by Rebecca Golden-Timsar, Associate Director, Graduate Certificate in Global Energy, Development & Sustainability (GEDS), University of Houston
Hoping to quell a violent insurgency aimed at the Nigerian government and the oil industry in the Niger Delta, the Nigerian presidency implemented an unconditional amnesty in 2009, offering a clean slate to militants whose demands for resource control, environmental justice and sustainable socioeconomic development had resulted in massive regional disruption.
I have been conducting research in the Niger Delta for the past 20 years, and my latest trip there in early 2018 found ample evidence that the amnesty hasn’t worked as planned. The negotiated amnesty and resulting fragile peace are primed for collapse, while crime and oil theft remain serious problems.
Then-President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua introduced the Presidential Amnesty Program, (PAP) or the Niger Delta Amnesty Program (NDAP), as a disarmament, demobilization and reintegration program to answer to the increasing violence throughout the prior decade, which intensified after Ogoni environmental rights’ activist Ken Saro Wiwa was executed by a military tribunal in 1995.
The amnesty was originally designed to last only five years, but it remains in effect.
In the 18 months leading up to the 2009 amnesty deal, world crude oil prices topped $145 per barrel while the insurgency compromised Nigeria’s production capacity by 900,000 barrels per day (about 30% in 2007), which dramatically impacted the national treasury. Although the amnesty precipitated a cessation of hostilities against the federal government and the oil industry, the results are fraught with the makings of new violence.
Approximately 30,000 people in the Niger Delta enrolled in the PAP as ex-militants. However, only 2,700 weapons were surrendered. Some militants, fearing the program and its potential repercussions, abstained from participating. I found three potentially explosive problems with the amnesty as it relates directly to reintegration of ex-combatants: reinforcement of militant hierarchies and commodification of violence; substitution of militancy for criminality and ongoing communal tensions; and professionalization of illegal oil lifting of Nigeria’s current production.
Reinforcement of militant structures and organizations
Under the agreement, former combatants were promised monthly stipends and job training. But the payment system is hampered with challenges. The extended duration of the payments – almost 10 years – and the methods by which they are distributed reinforce militant hierarchies rather than dismantling them and helping to reintegrate the former militants into society. At the outset, the federal government of Nigeria reportedly made lump sum payments to ex-commanders, who were charged with distributing the cash to their ex-combatants. This system was challenged in 2015 by mid-level commanders claiming corruption in the payment system and in the granting of large pipeline security contracts to top commanders, with little trickle-down effect.
A new system was devised to directly deposit the payments to the former combatants’ bank accounts. But this was also challenged by the ex-militants, who accused commanders and the banks charged with the distribution of collusion and shortchanging payments. The lump sum cash payment system was resumed in 2017.
This is problematic on several levels. First, paying ex-commanders directly maintains fighting organizations and power structures. The continued amnesty payments reinforce patronage networks. They also create vehicles for political power and political violence for the 2019 presidential elections.
Finally, the stipends have morphed into a cash-for-peace system that is not sustainable, turning violence into a commodity.
Exchanging militancy for criminal behavior and community tensions
The top-down cash distribution creates and re-creates potential rivalries through discretionary and often opaque cash disbursements. By bolstering ex-commanders’ control, the former fighting organizations are re-created and able to leverage their power over the government.
This has resulted in fresh threats and eventual attacks on the military, oil installations and hostage taking, with direct consequences on oil production at a time when lower oil prices have already affected Nigerian coffers.
When stipends were not paid for several months in 2016, ex-combatants quickly slipped into old patterns of resistance as ‘new’ groups that emerged. The Niger Delta Avengers, Red Scorpions and the Niger Delta Greenland Justice Movement all rose in 2016, attacking the Forcados pipeline installations in the western Niger Delta, causing national production to plummet to a 30-year low at 1.1 million barrels per day. After payments in arrears were made, these groups fell somewhat silent again.
Further, because of the relatively significant amount of monthly individual stipend, ex-combatants are discouraged from getting a job, which even for professionals, generally pays less than the amnesty stipend of 65,000 Naira per month, equivalent to about $180 in U.S. dollars. An average schoolteacher in Nigeria earns 18,000 Naira, or about $50.
The sizeable stipends, coupled with limited access to and availability of skills training under the amnesty agreement, the lack of fundamental improvements in regional socioeconomic development and increasing small arms circulation, only serve to sustain the fighting frameworks and capabilities to strike. Consequently, concepts of the marginalized warrior identity, fundamental to the protracted violence, are also sustained.
Because there haven’t been sufficient sustained reintegration efforts in the way of training and job creation, there is an increasing perception of criminality in the Niger Delta, and particularly in the oil capital, Port Harcourt. Reports of the kidnapping of prominent locals and their family members abound, as do reports of increased armed robbery. Additionally, former combatants continue to turn to gang (known as cults or campus cult organizations) membership, creating altered if not new layers of communal rivalries as these gangs battle for turf.
Further, the amnesty program’s lack of full participation from some commanders and their militants, along with the limited surrendering of weapons, generates additional communal rivalries and violent clashes, both between and within militant and gang hierarchies.
Illegal oil lifting
Finally, illegal oil lifting (known as bunkering) has been increasingly professionalized and militarized: there are organized underground labor unions for both crude and refined products; there are well-defined levels of investment for buy-in for the lifting and marine transport activities from the pipeline tappers, pumpers and speedboat drivers to offshore tankers, captains and document forgers; there are set payoff calculations for the players including the Nigerian military’s joint task force; and security details for each phase of the operation.
Current bunkering estimates range from 10% to 15%, or a minimum of 200,000 barrels per day (roughly the total production of Trinidad) out of the official production rate of just over 2 million barrels per day in early 2018.
Despite the decreased hostilities ushered in by the amnesty, Niger Deltans report that since the inception of the amnesty, the federal government’s military presence has broadened rather than diminished. They blame the military and the politicians that control it for the majority of the bunkering activities and for generating the conditions for the current reciprocal racketeering.
The outcome of the military presence, the ongoing militant hierarchies and poverty serve to maintain a social disorder and a security economy-potent ingredients for petrol violence anew.