Nigeria’s government could soon see itself fighting two insurgencies, one against Boko Haram in the north and one against Biafra in the east.
Following a spate of attacks against oil pipelines in the Niger Delta, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has promised to hold talks with local leaders to address their grievances. But recently-announced cuts to the amnesty program that brought an end to a previous bout of militancy in the region only serve to reinforce the view held by some that the problems in the Christian east are neglected when a northern Muslim, like Buhari, holds the presidency.
This belief has fueled a resurgent independence movement that harks back to the ill-fated Republic of Biafra that attempted to break away from Nigeria in 1967, precipitating a ruinous civil war. Unless it treads carefully, the government could see itself fighting two insurgencies: one against Boko Haram in the north and one against Biafra in the east.
The latest flare-up in the Delta seems to have been instigated by the issue of arrest warrants for former leaders of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND)—a militant group responsible for thousands of deaths and kidnappings and the sabotage of oil infrastructure that cost the Nigerian state billions of dollars in lost revenue. In 2009, an amnesty was signed with MEND whereby in return for giving up their weapons and vowing to keep the peace the government would invest in training and job creation for its 30,000 insurgents and the wider unemployed youth of the region.
For 7 years the amnesty program seemed to be working, and the government could turn its attention to fighting Boko Haram in the northeast. However, in February, the government issued indictments for fraud, theft and money laundering against a dozen former militant leaders relating to security contracts they had been offered in exchange for peace.
Shortly after this, a previously unknown group calling themselves the Niger Delta Avengers announced its presence on the scene with a string of attacks targeting pipelines, power stations and platforms operated by Shell, Chevron and ENI, reducing Nigeria’s oil output to a 20-year low in the process. Output fell by more than 50%, to 1.1 million barrels a day, while electricity production lost more than 1,000 megawatts. The deteriorating situation has only been exacerbated by the announcement of a 70% cut to the amnesty program in the latest budget.
President Buhari had promised to meet with local leaders in the Delta region to discuss their grievances, but then backed out of the visit in a last-moment cancellation. This bodes ill for the president’s commitment to rehabilitate the Delta’s ecosystem, despoiled by decades of oil extraction. The task is immense; a recent assessment by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) estimates that it would take upwards of 25 years to restore the habitat of the delta. The UNEP report found that pollution of soil, sediment and swampland was extensive, citing one location close to a Nigerian National Petroleum Company pipeline where “where an 8 cm layer of refined oil was observed floating on the groundwater which serves the community wells.”
The cancellation might have something to do with the fact that the Niger Delta Avengers have dismissed Buhari’s overtures with mockery, staking their claim instead for obtaining full independence. In so doing they go further than their predecessors in MEND ever did as the group aligned themselves with the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) and the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). For these groups, the problems surrounding the oil industry in the region are just a symptom of a more deep-seated malaise that can only be remedied by the region’s secession from Nigeria and the creation of an independent state. For nearly 40 years these aspirations had lain dormant following a catastrophic civil war between 1967 and 1970 that saw 3 million Biafrans killed and starved by the forces of the central government.
In recent years, however, with the advent of the MASSOB and IPOB, a small but growing chorus has tried to rekindle the cause of Biafran nationalism. Despite claims to being peaceful movements dedicated to achieving independence via democratic means, the government in Abuja has likened them to Boko Haram, cracking down hard on protests and arresting leaders. Most recently, at an annual remembrance rally to commemorate the victims of the civil war, security forces killed a number of protesters.
In February, several people were killed during a demonstration by supporters of IPOB calling the group’s leader, Nnamdi Kanu, to be released from prison where he continues to be held without bail while he faces charges of treason. Similar acts of state violence against peaceful protestors have intensified since Buhari came to power in 2015, according to Göran Sluiter, a lawyer with an Amsterdam-based law firm, who has filed a complaint with the ICC alleging a campaign of human rights abuses against Biafrans.
Buhari’s weak leadership and the ghastly state of the economy will do little to alleviate tensions. If in past years the government used its substantial cash reserves to appease the rebels, the current climate of low oil prices has sent cash-strapped Nigeria running to the markets for liquidity. Unless Buhari somehow manages to put a stop to the billions lost every year to graft or unless world oil prices recover to last year’s benchmark of $52 a barrel, tensions will only continue to grow.
With the Niger Delta Avengers now entering the fray, and with the apparent breakdown of the MEND amnesty program, it seems that the acrimonious atmosphere in the Delta is only likely to worsen. Cornered from all sides, Nigeria is well on its way to becoming anew the “sick man of Africa” and a threat to the interests of its neighbors and the international community.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.