By Reuben Abati
Niger Delta Avengers is the name of a new group of militants in the Niger Delta who claim to be different from the former agitators and militants who operated between 2006 and 2009, largely under the umbrella of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). The title of this group may well serve as the thematic and definitive umbrella for the resurgence of low-level insurgency in the Niger Delta, for in the last month alone, more groups have joined the NDA to wage war against oil installations, the Buhari government, and the Nigerian state. These include the Isoko Liberation Movement and the Red Egbesu Water Lions. The groups are working in concert with the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) led by detained Nnamdi Kanu.
The NDA runs a website (created in February 2016) where it posts news items and statements; and in terms of rhetoric, and activities, there is no doubt that the various groups are indeed on “a vengeance mission”. They are angry over what they consider the continued marginalization of the Niger Delta, the unjust allocation of oil mining licenses to persons from non-oil producing areas, the hounding of officials and associates of the Jonathan administration by the present administration (hence General Torunanawei, coordinator of the Red Egbesu Water Lions issues a seven-day ultimatum calling for the release of Colonel Sambo Dasuki, and the de-freezing of the accounts of ex-militant leader Government Ekpemupolo). There is also some concern about environmental pollution, the scrapping of the Maritime University at Okerenkoko and undisguised discontent with the Buhari administration.
More than any of the emergent groups, the Niger Delta Avengers have used their online resources to articulate the basis of this vengeance mission in such posts as “Operation Red Economy”, “We shall do whatever is necessary to protect the Niger Delta interest” and “Keep your threat to yourself, Mr. President”. Their statements are written in halting, extremely poor English, but their various strike teams, which they boast about, have proven to be deadly through recent attacks on oil infrastructure creating a global oil supply crisis, and bringing down Nigeria’s daily oil production from 2.2 million barrels to just about 1.4 million.
Shell has had to shut down its Forcados terminal. Chevron’s Escravos operation has been breached. ENI and Exxon Mobil have declared “force majeure”. Shell and Chevron are moving their staff out of the Niger Delta. The avengers claim they are not into kidnapping, or the killing of people and soldiers, but no one is sure yet about the depth and extent of this new phase of Niger Delta insurgency, and of course, the oil and gas multinationals have since learnt not to trust either the Nigerian government or the criminals who target oil infrastructure to make political and ethnic statements. But the question is: why vengeance? The reason this question is important explains the seeming indifference to the crisis, at least for now, within the larger Nigerian community and why the avengers have so far been dismissed, to their dismay, as “empty heads” and “criminals.” Not a few persons have asked: what else do Niger Delta militants want?
Recall that in 2009, late President Umaru Yar’Adua introduced an amnesty programme to end Niger Delta insurgency. Two years earlier, the architects of Nigerian politics had also deemed it necessary to allocate the Vice Presidency to the Niger Delta, and by sheer providence, the occupier of that slot, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan soon became Acting President following the death of his boss, and later in 2011, he won the Presidential election and became President.
For about seven years, under this programme, introduced by President Yar’Adua and sustained by President Jonathan, Niger Delta militants were demobilized and disarmed. The top hierarchy soon became security consultants to the Federal Government, monitoring pipelines, and helping to check oil theft. The middle cadre was placed on a monthly stipend while those who could be trained were sent to technical colleges and universities in Southern Africa and Eastern Europe. The militants became rich and gentrified, and with their kinsman in office as President in Abuja, the people of the Niger Delta began to feel a sense of ownership and belongingness that no one in that region had felt since 1960.
But what is now happening clearly shows the limits of the politics of appeasement that Nigeria has played since independence. No country can be successfully run on a short-term basis and through the assignment of tokens to aggrieved parties within the union. It was mere delusion to have ever imagined that the people of the Niger Delta could ever be successfully appeased with a pacifying short-term amnesty programme and a shot at the Presidency. Even under President Jonathan, there were protests about the distribution of amnesty largesse, and disagreements among the former militants, who practically relocated to Abuja to take advantage of their brother’s ascendancy. The quarrel was all about who got what and it was only a matter of time, before those who felt short-changed would stage their own drama, which they have now started, in the hope that they may be luckier this time around and get their own share of appeasement. This is the sub-text of the deliberate distancing by the new boys from the old guard of militants.
