The historical legacy of military rule and repression of the people has not changed since 1999 and the supposed rise of democracy. There is still a standing army securing the oil infrastructure from the population and protecting the politicians failing to use the resources at their disposal for the good of the people.
The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) controls over 95 per cent of seats at all tiers of government and in the core states of the Delta received in excess of 90 per cent of the eligible vote in 2003 and 2007 elections. This vote is obviously false and was secured by not only rigging the elections but also by empowering local youths with weaponry.
The armed mobilisation of the youth in the run up to the 2003 elections across the Delta States was a significant conflict escalator in the region. Many of the youths now leading the militant groups and agitating for change graduated in the use of violence in conflicts over political office, most significantly the 2003 Warri Crisis, which was fought over the positioning of a local government office. They did not surrender their arms after the 2003 elections and mostly remained active since then. An important lesson was learnt in 2003: a monopoly of firepower is needed to secure the elections. Violence escalated in the run up to the 2007 elections as politicians again mobilized to secure the victory at the polls.
Vast resources are available for politicians who have the political and personal will to deliver significant benefits to the lives of their fellow citizens. If based on bottom-up and locally owned initiatives this could be enough to prevent to the conflict from escalating.
Politics has continued to support patrimonial systems that relay on corruption and the monopoly of violence. This is the single most important issue that must be addressed in the long term if there is ever to be real peace in the Niger Delta. However, this will not be achieved through supporting top down reforms. There must be pressures from below to endorse the willing reforms and challenge those who oppose them.
The historical failure of all stakeholders, predominantly the military state, to deliver even the most basic of developmental needs to a population living on top of one of the world’s largest deposits of oil and gas has created serious resentment and frustrations at all levels of society.
Democracy has also failed to deliver since 1999 and the population has become further disenfranchised. This has created a situation where most citizens, even those who promote peace, can understand why some have turned to violence to bring about change. This has coincided with social disintegration. The communities are less coherent and the social norms respected for centuries have lost their social value. The internal conflicts in communities have been fuelled by the oil companies.
The scrabble for meager hand outs from the oil economy has resulted in an internalisation and localisation of society. This allows politicians and militia leaders to manipulate local mistrust and misunderstanding and thus further reinforce the disenfranchisement of the Niger Delta society. Another worrying dynamic is the increasing fracturing of traditional society hierarchy as the disengaged youth become increasingly restless and challenge these traditional power structures.
The domination of corruption, the illegal economy and short term financial gain at all levels of society is a significant conflict driver in the Niger Delta. The vast wealth and impunity of those at the top and those associated with them through their patronage networks has resulted in a significant polarisation of society. One of the most obvious examples is that whilst much of Rivers state of the Delta continues to lack pipe born water, the previous governor enjoys large amounts of international real estate.
The economy of Nigeria is excessively dependent on oil. It accounts for more than 90 per cent of the revenue of the Nigerian government. The economic stakes are so high in the Niger Delta that unless non oil focused legal alternatives are supported, the conflict for political office and control of the illegal economy, especially oil bunkering, will continue on its accelerating and self-replicating violent path.
The diversification of the economy of the Niger Delta has the potential to be one of the main solutions to the mounting violence in the same way as its lack is one of the main drivers of the conflict. The domination of oil politics has resulted in a disproportional focus of efforts to gain employment / be associated with this industry.
Addressing the basic developmental needs of the population has never been the concern of either military or civilian government while they have grown rich from the resources of the Niger Delta. Frustration and anger over the lack of delivery of basic needs have grown over decades and now are the most serious underlying dynamic of the mounting conflict in the Niger Delta. Successive post-independence governments have failed to use the oil revenues for the benefit of the people. The current violent trends in the Delta to address this deprivation first raised its head in 1967.
The person who led the first revolt against the Nigerian military government in response to the repression of the Delta people was Isaac Adaka Boro. The rebels proclaimed an independent Niger Delta People’s Republic. All oil contracts were declared null and void and Boro ordered oil companies to negotiate directly with his new administration. The government forced the rebels to surrender after only twelve days but the trend to change the situation using violence lingered in the region. However, until the rise of democracy violence remained rare. This has significantly changed in the last years as more sophisticated weapons and increasing number of armed youths are seriously challenging the state’s monopoly of force.
The oil industry has had a significant impact on the environment and lives of the people of the Niger Delta and on the escalation of conflict. Gas flares burn 24 hours a day in many communities as a constant reminder to the people that the oil industries are working with the government and not with the people. The activities of oil industry has significantly damaged the environment of one of the most fertile regions on the world. The impact of significant oil spills across the region since the mid 1960’s has been only that of destroying peoples traditional means of livelihood – fishing and farming.
The reduction in subsistence living is creating more idle youth – the army of dispossessed who own nothing and therefore have nothing to lose: they can easily be manipulated and used for committing acts of violence.
The current conflict in the Niger Delta is driven by a powerful mixture of corruption, underdevelopment, poverty and violence.
Low intensity inter and intra-ethnic conflicts on a local scale have always been part of life in the Niger Delta. However, the vast wealth available to those who control the power structures of the state and the increasing polarisation of society has led to a significant shift in the underlying conflict dynamic.
Oil companies have been accused of increasing this conflict dynamics by favouring host communities over others and making direct payments to the most troublesome elements in society to maintain peace in the short term. The failure by all stakeholders to address the underlying causes of the conflict and to opt for long term solutions has pushed the Niger Delta to the brink of an internationally important conflict.
The peaceful clamour for change and justice to be delivered to the population of the Niger Delta was led throughout the 1990 by the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). Headed by Ken Saro Wiwa, the Ogoni struggle received international attention.
When Ken Saro Wiwa was hanged, on the 10th November 1995, with eight other Ogoni activists, the world responded with collective condemnation.This peaceful action for change continues to date in the Niger Delta but is perceived by many as having not delivered. Therefore violence seems to be a more attractive and acceptable option for many of todays disengaged youth.
The response to this mounting conflict to date has been buying off the leaders of violence at a local and regional level. This approach has failed and will continue to fail because for every individual that is bought off there are 20 others ready to take his place and commit a greater level of violence in order to justify their own pay off. This cannot continue if thousands of lives are not to be lost. It is the identification, research and analysis of these conflict drivers that focuses SDN and her projects to encourage resolution to the systemic issues seen in the Niger Delta. The increasing demand from the Niger Delta communities to achieve greater social, economic and political equality will assist to rebalance the asymmetry of negotiating power and to ensure that the communities within the Niger Delta get a better deal from the investments and operations that affect their lives, livelihoods and environment.