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Apr 22, 2011 | 12:19 GMT

9 mins read

Special Series: Militancy in the Niger Delta, Part 1

Editor's Note: This is the second installment in an ongoing series focusing on Nigerian elections, the politico-militancy dynamic of the country's Niger Delta and proposed reforms of the country's energy sector. On April 18, the results of Nigeria's April 16 presidential election were announced, with incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan winning 57 percent of the popular vote and retaining his hold on the presidency. It was Jonathan's first election as Nigeria's president since he entered the office as former vice president, succeeding President Umaru Yaradua when Yaradua died in May 2010. Voting in Nigeria will resume later this month, with gubernatorial and local elections scheduled for April 26. Jonathan's membership in the dominant ethnic group in the Niger Delta means he will likely be able to keep militant violence in check in the oil-rich region, the security of which can affect the global price of oil. Because of the region's importance, this installment of our special series on Nigeria focuses on the militancy in the Niger Delta, where political violence has been part of the landscape since the late 1990s. While such violence occurs in other parts of Nigeria, notably in Plateau state, east of the Nigerian capital of Abuja, and in Borno state in the country's northeast, the sectarian violence in these areas is geographically contained (like pro-Buhari protests in northwestern Nigeria following results released from the April 16 presidential vote) and does not have an international impact. At present, the level of militant violence in the region is nothing like it was four years ago, when Nigeria last held national elections, and the threat of militancy against energy infrastructure sites has been greatly reduced. This is due to a number of factors, not the least of which are the political, economic and security dynamics of a country still redefining itself after decades of military rule.

The Rise of Militancy in the Niger Delta

Activism in the Niger Delta first gained international attention in 1995, when the Sani Abacha military junta hanged internationally renowned activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, leader of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. At first, the activism was largely nonviolent. This changed in 1999 when civilian elections were held, the first relatively free voting that had occurred in Nigeria in decades. Aspiring candidates soon realized that good speeches alone would not be enough to ensure victory and hired idle and aggressive Delta youth to wage campaigns of violence against political rivals. By the late 1990s, a militant Delta youth organization began to coalesce in the form of the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), which was officially established in 1999. In 2001, the IYC incorporated an armed wing, known as the Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force (NDPVF), into what had been — officially, at least — a nonviolent civil organization. The NDPVF, led by Asari Dokubo (commonly known as Asari), enjoyed the patronage of Peter Odili, then-governor of Rivers state. Asari recruited a team of commanders and lieutenants from the Delta region who began working with existing local gangs to foster a degree of cooperation and coordination. The NDPVF was used during the 2003 elections to intimidate local politicians and ensure that incumbents were returned to office, but the group did not trigger broader regional clashes. It was not until the run-up to the 2007 national elections that significant militant violence against energy infrastructure began to erupt. The 2007 elections were an opportunity for an entirely new civilian administration to be elected. Then-President Olusegun Obasanjo would be leaving office, along with his vice president, Atiku Abubakar, commonly known as Atiku, both of whom had ruled since 1999. In the Nigerian context, Obasanjo was a hybrid politician, a former general who had ruled the country as military dictator from 1976 to 1979 and thus understood — and was expected to defend — the political interests of the country's military leadership.

