Niger Delta: An Amnesty in Jeopardy

By: W. Douglas Smith
Staff Writer
January 26, 2010

The rivers of the Niger Delta have been quiet for more than two months. The once-restive region of the Delta, an area that holds over 95 percent of Nigeria’s substantial oil reserves, is enjoying a period of relative peace following an amnesty deal extended to the militants. Oil production is again on the rise; attacks on pipelines, shipping facilities, and the kidnapping of oil workers have largely ceased.

The amnesty was intended to do exactly this: quiet a growing unrest and militancy in the Niger Delta. After announcing his intentions in April 2009, Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua implemented the three-month amnesty program in early August. Despite the fact that numbers vary depending on with whom you speak (the government says 15,000 militants have taken part in the program, while organizations on the ground say the numbers are between 7,000 and 10,000), the fact remains that militant activity has decreased.

What the amnesty program lacked, however, was a plan that treated more than the symptoms of militancy by disarming scattered groups and paying ransom in the form of stipends. While this is a reasonable first step, it does nothing to address the root causes of the conflict, the most salient of which is the lack of development in a region where oil production accounts for around 80 percent of the national government revenue. This systemic inequality in oil revenue sharing, coupled with unchecked environmental blight in the region stemming from the oil extraction industry, has led to increasing militancy throughout the decade.

These issues have yet to be addressed. Although the government insists that the amnesty program was only the first phase in a larger plan, there is no indication what the remainder of this plan will be. For now, the militants are content to receive their stipend from the government. That will quickly change should the money cease to flow, or should it become clear that the government has no intention of tackling issues at the root of the militants’ grievances.

The situation is further complicated by President Yar’Adua’s absence from office. The President is currently in Saudi Arabia receiving medical treatment after complaining of chest pains in late November. In recent weeks his absence has provoked a great outcry from the Nigerian press and politicians, lamenting their countries uncertain leadership, and speculating that some conspiracy may be afoot. In response, President Yar’Adua issued a statement earlier in January meant to assuage fears that he was not dead or otherwise incapacitated. But that statement gave no firm indication of when he would return.

Several militias have accused the president of using excuses of poor health as a tactic for stalling the next phase of the amnesty. These claims are unlikely, as health concerns have plagued the president since he took office.

What is more likely is that President Yar’Adua is all too cognizant of the hazards of Nigerian politics. Given the flagrant flaws of the 2007 presidential election that brought him to office, President Yar’Adua is extremely wary of ceding power. As such, he refuses to take the necessary measures under the Nigerian constitution to transfer executive powers to his Vice President, Goodluck Jonathan. The issue is now being decided in the courts.

Back in the Delta, there are more pressing issues to contend with. Reports indicate that there was an attack on an oil facility in late December. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), one of the most potent militant groups in the area, took credit for the attack. Jomo Gbomo, a spokesman for MEND, explained that anger over a delay in “the advancement of talks on the demands of MEND” was a motive for the attacks.

This was the first major attack on the oil industry since the amnesty took full effect. It represents a dangerous precedent, which might encourage other militants in the Delta to do the same.

If steps are not taken soon to address the root causes of the conflict, the little progress gained through the amnesty will be lost. The reality of the Niger Delta militancy, with a long list of grievances that already include endemic unemployment and a shameful lack of infrastructure, could compound the sense of betrayal.

In the short term, the leadership crisis in the country remains the pressing concern. But in the long term, a resurgent militancy in the Niger Delta could have disastrous economic and social consequences. Further, the opportunity created by the amnesty to repair the real differences with the inhabitants of the Delta will have been lost.

The United States and other big-ticket investors in the Nigerian oil sector, such as China, should make a concerted effort to refocus the Nigerian government’s attention on the Niger Delta. Considering 2011 is an election year, the issue of the presidency is without a doubt an important one. However, if the fleeting opportunity for peace and development in the Niger Delta that exists right now is not followed up, far larger and less manageable problems loom on the horizon.

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