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.

Bystanders look at damage from an improvised explosive device opposite the Nigeria Air Force bases in Kaduna, north central Nigeria, Tuesday.

• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, The views expressed are the author's own.

The Niger Delta is back in the news, both for the alleged return of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND – read a backgrounder here) and the upcoming gubernatorial elections in Bayelsa State, which was the site of a bitter primary election in November. Different sources give different views on how closely the recent oil violence is connected to Bayelsa’s electoral calendar. But clearly the Niger Delta is facing renewed political tension and renewed violence at the same time.

Nigeria last held national elections, including gubernatorial contests, in April 2011, but since then various governors have faced court challenges to their legitimacy. Some have won and remained in office, but others have not, reports the Daily Post. On January 27, the Supreme Court removed five governors from office (for the back story, see the Washington Post coverage here).

The situation in the state of Kogi is complicated by the fact that the state held a new election even before the ruling. But the other four states are holding gubernatorial elections this month. Adamawa State, in the Northeast, took place on Feb. 4, and delivered a win for Nigeria’s ruling party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Sokoto State, in the Northwest, will go to the polls on Feb. 18. But before that, two Niger Delta states – Bayelsa and Cross River – will hold elections on Feb. 11. For an overview of the political situation in each state, see The Nation's coverage here.

Bayelsa State has attracted considerable attention not only because of the bitter primary there, but also because it is the home state of President Goodluck Jonathan. Bayelsa has been under the control of the PDP since Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999, but that does not mean the state’s politics are dull. In 1999, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha became governor, with Jonathan serving as his deputy. Alamieyeseigha was re-elected in 2003, but in 2005 he was arrested in London on charges of money laundering and was impeached. Jonathan became governor, only to be selected as vice-president in 2007 – and the rest of Jonathan’s story is well known. Back in Bayelsa, Timipre Sylva was elected governor in 2007, but faced a challenge in 2008 and had to contest a re-run election, which he won.

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.

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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