Almost exactly a year ago (July 8, 2008) I wrote an article
predicting that if a solution to the Niger Delta crisis was not quickly found,
the militants would extend “their operations to non-riverine areas and major
population centres like Lagos and Abuja.”
Atlas Cove – The Turning Point
Sadly, last week my prediction came true as MEND attacked the Atlas Cove jetty
in Lagos, killing up to ten people. MEND had previously restricted its
activities to the Niger Delta. However the Lagos attack – in Nigeria’s most
populous and cosmopolitan city has brought the reality of the Niger Delta crisis
home to Nigerians of many shades. With its multi-ethnic character and residents
with origins from every far flung corner of Nigeria, Lagos is a microcosm of
Nigeria. Since most Nigerians have a friend or relative in Lagos, it has shaken
Nigerians out of their complacency.
While sympathising with the grievances of the militants, most non-Delta
Nigerians have been ambivalent about the situation, and regarded it as something
“going on down there” in the Delta. Many Nigerians regard the Delta as someone
else’s problem. Nigerians may now finally realise that wherever they live, the
Niger Delta is their problem too.
Where Did Your City Come From?
A few statistics illustrate the inequity of the Nigerian oil industry: only 9 of
Nigeria’s 36 states produce oil, and that 75% of Nigeria’s oil, and 50% of its
earnings, come from only 3 of the 36 states (Bayelsa, Delta and Rivers).
Whether you live in Lagos, Kano, Enugu, Kaduna, Abuja, Ibadan, Jos or Kano, the
oil and money from the Delta was, and continues to be used to build your city,
the roads you walk and drive on, the schools and universities you and your
family attend, and your hospital. It might even pay your salary too if you work
for the government.
Modern Nigeria has been built on the blood, suffering and tears of the Delta.
Nigeria moved its capital city several hundred miles from Lagos to Abuja and
constructed a new modern capital city out of the bush, because it could finance
it using Delta oil money. While you might live in a modern city, the people who
live in the places where the oil comes from, live with polluted water supplies,
dead crops, oil spills that will take centuries to clear, and poisonous gas in
The Evolution of the Struggle
MEND’s tactics have evolved and become increasingly violent. They started with
kidnapping oil workers, then graduated to attacking oil installations in the
Delta, and now to a spectacular attack in a far away city. What is the next
This is a critical juncture for both MEND and Nigerians. MEND has succeeded in
bringing the Delta’s grievances to the world’s attention and has made it a major
political issue within Nigeria. However, MEND has not succeeded at educating the
Nigerian public about their demands.
A Turning Point
Although MEND succeeded in demonstrating its prowess and ability to attack
targets far outside the Delta, the Atlas Cove attack may have been a political
miscalculation. Public reaction to the attack has been unusually harsh and
combative. Continued attacks in major cities may turn the public against MEND
and make it difficult for the government to make concessions. Whether they
realise it or not, the Nigerian public are their best friends. Only by winning
the public’s sympathy can the militants form a groundswell of public opinion
sufficient to pressurise the government into finding a drastic solution.
Which Way Next?
The Niger Delta militants are not one organisation operating under a common
leadership with unified ideology. There is no central chain of command or a
clearly defined political ideal. Rather the militants are a loose eclectic mix
of several aggrieved armed factions like MEND and the Niger Delta People’s
Volunteer Force. The multi-headed militant hydra is not easy for the public to
Their shadowy nature is an asset and a hindrance. While their mystique makes
their detection and suppression difficult for the Nigerian security forces, it
also makes them faceless and has prevented them from making political progress.
Violence is the Means, Not the End
The militants must understand that violence is the means, not the end. If they
rely on violence alone, they will provoke the federal government into a massive
military crackdown. The government can sustain a low intensity conflict for
several years without an existential threat to Nigeria or its control over the
oil industry. The Delta violence even benefits the government in a financially
perverse way. Attacks on oil installations disrupt the global oil market and
increases prices. Higher oil prices equals more money for the federal
The militants cannot succeed through violence alone and at some point will have
to engage the federal government in serious negotiations. Violence was used by
the ANC, IRA and PLO to bring their opponents to the negotiating table. One day,
the militants must make the transition from resistance movement to political
organisation. If that day comes, can they negotiate?
The militants require a political wing and a skilled orator to articulate their
struggle. The ANC had Nelson Mandela, the IRA had Gerry Adams, the PLO had
Yasser Arafat. Who is their interlocutor?
If the militants rely on violence alone, we may end up with another Saro-Wiwa or
Adaka Boro outcome…..