Nigeria's Peace Talks Are Doomed From the Start
Nigeria's Peace Talks Are Doomed From the Start
Nigeria's most dangerous militant group is willing to deal with the government, but President Muhammadu Buhari may have little to bargain with. On June 13, the Niger Delta Avengers, who have wreaked havoc on the country's oil and natural gas infrastructure over the past few months, announced that they were open to negotiating with the Nigerian administration. The offer, which came a few days after Abuja launched an initiative to bring important Niger Delta stakeholders together to resolve the region's long-standing grievances, could present an opportunity for the president to address one of the biggest security challenges of his term. But with few financial incentives at its disposal, the cash-strapped government will have a hard time convincing the militants to lay down their arms.
Since January, the rise of the Niger Delta Avengers has strained Buhari's administration at a time of great financial stress. The group's attacks against energy infrastructure in the restive Niger Delta region have taken hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil offline, frustrating oil companies that are already concerned about declining revenues and the safety of their workers. Initially, the government responded to the spate of attacks by launching a broad military operation to weed out militancy, criminal activity and piracy. But after achieving lackluster results, Abuja decided to switch tactics. On June 7, the government announced that the operation, which locals described as heavy-handed, would halt for two weeks to give peace talks a chance to work. At the same time, Nigeria's oil minister, Emmanuel Ibe Kachikwu, invited the region's primary actors to discuss their complaints with the government.
Niger Delta residents and government officials each stand to benefit from the talks, if they prove successful. Citizens want their problems solved, and Abuja wants to stabilize Nigerian energy production and revenues. But talks alone will not erase the deep-seated grievances in the Niger Delta, especially since many people in the area are skeptical of the government's latest peace initiative. The region's citizens have long struggled to make their voices heard, and many feel that Abuja has not equitably distributed revenue from oil produced in the delta. There is a good chance that the region's militants will reject the negotiations outright and continue their attacks until the government demonstrates a willingness to put meaningful concessions on the table.
Mixed Buy-In From the Militants
When the government began its peace initiative, the Niger Delta Avengers refused to participate in the talks and claimed responsibility for two more assaults in the ensuing days. But the Buhari administration also reached out to influential figures in the Niger Delta, who have, in turn, tried to dissuade the militants from damaging the region's economy and environment by targeting pipelines. Their efforts may have swayed the group's leaders, who have now tentatively agreed to attend talks as long as certain conditions are met.
Among the group's stipulations was a demand that independent mediators from international oil companies operating in the region participate in the dialogue. Though the Niger Delta Avengers' exact motives are unclear, the request probably has to do with the group's belief that the firms are taking money that rightfully belongs to the region. By including oil companies in the talks, the group may believe that it can negotiate a larger share of revenue for local communities. But the companies — likely concerned about potential corruption allegations — have given no indication that they will join the discussion. In fact, many of the firms still producing in the Niger Delta are trying to leave the region, which is quickly losing its appeal to large companies with substantial overhead costs.
Meanwhile, remnants of the former Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) have pledged to send a seven-man team to negotiate with the government. The group, which was a key umbrella organization that led a wave of Niger Delta militancy in the 2000s, reportedly will include human rights activists, an economist, a former Cross River senator and a former chairman of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative in its delegation. But MEND's motives are not clear, either. It could well be planning to advance its own interests at the expense of a broader Niger Delta settlement.
Any of three factors could explain MEND's support for the negotiations. First, the group, deterred by Nigeria's struggling economy, may be waiting for a more opportune time to call for change. Second, since several former MEND leaders were handsomely rewarded by Buhari's predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, they may be loath to jeopardize their newfound wealth by going up against the government. Finally, MEND's top figures could be pursuing specific objectives, such as the release of former group leaders Henry and Charles Okah, who are currently jailed in South Africa and Nigeria, respectively. Indeed, the last two reasons may explain why key former MEND leaders Ebikabowei "Boyloaf" Victor-Ben, Farah Dagogo and Government "Tompolo" Ekpemupolo have backed the peace talks as individuals but not on behalf of MEND as a whole.
The Niger Delta Avengers, who represent the region's frustrated populace and have seen nonviolent action fail to effect change, may view groups such as MEND as sellouts. Such groups' calls for peace may fall on deaf ears among those who have not benefited from the government's past incentives to lay down arms. Moreover, the often conflicting interests of the various militant groups inserting themselves into the talks will make it more difficult for the government to find a comprehensive solution that satisfies all parties.
Even If the Will Exists, the Funds Do Not
The success of the peace process will hinge on two factors. The first is whether the people engaging in the talks have strong connections to the wider Niger Delta region and the militants within it. Though it is possible that the region's residents will initially support the dialogue, negotiators will have to secure concessions from the government — and quickly — to retain their good will.
Which brings us to the second factor: Can the government commit enough resources to restore some measure of equity to the Niger Delta? Serious incentives for a cease-fire include funding, expanding and extending the militant amnesty program; reviving pipeline security contracts with former militants; revising the Petroleum Industry Bill to include a fund for host communities in the region; and scaling down anti-corruption investigations into key Niger Delta figures. But each measure would require redirecting a considerable amount of funds to the region, a move that would be difficult to sell politically since the Niger Delta is home to a fairly small portion of the country's population. As the government continues to tighten its belt, Buhari's constituents in Nigeria's northern, southwestern and central regions will become increasingly resistant to funneling resources elsewhere. And so, regardless of the president's intentions, peace talks will likely be slow to progress as Nigeria's economy continues to stagnate.