Before issuing its threat Jan. 27, MEND had been remarkably quiet in recent years. The group was most active from 2005 until about 2010. During that period, it was a tool Niger Delta politicians used to obtain a greater share of the country's oil revenue and a greater voice in Nigerian national politics at a time when the delta was a deeply neglected region. Militants in the main Niger Delta states of Rivers, Bayelsa and Delta coordinated under the MEND umbrella and received protection from the region's political elite. The militants attacked oil fields, blew up crude oil pipelines, kidnapped foreign oil workers and essentially held hostage the energy industry that the rest of the country depended on. The goal of the militants and political elite was to bring the Niger Delta region into prominence and give its elite a meaningful stake in national political and economic decision-making. The goal began to be achieved in 2007 with the election of Goodluck Jonathan, then governor of Bayelsa state, as the country's vice president.
The Niger Delta region has seen its political prominence grow thanks to Jonathan's elevation to the Nigerian presidency after the death of his predecessor Umaru Yaradua in 2010. Jonathan has been able to use Nigeria's system of patronage to reward and shape the behavior of his supporters, including some of the Niger Delta militants. Some militants likely fear what will become of them if Jonathan is no longer Nigeria's president after the country's next national elections in April 2015.
While Jonathan has never been suspected of directing the militant group's activities (the group's existence predates his political career), he is part of the political network that gave MEND the space to operate. In addition, MEND did warn Jonathan in 2007 that he should not abandon what had been a mutually beneficial relationship. This statement as well as other revelations of a relationship between Nigerian government officials and MEND leaders showed the militant group to be a political pawn and not an independent militant actor. Jonathan himself was the unintended beneficiary of the MEND militant campaign because pressure from the group assured that a political representative from the Niger Delta was going to help form part of the Nigerian government in 2007. At the time, Jonathan was seen as a political lightweight and was not considered a leading candidate from the region. Greater attention was put on then Rivers state governor Peter Odili, whose state is the largest oil producer in the country.
Since the 2007 election, patronage programs in Nigeria, including a Niger Delta amnesty initiative, have appeased militants and the political elite to the degree that they do not need to hijack the energy sector. In fact, if militants did attack the energy sector now, they would probably lose the support of their patrons for cutting into oil revenues that the government (led by a fellow Delta politician) so desperately needs. Former militant leaders such as Asari Dokubo, Ateke Tom, Ebikabowei Victor Ben (aka General Boyloaf) and Government Tompolo have benefited from subsidies and business contracts and have become urban businessmen. The overall leader of MEND, Henry Okah, is in a South African prison, having been convicted of orchestrating MEND's car bomb attack in Abuja in October 2010.
Niger Delta political leaders are now part of national-level political decision-making, so the goal of the militants and their political patrons has largely been achieved. Whether Jonathan himself survives politically is another question. Jonathan is campaigning for the People's Democratic Party ahead of 2015 national elections, and while he is eligible to be the party's presidential nominee in 2015, he may not be selected. Jonathan's potential candidacy for re-election has triggered opposition within the ruling party, and several high-ranking members have defected to form an opposition party, the All Progressives Congress. One of those members, Rivers state Gov. Rotimi Amaechi, is chairman of the Nigerian Governors' Forum and is expected to be a leading candidate for the opposition party in the 2015 elections. Amaechi has just as deep a familiarity with and network among the Niger Delta political elite and militants as Jonathan and would probably be able to preserve stability in the Niger Delta should Jonathan not be re-elected in 2015.
Ultimately, there is no meaningful political ideology in Nigeria apart from acquiring and defending political and thus economic power. Jonathan is replaceable as long as the overarching network of Niger Delta political and economic influence in Abuja is safeguarded. MEND will not be a critical threat — it will not be provided political space to arm itself and conduct attacks — if representatives from the region are given a meaningful stake in Abuja. Amaechi plays this sort of role in Abuja already, even though he is now in opposition. Should Jonathan retain the presidency, the patronage network with supporters in the Niger Delta will endure. Should someone like Amaechi form the next government, they will preserve the patronage program that keeps the region subsidized and content, meaning no disruption to the energy sector as threatened by MEND on Jan. 27 would be necessary.