Between January 2006 and the end of 2010, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta [MEND] waged war against the Nigerian government and foreign oil companies operating in the country. Through the hostage-taking of mainly foreign oil firms’ employees, vandalization of oil installations and facilities, instilling fear and terror via bomb attacks, bitter armed confrontations with the Nigerian Army and police, the group inflicted devastating injuries on both the economy and its security. Between 2006 and 2007 alone, the group held more than 150 expatriates working in the oil sector hostage. Large amounts of money paid to the group’s leaders as ransom by the employers of the hostages for their freedom provided substantial financial income for sustaining the Movement’s campaigns.
About a decade after the execution of Ken Saro-wiwa in 1995, a coalition of militant activists such as the Niger Delta Peoples Volunteer Force, cult groups such as the Klansmen Konfraternity and the Supreme Greenland confraternity, and pockets of ethnic militia primarily from the Ijaw communities floated the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta [MEND]. Notable leaders and spokespersons of the group included Asari Dokubo, Ateke Tom, and Gbomo Jomo. The group’s primary focus comprised the recovery of the control of oil resources in the Niger Delta region, recovery of the originals sources of economic survival of the region’s peoples destroyed through oil pollution, and other injustices perpetrated by multinational oil companies in cooperation with the government. A decade earlier, the government executed Ken Saro-wiwa suggestively to muffle strident opposition to these injustices. The region suffered continuous environmental degradation and accompanying loss of occupational income and revenues from fishing, land cultivation, and other entrepreneurial activities that most of the citizens depended upon for centuries. MEND’s operational coverage cuts across all the states in the region, Rivers, Bayelsa and Delta States remained its heartland.
For several decades since the discovery and exploitation of crude oil in the Niger Delta region, there was apparent insensitivity of multinational oil companies harvesting affluence without allowing the people and communities that naturally own these resources to benefit from it. These communities experienced extreme environmental pollution, which frustrated their natural occupations of fishing and land cultivation. The inalienable consequences include elevated levels of unemployment and poverty. More heartrending was that locals suffered marginalization in securing employment in some of the oil firms operating in the region. Several complaints by communities and outspoken activists from these communities fell on deaf ears of successive military governments that used force to quell those dissenting voices. And because of the apparent fiscal benefits to the national governments and other underhanded income to these rulers, it was in their interest to prevent revolts. It became evident that some form of unwritten collaboration between the government and these oil companies existed to consciously deprive the region of its fair share of the revenue from these natural resources. To add salt to the injury, because Nigeria is an oil-dependent country, the government considered protests against the oil exploration firms by these socioeconomically marginalized communities as economic sabotage and intensified determination to repress it. Consequently, the MEND group became more uncompromising in its decision to stop its people’s impoverishment through the environmental pollutions by oil exploration firms and facilitate the reception of its well-deserved share of the revenue proceeds from these activities in its territories. Its crucial action plan was to expel foreign oil companies through its hostage-taking campaigns and inevitably compel the national government to enhance the local Niger Delta control of the resource through its vandalization of the sector’s installations.
President Yar’Adua’s 2008 fiscal program allocated N69 billion to the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) to develop the Niger Delta region and N444 billion for security in the Niger Delta. This decision by the government was considered a declaration of war by the Movement. With an enhanced military presence in the region, there was a natural escalation of the conflict which resulted in the militia killing about eighteen military officers guarding oil installations. The military responded with an extensive bombardment of the militias camps to Oporoza. The destruction of lives and property in Oporoza was so massive, with claims of about 600 deaths. The group launched a counteroffensive code-named “Hurricane Moses”, which essentially targeted oil installations. It effectively downward-faced Nigeria’s oil output from 2.6 million barrels per day to 1.8 million barrels per day within a month. The federal government consequently realized that it would be the ultimate loser in the game announced an amnesty to militants willing to lay down and reintegrate into society.
Combined with the release of Henry Okah from prison, the Movement declared a cease-fire, albeit criticizing the proposed amnesty program as shallow and not substantially focused on the core issues of the region’s deprivation. Persuasions from influential personalities and top political figures made the Movement accept the amnesty program. The June 2009 amnesty program focused on armed militancy and comprised a disarmament, demobilization and reintegration [DDR] framework. The first phase of the disarmament process resulted in the surrender of approximately 2,800 assorted arms and 207,000 forms of munitions. The second phase comprising the demobilization resulted in the militants’ acceptance of varieties of capacity building programs necessary for their effective reintegration into the society. These included transformational, counselling, career guidance, peacebuilding and conflict resolution and vocational education training. The outcome at this phase was the demobilization of approximately 26,000 ex-militants. The reintegration process saw the government paying roughly $400 to ex-militants while going through vocational education.
