The coming of age of the urban guerilla in Nigeria’s troubled oil region

In January 2006, when a hitherto unknown group calling itself the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta People (MEND) kidnapped a group of oil workers, a series of high profile abductions of oil workers and attacks on oil facilities was set into motion that resulted in a drop in the Nation’s oil revenues and spearheaded one of the most unstable times in the Niger Delta region.

The period of 2006 to 2009 heralded the rise of multiple combatant groups and so-called militant generals under the platform of MEND that unleashed mayhem on the Nigerian state through series of coordinated attacks on Nigeria’s oil and gas infrastructure until the Presidential Amnesty Program was declared by the Nigerian Government.

The “Niger Delta Militants,” as they became known, were often enmeshed deep in the creeks of the region, in camps roughly put together and deliberately hidden from view to protect themselves against possible aerial bombardment and attacks by the marauding Nigerian military. From these vantage points, they would orchestrate attacks on oil facilities, either through bombing critical infrastructure or   kidnapping workers operating in those facilities.

For over three years, the militants launched their attacks on the Nigerian state while the Military chased them all over the creeks of the Delta, sometimes inflicting heavy casualties, but frequently being outwitted by a ragtag group with very little formal training in warfare. This of course is what has been so often referred to as “Irregular Warfare” by military analysts to describe conflicts that involve non-state actors and combatants that do not belong to the regular armed forces or operate under a clear chain-of-command. As stated earlier, these agitations signaled the coming of age of the urban guerilla in Nigeria’s Niger Delta as continuous and often deadly offensives were launched to devastating effect on Nigeria’s oil and gas facilities culminating in the establishment of the Presidential Amnesty Program by President Umaru Musa Yar’adua in 2009. The Amnesty Program offered pardon and pecuniary incentives to thousands of militant youths of Niger Delta origin in exchange for their disavowal of violence, laying down their weapons, and re-joining society in a productive manner.

The effectiveness of that strategy in restoring sustainable peace to Nigeria’s troubled oil region has been expounded by several authors and as a result, this piece will not seek to dredge up what is seen as an over flogged horse. Rather, this piece will seek to trace the complex relationship that exists between armed groups in the region and the people of the Niger Delta. It will further highlight how current government strategy is failing the resolve the militancy and why, with comparisons to other complex and multidimensional conflicts between armed groups and national governments.

First, however, it is critical to understand the context of the Niger Delta and how it has given rise to the militancy. According to L. A. Afinotan and V.Ojakorotu in their 2009 paper titled “The Niger Delta Crisis: Issues, Challenges and Prospects”, the Niger Delta region was described as one of the “world’s largest wetlands, over 60% of Africa’s largest mangrove forests, and one of the worlds’ most extensive. Comprising an intricate network of creeks, rivers, streams, swamps, braided streams and Oxbow lakes, besides a stretch of flat and fertile land mass”. Intricately enmeshed within these creeks, rivers and swamps are whole fishing villages whose inhabitants have had to navigate this treacherous and difficult terrain in pursuit of their primary occupation of fishing or even to travel from one community to another. According to the UNDP in their Niger Delta Development Report of 2006,this “difficult topography encourages people to gather in small communities—of the estimated 13,329 settlements in the region, 94 per cent have populations of less than 5,000. These are rural communities, which offer very limited economic opportunities. Infrastructure and social services are generally deplorable, and vastly inadequate for an estimated regional population of nearly 30 million people”.

Politically, the Niger Delta region comprises nine states of Rivers, Abia, Bayelsa, Delta, Edo, Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Ondo and Imo States. For more than five decades, the region has accounted for a significant bulk of Nigeria’s revenue in oil and gas. However, in spite of this, the oil rich region has been plagued with extreme poverty and continuous falling standards in living. The UNDP report cited above, in painting the paradox of the socio-economic milieu of the oil rich region, stated: “Ordinarily, the Niger Delta should be a gigantic economic reservoir of national and international importance. Its rich endowments of oil and gas resources feed methodically into the international economic system, in exchange for massive revenues that carry the promise of rapid socio-economic transformation within the delta itself.” In reality, the Niger Delta is a region suffering from administrative neglect, crumbling social infrastructure and services, high unemployment, social deprivation, abject poverty, filth and squalor, and endemic conflict.

