Escalating violence in Niger Delta and Biafra regions represents a major security challenge for the oil-rich south of Nigeria

Since the beginning of the year the steady raise of violence in Nigeria’s southeast demonstrate a new alarming trend for regional security since Goodluck Jonathan, the first president from the Niger Delta regions, lost re-election in March 2015. The latest incidents, in the context of dramatically decreasing oil prices and of the persistent Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast, represent a worrying situation for the Nigerian government. The possible consolidation of forces of pro-Biafra and Niger Delta rebels along with campus cult groups may seriously challenge security and stability of the region in the nearest future.


The months following Buhari’s election as President on March 28, 2015, have been first marked by 2 escalating threats: the reactivation of both pro-Biafra and Niger Delta activists movements. Tensions mounted further following the first governmental appointments, made by the President Muhammadu Buhari’s after coming to power because they were largely considered by population of southern regions as ‘favoritisation of the North’. It should be recalled that Buharai is a Muslim from Katsina State while Nigeria’s previous president, Goodluck Jonathan, is a Christian from the Ijaw ethnic group and the first president coming from the Niger Delta regions which strongly supported him. 


First, the past months have been marked by mass protests by Igbos (Christian tribe representing most of south-eastern population) in Abia, Anambra, Akwa Ibom, Bayesla, Cross River, Ebonyi, Enugu, Rivers and Imo states, resuming old demands for regional autonomy or “self-determination”. Most ethnic Igbos believed that since the end of the civil war in 1970 and prior to the arrival of Goodluck Jonathan at the helm in 2010, Nigeria’s central government deliberately pursued a discriminatory policy aimed at marginalizing them. The arrival of another Muslim president, Buhari, to the presidency, triggered fears that Igbo communities would be as marginalized as they were before Jonathan’s election.

Protests that started in a relatively peaceful way, dramatically radicalized following the arrest and prosecution on October 19 of Nnamdi Kanu, the director of Radio Biafra, an unlicensed radio the Nigerian government accuses of spreading hate and violence. Kanu is actually facing trial for sedition and treason and strongly endorsed violence as an instrument for resuscitating Biafra. Since his arrest, protesters demanding both his release and an independent Biafra have repeatedly clashed with security forces.


The protests were initially driven by members of the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) and the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), the 2 main secessionist movements which fight for independence of Biafra territory from Nigeria. For over a decade, agitation for Biafra’s restoration was mainly championed by the MASSOB, formed in 1999 and led by Ralph Uwazuruike. The group pledged to be non-violent but, over time, its members were numerous times involved in clashes with police, resulting in several killed.


The movement for the independency of Biafra state rooted in the 1967-70 civil war that followed a secessionist attempt by the Igbo people to form the Biafra State. Growing fears of marginalization and exclusion from oil benefits under a predominant Muslim government further fueled tensions in the area. Biafra was finally reintegrated into Nigeria after losing a war in which around one million people died, mostly of starvation and disease due to a federal government blockade. Now, Igbos say they have been marginalized and excluded from key government posts and denied vital funding for infrastructure development, schools and hospitals.


Radio Biafra itself plays an important role in the conflict, allegedly broadcasting highly provocative messages and urging violent struggle to achieve independence of Biafra. Following Buhari’s victory in the March 2015 election, Kanu’s Radio Biafra intensified its propaganda against the new president, his government and northern Nigerians. Kanu has strongly endorsed violence as an instrument for resuscitating Biafra and IPOB is the main group coordinating the recent “free Kanu and restore Biafra” agitation. MASSOB spokesman Uchenna Madu said Kanu’s arrest and detention assisted “immensely in reviving the consciousness and sympathy for Biafra’s actualization”.


Secondly, since Goodluck Jonathan, the first president from the Niger Delta, lost re-election in March 2015, former Niger Delta activists have resumed their grievances for greater resource control and self-determination, while some former rebel leaders started to threaten to resume fighting (“return to the creeks”). The fall of state oil revenues risk to fuel further these moods, contributing to the resurrection of armed insurgency in the region.


Since the end of December 2015, Niger Delta activists and former members of the MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) launched a series of attacks including bombings, sabotages and raids on flow stations, pipelines and oil and gas facilities in general. The attacks targeted indiscriminately the sites owned by the the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) or foreign companies such as Eni and Shell.


To recall, between 2003 and 2009 MEND, comprised of several armed groups, was responsible for most of acts of insurgency in Nigeria’s oil rich Delta region including attacks against oil facilities and kidnappings. At the height of the militancy, rebels reduced Nigeria’s oil production by a quarter.


These recent bombings and attacks on oil and gas facilities in the southern Niger Delta coincided with the issue by a Lagos court of an arrest warrant on January 14 for Government Ekpemupolo, more commonly known as Tompolo, a prominent figurehead of the MEND that besieged the oil-producing country in the mid-2000s, on theft and money laundering charges.


Tempolo’s case is being pursued by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), following President Muhammadu Buhari’s wish to fight against corruption due to the amnesty program. Tempolo reportedly received contracts to provide services to the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) but the agreements were allegedly used as a front to steal money. In any case, the amnesty has been an economic boon for high-profile activists like Tompolo. Meanwhile Tompolo distanced himself from the attacks, adding that he would not have been able to get away with such an attack while under close government scrutiny. He nevertheless warned President Buhari, saying that “he should allow the people of the Niger Delta region to enjoy peace, otherwise he would neither enjoy peace.”


The risks of the resurrection of the armed insurgency in the southern oil-rich regions of Nigeria is not only triggered by the possible cancellation of the governmental amnesty by also by the end of rehabilitation projects for former rebels and the transfer of security contracts from local community groups to security troops.


