A series of recent attacks highlight the possibility of a resumption of militant activity in the Niger Delta in the aftermath of Nigeria’s 2015 general election. Many militant leaders in the region deeply oppose President-elect Muhammadu Buhari, who they fear will be unwilling to renew the 2009 Presidential Amnesty Programme (PAP) when it expires in October. This is likely to see an upsurge in attacks in the coming months as militants attempt to pressure Buhari into renewing the programme, with the potential for a longer-term insurgency if the new government does not offer significant concessions.
The Niger Delta saw some of the worst violence throughout the electoral period amid widespread opposition to Buhari’s candidacy. The president-elect’s All Progressive Congress claimed that eight of its activists were killed during the gubernatorial election on 11 April, and a further 55 died in Rivers State in the run-up to the presidential election, held on 28 March. There have also been a notable number of attacks against oil and gas infrastructure and personnel, including the bombing of a high pressure gas pipeline at Ighwrenene in Delta State on 3 April. No group claimed responsibility, but the attack came on the same day that a group of Urhobo youths said they had bombed another pipeline in the nearby Ughelli Local Government Area on 22 March. Calling themselves Urhobo Gbagbako, the youths said there would be further such attacks in the Ekiugbo, Ighrenene and Afiesere areas if the government did not award them a pipeline surveillance contract within 14 days. There have also been several kidnappings of oil workers since Buhari’s victory, including five Nigerian ExxonMobil workers abducted from a floating storage vessel off Akwa Ibom state on 1 April. This was followed on 8 April by the abduction of three Nigerian crewmembers from a speedboat operated by Bourbon Offshore.
The violence is indicative of the potential for an upsurge in attacks in the Niger Delta in the coming months. Many militant leaders who laid down their arms in 2009 had previously threatened to resume attacks on oil and gas infrastructure in the event of a Buhari victory. Their opposition to the new president is primarily financially motivated, linked to concerns that he will be unwilling to renew lucrative security contracts awarded under the PAP. Meanwhile, tensions among lower-ranking fighters have been growing for several years amid complaints that they have seen few of the benefits of the amnesty, as their stipends are frequently intercepted by their commanders. This has resulted in many fighters resorting to criminal activity, including oil theft and kidnap for ransom, which has ensured they remain well-armed and organised.
In the days immediately after the election, several militants declared that they planned to resume fighting in opposition to Buhari’s victory. Among the most prominent of these was Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, who declared to the Nigerian media immediately after the vote that he planned to launch a new rebellion. Asari founded and led the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF), one of the largest militant groups during the insurgency, and he remains a major political figure among the Ijaw ethnic group. Nigerian media reports that he has held several secret meetings with other militant groups since the election in an apparent bid to broaden opposition to the new government. The commitment of these groups remains uncertain, with the Ijaw Youth Council and Niger Delta Vigilante (NDV) both distancing themselves from Asari. They have said that they are willing to work with Buhari, although both emphasise that the PAP must remain in place. Notably, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) welcomed Buhari’s election, having grown disaffected with continued corruption under President Jonathan and lack of economic progress of the Delta region during his administration. This support is however fragile and its longevity will be subject to Buhari’s policies with respect to the amnesty and allocation of oil revenues in the region.
Nonetheless, there remains the potential that groups such as the NDPVF will now launch at least a short-term campaign to pressure the government into maintaining the PAP. As in the 2004-2009 insurgency, any future attacks will likely focus on oil and gas infrastructure and kidnappings. This includes the oil hubs of Port Harcourt and Warri, which are among the NDPVF’s principle areas of operation. In rural areas, pipelines are especially vulnerable to attack as smaller, previously unknown groups, such as Urhobo Gbagbako, attempt to secure concessions from the new government.
This presents enormous challenges to Buhari, who is under significant economic pressure to end the PAP, which costs an estimated USD 500 mn per year. Among the principle obstacles to negotiating a settlement will be identifying a single interlocutor to engage with. The decentralised and amorphous nature of the Niger Delta insurgency means any agreements that are reached are unlikely to satisfy all. The president-elect is yet to make his position on the PAP clear, but if he does allow the programme to expire he will have to offer at least some concessions if he is to avoid a renewal of the insurgency. These will include increased financial assistance to the Niger Delta to address environmental degradation and other programmes designed to increase employment and wages in the region. Buhari’s willingness to offer such concessions, the relationship between the president and the People’s Democratic Party – which still governs Rivers and Delta States following the gubernatorial elections – and the extent to which militant leaders engage in negotiations will be key to security in the region. For foreign operators, especially in the oil and gas sector, the developments are crucial and will affect the security of personnel and infrastructure, both in the Delta region and offshore.
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