Interestingly, it is this situation painted above that has been the major point of agitation as well as rallying cry of the various armed groups that have emerged in the region. MEND, the Niger Delta Avengers, the Niger Delta Green Justice Mandate etc. all have in their own way insisted that the Federal Government take emphatic steps in addressing the issues of poverty, neglect and environmental degradation in the region. And it is because of the inability of successive governments to address these issues that have been the thrust of continued agitation by armed militants in the region. As noted above, these groups have mounted multiple attacks successfully in the past and have evaded the military on numerous occasions as they traversed the creeks and tributaries of the region to bomb oil facilities or abduct oil workers. In fact, in 2016 alone there was more than 20 attacks carried out on oil facilities in the Niger Delta. This of course heightened insecurity in the region with the added deployment of soldiers to restore calm. The question that begs to be answered however, is how were these militants able to navigate and maneuver their ways to and from attacks on their targets? How were they able to set up camps without being seen by the inhabitants of the communities? And, if they were seen, why were reports not made? To press the point home, High Chief Government Ekpemupolo AKA Tompolo, an ex-militant General and former commander of MEND, has been a fugitive from the Federal Government since 2016 and the military haven’t caught a whiff of him in close to two years. In those two years, he has buried his father in a lavish affair, his birthday has been celebrated by his friends while at the same time he has managed to issue a reaction to almost every major development in the region.

It is particularly telling that in spite of the heightened sense of insecurity which the militancy occasioned in the region, as well as the fact that their activities have ended up adding to the pollution of the environment as well as causing a decline in the country’s revenues, they were able to move freely among some of the riverine communities without being ratted out by the inhabitants of the communities. In the height of the militancy before the Amnesty Program was established, and in the recent rise of fresh agitations spearheaded by the Niger Delta Avengers, instances where the communities provided information to the authorities concerning the whereabouts and hiding places of the militants have rarely occurred. It is important to consider which factors may be underlying and abetting this conspiracy of silence. Irrespective of the consequences of militant activities; including environmental pollution, a drop in the revenues of a nation over-dependent on oil, and heightened insecurity in the communities, the region seldom gives away information regarding militants. There are a few reasons for this, chief of which is the fact that there exists a complex relationship between armed groups and the indigenous populations of the region. It is important to examine the nature of this relationship as it could possibly provoke a shift in strategy in addressing the issue of militancy in the region in the long term rather than the approach as we know today that is often focused on offering pecuniary incentives to militants or prolonging negotiations with them while the issues they claim to address on behalf of the region festers.

On close examination of this complex relationship, we discover what David Kilcullen in his book ‘Out of the Mountains’ describes as the theory of competitive control. Kilcullen describes techniques which armed groups utilize to attract populations and then lock them into a network of incentives to prevent them from escaping. He went further to state that these techniques apply a range of incentives and disincentives across a wide spectrum, ranging from persuasion through administration to coercion, and are designed by armed actors as means to control, corral, manipulate and mobilize populations to their causes. What he is in essence saying is that in situations of irregular warfare such as what we have in the Niger Delta, armed groups employ a series of techniques with the objective of controlling, manipulating or mobilizing populations to identify with their agenda. These techniques may be coercive, normative, administrative or persuasive. He further explained this by describing how Hezbollah in Lebanon adopted a post-war role in reconstruction and repair of massive urban damage perpetrated by the Israeli bombing of Lebanon in 2006 as means of consolidating their political position within Lebanon.

The Learned Professor of Sociology, Sudhir Venkatesh, in his book, “Gang Leader for a Day,” corroborated this theory in describing the relationship between armed gangs in Chicago’s south side and the communities in which they operate. He explained how the gangs utilized a combination of philanthropy, coercion and the ability to mediate and settle disputes amongst the inhabitants in its neighborhood to continually control and manipulate them and keep them subjective to their authority as overlords. He went further to describe how the local gangs utilized funds made from illicit deals and the drug trade to provide welfare to starving families, how they used their connections to place unemployed residents in jobs and how they organized social programmes for out-of-school kids. The outcome was that the gangs became entrenched deeply into the communities and carried out their illegal activities of drug dealing, extortion and money laundering without fear of exposure by the residents in those communities.

