Energy in Africa


Fresh violence strains tenuous peace
Lanre Idaomi
Published: 25-OCT-06

Daily life in the Niger Delta is riddled with kidnappings, firefights, border-battles and, of late, bomb explosions. Formerly a lush, peaceful maze of mangrove forests where Nigeria struck her first vein of crude in 1956, the Delta is now a mess of blackened earth, dying trees, oil-soaked rivers and eye-blinding gas flares.

Rather than the blighting of the environment by oil multinationals however, it is the sporadic violence that the Delta has witnessed in the last eight months that is giving all stakeholders a cause for concern. A new wave of kidnappings that began amidst a flurry of clashes between government troops and militias has resulted in the kidnapping (and the piecemeal release) of about 65 oil workers since January.

In the last five years, oil bunkering gangs in the region have capitalised on the almost communal wave of disenchantment pervading the region to mutate into the secessionist militias that are now battling government security forces for the control of the region. And with oil revenue being the life-blood of the Nigerian economy (it accounts for over 90 percent of annual earnings), state revenue has been hard hit. BIA gathered that this haemorrhage and renewed international pressure that both parties should dialogue are the factors behind a recent decision by the Obasanjo government to pursue a peaceful solution to the problems of the Delta.

Last month, the Nigerian oil minister, who is also the current President of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Edmund Daukoru, provided an insight into how costly the current state of affairs in the Delta is. Daukoru told reporters that conflict-induced production disruptions have seen the country losing an estimated 800000 barrels of oil per day since the beginning of the year. A newspaper here puts the loss since the beginning of the year at about $11,65bn.

Environmental activists in the region say the Delta, which supplies 95 percent of Nigeria’s 2,3 million barrels of oil per day output, has little to show for over 45 years of oil production. Last year, Nigeria, according to a recent International Crisis Group report on the Niger Delta, made an estimated $45bn from oil sales. Activists say only a fraction of this gets to the region. This view is widely shared by people in the region and is responsible for the acute sense of grievance which runs deep in the Delta.

Of all the region’s militia groups, the shadowy but well organised Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) has given government the greatest headache. Little is known about MEND. But government and diplomatic sources say that these groups are actively involved in illegal oil bunkering. Other time tested revenue sources for militia in the region include the protection fee exacted from oil companies and ransom paid by the employers of kidnapped victims.

The activities of MEND, experts say, are giving both the Nigerian government and the international community a cause for concern.

The inevitability of a non-violent solution to the problem of the Delta is now a recurrent theme in studies that seek to find solutions to the problem of this region. Nigeria’s Western partners and multinationals operating in the area have acknowledged this need. “Nigerian and international military experts have recognised that the crisis requires a negotiated political resolution. Any attempt at a military solution would be disastrous for residents and risky for the oil industry. Most facilities are in the maze of creeks and rivers that are particularly vulnerable to raids by well-armed militants with intimate knowledge of the terrain. But inaction risks escalating and entrenching the conflict at a time when tensions are already rising in advance of the 2007 national elections,” says the International Crisis Group, in its recent report on the Niger Delta.

BIA gathered that pressure from Western countries and the overhang of lengthy disruptions on daily oil output made Nigeria’s ordinarily hawkish president change tack. In the last months government forces have exhibited great restraint in the face of provocative attacks and humiliating losses to militia gangs. Senior officials no longer dismiss the militants as “mere” criminals.

Sources say Nigeria’s biggest oil buyer, the United States, was particularly influential in changing the direction of government thinking. BIA findings revealed that representatives of some of the countries that operate in the Delta have had to sit at some of the peace meetings between government and the militia to ensure that government played according to agreed rules.

Meetings between the militias and government are not new. But neither party has managed to stay faithful to agreements reached during such meetings. But with the restraint shown by government in the wake of recent attacks, analysts are saying that both sides may be on a path that may bring peace to the much-beleaguered Delta.

Tim Concannon, a British social worker with a long history of work in the Niger Delta, says government’s earlier stance was counter-productive. “They have looked at the rise of militias and criminal gangs as a security threat that required a military solution (so akin to terrorism/insurgency in Iraq). There is no long term military quick fix for the current violence in the Delta,” he says.

Analysts have said that government should reach an all-encompassing agreement on control of resources with militants and communities and introduce a gun-for-cash programme to mop up illegal arms. They have also called on government to amend the 1978 Land Use Act in such a way that communities would be able to seek compensation for land use and environmental degradation.

However it is still not clear if the militias are going to grab government’s olive branch as attacks have continued, though sources say government has kept its communication lines open.

On its part the Obasanjo administration seems determined to achieve with words what it has failed to achieve with guns. Although President Obasanjo’s patience appears stretched, (he gave security forces in the region a shoot-at-sight order after 11 oil workers were kidnapped in August), government still seems bent on solving the problems of the region by meeting with the militants. “Having won the peace in the Bakassi Peninsula, the Armed Forces are even more determined to win the peace in the Niger Delta for the socio-economic and political development of our country. (We) have an open door policy and are willing to work with any individual or group that can help to de-escalate the increasing violence in the Niger Delta,” a statement from the army, which has promised to investigate the shoot-out that resulted in the death of 10 militants, read. Stakeholders welcome this approach and hope that the understanding between the government and militants will hold. “The paradox of the Delta is that Ken Saro Wiwa’s legacy — of non-violent community movements pressing for a better deal — seems to be the only long term solution,” Concannon says. -Business in Africa Magazine

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