Sunday, September 4, 2011

Nigeria: Niger Delta Militants' Threats Lack Credibility in the Near Term

1 September 2011
Over the past three months, statements allegedly made by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, a Nigerian militant group, have threatened both the government of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and the country’s oil infrastructure on multiple occasions. For now, the threats are not credible; the group’s former leaders enjoy the perks of the government’s amnesty program far too much to resume militant operations. However, the situation could change before 2015, when the country holds presidential elections, and the threats could very well become attacks.

Once a month for the past three months, someone using the name of Jomo Gbomo, the pseudonym for the spokesman of Nigerian militant group Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), has issued threats saying MEND would resume its militant activities. On June 7, the group said it would target investments owned by Italian energy group ENI, and on July 14 it issued veiled threats against the government of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan. MEND’s most recent threat came Aug. 12, when the group vowed to attack facilities operated by Royal Dutch/Shell.

The Nigerian government in theory needs to take these threats seriously. Even though the Jonathan administration claims it will not seek the presidency at the end of its four-year term in 2015, it understands that any disruption in the country’s oil production would threaten the financial opportunities the industry affords the ruling regime. However, MEND has not followed through on the threats, and the field commanders who once conducted MEND operations have no incentive to do so at the moment. But that will likely change in two years, when a leader from the next Nigerian region assumes the presidency. At that point, MEND’s threats will become far more credible.

A Lack of Incentive

If MEND has little reason to make good on threats right now, it is a reflection of the job the Nigerian government has done reining in militancy in the Niger Delta. In 2009, Abuja instituted an amnesty program in which it offered substantial financial incentives, such as multibillion-dollar public works projects, to former MEND leaders who agreed to lay down their weapons. The administration also promised job training and monthly subsidies for MEND foot soldiers. Government Tompolo, Ebikabowei Victor Ben (aka General Boyloaf) and Farah Dagogo have all taken advantage of this program and live relatively luxurious lives in the capital. Simply put, they have no reason to resume militant activity. MEND chief Henry Okah, recently indicted on five terrorism-related charges, could try to persuade individual supporters to issue threats under the pseudonym Jomo Gbomo. But Okah, sequestered in South Africa pending trial in January 2012, lacks the ability to fully mobilize the remaining MEND field commanders who have not bought into the government’s amnesty program. In fact, Okah has been in custody for close to a year, during which time he has said virtually nothing about his involvement in MEND or MEND operations. This suggests that he fears for his life or his family, or that he has a possible deal with the Nigerian government.

Okah has spoken of younger MEND leaders taking over the ranks of lieutenants, but such talk has gone on for two years now without producing results. There have also been instances of midlevel MEND officials breaking off from the group to conduct their own operations, in outfits such as the National Delta Liberation Front, but they have so far been unsuccessful. At present, there is no group capable of launching significant attacks on the government.

Credible Future Threats

Abuja, currently preoccupied with Islamist militant group Boko Haram, has every reason to ensure threats by groups such as MEND are not acted upon. Those with political power in Nigeria enjoy a degree of control over the country’s lucrative oil industry, which is why they are loath to surrender their authority. The connection between political power and access to the oil industry spurred Nigeria to institute the presidential zoning agreement as a means to distribute power and patronage around the country and keep its 150 million people and 250 ethnic groups united in a single entity. It was also meant to keep internal divisions and tribal conflicts from boiling over — a way of preventing a single interest group or ethnic group from commandeering all power and patronage. Jonathan is from Bayelsa state in the Niger Delta and, as such, has comparatively more influence over militants in the region than politicians from other regions. He will likely exert that influence to ensure he and his elite reap the benefits of the oil industry so long as he remains in power and to ensure that profitable networks created during his regime will remain in place after the 2015 elections.

So while there is evidence to suggest militancy in the Niger Delta will lay dormant in the short term, the situation could change in two years, when Nigeria begins gearing up for another presidential election. Information obtained by STRATFOR indicates Jonathan will step down at the end of his four-year term, in accordance with the presidential zoning agreement. But Jonathan does not always behave as he says he will — after all, he said would not seek the presidency in the 2011 elections. It is possible that before the 2015 elections, he or others in positions of authority will seek to retain power. Jonathan’s election already set a precedent by disrupting the rotation of the zoning agreement. The South-East Zone already lays claim to the 2015 presidency, and the northern zones likely believe they are owed a new four-year term to finish out that of former President Umaru Yaradua, who died in 2009, paving the way for Jonathan to become president.

MEND could use the resultant disunity as an opportunity to independently increase its militant activity, for instance engaging in tactics such as bunkering, which it has used before. But it is also possible that officials in the Jonathan administration who hail from the Niger Delta region could exercise their influence over MEND, using the group as leverage to exact concessions from whomever takes power after they leave. An extreme scenario could see such officials, in a bid to retain power, use the group to hold the delta’s oil infrastructure hostage. The South-East elite, who also control significant sections of the oil industry, could retaliate and begin a militant campaign of their own, resulting in two oil-producing regions conducting militant attacks on each other.

If MEND’s threat-issuing trend holds, we can expect another statement in the next few weeks — perhaps as early as the first week of September. For now, the threats lack credibility. But in two years, those threats could become a reality.

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