Nkasi Wodu is a lawyer, peacebuilding practitioner, and development expert based in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.
In January 2006, a fledgling group known as the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta People (MEND) kidnapped a group of oil workers, setting in motion a series of high-profile abductions of oil workers and attacks on oil facilities. Nigeria’s oil revenues fell, fomenting instability in the Niger Delta region.
Militant groups under the platform of MEND unleashed coordinated attacks on Nigeria’s oil and gas infrastructure from 2006 to 2009. The pace of attacks fell after President Umaru Yar’Adua established an Amnesty Program that ostensibly included disarmament of militants, job training programs for ex-militants, and a system of payoffs that especially benefitted their leaders.
When they were active, the Niger Delta militants were often enmeshed deep in the creeks of the region, in makeshift camps cautiously hidden from view to protect against possible aerial bombardment and attacks by the Nigerian military. From those hideouts, militants orchestrated attacks on oil facilities and kidnapped workers. In response, the Nigerian military chased them all over the creeks of the Delta—sometimes inflicting casualties, at others outwitted by a ragtag group with little formal training in warfare.
According to a UN Development Program report, the difficult topography in the region “encourages people to gather in small communities—of the estimated 13,329 settlements in the region, 94 percent have populations of less than five thousand,” though the regional population is estimated around thirty million in total. In the Delta’s small settlements, “infrastructure and social services are generally deplorable.” The report highlights the paradox of an oil-rich region mired in poverty: “ordinarily, the Niger Delta should be a gigantic economic reservoir of national and international importance,” due to the scale of its resource wealth. However, “in reality, the Niger Delta is a region suffering from administrative neglect, crumbling social infrastructure and services, high unemployment, social deprivation, abject poverty, filth and squalor, and endemic conflict.”
This reality animates the various armed groups that have emerged in the region. MEND, the Niger Delta Avengers, and the Niger Delta Green Justice Mandate have all insisted that the federal government address issues of poverty, neglect, and environmental degradation. And because of the failure of successive governments to address these issues, armed militants remain active. These groups evade the military as they traverse the creeks and tributaries of the region to bomb oil facilities or abduct oil workers. In 2016 alone there were more than twenty attacks carried out on oil facilities in the region. Sometimes, these attacks are carried out with the knowledge and tacit support of local people. In October 2020, a group known as the Reformed Niger Delta Avengers issued a warning to the Nigerian government, threatening to resume attacks if their eleven demands are not met by the new year.
The relationship between armed groups and the indigenous populations of the region is complex. Militants clearly employ techniques to attract local people and then lock them into a network of incentives. These range from persuasion to coercion, and are designed to control, corral, manipulate, and mobilize populations.
Armed militants in the Niger Delta continually seek to legitimize their actions in the eyes of the local population. Residents of the region—particularly in the coastal communities where militant activities are rife—experience neglect, deprivation, and a lack of infrastructure. School buildings and health centers, already decrepit, are often times not operational because teachers and doctors do not want to travel to work. Abject poverty is widespread, with a teeming youth population that is either out of school, unemployed, or both. Delta residents feel a great sense of frustration at the almost total abandonment by successive federal and state governments, which receive huge sums from the oil drilled in the residents’ backyard.
Armed groups tap into these frustrations frequently by projecting themselves as freedom fighters, supposedly risking life and limb to agitate the government for a better life in the Delta. People see the agitations of the armed groups as an expression of their internal frustrations and yearnings to hold federal and local governments to account for failing to fulfill their responsibilities.
Of course, sometimes militants use fear to keep the people submissive. Yet, armed groups have also taken up the role of philanthropists, providing welfare to a people weighed down continuously by the burden of living in a paradox. Militant leaders have been known to utilize proceeds from oil bunkering activities to provide scholarships to students, build health centers and schools, and resolve disputes in their communities. By doing this, they seek legitimacy from the people, who are then willing to overlook—even excuse—their criminal enterprises.
The federal government’s response to the issue of militancy has always been to deploy more soldiers to the region to restore calm. These deployments often result in heightened insecurity in the region. Human rights violations occur frequently; communities have been raided and in some cases bombed. And herein lies the problem: what is usually meant to be an operation to restore order takes the form of an occupation or invasion by a force that the people consider alien to them. Military activities erode further the trust deficit between the state and the people.
To address sustainably the issue of militancy in the region, the government should do two things. It should first seek to delegitimize armed groups by building trust with the people. It can do so by asserting its authority—not through military might, but by providing basic services, such as education and proper health facilities. For many Niger Delta communities, the most visible signs of development are infrastructure built by international oil companies or former militant generals, while many of the waterways are dotted with military assets of the Joint Task Force. A running joke in the region goes that while development remains elusive, the ballot box has no problem getting to Delta communities on election days.
The federal government should also exercise good faith by committing to its obligations under the Strategic Implementation Work Plan, established in 2017 in response to militant agitations in the region, as well as the Action Plan enacted by the Ministry of the Niger Delta. Prioritizing the passage of the Petroleum Industry Bill is another necessary step. When Niger Delta residents see more development and fewer bullets from the military, agitations of armed groups in the region will cease.