visit the Delta at the earliest opportunity to underscore commitment to the region and lay out a comprehensive plan for its security and development.
To the federal government of Nigeria:
Wind down the amnesty program gradually, while ensuring that ex-militants already registered complete promised training, but also demand greater transparency and accountability in the program’s management.
Align ex-militant training with available employment opportunities.
Streamline regional development responsibilities, particularly by winding down the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs (MNDA) and reforming the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) to make it a more accountable and effective agency and thereafter ensuring it is well-resourced.
Take urgent steps to stop environmental degradation by:
a) reviving the Hydrocarbon Pollution Restoration Project (HYPREP) as a statutory entity, independent from the petroleum ministry, and directing it to commence clean-up arrangements and operations in Ogoni Land and other adversely affected areas quickly;
b) strengthening the ability of the National Oil Spills Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) to respond to oil spills rapidly and effectively; and
c) discouraging the environmentally damaging proliferation of artisanal refineries by improving the availability of properly-refined petroleum products and creating long-proposed modular refineries across the region.
6 Strengthen security and rule of law, including by encouraging partnerships between security agencies and local communities in place of the pipeline protection contracts awarded to ex-militant leaders and ethnic militia groups.
7 Work closely with the National Assembly to ensure speedy passage of the long-stalled Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) this legislative year, on the basis of compromise between Delta interests and those of other areas.
8 Prosecute those responsible for electoral violence and fraud, but also encourage communal and inter-party reconciliation, especially in Rivers state.
To the international community, particularly the European Union and the U.S. and UK governments:
9 Sustain and where possible increase support of existing programs, including those of civil society organisations, for conflict prevention, peace building, good governance, rule of law and development in the Niger Delta.
10 Offer technical, logistical and other capacity-building assistance to agencies promoting development, safeguarding and restoring the environment and curbing corruption, particularly the NDDC, HYPREP, NOSDRA and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).
11 Strengthen collaboration with the government and other international partners in fighting oil theft, including by tracking proceeds of illicit enterprises.
To major oil companies, including Shell and ENI (NAOC):
12 Intensify efforts to curb pollution by upgrading or replacing aging infrastructure more regularly, installing more sensors for early detection of pipeline breaches, and giving greater support to NOSDRA and grassroots campaigns against artisanal refineries.
13 Intensify efforts to create jobs for local youth by increasingly outsourcing marginal jobs to local companies and utilising local materials and expertise in compliance with the Nigerian Oil and Gas Industry Content Development Act.
14 Honour financial obligations more conscientiously, particularly to the NDDC, Nigeria Content Development Fund and Ogoni Environmental Restoration Fund.
15 Contribute more actively to fighting oil theft, particularly by instituting better metering at production points and more transparent oil-loading arrangements.
- This Best Outside Opinion was written and first published by The International Crisis Group