The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) arrived at the very center of Nigeria’s turbulent politics when two bombs exploded in a public square in Abuja, the nation’s capital, on October 1. The explosions killed 13 people outright and marred the lavish celebrations President Goodluck Jonathan had put on that afternoon to mark Nigeria’s independence golden jubilee.
In the weeks since the bombings, supporters of President Jonathan and his various antagonists, including former military dictator Ibrahim Babangida, have traded accusations about who was really behind the attacks. Though MEND has claimed responsibility, the crisis unleashed by the bombings has given rivals an irresistible opportunity to tar their adversaries with the taint of complicity. But no matter which faction secures political advantage from the current turmoil, the bombings and the still ongoing verbal swordplay have a deeper history, predating independence.
Archeology of a Crisis
In 1958, two years before Nigeria achieved self-rule, leaders of the ethnic minority groups in the Niger Delta region, along with their counterparts in other parts of the country, told a commission established by the departing British that they wanted states of their own separate from the three existing regions. The northern, eastern and western regions were dominated by the Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba respectively.
The Willink Commission concurred with the minority leaders that their peoples would be marginalized by the three larger groups. But independence for the smaller groups was denied, on the grounds that the proposed new states would not be economically viable. Nigeria became independent two years later with a federal constitution loosely holding together these three powerful regions. Revenue allocation was based on a derivation principle, allowing each region to keep 50 percent of revenue it generated and giving the remainder to the central government.
Two bloody coups in 1966 and the collapse of the First Republic in their wake led to a civil war between the central government and the seceding Eastern region, now calling itself the Republic of Biafra. The central government created new states for ethnic minority groups in the country, including those in the Niger Delta in a desperate attempt to loosen the Igbo grip on the eastern minority groups, divide Biafra, and win the war. This strategy succeeded.
But the peoples of the Niger Delta were not allowed to enjoy their new-found freedom when the war ended in January 1970. Oil, which had been struck in commercial quantities in the region in the mid 1950s, had shortly before the civil war broke out in July 1967 become an important contributor to the central exchequer. Yakubu Gowon, the military head of state, enacted a "petroleum edict" in 1969, a few months before the war ended, bringing the delta oil fields under direct central government control. The 50 percent share of oil royalties and taxes that could have gone to the new Niger Delta states had the independence revenue allocation formula been retained thus went directly to the Federal Government in Lagos.
In 1973 the federal government followed this oil-grab with a land-grab policy, passing the Land Use Decree that took over ownership of all land in the country. This law effectively reduced the inhabitants of the delta to squatters on their oil-rich land, making it difficult for them to sue the central government and the oil companies whose activities had led to massive destruction of their fishing streams and farm lands. Successive governments, military and civilian, progressively reduced the oil-derived revenue share of the delta states until it reached a derisory one percent in the 1980s.
The oil-induced prosperity of the 1970s turned to economic collapse at this time, triggering high levels of unemployment and deepening poverty nationwide. Calls for the armed forces, now widely recognized as a corrupting influence, to return the country to democratic rule were met with brutal repression. In 1990, Ken Saro-Wiwa, a writer and minority rights advocate established the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). The Ogoni are one of the smaller ethnic groups in the delta region.
MOSOP published the Ogoni Bill of Rights, demanding that the Federal Government return to the independence constitution (of 1960) and cede 50 percent of all revenue to regions where such revenue was derived. The organization also called for political restructuring of the country on the basis of local autonomy and equal representation for all ethnic groups in important central government institutions. Thus was born the slogan “resource control and true federalism” in the Niger Delta. The military junta hanged Ken Saro-Wiwa after a show trial in November 1995. MOSOP was also smashed. Local and international rights groups accused Royal Dutch Shell, the dominant oil company in the delta, of backing the junta’s persecution of the Ogoni and their murdered leader.
But the genie had already left the bottle. Restive youth in other parts of the impoverished region took up Ken Saro-Wiwa’s fight and began to stage street protests in open defiance of the central government. Members of the newly formed Ijaw Youth Council, drawn from the Ijaw, the largest ethnic group in the delta, coordinated targeted shut-ins of facilities of the oil companies. The potent language of social and environmental justice quickly spread in the creeks and increasingly gained international support.
The generals quit in 1999 but not before handing over power to civilian allies in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), a right of center political party they had carefully nurtured into being. PDP politicians in the delta region increasingly relied on thugs to rig elections and overawe rivals. Unemployed youth unable to find a berth in the new lucrative economy of violent politics turned their energies to oil theft (‘bunkering’ in local parlance) and sundry criminal activities.
MEND emerged in January 2006 in the midst of this turbulence, an amalgam of the civic and criminal elements that are still struggling for dominance in the region. MEND’s shadowy leadership combines civic and libertarian rhetoric with echoes of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s call for “true federalism and resource control.” But its members are not above indulging in such criminal acts as kidnapping oil company workers for ransom and bank robbery to fund their operations.
The group has attacked oil installations with explosives and killed Nigerian soldiers deployed to the region to suppress the insurgency. Soldiers routinely retaliate by ransacking villages and creek settlements suspected to be sympathetic to MEND and summarily executing any youth they find. At the height of their activities in mid 2008, MEND forces attacked and disabled a Shell-operated offshore oil platform, shutting down 10 percent of Nigeria’s oil production.
A desperate Federal Government sued for peace and initiated talks to set free Henry Okah, an alleged MEND leader whom that it had extradited from Angola in September 2007. In September 2008 the Federal Government established a new Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs to coordinate development initiatives in the increasingly restive region. In June 2009 the government announced a general amnesty for armed ‘militants’ in the delta on condition that they handed in their weapons. Several thousand youth embraced the deal in return for a monthly stipend. MEND leaders rejected the amnesty offer and vowed to continue fighting ‘until we win total freedom for our people.’
Before the bombs exploded in Abuja two weeks ago the new government of President Goodluck Jonathan had touted the amnesty deal and the relative peace that had returned to the delta as a major policy success. In the wake of the carnage, it is now clear that the amnesty plan has unraveled.
The Roots of Failure
Policy interventions enacted by successive administrations have not yielded the desired fruit because they address the symptoms and not the root causes of the Niger Delta crisis. The long years of military dictatorship and a PDP government relying on violence and fraudulent elections to retain power since 1999 has left a profound authoritarian mark on social and economic institutions in the region. Social capital has been depleted. Civic and democratic spaces necessary for effective local governance to thrive and for entrepreneurs able to diversify the local economy beyond petroleum to prosper have atrophied. Government at all levels is neither transparent nor held accountable by countervailing power. The glittering oil prize belongs to men of violence.
It is for these reasons that the bombs exploded in Abuja, where Nigeria’s men of power gather at the end of every month to share the oil booty. And the bombs will continue to go off until a way is found to remove politics in the Niger Delta and indeed nationwide from its authoritarian moorings and transform it into an enterprise of public reasoning where all, weak and powerful, can participate and freely debate alternative options.