Just as Buhari’s embattled administration began navigating global economic forces, the Niger Delta oil wars flared up again. Since the discovery of oil in the region, Black Gold fever has spread across the South South with wide-ranging impacts. It has cast native industries and its workers to the shadows, stripped communities of fertile land, ignited civil unrest that has grown into violent disturbance, and has eventually led to the disintegration of socio-economic stability in the region. Today, the Federal Government faces questions of how to deal with dilemmas engulfing the region – to negotiate or not to negotiate with the "terrorists"?
At a time of such economic turmoil, the subtleties of the Niger Delta dilemma may be lost on some political actors. Arguably, the struggle to gain control of resources has always been between two factions: the Niger Deltans and the Federal Government. Over time, these factions have evolved. Around the turn of the 21st century, the political units leading the ‘Niger-Delta struggle’ morphed into dark entities revved up by economics and not idealism; a campaign of terror rather than a liberation movement.
For bodies like the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) and the Niger Delta Greenland Justice Mandate, the timeliness of their actions is strategic, granting them an unprecedented advantage to squeeze what they can out of the federal pocket at a time of national austerity. In the tradition of many groups that have come before them, they justify their violent actions with 'self-determination' propaganda, yet their actions chart a historical path from peaceful protest, to violent action, to militancy and finally, to a degenerate form of terrorism.
Ever so often, extremist groups unwilling to pursue group-oriented interests hijack concepts like 'self-determination' and 'identity'. And despite the unwillingness to recklessly label such agitations, ‘terrorism’ may be an adequate description of the actions of today’s militants.
So who are these new militants?
The majority of today’s militants resemble gang-like coalitions and are products of certain sub-trends. Sub-trends such as the hardening of ethnocentric identities and skewed perceptions of land ownership mean that groups such as the NDA and Justice Mandate are no longer grievance-motivated representatives of Niger Deltans but are instead reflective of a baser, less inspiring guerrilla mindset. This mindset is predicated on resource allocation rather than securing increased political agency of the regional population. Clothed under a frail political ideology, many of these groups are rejected by the apathetic communities they claim to represent.
Associational bodies such as the Itsekiri Leaders of Thought (ILoT) – an umbrella body of the Itsekiri ethnic group – have publicly condemned the NDA insurgency, going as far as to say that “no Itsekiri person is a member of this nefarious group”. Even within the ranks of the Ijaw Youth Council, the largest Ijaw youth group to which the NDA is often linked, disharmony persists as vocal leaders try and distance themselves from actions being taken by “heavily armed invaders pretending to be Ijaw youths”.
Furthermore, we continue to notice the divergence from traditional principles that once guided the actions of militant groups. This is increasingly noticeable in the rejection of hierarchies that these groups promote: local leaders who traditionally served as mediators have been sometimes side lined in the conflict resolution process. The struggle has grown increasingly divested from the social structures that birthed it and instead, exists independently of the communal identities that were once the basis of their local legitimacy.
In the place of a valid cause, there is the emergence of disillusioned young people as agitators who fill the political gap left by local leaders deemed fraudulent and unresponsive to local needs. This results in a struggle based on youth anger and rent-seeking rather than progressive ideals capable of reviving communities. The rise and glorification of authoritative figures such as Government Ekpemupolo (also known as ‘Tompolo’), one of the most dreaded, yet influential leaders of the Niger Delta region’s arms struggle, embodies the new form of leadership, direction and strategy that has come to shape the struggle. All of these trends are hidden under an ideology of liberation that runs in contrast to the real-life practice of terror.
There has been a continuation of the direct and violent action typical of the past decade such as destruction of oil and gas infrastructure, but new measures show that current agitators are willing to expand their terror campaign beyond the typical oil-producing localities. In July 2016, militant groups went so far as to attack communities in Lagos and Ogun state where, according to local media outlets, “multiple sources said many people were killed as the militants entered into people’s houses to torment them”. It is difficult to draw the line between freedom fighters and terror-propagators who spread fear indiscriminately. The responsibility lies with the Government in determining how to respond to new tactics adopted by old threats.
Prior to this attack, a presidential statement confirmed that the government was using proxies to engage and dialogue with NDA members to halt regional damage. It further stated that it would review the Presidential Amnesty Programme (PAP) established in 2009.
The Executive appeared to support a trend of negotiating in the thick of things, taking a reactionary approach to conflict and prioritising quick fixes over long-term development. Quite possibly, this trend is borne of a realisation of the futility of using military force to address the issue, given the geographical peculiarities of the region. Nevertheless, government peace talks, whether directly or indirectly – never seem to successfully resolve the underlying developmental problems.
In August 2016, the Government briefly decided to take a hard-line approach, initiating a military offensive that resulted in over a 100 deaths in the first few weeks. This move appeared more to be a gesture of strength in a period of weakness rather than a calculated and strategic intervention with a clear end-game for the peace of the region.
So the question now facing Federal leadership is what next? Going by the recent budget, a commitment to increase funding for the Amnesty Programme is the chosen approach. Yet one problem lies in the fact that the Executive is still using old language of militantism and activism to understand and resolve a crisis marked by new threats.
If anything is certain, this time around, the Executive cannot afford to fail in providing leadership because the cost of failure may reverberate for generations to come.