Recent violence prompting questions about Niger Delta strategy

The independence day attacks in Nigeria by the Niger Delta rebel group MEND is prompting a reexamination of whether current strategies to end the violence are working.

Smoke and debris fill the sky seconds after a car bomb explodes in Abuja, Nigeria, on Oct. 1, 2010. Two car bombs blew up on as Nigeria celebrated its independence, killing at least seven people in an unprecedented attack on the capital by suspected militants from the country's oil region. The attacks claimed by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta came as the president and other dignitaries sat only a 10-minute walk away.

From the summer of 2009 through early 2010, I and many others hoped that a proposed amnesty and ceasefire deal for the conflict-ridden Niger Delta might yield peace, and even prosperity, for the region. But the transition from the late President Umaru Yar’Adua to current President Goodluck Jonathan, and the campaigning ahead of Nigeria’s upcoming elections, turned attention away from the Delta for a time even as problems mounted there. With attacks by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) during Nigeria’s 50th anniversary celebrations earlier this month, the Delta returned to the spotlight. So what next for the amnesty?

The outlook is mixed. Tensions are still high following the independence day attacks, and yesterday Nigerian authorities seized at least one “container holding rocket launchers, grenades and other explosives in the main port of Lagos.” At the same time, though, Chevron has launched “a new five-year, $50 million programme… to build innovative partnerships with national and international organisations to address some of the socio-economic challenges of the Niger Delta region.” Even as violence continues, then, efforts to tackle the root causes of conflict are progressing.

Taking the complexity of the situation into account, Uche Igwe has written a brilliant op-ed on the future of the amnesty. I urge you to read it in full, but here’s an excerpt:

Looking at the figures, one will say that the amnesty programme has been a modest success. Reports from government indicate that oil export figures have improved from 800,000 barrels per day that it was during the hostilities in 2006-2008 to 2.3 million barrels per day in 2010. A majority of the militants have dropped their arms and embraced amnesty – at least if the last Abuja meetings with government were anything to go by. Kidnapping and hostage taking has considerably reduced, at least, in the Niger Delta, though it is in a rapid increase in the south east zone and other parts of the country.

It is my view that it is a remarkable achievement by the current administration in Abuja, but many activists in the region still see it as a mere window dressing and at best a treatment of the symptoms without a comprehensive diagnosis and political will to decisively treat the systemic malady.

No one is under any illusion that all the arms in the Niger Delta region have all, been surrendered. The routes for oil theft from the Niger Delta are alleged to be the same through which small arms and light weapons are still being funneled into the creeks. An urgent and comprehensive mop up operation is essential to ensure that any residual stockpiles of arms in the Niger Delta communities are retrieved. Some pundits believe that a United Nations assisted strategy may help as it did in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Though the contextual issues might be different, the Nigerian government can tap into the expertise, neutrality and professionalism of the United Nations in future phases of the amnesty programme. This programme as a matter of urgency must be insulated as much as possible from the vagaries of politics and fortified with both official courage and sincerity of purpose.

Igwe outlines other recommendations in the paragraphs that follow.

Pursuing the amnesty and some program of development and conflict resolution in the Niger Delta is a major priority for Nigeria. Whoever wins the elections will have some successes to build upon, but will also have a lot of work to do. And hopefully the issue will continue to receive attention from policymakers and journalists even amidst campaigning.

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

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