Armed militants in the Niger Delta have adopted these techniques to maximum effectiveness by seeking to legitimize their actions in the eyes of the people. Taking a look at the socio-economic situation in the region described above, residents of the region, particularly in the coastal communities where militant activities are rife, experience neglect and deprivation evidenced by lack of infrastructure. This includes decrepit school buildings and health centres which often times are not operational because teachers and doctors do not want to go to those places; polluted environments with virtually no government presence. In a lot of cases poverty is widespread in the area, with a teeming youth population that is either out of school or unemployed or both. There is a great sense of frustration at the almost total abandonment by successive Federal and State Governments in spite of the huge monetary allocations that go into the states and the huge revenues that accrue to the Federal Government from the oil drilled from their backyard. I have seen communities whose backyards are immediately abutting huge surface pipelines even to the extent that kids play on them and communities utilize them for everyday chores such as drying clothes or food stuffs. Of course, in these kind of situations, it is no telling the kind of damage that can be felt when a leakage occurs from these pipelines. Countless times, communities have borne the consequences of tampered pipelines without compensation for their sufferings, resulting in mounting frustration and despair against the government. Armed groups tap into these frustrations frequently by projecting themselves as freedom fighters, supposedly risking their lives and limbs to press home their agitations for the people to have a better life. Consequently, the people see the agitations of the armed groups as an expression of their internal frustrations and yearnings to hold accountable successive governments that has failed to live up its responsibilities. Of course, sometimes, they also utilize fear as a tool as well to keep the people submissive. For instance, the threat of swift repercussion though often unspoken hangs over communities or persons considered as traitors to the cause. More so, armed groups have taken up responsibility in a lot of cases to provide welfare to a people weighed down continuously by the burden of living in a paradox. Militant leaders have been known to utilize proceeds from oil bunkering activities to provide scholarships to students, build health centres and schools and have been even involved in the settlement of disputes and in the dispensation of Justice. By doing this they have projected themselves as a parallel government that not only understands the sufferings of the people but does something about them. The outcome is that the people are unwilling to disrupt this predictable state of affairs by ratting out the activities and location of the militant groups to the military, an institution and representative of a government that has neglected them continuously.

The Federal Government’s response to the issue of militancy has always been to deploy more soldiers to the region to restore calm. Whether it is operation ‘Delta Safe’ or ‘Crocodile Smile’, these deployments of troops have often resulted in heightened insecurity in the region; young men are harassed and arrested at random, communities are raided and in some cases bombed. And herein lies the problem; what is usually meant to be an operation to restore order takes the form of an occupation or invasion by a force that the people consider alien to them. What the government doesn’t realize is that these activities erode further the trust deficit between itself and the people.

To address sustainably the issue of militancy in the region, the government needs to reestablish its authority. What is meant here isn’t the deployment of extra force, rather, it is a call to dethrone the parallel order or shadow government system that has been established in its absence by filling the vacuum and rising to its responsibilities. This should include the provision of basic amenities, welfare, education, health facilities etc. The government needs to put a knife to the string that has (in the words of Chinua Achebe) held the communities in the region and their militant leaders together in a marriage of convenience by simply showing up, not just during elections but visibly planting its footprints all over the region in form of infrastructure, effective policing, in the administration of justice and in governance. As David Kilcullen stated: “The way to wrest control from the hold of purveyors of irregular warfare is to provide an alternative competing system of control from which the members of the community can choose based on the strength of its incentives and the attractiveness of its offerings”. With billions accruing in revenues and an apparatus that can be deployed to govern effectively and raise the living standards of the people, the government has a stated advantage and should use it to full effect. Only then can they delegitimize the agitations of the militant groups in the eyes of the people of the region and only then can the issues that drive militancy be addressed sustainably.