The deepening crisis in the Niger Delta is now the most serious threat to the government's plans for economic revival
This month's announcement that the government is to resume payments to former militants in the Niger Delta is by any measure a victory for the myriad gangs and activists who have been attacking oil production facilities this year. The arithmetic is straightforward. The government had been planning to cut in half the US$200 million a year amnesty programme for ex-militants, launched by the previous government under President Goodluck Jonathan. It was then to end the payments entirely in 2017. Yet a full-scale revival of militant attacks in the Delta could cost the government several billion dollars in lost revenue and other costs.
In March, General Paul Boroh, who coordinates the Presidential Amnesty Programme, had halted the payments to ex-militants, averaging about 65,000 naira ($200) a month, as state revenue plummeted along with crashing world oil prices (AC Vol 56 No 22, The cauldron boils again). A government official said they could no longer afford to keep the Amnesty Programme going but planned to replace it with a longer and more credible strategy.
That didn't convince the Delta militants – past or present – who launched a wave of attacks on oil and gas installations, pushing production down to 1.4 million barrels per day, the lowest for 25 years. Since then, output has been yo-yoing, although Power, Works and Housing Minister Babatunde Fashola said in London on 29 July that production was back to 1.9 mn. bpd 'and rising'.
Some months earlier, government investigators had started probing the finances of security companies in the Delta, most of them owned by militant leaders who had secured lucrative contracts from the Jonathan government. After these policies helped to spark a slew of well-targeted militant attacks in the Delta region, the government has been rethinking its options. At the beginning of the year, many in government favoured a tougher military-led approach, as it is using against the Islamists of Boko Haram in the north-east.
However, there are grave doubts that an army of around 100,000 soldiers (which the government plans to expand sharply) could fight effectively on three separate fronts: against Boko Haram in the north-east and on the borders; to counter the worsening clashes between Fulani pastoralists and settled farmers in the Middle Belt; and to relaunch an offensive against well organised and resourced militants in the Niger Delta.
Wave of attacks
Beyond those calculations, there are reports of a wave of criminal attacks and sabotage across the country that police seem unable to contain. What lies behind these attacks is a matter for debate – many suspect rich and disgruntled supporters of the former government – but the concern is that they could also drag in the over-stretched military.
Officially, the military is gung-ho. It has been sending troops to strategic points around the Delta, said senior officers at the end of July. The Chief of Army Staff, General Tukur Buratai, said there would a crackdown if the current round of talks between the government and militants failed (AC Vol 57 No 3, Inside the war on graft & Vol 57 No 13, The Delta-naira yoyo). On 27 July, troops from the 2nd and 82nd divisions were mobilised as part of 'Operation Crocodile Tears'. Hundreds of lorries brought military hardware from the Middle Belt to Enugu, in the south-east, eye-witnesses said.
President Muhammadu Buhari's government has been trying to reposition itself politically in the region, well aware that the Delta (the South-South) and the south-east strongly support the opposition People's Democratic Party. At the same time, militants in the Delta and south-east, sometimes backed by opposition politicians, know they can inflict tremendous damage on the country's already shaky economy. So, there have been some cosmetic changes: the army has scrapped its 'Operation Pulo Shield' in the Delta, with its connotations of an occupying force. In its place is 'Operation Delta Safe', which puts the emphasis on heavily-armed policing and stopping sabotage, kidnapping and the running battles among cults and rival militant gangs.
How that might work politically is being tested now. In recent years, many state governors in the region have used militant gangs as their cheerleaders and unofficial security force. Buhari and Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, along with Deputy Oil Minister Emmanuel Kachikwu, have been pushing the message that the government is open to consultations in the Delta.
But Abuja resists the idea of any sort of political barter with the militants. Neither does the new militant group, the Niger Delta Avengers, demand a return to the old political sponsorship system under Jonathan. It is keeping to its maximalist agenda: that the oil companies must shut down their operations and that the people of the Delta should take full control of their region's oil and gas resources. Although Buhari has emphatically ruled out any compromise on that demand, his tone has become markedly more conciliatory towards the Delta as the militants have shown how hard they can hit the economy. On all sides, a payola formula – with the government effectively paying protection money to any gang with military capacity – has been ruled out.
Some groups, such as the Avengers, say they want political change not money, while advisors in Abuja are warning about a return to the payments-for-peace era under Jonathan's government. Despite the ethical questions involved, the Jonathan formula of amnesty payments and security contracts delivered an era of peace to the region. That was helped by his determined promotion of his kinsmen from the Delta to senior positions in government and the state oil company.
None of that emphatically changed conditions in the Delta. The engine room of Nigeria's economy still struggles under widespread environmental despoliation, high unemployment with fishing and farming hit by the oil industry, together with poor roads and rail links with the rest of the country. Since the change in government last year, people from the Delta again complain of marginalisation.
So Deputy Oil Minister Kachikwu, who hails from the region, has been trying to restart a dialogue with militant and opposition groups. His argument is that the government's plans for capital investment there – more roads, more power stations, better water and sanitation with big investment in schools and clinics – will benefit the Delta more than ad hoc payments to militant gangs, past or present. Undeniably, the amnesty payments bought peace but they did nothing to regenerate the Delta economy, so most of the former militants are still looking for jobs. In fact, it seems that some have reverted to their former trade of blowing up oil platforms, tapping fuel from pipelines or running illegal refineries.
After this latest round of contacts between Kachikwu and Delta activists, the government has promised to restart the amnesty payments pro tem and discuss investment initiatives that will boost the regional economy and its social services. Already Kachikwu and others have been talking to groups representing the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), which many believe has umbilical ties to the Avengers, despite denials on all sides.
It seems the government calculus in repositioning troops from the 2nd and 82nd divisions to the borders of the Delta will concentrate minds on the militant side. Over the past week, there has been only one report of a fresh attack but at the same time, there have been no breakthroughs in the government-militant contacts.
With the economy still hobbled by this year's lower revenue and the Finance Minister's team planning to float some $5 bn. of bonds this year, much will depend on the government getting a deal in the Delta. That will probably mean offering much fatter carrots to the militants and their backers; even the Chief of Army Staff has lined up his soldiers for a military option.
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