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Nigeria: is the recent oil violence connected to upcoming elections?

Group known for bombing oil pipelines has allegedly returned to the Niger Delta, just in time for Saturday's gubernatorial elections in President Goodluck Jonathan's home state.

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At some point before the PDP state primaries in January 2011, Jonathan and Sylva became foes. Sylva won the first primary, despite reported attempts by Jonathan to find a candidate who could defeat him, writes The Nigerian Voice. Sylva’s victory proved short-lived. The governor was barred from participating in a second PDP primary, held in November, and the party instead nominated Henry Seriake Dickson, “a member of the House of Representatives and close associate of President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan,” as its candidate, reports The Nigerian Voice. Sylva has launched a legal case over his exclusion from both the second primary and this weekend’s election, but he remains barred from running in the latter, and the case looks like it will be tied up in court through April, writes PM News. Opposition parties like the Action Congress of Nigeria hope to capitalize on the PDP’s infighting, but the PDP is determined not to lose. Jonathan came home to campaign and, it seems, to make sure Sylva takes the blame for the state’s current woes.

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This, then, is the political context in which recent violence in the Delta has taken place. The violence has targeted both politicians and oil production. Bayelsa is reputed to have a history of electoral violence, and a bombing on January 20 in Bayelsa’s capital Yenagoa brought the present campaign in line with that trend.

Then, just this past weekend, an oil pipeline was attacked in Bayelsa. MEND, which carried out regular attacks on oil production in the Delta before 2009, when many of its leaders agreed to an amnesty with the Federal Government of Nigeria, has claimed responsibility for the attack. If the claim is true, MEND’s return will worry both the government and foreign investors.

Yet the Nigerian military is denying MEND’s claim, pinning responsibility instead on criminal gangs. Whoever the true culprits are, Nigeria’s The Nation argues that the pipeline incident should not be seen in isolation, but rather as part of a pattern of violence and threats in the Delta that has been intensifying in recent weeks. These events suggest a “growing disenchantment with the amnesty package and rivalry among the ex-militants,” reports The Nation. Reuters also sees this disenchantment at work, and adds, “Some analysts suspect that regional power struggles ahead of an acrimonious election for the governorship of Bayelsa on Feb. 11 may be the root cause of the attack.”

To sum up, there is a dangerous mix of electoral tension, behind-the-scenes political struggles, grassroots anger, and violence at work in the Delta right now. I do not know whether MEND will return in full force or what will happen in the elections on Saturday, but I do think the problems in the Delta are yet another major headache for the administration, a headache which may grow worse in the coming months. As Reuters reports, “President Goodluck Jonathan can ill afford a flare-up of violence in his home state as he struggles to cope with almost daily attacks by radical Islamist sect Boko Haram in the north.”

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.

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