They arrived with a bang and issued threats to just about everyone within their sight – the Federal Government, multinational oil companies, security forces, and even members of civil society, who might want to stand in their way toward more violence. Since their arrival, the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) have radically transformed underground movements and their methods of operation. This is why the area has been typecast as a region of insecurity, instability and a ready training ground for future militants. Why did the NDA emerge so quickly to start blowing up oil installations and facilities, and to kidnap or kill soldiers and policemen on assignment in the region? Why is the NDA seriously engaged in a violent mission to level scores with the Federal Government, national and international oil companies, the police, and the army, and indeed anyone, who is opposed to their principles? With the NDA, there is no middle ground or room for manoeuvre. You are either a sympathiser or you are an enemy.
The Niger Delta is back on the political agenda. It is boiling again and the violence seems to be getting out of control. No one knows how soon or when peace would return to the region. Political leaders are now scrambling to find ways to bring the NDA to the negotiating table to end violence in the region, including indiscriminate and cold-blooded killings of soldiers and police men on duty in the area.
In the first statement they released, following their emergence, the NDA portrayed themselves as a no-nonsense revolutionary and secretive movement with iron determination to transform the region by driving the Federal Government and oil companies into a tight corner in which they would be compelled to negotiate terms that would be more favourable to members of the organisation.
They say they are single-mindedly resolved to carry on with their violent activities regardless of the pain and suffering the violence might inflict on innocent members of our society. And that is the scary bit about the NDA. Their language is brutal, tough, confrontational, and inelegant. They employ harsh rhetoric that boasts of their ability to overwhelm security forces, who might embark on a mission to protect oil workers and oil installations. To be clear, the NDA is not the first group to use violence, as a tool to attempt to achieve autonomy, to liberate their people, to draw global attention to the injustices and deprivations that people in the region have suffered over many years, and to improve the socioeconomic conditions of the general population. Before the NDA there were other militant organisations that operated in the creeks and waterways of the region.
Perhaps, the most widely known is the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). Other groups include the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF), the Niger Delta Strike Force, and the Egbesu Boys, to mention just a few. While their methods of operation might be different, they share a common goal – the struggle to reclaim their environment, to restore honour to the region, and to have a stronger representation and voice in national political and economic affairs. A close reading of press statements released by the NDA, the harsh tone of their language, their rigid position, and their explanations about why they took to militancy point to one overarching factor. That is, they are engaged in a struggle for self-rule, a fight to emancipate their kith and kin from a life of bondage and a resistance that will grant them greater control over the oil wealth that is produced in their region.
Their main argument is that the region that produces the national wealth through oil exploration, oil production and oil marketing should benefit largely from the revenues derived from that business. On the surface this might sound quite logical except that we live in a country in which every group and every state is deemed to be equal, at least, on paper. In practice, however, this is far from the truth, which makes the ideal of a united Nigeria a farce.
National leaders seem to believe it is alright for one part of the country to produce our common wealth, while it is legitimate for another part of the country to clean out the benefits. In local jargon this is referred to as the practice of “monkey dey work and baboon dey chop”. Perhaps, this twisted philosophy explains why militants in the region point to the irony in their situation. They say while national wealth is produced in their region, their people remain the most impoverished and the most dispossessed in terms of oil revenues they ought to receive.
It is this experience, the belief that people in the Niger Delta have been marginalised and treated like second-class citizens in their fatherland that drives the anger and distrust that propel the militants to fight for what they perceive to be their divine rights. It is on the basis of this understanding that Niger Delta militants contend that if their fatherland cannot look after the interests of their people and their communities, they have an obligation to use any means possible to secure those interests, to improve the socioeconomic conditions of the people, and to protect their environment from damage.
That is a confronting argument, a case some Nigerians may not accept on the basis that it is founded on a woolly logic. At the core of agitations in the region are three key demands. First is the demand for self-determination. Second is the quest for environmental preservation. The third demand is a bold call for equitable sharing of the revenues that are derived through oil production and sales. The ongoing destruction of lives and property in the Niger Delta will surely test the patience and toughness of President Muhammadu Buhari, in particular his attitude to the conflict in the region.
The NDA has shown it has the capacity to threaten Nigeria’s economic interests by blowing up oil pipelines. Buhari must move quickly to negotiate peace and to ensure the return of law and order in the region. Long lasting peace in the region must be negotiated because no political leader can foist peace on militants unwilling to embrace peace. While the NDA might have exacerbated the violence in the region, it is clear that in the battle between the government and militant groups, neither side has succeeded in overpowering the other or managed to solve the problems in the region. The militants have not achieved autonomy. Violence has not helped them to improve the dreadful environmental problems in their communities. Grinding poverty is still a reality.
Farmlands and fishing continue to suffer from the destructive impacts of oil spills. Although previous governments demonstrated half-hearted concern for the plight of people in the region through the establishment of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) and the provision of more resources, the area has remained largely restless because the people are unimpressed with the level of development in the region.
Some people have asked the question: How did we get to this point? Well, a fair response is that we got to this grave situation because previous governments neglected the unpleasant circumstances of the people in the Niger Delta. The result is that whenever a niggling problem is allowed to fester for too long, it will surely develop into a beast no one can handle. This is what the nation is confronting today in the Niger Delta. It is the same attitude that encouraged the Boko Haram insurgency in the North. The Niger Delta conflict has been described as a national disaster. That is a factual but regrettable commentary.
The government must respond to the needs of the region by mapping out a policy that recognises the key issues in the conflict, an understanding of the context that gave rise to the emergence of the Niger Delta Avengers, the underlying factors that generate incessant agitations in the region and how to mobilise community leaders to serve as the region’s ambassadors and agents of peace. A comprehensive policy that seeks to get to the bottom of the crisis must include all these elements. The policy should be proactive and lead to long-lasting peace as evidence of permanent resolution of the crisis.
Violence in the Niger Delta has created a major law-and-order problem for the government. There is also the problem of how to overcome or win over the militant groups in the region. It is a Catch-22 scenario. If the government uses too much military force, it could spark international and national outrage over human rights abuses. If the government applies a soft approach and the violence intensifies, Buhari would be accused at home and abroad of endorsing anarchy and, therefore, failing to protect lives, property and businesses in the Niger Delta.
These constitute major challenges that will cost Buhari sleepless nights. In practice, it is his headache. He was elected to solve national problems, not to look the other way when problems arise outside of the North, like he did in the case of the rampaging herdsmen. Buhari should not even contemplate the use of force against militants in the region because it will not achieve lasting peace. Military force has not and will not solve the violence in the region. On reflection, the crisis could have been handled productively years ago when a group of alienated youths yelled for attention and recognition. Rather than listen to them, the government responded by issuing threats and referring to them as rabble-rousers. The youths were isolated and their leaders were demonised. The rest is history.
The only way to entrench peace in the Niger Delta is for the government and the militants to engage in negotiations with a will to make a difference, for the benefit of the present and future generations.