Nov 15, 2016 | 09:00 GMT

4 mins read

Reconciling Expectations and Reality in the Niger Delta

Reconciling Expectations and Reality in the Niger Delta

Nigeria has a new plan to overcome its economic doldrums. On Oct. 27, President Muhammadu Buhari's administration unveiled the "Seven Big Wins," a roadmap designed to enhance stability, transparency and growth in the oil industry, the country's most profitable sector. The government in Abuja hopes that after years of suffering the effects of low oil prices, Nigeria will be able to restore its oil revenues by increasing production. But to reach the administration's ambitious production targets (2.2 million barrels per day by the end of the year and 2.8 million bpd by 2019), Nigeria's oil industry will first have to improve its security situation.

Militancy in the Niger Delta region, the epicenter of Nigeria's oil industry, has surged over the past year. Since January, groups such as the Niger Delta Avengers have launched several devastating attacks against the country's oil and natural gas infrastructure in retaliation for perceived injustices wrought against the region. As a first step toward resolving their grievances and restoring order to the region, Buhari met Nov. 1 with stakeholders from the Niger Delta, including state governors, local chiefs and supposed representatives of the militant groups. But despite its aims to bring peace to the delta, the meeting and its aftermath underscored the divisions in the region that will impede the government's plans there.

Along with the lofty production targets, Nigerian Oil Minister Emmanuel Ibe Kachikwu set a goal to eliminate militancy-related shutdowns in oil production by 2017. This crucial first step toward fully restoring oil production in the Niger Delta will be difficult to realize, given the level of dissatisfaction and fatigue with Abuja prevalent throughout the region. In delineating the Seven Big Wins roadmap, Kachikwu highlighted a $10 billion program aimed at improving infrastructure in the Niger Delta and funded by "oil companies, investors [and] individuals," as well as local and federal governments. Though the program was meant to appease regional stakeholders who had long emphasized the link between development and security, many in the Niger Delta were not impressed. In fact, they took the vague promise of funding from various sources as a sign that the federal government was not committed enough to subsidize the project on its own. (A more likely explanation is that Nigeria's cash-strapped federal government cannot come up with $10 billion.)

Keeping Up With Demands

Skeptical of the government's solution, other leaders from the Niger Delta have advanced their own plan. During a Nov. 1 meeting, members of the Pan Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF), the umbrella organization for the region's disparate interest groups, gave the president a list of 16 demands that would improve the chances for peace. Some of the stipulations, such as a call to review the amnesty program for former militants, are consistent with previous government practices in the region. Buhari has already promised to consider revamping the amnesty program, which PANDEF hopes will provide reformed militants with job opportunities at the end of their training. At the same time, however, the president also slashed the program's funding by nearly two-thirds this year, and in September, its coordinator said there were no plans to extend amnesty to new militants. For the disgruntled militants and Niger Delta residents who have complained about poor job prospects and resource exploitation in the region, Buhari's actions, or continued inaction, could add fuel to the fire.

Other demands will prove more challenging. PANDEF, for example, will have a hard time persuading oil companies to relocate their headquarters to the Niger Delta region, no matter how much area residents would benefit. For one thing, Lagos — where most companies base their operations — is an internationally connected hub. For another, moving to the Niger Delta, where environmental degradation and perceived slights have engendered local enmity toward oil companies over the decades, would almost certainly increase the risk of attack.

A Long, Uncertain Road

Though the meeting was an important step in the process, the road toward peace in the Niger Delta will be long and uncertain. It remains to be seen, for instance, whether the federal government will be willing or able to funnel resources to a single region at a time of nationwide financial strain. What's more, it is unclear how much control PANDEF has over the region's militant groups. So far, little has changed since the talks: Militants attacked the Trans Forcados crude oil export pipeline Nov. 2, the day after the meeting. Two days later, a purported spokesman for the defunct Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) — which gained prominence during the last era of militancy — announced that a resentful MEND commander had conducted the attack on his own initiative, frustrated that his group's interests were not addressed at the meeting. On Nov. 5, the Niger Delta Avengers — the group behind most of the attacks on oil and gas infrastructure since January — condemned the Nov. 1 meeting and criticized the "minimal demands" that regional stakeholders had made.

The return to militancy in the region, and its stakeholders' limited faith in the government's promises, highlight the difficulties that await Abuja in the Niger Delta. Furthermore, even without militant attacks in the region, accidental damage could still halt production, potentially derailing the government's plan for increased production and revenue. Despite the lofty goals laid out in Buhari's Seven Big Wins plan, securing Nigeria's oil industry will be a long and arduous process.

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