Is Militancy Returning to the Niger Delta?

Fighters with the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) raise their rifles to celebrate news of a successful operation by their colleagues against the Nigerian army in the Niger Delta on September 17, 2008. Since then an uneasy peace has been maintained in the region. PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images

During the 2000s, militants in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria decimated the country's oil production and murdered pipeline workers. After several years of relative security, militancy in the region appears to be rearing its head again, according to analysts.

Oil pipelines in the Niger Delta—which comprises nine states in southern Nigeria—were attacked on Friday and over the weekend, shortly after a Nigerian court ordered the arrest of Government Ekpemupolo—known as Tompolo—an ex-militant in the region who has been accused of corruption worth $175 million. Nigerian Power Minister Babatunde Fashola said on Tuesday that the attacks and lost resources were costing the country $2.4 million per day.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari appeared to take a hard line on those responsible for the attacks, whom he called "oil thieves and abductors." Stating on Tuesday that his army had already dealt "deadly blows" to Boko Haram, Buhari said the Niger Delta militants would pose a lesser challenge. "We will re-organize and deal with them," he said. The Nigerian military has also proffered a warning to militants, stating that those guilty of "unpatriotic attacks on the nation's economic lifeline" would "face the full weight of the law."

The attacks hark back to the mid-2000s, when armed militants under the umbrella coalition of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND)—of which Tompolo was a key leader—patrolled the creeks of the region and terrorized oil workers and security forces. The militants, allegedly created in the first place by local politicians as private militias, demanded that residents of the region receive a fairer share of Nigeria's massive oil wealth. At its peak, the militants cut Nigeria's oil production to 800,000 barrels per day, less than a third of the country's maximum capacity of 2.5 million barrels per day.

The Niger Delta is a hub of Nigeria's oil industry, which, according to OPEC, accounts for $77 billion worth of Nigeria's exports—more than 90 percent of the country's total exports. Yet inhabitants of the Delta have seen little benefit from the wealth of natural resources. Poverty is widespread in the region, described in a 2006 report by the United Nations Development Programme as "suffering from administrative neglect, crumbling social infrastructure and services, high unemployment, social deprivation, abject poverty, filth and squalor, and endemic conflict." Oil spills have also destroyed local agricultural communities, with Amnesty International reporting that two multinational oil companies—Royal Dutch Shell and Italian company ENI—admitted to more than 550 spills in the Niger Delta during 2014.

A presidential amnesty program introduced in August 2009 has brought a tentative stability to the region. Some 30,000 former militants receive monthly subsidies of 65,000 naira ($326), as well as access to lucrative government contracts for protecting oil pipelines and other employment opportunities, under the program, which is due to continue until January 2016. According to Sola Tayo, associate fellow on the Africa Program at U.K.-based think tank Chatham House, the amnesty has not provided a lasting solution to the threat of militancy in the region. "The Niger Delta threat has never gone away. What previous presidents have done is stick a plaster over it, and the thing with plasters is that they don't actually help the wounds heal," says Tayo. "What needs to happen really is to have a proper national conversation to deal with some very, very uncomfortable truths and to start to look at recompensing communities."

Though the most recent attacks appeared to coincide with his arrest, Tompolo has distanced himself from orchestrating them. The ex-MEND leader did, however, warn President Buhari that "he [Buhari] should allow the people of the Niger Delta region to know peace, otherwise he will not know peace as well." According to Manji Cheto, Nigeria analyst at political risk consultancy Teneo Intelligence, militant figureheads like Tompolo command widespread support in the Niger Delta. The issuing of an arrest warrant for him on corruption charges, she says, constitutes part of an attempt by the government to taint the image of the popular leader.

With the Boko Haram insurgency rumbling on in the northeast and the Nigerian military recently involved in heavy clashes with Shiites in Zaria, Kaduna state, Nigeria could do without another security threat. Cheto points to the upsurge in secessionist sentiment among supporters of the republic of Biafra, many of whom come from areas in and around the Niger Delta in south and southeast Nigeria. While Cheto does not see a realistic risk of the Biafra movement achieving its goal of independence, she says that the instability it is creating could further destabilize the Niger Delta region. "That sort of incident happening against the backdrop of an already volatile region will definitely compound and exacerbate security problems," says Cheto.