Securing an agreement with Niger Delta militants to end the attacks that crippled oil production throughout last year is undoubtedly one of the government’s biggest priorities in 2017. While negotiations remained deadlocked at the end of 2016, the administration is more likely to succeed this year. Neither side stands to gain from the continued interruption of oil proceeds that generate crucial government revenue and enable monetary transfers to the region. Furthermore, there is considerable common ground between the demands of local stakeholders and the government’s strategy for developing the region.
However, a number of obstacles persist. The fragmented militants will first need to overcome their internal divisions to convince the government that negotiations can actually result in an enforceable agreement. Meanwhile, the government will have to rethink its two-pronged approach. Its current strategy of seeking to negotiate while simultaneously increasing the number of troops in the region risks alienating even well-intentioned negotiation partners.
Negotiations are hindered by internal fragmentation
A series of high-level attacks perpetrated by the Niger Delta Avengers in Delta State in February 2016 quickly brought Nigeria’s crude output to its lowest levels for 20 years. The government sought to reach out to local leaders as it became increasingly apparent that it could not quell the militant campaign by force alone. But identifying the right interlocutor proved a formidable challenge. According to the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the number of militant groups that joined the fracas rose to 32 over the course of the year.
The government is currently talking to different groups through several channels with varying degrees of formality. The most well-known negotiating partner is the Pan Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF), which claims to represent the interests of most regional stakeholders. PANDEF representatives submitted a 16-point list of demands during their first official meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari in Abuja on 1 November, providing a basis for future negotiations.
While some of the demands have clearly been included to please particular constituencies, the overall thrust of the document is not at odds with the federal government’s plan to develop the region. Indeed, the ‘7 Big Wins’ initiative, put forward by Minister of State for Petroleum Ibe Kachikwu in October, and PANDEF’s demands stress similar things. Both emphasise the importance of boosting capital investment in the region, cleaning up oil-polluted areas and creating local jobs.
The government’s carrot-and-stick approach will not work
Shortly after the initial meeting in November, several groups renewed their attacks on crucial pipeline infrastructure, illustrating the fragmented nature of the militant camp.
The insurgencies resumed for varying reasons. For instance, militants in the Niger Delta Greenland Justice Mandate do not feel represented by PANDEF and apparently aim to bomb their way to the negotiating table. On the day PANDEF met with Buhari, the group bombed the 215,000bpd Trans-Forcados pipeline that had reopened barely 48 hours earlier, having previously been on standby since an attack in February 2016.
In contrast, the Avengers claimed their attacks were a justified response to the government’s build-up of military power in the Niger Delta while talks were ongoing. PANDEF has also recently expressed concerns that deploying the armed forces threatens to aggravate tensions. PANDEF’s trust is also fading because the government has hitherto neither bothered to nominate a team of negotiators, nor follow up on the roadmap agreed during the November meeting.
Pressures to find a solution are mounting
Nevertheless, the government cannot afford the security situation in the Niger Delta to deteriorate again in 2017. The sharp reduction in oil production was the main reason for the country entering recession last year. Any economic recovery will inevitably have to be underwritten by oil proceeds. Likewise, the heterogeneous militants will eventually realise that their demands can only be satisfied if oil starts flowing again. The pressure is mounting. Niger Delta leaders need to rein in their divergent factions and the government must commit to a negotiated solution. It might still take a while longer and there will inevitably be bumps in the road, but the chances are that we will see a peace deal signed before the end of the year.
By Malte Liewerscheidt – Politics Senior Analyst, Africa