They seem to have been further provoked by the arrival in Abuja of “a new Pharaoh who does not seem to know Joseph.” President Muhammadu Buhari has approved funding and payments under the Niger Delta Amnesty programme, he has also appointed a Minister of Niger Delta and a Special Adviser on Niger Delta Amnesty, in addition to extending the amnesty initiative, beyond the initial December 2015 deadline to December 2017. But there is no programme of patronage, the type that channels money into the pockets of Niger Delta militants, warlords or foot-soldiers, and since Abuja also seems to have become wasteland for the once-triumphant Niger Deltan, the Jonathan crowd, and the fisherman’s cap, the informal patronage that turned many Niger Deltans into king’s men and women, has vanished. The emergent militant groups also have other selfish reasons why they are angry not just with President Buhari but also with the Nigerian state, for in the end, after the 2009-2015 period, position, cash and contracts appeasement has not in any way resolved the core problems of existential and environmental crisis in the Niger Delta. Nigeria merely postponed the evil day and unless we deal more forthrightly with the vexatious issues of equity, federalism, justice and citizenship driving Niger Delta and Biafran nationalism, those who throw tokens at the problem can only do so in vain.
The bad news is that President Muhammadu Buhari doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to address these fundamental issues. He probably has every reason to be angry, and he may even raise such questions as: what is wrong with these Niger Delta avengers? What exactly do they want to avenge -their kinsman losing election? Do they think they can blackmail government even when the amnesty programme has been “magnanimously” extended? These may sound emotional, but they are serious questions, signposting how access to power at the centre and survival in that space has become a victim of deterministic ethnic rivalry. The emerging trend that whoever becomes President of Nigeria now has to worry about the possibility of being sabotaged by an aggrieved ethnic group or groups is dangerous for our democracy.
Recall also that after the 2011 Presidential election, the people of the Niger Delta while certainly elated about one of their own emerging as President, were also painfully aware that in the course of the feverish politics of succession in 2010, leading up to the nominations for 2011, certain interests and voices from the North had threatened that should Dr. Jonathan become President, Nigeria would be made ungovernable for him. And as promised, the Boko Haram threat, which had been an issue before 2011, soon got worse and from 2011-2015, the Jonathan administration had to struggle endlessly with overt national security challenges designed and delivered in the North East, and other parts of the North. The Boko Haram crisis and the abduction of the Chibok girls eventually became key negative factors for the Jonathan campaign in the 2015 Presidential election.
It is also similarly on record that before and during the 2015 elections, certain Niger Delta elements also threatened that should President Jonathan lose the election, Nigeria would be made ungovernable for President Buhari. And again as promised, the South East and the South South, President Jonathan’s main support centres, have thrown up major security threats since President Buhari won and assumed office. When governance and politics are thus reduced to a game of thrones, democracy and sovereignty are endangered. Already the Niger Delta Avengers have announced a plan to declare a sovereign state of Niger Delta in October 2016. Nigeria sits on a precarious balance.
There is no justification however, for President Buhari, in dealing with these challenges, to also play the game of vengeance. Speaking in China, recently, he directed the military to crush the new Niger Delta militants and indeed there has been a scaling up of military operations in the region. A military solution to a crisis such as this, as has been learnt with the Boko Haram, and much earlier in the Niger Delta, ultimately proves to be inadequate; instead there should be a return to the core issues of making Nigeria a country that works for everyone regardless of extraction – religious or ethnic. President Buhari is a livestock farmer; it should not be too difficult for him to understand how the chickens are now going home to roost in the Niger Delta. In the face of unemployment rate hitting 12.1%, youth unemployment, 42.24%, the GDP recording a negative growth of -0.36%, inflation standing at 13.7%, crude oil accounting for 90% of exports and 70% of national revenue, crude oil production dropping to low levels, and the country facing recession, a foreign exchange and power supply crisis, and financial insolvency, renewed restiveness in the Niger Delta, and threats by avengers who want to cut off Nigeria’s key source of revenue, can only further deepen the people’s agony, and place the country on danger list.
President Buhari may deal with the impunity and criminality of the avengers, but Nigeria must address the more ideologically original parts of their protest, and how particularly, the politics of appeasement has made the country far more vulnerable than imaginable. Preventing the country from imploding so dangerously, on so many fronts, as is currently the case, should be considered a matter of urgent national importance.