The amnesty program, whose implementation since 2009, coupled with concessions to former rebel leaders, brought a semblance of peace and enabled oil production to regain pre-insurgency levels. However, the government has largely failed to carry out other recommendations that addressed the insurgency’s root causes, including its marginalisation in national politics, inadequate infrastructure, environmental pollution and local demands for a bigger share of oil revenues, widespread poverty and youth unemployment. These conditions that sparked the insurgency still exist today and could easily trigger a new phase of violent conflict.


The amnesty offer and retraining and the opportunities of reintegration encouraged the insurgent groups to disarm; over 30,000 purported members signed up between October 2009 and May 2011. Since then, the amnesty office has worked to reintegrate them into society, primarily by placing (and sponsoring) them in vocational and higher education courses in Nigeria and abroad. Judged by its primary objective of disarming the insurgents and stabilising the security situation in the Delta, the program has achieved significant results. Kidnappings and armed attacks against expatriates have fallen and improved security has enabled petroleum production and exports to increase from about 700,000 barrels per day (bpd) in mid-2009 to between 2.2 and 2.4 million bpd since 2011.


At its peak in 2009, the insurgency in the Niger Delta was claiming an estimated 1,000 lives a year, had cut Nigeria’s oil output by over 50 per cent and was costing the government close to four billion naira (nearly $19 million) per day in counterinsurgency operations. A resurgence of violence and increased oil-related crimes in the Delta region could seriously undermine national security and economic stability, which is already weighed down by the Boko Haram insurgency and dwindling oil revenues. Tompolo’s acceptance of a presidential amnesty program offered by the Nigerian government in 2009 was described by officials as “highly significant, some would say decisive, in ending the violence at the time.” Adding that the former rebel is still actively supported by his followers in the Niger Delta region.


Taking into account these considerations and the increasingly risky environment in the Niger Delta region, President Buhari finally decided on February 15, 2016, to extend the amnesty program for 2 years, until December 2017.


Despite undoubtful positive effect of this extension of the amnesty program on the security situation in the region,  increasing grievances of local population , that led to the escalation of violence in the past (youth unemployment, environmental pollution, widespread poverty and poor infrastructure) remain unresolved. The threat of exclusion of local communities from oil revenues, local political tensions and the perception by locals of the new policy of the President Buhari as a "plot by a Muslim President to rob the largely Christian south of oil revenues" could trigger new violent unrest.


Possible consolidation of efforts between pro-Biafra and Niger Delta activists, backed by campus cult groups, in such context cannot be excluded. This possibility was demonstrated by the hijacking on January 28 of the Greek-owned and Liberia-flagged vessel reportedly carried out by Niger Delta activists allegedly supporting pro-Biafra movements, raises fears of a potential alliance between the groups. Even if the incident was followed by a series of conflicting reports and speculations, it can be considered as a signal of potential growing ties and alliances between Niger Delta and pro-Biafra groups, especially since a 31 day deadline over Kanu’s release was reportedly issued by Niger Delta activists.


If confirmed, the attack would be the first of the kind linked to the southern insurgency movement over the past 8 years. On the one hand, it should be recalled that these allegations must be taken with caution since pro-Biafra activists mainly come from the Igbo ethnic group, which constituted the majority of the population of the republic of Biafra when it existed between 1967 and 1970 while rebels who were involved in the Niger Delta insurgency mainly hail from the Ijaw ethnic group. On the other hand, the groups are bounded by a large geographical crossover (between the Niger Delta region and the States included in the former Republic of Biafra), their common opposition to the central Nigerian state, their struggle for the liberation of their leaders and their desire to affirm a local control by the increasing use of violence. Moreover, the regions contains oil fields that supply the three quarters of the government’s revenue and gives  to Igbos confidence in the economic viability of an independent Biafra State.


On February 7, suspected cultists attacked a gas storage facility run by Eni in the Ahoada local government area in Rivers state. It should be mentioned that the alleged perpetrator of the attack, the suspected cult group, the Icelander, has links with former Niger Delta insurgents. The group maintained a low profile for years but reportedly began regrouping after President Buhari came to power. The group demanded the release of Emmanuel Odum, currently interrogated in connection with pipeline vandalism and cult-related activities.


To recall, 'campus cults' student gangs represent a widespread phenomenon in the south of Nigeria. The gangs based on students confraternities, are largely involved in criminal activities and also in the Niger Delta insurgent groups, namely MEND. Most of the campus cults have been accused of kidnapping foreign oil workers for ransom and ties to the rebels of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND).


While the unification of these groups (cultists, Pro-Biafra and former MEND) remains very hypothetical, their radicalization in the actual context is evident. Nearly 7 years after the amnesty ended a long period of insurgency, the risk of return to armed struggle, empowered by a similarity of interests between the armed groups in the region (geographical proximity, common opposition to Nigeria's central state, their struggle for the liberation of their leaders) should not be underestimated. In such a context, the growing involvement of cultists’ movements in the insurgency can result in an increased number of kidnappings of oil workers, in parallel with continuing attacks on oil and gas infrastructures by former MEND activists.


The Niger Delta and Biafra regions, challenged by youth unemployment, environmental pollution, widespread poverty and poor infrastructure today represents a fertile ground for various insurgent groups. Increasing insecurity in the oil-producing regions hosting most of representations of foreign companies and personnel clearly threatens Nigeria’s economic potential. While the government today apparently has no viable plan for dealing with these uprisings beyond extending the amnesty program and deploying more security personnel, the latest developments can be interpreted as indicators of an emerging insurgency that risk to  deteriorate into a full-scale guerilla war, expanding to the whole region.




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