Elections in the South-South Zone

While the 2007 national election was the first chance for the Nigerian people to democratically elect a civilian government (the outcomes of elections in 1999 and 2003 were pre-ordained legacies of the military dictatorship), it was the first chance for residents of the Niger Delta — also called the South-South zone, one of the country's six geopolitical zones — to acquire a stake in the new democratic Nigeria. Never before had the Delta had any national-level prominence, and the people of the South-South zone expected their turn at the levers of national power. The two top political prizes were up for grabs, in accordance with a regional-rotation agreement. The presidency, following Obasanjo's turn representing the South-West zone's interests, would rotate to a North-Westerner. After Atiku, a Muslim from the North-East zone, the vice presidency would rotate to a candidate from the south, but it was unclear whether it would rotate to a South-Southerner or a South-Easterner. The South-East zone had once literally fought for a stake in controlling Nigerian politics, spearheading the country's civil war from 1967 to 1970, known as the Biafran War. Like the South-South, the South-East had been largely excluded from national-level decision-making in Nigeria. Political elite from the Niger Delta effectively determined that 2007 would be their time to acquire national-level patronage, and they would not let the opportunity pass. To inject themselves into the political calculations being made in Abuja and other political hotspots, these South-Southerners essentially began holding their region hostage. They did this by organizing and unifying localized militant groups behind a common regional cause. Former NDPVF commanders operating under Asari were given fresh organizations under the leadership of Henry Okah, and these groups were united under the new banner of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). MEND launched its first operation in December 2005, attacking a Royal Dutch/Shell pipeline in Delta state. MEND then proceeded to conduct attacks throughout the three main oil-producing states of the Niger Delta (Bayelsa, Rivers and Delta states), blowing up pipelines and flow stations, targeting offshore loading platforms and kidnapping expatriate oil workers by the dozen. By 2007, MEND attacks were disrupting oil output by upward of a million barrels per day. Political patronage from the states' governors and other members of the political elite at the national and regional levels permitted MEND a secure space within which to maneuver, arm and wage its insurgency. MEND's mission was to prove that unless the Delta elite were provided for in the new political space about to open up in Abuja, the rest of the country could forget about energy security and the money that comes from oil exports. A war would be waged, and oil production would be the hostage. Either the Niger Delta would get a place at the national table and recognition of its economic role in the country — responsible for 95 percent of the country's oil output — or no one would have the oil. MEND appeared willing to force production offline temporarily or destroy it permanently. The militant threat worked. In the 2007 election, the Niger Delta secured the prize up for grabs by the South-South zone: the nomination for the vice presidency. (The presidency, for which northern interests were in line, was already slated to go to Yaradua, an aristocratic Muslim from Katsina state.) (click here to enlarge image) So a secondary struggle emerged, this time over who among the Niger Delta elite would be the vice presidential nominee. The regional political heavyweights at that time were ambitiously aiming for national office, notably Peter Odili, the governor of Rivers state, and Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, the former governor of Bayelsa state. But it was Goodluck Jonathan, theretofore a quiet and unassuming politician in Bayelsa state, who emerged to win the vice presidential nomination. Jonathan had been deputy governor of Bayelsa state since 1999, succeeding Alamieyeseigha as governor in 2005 when the latter was impeached on corruption allegations. Alamieyeseigha was more likely removed from office as a result of high-level political pressure after he began financing Atiku's presidential campaign. (Atiku was forced out of the People's Democratic Party, or PDP, after he led efforts in Abuja to block Obasanjo's third-term ambitions in 2005. Atiku went on to join the Action Congress party in 2006 but rejoined the PDP in 2010.) Odili was still aiming for vice president, but his deep regional and national influence — a result of his being a representative of the region's top oil-producing state — made him too powerful a politician for Obasanjo, who wanted to retain some influence over his successor after leaving office. So Odili was blocked in his bid to become vice president, and Jonathan, a former zoology professor, was tapped. His patrons, especially Obasanjo, believed the newly minted politician would be easy to manage after Obasanjo retired. Losing out to Jonathan, Odili retired in 2007 to manage his extensive private business interests, and he remains an active member of the PDP. The threat of investigation by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission is at the disposal of the Jonathan government to keep Odili from interfering with his rival from Bayelsa state. Jonathan's relationships with MEND commanders became apparent soon after he won the vice presidential vote. In May 2007, MEND spokesman Jomo Gbomo said Jonathan owed his position to MEND and threatened additional attacks if Jonathan attempted to make adjustments to MEND's freedom to maneuver. As a further threat, unidentified militants blew up Jonathan's village home in Ogbia, Bayelsa state, a reminder that even though he might now be settled in the federal capital, he should not forget where he is from.

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