Oil discovery is a portent in Nigeria. The jubilation of riches quickly subsides upon realizing that 25% could turn to blood. Loss of revenue and human life seem like powerful persuasion for the Nigerian government to reconcile with its people, but aside from ornamental social initiatives, the military once again reigns supreme.
Conflict in the Niger Delta will never end with a counterinsurgency like Nigeria’s, possibly the world’s worst.
This last May Nigeria, exhausted by guerrilla attacks on its sprawling pipeline network, launched its largest military operation in a decade. The operation, planned for months according to officials, solidifies the government’s refusal to negotiate with the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) or its satellites.
Tales from the conflict zone are disheartening. Journalist and humanitarian aid groups haven’t just been barred from the region; they believe it’s too risky to enter.
“Nigeria is at a crossroads,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insipidly declared during her visit in August. The truth is that Nigeria has stalled at a crossroads for half a century. Oil turned the Niger Delta into a militarized nightmare tangled with antiquated pipelines, mangroves, and gunboats - a guerrilla’s dream. Strife between the government and the people, allegedly supported by oil corporations, has devastated hopes of reconciliation.
The government must overcome decades of distrust to successfully end the conflict, but military operations aren’t the answer.
30 years passed before Nigeria started attracting international scrutiny. Violence, as is often the case, was the only means of gaining attention. In 1992 the Ogoni people, one of the Delta’s many peoples, began protesting Shell Oil, the major operator in the region, after the government repeatedly defaulted on its promises of development. The campaign ended in high profile executions and alleged massacres of villages.
No plan to distribute oil revenues to local communities was developed or implemented.
The Ijaw Youth Council initiated Operation Climate Change in 1999 and once again the government responded with force. Youth Council leader Mujahid Dokubo-Asari then founded Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force (NDPVF) in 2004. The Nigerian government responded with force but failed to eliminate the group or its justification for war.
Around this time MEND began coalescing with the goal of uniting all Delta militant groups. Force has compounded the conflict, a singular trial resulting in multiple errors, and the latest offensive will end in similar failure. MEND is stronger than ever.
Nigeria will remain frozen until the government aborts the use of force and focuses on political reform, social development, and environmental protection. Though GDP is growing at 6%, 70% of Nigerians live below the poverty line; an estimated $100 billion in oil revenue has disappeared into private bank accounts. Clinton admitted to “a failure of government at the federal, state and local level,” while praising the government’s latest strategy.
She must have been referring to an amnesty program and campaigns to reform corruption and the election system, because she ignored a question about the ongoing military operations. Her silence speaks volumes about America’s position regarding Nigeria considering the human rights violations starting to surface.
President Obama apparently approves of Nigeria’s military operations. If this theory is false, why not oppose them? Historical evidence suggests military operations will only inflame the conflict.
Why America refuses to crack down on Nigeria is a mystery (profit and necessity), but the answer remains visible - an oil embargo linked to concrete social development, jointly monitored by America, Nigeria, and the Delta peoples. At fifth place, Nigeria is a small cog of America’s oil imports at roughly 10%. However America is the primary exporter for Nigeria at 44%.
As the insurgency tears into 2009, imports will actually increase over 2008. Few alternative conclusions are available - America and the international community are enabling the Niger Delta conflict. President Obama lambasted America’s policy of importing oil from dictatorships and failed states during his campaign, but apparently that was just talk.
Insurgency in Nigeria represents a distinct challenge in fourth-generation warfare. Recourse for a militancy, born by irresponsible corporations partnering with corrupt governments, is in short supply. Without outside pressure, Nigeria and its oil cabal will continue to marginalize the Niger Delta under the disguise of limited reparations. An embargo would devastate Nigeria’s economy, but but the government doesn't provide very well for its people anyway.
MEND spokesman Jomo Gbomo lamented, “The charade witnessed in Bayelsa is not an indication of success but that of failure considering that the energy put into that event could have been better used in deliberating on the root issues.”
It’s not surprising that the government opposes negotiations. MEND and its allies, for all the skepticism of their loose organizational structure, have the leverage: sufficient popular support, a legitimate if militarized mission, and an influx of guns funded by black-market oil.
MEND stands to gain by negotiating or not negotiating. It could legitimately secure billions from the government to develop their land, and if the government fails to deliver social development, can return to waging a profitable guerrilla war.
MEND and its allies cannot be defeated on the battlefield. If Nigeria is learning this lesson the hard way, America must teach it.