Nigeria’s fragile truce with rebels in the oil-rich Niger Delta region has come dangerously close to a violent end, as rebels took credit this weekend for an attack on an oil pipeline some 30 miles west of Port Harcourt.
The rebel group Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) said that the attack was “a warning strike,” carried out by five speedboats full of armed men, and was intended to send a signal to the government of hospitalized President Umaru Yar’Adua to renew its efforts at engaging the rebels in peace talks. The talks were suspended after Mr. Yar’Adua left suddenly for emergency medical treatment in Saudi Arabia nearly a month ago.
The important benefits of the truce were shown last month, when the Nigerian government announced its highest ever output of crude oil. A return to unrest, a MEND rebel spokesman told the Monitor, would be devastating.
“This is the quiet before the storm,” says a MEND spokesman calling himself Tom, in an interview with the Monitor last week. “MEND wants to do the right thing, that’s why they met with the president.”
Rebels feeling 'frustrated'
But in the weeks since the president’s departure, government negotiations have halted, and rebels are getting “frustrated,” Tom says. “It’s going to be more ferocious. What we expected was the government to utilize the time to address the issue of resources. But they are playing politics with our health. In the past, you would attack a platform and take one or two hostages. This time, you will evacuate the platform completely of its personnel, and burn the platform completely. And for four or five years after that, there is no hope for that platform to produce.”
Nigeria’s brief respite from a decade or more of insurgency in the Niger Delta was the personal initiative of Yar’Adua, who offered rebels amnesty from prosecution if they agreed to disarm and reintegrate into society. A collection of rebel groups took Yar’Adua at his word, and disarmed, but have become disillusioned at the slow progress and government’s inability to actually follow through on promises to provide job training and other methods of helping the rebels return to civilian life.
MEND, which announced a cease-fire but did not disarm, has stopped short of returning to full militant operations, but appears close to making that decision, unless the Nigerian government follows through on its promised aid and development for the Niger Delta, and negotiations on giving local people “control over the resources.”
Nigerian government officials say the government is putting all its energy behind the peace process, but the Niger Delta rebels need to be patient.
“The Niger Delta is key to the president’s agenda, the amnesty progress is very successful, and the supplemental budget for development in the Niger Delta region has been passed,” says Bolaji Adebiyi, President Yar’Adua’s personal advisor. Some $2.6 billion worth of road projects, and $670 million in power projects have been approved for the Niger Delta region, and many are ongoing. “It’s not fair to say there is no progress,” Mr. Adebiyi says. “There are processes that have to be followed.”
Yet the oil pipeline attack Friday night shows that patience is running thin.
A spokesman for MEND confirmed that the group had organized the attack on an oil pipeline near the Niger Delta town of Abonemma.
Pat Utomi, a former presidential candidate and a negotiator in the Niger Delta peace process, says that losing momentum now means losing a crucial opportunity for peace.
“Several of the groups in the Niger Delta were beginning to be exhausted by the process of fighting, and the economic cost for the Niger Delta issue was too much, because production was shut down,” says Mr. Utomi.
But in the absence of the president, the amnesty program has stalled, Utomi said. “With him in bad shape, you wonder, how is the process going to be sustained?”
“As people of the Niger Delta, we felt very strongly that we need to give all the support to any process that could bring peace, and to give an opportunity to see if the Niger Delta can be resolved,” says Annkio Briggs, a human rights activist and founder of the Agape Birthrights, a non-governmental organization working in the Delta. “We can’t afford for the country to come to a standstill.”
Why is MEND attacking the Niger Delta?
MEND, for its part, says that a standstill is not an option.
“We got into this process because the oil companies were destroying our environment, our livelihoods, our health,” says Tom, the MEND rebel. Attacking oil platforms will hurt the environment more, he admits, but the attacks are necessary for the people of the Delta to get control of what they regard as their own resources.