• Monday, June 24, 2024
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BusinessDay

Destination Zero

Pipeline-vandals

At exactly 1:32am on January 30 2016, an unknown individual pushed the enter bottom of a computer, launching 16 words onto Twitter and giving birth to the fastest growing, yet mystic online group in Nigeria.

“The Niger Delta region of Nigeria is one place the world leaders have to look into,” the innocuous words read.

In the five months that followed, 403 other tweets were posted to that Twitter account and its followership quadrupled.

The group’s popularity on Twitter particularly soared after February 15. At 3:25am on that day, the Niger Delta Avengers, as the group that has the twitter account calls itself, tweeted its first notification of mayhem.

“A major export line in the country operated by SPDC was blown two nights ago and no one is talking about it anywhere,” it said.

That tweet served as a catalyst to balloon its followership. “Let us know if you need more hands,” one of its followers tweeted in the second week of February, “we the Urhobos want to be carried along this time around.”

By the second week of February, the group’s followership stood at 3,255, but by June 21, it had grown in excess of 32,000.

In the last six months, the Niger Delta Avengers have carried out at least 15 attacks on facilities belonging to the NNPC, Shell, Chevron, Agip, among others. It has adopted as its mission an endeavour to “reduce Nigeria’s crude oil production to zero.”

In what was perhaps its most brazen attack, it hit an underwater pipeline, thus, interrupting oil flows and forced the shutdown of a 250,000 barrel-a-day export terminal. In the first weekend of July amid rumours that the group had reached a truce with government, it carried out five bombing in a period of two days.

In order to achieve its sworn objective, the group has cautioned government and oil companies against mending destroyed pipelines. And that has cost the country a lot of sleep, and at some point, Nigeria was losing an estimated $ 1.152 billion monthly.

On Twitter, the bulk of those sympathetic to the Avengers are Biafra agitators, others are drawn from the south south. They are somehow convinced that their region is not getting a fair share of its wealth. But this line of thinking is a recurring decimal in Nigeria’s history and dates back to 48 years ago.

The first militant

On February 23 1966, an undergraduate student of Chemistry and student union president at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, left school to lead a protest.

He believed that the exploitation of oil and gas resources in Nigeria’s Niger Delta was at the expense of his people- the Ijaws. His name was Isaac Adaka Boro.

Boro formed the Ijaw Volunteer Force- an armed militia- with members consisting mainly of his fellow Ijaw ethnic group. But his struggle was soon put down by the government having achieved almost nothing.

In the 30 years that followed, Boro’s rebellion inspired several groups who have raised their objection to the exploitation of the “resources of the Niger Delta people” and the massive pollution and joblessness oil exploration has engendered in the region.

Previous militant groups including the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPF), Niger Delta Vigilante (NDV), and the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), which drew inspiration from Boro, negotiated a landmark amnesty deal in government in 2009.

The amnesty deal, along with other previous moves to pacify militants, led to the establishment of the Niger Delta Development Commission (in 2000), the Ministry of the Niger Delta (in 2009), and the 13 percent derivation which accrues to oil bearing states.

But apart from paying previous agitators’ stipends to keep the oil flowing, not much was done to address the unemployment, poverty and lack of infrastructure that characterises the Niger Delta. Before now, the Federal Government was yet to pay five months arrears of salaries paid to ex-militants. Also, the amounts payable to militants was cut by two-third.

It is under the guise that it intends to force Federal Government to right these wrongs and bring meaningful development to the Niger region that the Avengers now operate; even though its activities further compound the environmental catastrophe that has befallen the region. But apart from this, the group has made some demands.

Blank verses under a big sky

The Niger Delta Avengers have made a number of requests as conditions for a truce, but most of the requests are contradictory.

They demand total suspension of crude oil production and export, while also clamouring for a 60 percent of oil wealth to be given to oil-bearing states.

It is not exactly clear if the militants want the states, which host oil wells to control 60 percent of the wealth, or if it is the communities who should get that percentage.

Apart from this, the militants have said the south south should be extricated from Nigeria to become soverign state-the Niger Delta Republic. But in another breath, they have called on government to implement the outcome of a 2014 National Conference that will see Nigeria return to the model of federalism it practiced in the 1960s.

In reality, the government has not been totally adamant to these requests. “If they have a reasonable proposal, there is no reason why the Federal Government should not negotiate,” constitutional lawyer and chairman, Presidential Advisory Committee against Corruption, Itse Sagay, said in an interview with a local newspaper in the last week of June.

“But these are constitutional issues which could be negotiated,” Sagay said. “After such negotiation, the matter has to be brought to the appropriate institution, which will look at them and make amendments,” he added.

But with its demands remaining vague while its ambition at destruction remains clear, the activities of the Avengers has had deep implications for Nigeria’s finances as well as the country’s ability to generate electricity.

On the part of government, it has become more difficult to negotiate since, apart from the Avengers, there are now about 14 other militant groups carrying out different shades of agitations.

Echoes of a botched negotiation

Three times in June, the government or its sources have said that they are in talks with the Avengers.

“The minister was eager to ensure that Niger Delta Avengers allow the oil companies to repair the damaged pipelines and begged us to talk to them, as if we (leaders) are part of the militants,” a stakeholder, who attended a closed-door meeting with Ibe Kachikwu, Nigeria’s junior petroleum resources minister, at Asaba, said, on June 15.

“Well, we saw his predicament and it was in the communiqué that the militant groups should allow the oil companies to effect repairs of damaged oil and gas facilities because that is the major problem at the moment,” he added.

Six days later on June 21, a government source told reporters that a one-month truce had been reached with the Militants, but in a swift reaction, the Avengers tweeted, “The NDA High Command never remembered having any agreement on ceasefire with the Nigeria Government.”

The prospect of lasting peace remains vague, even as dialogue has been posited as the only way out of the conundrum. Assessing the resurgence of militancy in the Delta region and options open to the president, Victoria Ekhomu, a security analyst and managing director of Transworld Security Systems, in a chat with BusinessDay, says it will not be wise to go after the militants with force at this point, considering the fact that force has not worked with them historically.

Local problem, global repercussions

On Tuesday June 7, Ibe Kachikwu said that Nigeria’s crude oil output had dropped to below 1.3 million barrels per day from 2.2 million barrels per day at the start of the year.

An OPEC member- Nigeria was Africa’s top oil producer- until the recent spate of attacks pushed it behind Angola. Apart from having a debilitating impact on governments’ budget and cost of energy in Nigeria, the hail of destruction in the country’s oil sector has helped push up global oil prices.

But the major impact of this new wave of militancy will rest with those communities whose sources of water and farmlands are polluted when militants contend with government.

OBODO EJIRO