While it reigned, the Movement bred terror across the states where it operated. However, its goal and the reason for their activities seemed well cut out. Theirs were to have a reasonable share in the economic resources obtained from their geopolitical zone and stop its people’s impoverishment through environmental pollution. In contrast, the people of Zamfara state, with newly discovered large deposits of gold, appeared to have learned suitable lessons from the minorities of the Niger Delta region. According to its State Governor, local artisanal miners were extracting and refining the gold by themselves and need not accommodate multinational gold mining companies. The state government has consequently supported them by establishing a Gold reserve. The Central Bank of Nigeria also responded by accepting to purchase gold from the state under the Presidential Artisanal Gold-Mining Development Initiate. But these developments have triggered controversies bordering on resource control. The concern was why Zamfara state would enjoy its control of gold deposits found in its jurisdiction while the entire country shares the oil in the Niger Delta. But that is not all; these gold-mining activities appear to fuel the state’s extant intense level of banditry.
As an umbrella group, the Movement’s substantive reality continued to mutate in line with shifts in the constituting militants’ lineup. While not substantially coherent as an entity, the Movement received responsibility for many of the splinter groups’ activities. As early as 2006, about the time it was established, disputes over the sharing formula of the kidnapping bounties resulted in the splitting of territorial controls. There were the Western, Eastern and Central MEND groups. The primary incentive for these splinter groups was the rapidly expanding and lucrative kidnapping business. Nevertheless, some of the groups still focused on the core objective of ensuring that the Niger Delta benefits substantially from its oil resources. The sophisticated armoury of the militia and its violent approach, which effectively marched government soldiers, delivered their ultimate victory.
Is the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta dead? Has the amnesty program successfully contained the restiveness of this group? It probably seemed so except for a few red flags. Before the phasing out of the amnesty program in 2018, the Niger Delta Avengers claimed responsibility for series of bomb attacks on major oil pipelines in Delta and Bayelsa states in 2016. Some analysts consider that the Niger Delta Avengers is a mutation of the Movement. Ordinarily, the Niger Delta Avengers claims to champion the cause of the Biafra people, and the counter-matching repudiation of the group by leading ex-militants of the MEND should have rested the suspicion. However, mid last month, Asari Dokubo, the Niger Delta People Salvation Force leader and one of the coalition groups and well-known spokespersons for the MEND, recently floated a Biafra Customary Government [BCG]. The connection between the MEND, NDA and Biafra can allegedly be established by fitting in Asari Dokubo in the puzzle. It seems like a natural mutation of militancy in the Niger Delta to a broader geographical coverage.
If this suspicion is true, it confirms what is also known to be true: governments’ resolution of the Niger Delta crisis leveraging the amnesty program that focused narrowly on disarming violent groups might not have resolved the problem. Undoubtedly, the amnesty program enabled the region’s stabilization to gather needed momentum for permanently fixing the issues therein. Saddening tales of fraud and the misappropriation of funds meant for the development of the Niger Delta region by the Niger Delta Development Commission staff speaks volumes. Such is appropriate funds only create gaps in the agreed demands that can incentivize the return of militants. Unless the funds for the region’s development are applied as appropriated in the budget, new generations of Niger Delta youth may likely ask why the region remains poor amid so much revenue. Secondly, unequal and unfair standards in resource control by states exploiting high-income yielding minerals can also trigger some militant resistance. The case of Zamfara state and its gold reserves needs reconsideration. Thirdly, the federal government’s handling of banditry and the Fulani herdsmen in the north can provide some incentives for militia in the Niger Delta to return to the creeks. There are two possible reasons for this. The first is related to the federal government’s reluctance to dealing with these groups in line with constitutional justice. The second is the apparent provocation by AK-47 willing pastoralists from the Fulbe tribe, causing mayhem in many forests in many geopolitical zones. Somehow, many Southerners suspect that this alleged provocation might have the backing of the government. In general, the MEND will always beat its chest for being in the centre of the current air of socioeconomic relief in the region.