The deployment of additional troops to Nigeria’s restive, oil-soaked delta has managed to improve security, but not even their commanders believe there can be a military solution to the armed young men in the creeks, willing to back their demands for a greater share of the wealth their region produces by attacking oil facilities and the soldiers guarding them.
Fighters of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), one of several militant groups operating in the southern region, blew up two major oil pipelines owned by Shell at the end of July, but the Nigerian military has pledged to use minimum force in restoring order, to create conditions conducive to a political settlement.
Critics say the problem is that despite the government’s public commitment to resolving the crisis, there has been little progress in tackling the deep-seated poverty and neglect, unanimously regarded as the only way forward.
The alternative is the chaos of August 2007 in Port Harcourt, capital of Rivers State and the headquarters of the oil and gas industry in the delta. Politicians had armed out-of-work young men, who used the guns in kidnappings and turf wars, killing over 100 people in Port Harcourt before the deployment of a security forces Joint Task Force (JTF) managed to put a lid on the chaos.
“One can say there is peace in Port Harcourt, but are the conditions that gave rise to the gangsterism and killings resolved? The answer is ‘No’,” commented journalist Akanimo Sampson. “What you have seen [the insurgency] is a political device by the youths to draw the attention of the authorities to the unsettled issues in the oil and gas-producing regions of Nigeria.”
Many in the core four southern states of the delta say the time for talking is over. They want a settlement based on the 2005 findings of a committee chaired by Lt-Gen Alexander Ogomudia, which called for the federal government to spend 50 percent of the revenue derived from the delta in the region, and for laws dispossessing people of their land to be repealed.
They also demand the freeing of militant leader Henry Orkah, transparency in federal government funding of the Niger Delta Development Commission, job opportunities, and implementation of President Umaru Yar’Adua’s election promise of a Marshall Plan for the area.
But civil society activist Isaac Osuaka sees the crisis at a much more fundamental level. He argues that until a deeply corrupt political system, which denies real democracy and licenses wholesale looting of resources, can be reformed, the instability will continue.
“If communities could directly elect their political representatives [without rigging] you would automatically disarm the militants,” until then, “We will have moments of quiet and moments of disturbance.”
Dr C. Okeh, who chairs the State Action Committee on HIV/AIDS (SACA), worries that the unrest will undo the work his committee and non-governmental partners are doing in the region. At the very least, “A crisis situation means that you don’t have time to listen to [AIDS] messages – you’re thinking of your immediate survival,” he said