Avengers, Assemble — In the Niger Delta
Rebels put a new name on old grievances
by PETER DOERRIE
A new rebel group is roaming the creeks and marshes of the Niger Delta, one of the world’s most productive — and violent — oil regions.
The “Niger Delta Avengers” have already staged several high-profile attacks on oil infrastructure, dragging Nigeria’s crude production to the lowest levels in two decades.
Nigerian authorities announced on May 16 that they had arrested members of the group.
The arrests might slow or even destroy the Avengers. In any event, the recent violence has been a devastating development in a country that derives 70 percent of its government income from oil rents. Nigeria’s 2016 budget of $30 billion is based on an oil price of $38 per barrel and steady production of 2.2 million barrels per day.
Any disruption of oil production has severe consequences for Nigeria’s economy and governance, especially considering the concurrent volatility in the per-barrel price.
The Niger Delta Avengers strikes where it hurts — and the group knows it. On the group’s Website, NDA spokesperson Col. Mudoch Agbinibo says the Avengers’ goal, should its demands not be met, is to “cripple the Nigeria economy.”
The NDA’s attacks have taken out some of the most important pipelines and export facilities in the area, indicating an intimate knowledge of Nigeria’s oil sector.
The technical sophistication of the attacks has also been considerable, including the underwater bombing of pipelines, likely by divers. But despite the apparent professionalism of its fighters — and an extensive social-media operation — the NDA mostly remains a mystery.
This is surprising, given the Niger Delta’s long history of militancy. Violence related to the oil sector first flared up in the early 2000s, when resentment in the local population over the lack of benefits from the oil production — not to mention the worsening environmental destruction — boiled over into the formation of armed groups such as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta.
This first wave of militancy can’t be separated from Nigeria’s local and national politics, with individual politicians financing various militias to further their own financial and political agendas. The various militias were also partly criminal enterprises that profited from tapping oil pipelines and selling the crude abroad, a practice known locally as “bunkering.”
After a massive military intervention proved to be ineffective at stopping the violence and destruction, the conflict ultimately ended in 2009 when then-president Goodluck Jonathan extended amnesty to the attackers.
Under the amnesty’s terms, militants would be pardoned and provided with skill training in exchange for handing over their weapons. Militia leaders were awarded lucrative contracts to provide security for oil infrastructure and promises were made regarding a fairer redistribution of oil rents and a boost in environmental clean-up.
Unfortunately, the amnesty proved to be a stop-gap solution. Measures such as the training programs were mismanaged and badly implemented, promises of redistribution were not fulfilled and the conflict’s links to political machinations went ignored.
The Niger Delta Avengers are the amnesty’s proverbial chickens coming home to roost, arriving on speedboats and carrying machine guns.
The group’s rhetoric is still heavy on lamenting inequality and marginalization of the Delta’s people, while also departing from the narrative of the early 2000s by emphasizing the multi-ethnicity of its membership.
But reading the statements carefully makes clear the new group’s focus on issues of access to political patronage and power. One key demand is the continuation of the amnesty, which disproportionately benefited well-connected power brokers and militia leaders.
Many other claims revolve around Nigeria’s recent presidential election, which brought Muhammadu Buhari, a northerner from the APC party, to power at the expense of the incumbent Jonathan, a southerner and member of Nigeria’s traditional ruling party, the PDP.
The NDA alleges that Buhari stacked important national appointments with family members and political cronies from the north and that his very public anti-corruption campaign has focused on punishing PDP members, while APC loyalists go free.
Another point of contention is alleged northern dominance of ownership of oil companies, with the NDA arguing that “90 percent [of] oil blocs are allocated to individuals from northern Nigeria.”
Meanwhile, Nigerian media outlets are openly speculating about the prospect that ex-president Jonathan was personally involved in the Avengers’ formation. According to that reading of events, the group is a premeditated plot to undermine Buhari’s political agenda and to get back at the APC, which has crushed the PDP after the latter dominated Nigeria’s political landscape for more than 20 years.
Take those media reports with a few kilos of salt, but bear in mind this. The NDA’s apparent proficiency, resourcefulness and effectiveness, as well as its focus on grievances directed at Buhari and the APC, all point to a primarily national rationale for the group’s existence.
And in that case, the very real local grievances of the Niger Delta would only be a fig leaf, a welcome justification and public-relations tool.
But the case of the NDA also showcases how closely Nigeria’s various levels of conflict are interlinked and interacting. Buhari has by now prolonged the amnesty at least through 2017. But to resolve the conflict in the Niger Delta — as well as defeat the Boko Haram insurgency in the north, stop intercommunal and sectarian violence in various other parts of the country and successfully fight rampant corruption and organized crime Nigeria’s government — the elites and the general population need to commit to a painful process of renegotiating a whole set of informal political and social agreements.
And that will require a commitment from all sides to refrain from using violence as a political tool. The Avenger’s appearance on the scene is certainly not helping with that.
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