When Edafa, a former militant from Nigeria’s restive oil-rich Delta, joined a government-funded programme to train as a welder in Malaysia, he dreamt of setting up his own business. But after three years of joblessness and frustration, he is now using his skills to blow up oil pipelines.
The 28-year-old has returned to his previous life, carrying out attacks for the Niger Delta Avengers, the latest group to lead an insurgency that is creating havoc forAfrica’s largest oil industry.
The rise of the Avengers since the start of the year reflects the anger that is coursing through towns and impoverished villages across the swampy Delta as President Muhammadu Buhari’s grapples with Nigeria’s worst economic crisis in decades.
“President Buhari forgets us in the Niger Delta, and we are the source of Nigeria’s income,” Edafa, who did not want his full name used, says in his home town of Ughelli, where there is rarely electricity and women cook over firewood and draw water from wells. “We want him to hear our cry.”
Attacks by the militants — who say destroying oil wells and the pipelines snaking through their communities is the only way to be heard — reduced oil production by about 700,000 barrels a day to 1.5m b/d in May. As a result, Nigeria slipped from its position as Africa’s top oil producer.
Repairs have pushed output back up by at least 200,000 b/d. But the blow to production has been disastrous for Mr Buhari, a former army general who won elections last year.
The cash-strapped federal government has yet to secure funds to plug a $11bn deficit in this year’s budget, while many state governments have not paid salaries for months.
And the poverty that blights the Delta — despite its oil riches — is partly to blame for Edafa’s and others’ return to militancy. Each time he participates in an Avengers’ “operation” he earns 20,000 naira ($70).
The Delta has a long history of rebellion against the oil industry. Edafa’s eight-month training programme in Malaysia came only after he laid down his gun as part of a government amnesty deal in 2009 with other militant groups.
He wanted to open his own welding shop, support his family and provide jobs to the droves of idle young men in Ughelli, which sits atop one of the country’s most productive gasfields.
Instead, he joined the ranks of the unemployed.
‘It’s very easy when people feel disillusioned, disconnected, and unattended to, for them to return back to the ways they know in order to survive’
He blames corrupt former officials whom he alleges stole start-up funds he and other retired militants were promised. He does not see a brighter future under the new government, which he perceives to be biased against his southern region as it is led by Mr Buhari, a northerner.
“It’s very easy when people feel disillusioned, disconnected and unattended to for them to return back to the ways they know in order to survive,” says JonJon Oyeinfe, a local activist.
Many of the Avengers’ demands — including greater control of the oil wealth and the development of basic infrastructure — reflect those of previous insurgencies. But frustrations have been exacerbated because of the way Mr Buhari is seen to have dealt with the Delta.
In the early days of his presidency, he was deemed to be ignoring the region. When the attacks on infrastructure began, he vowed to “crush the criminals” behind them.
His belligerent statements chimed with threats by successive governments that promised to defeat the militants. But none succeeded, partly because the insurgents have far better knowledge of the region than the military.
Mr Buhari has yet to visit the Delta since taking office. Such a visit would be a symbolic gesture, which one local chief called “low-hanging fruit”.
But some businessmen in the region add that local politicians also bear responsibility for people’s anger. They point to former state governors such as James Ibori, who is in prison in the UK for fraud and money laundering, for failing to use the billions of dollars of oil revenues allocated to their budgets for development.
The energy sector has long been a source of corruption and patronage at all levels of government.
“Young men are resorting to violence to force the government to have a listening ear to their plight,” says Jude Isiayei, a local pastor.
‘Young men are resorting to violence to force the government to have a listening ear to their plight’
The amnesty that ended the last insurgency was mainly implemented under the watch of Goodluck Jonathan, Mr Buhari’s predecessor who is from the region, and brought a semblance of stability to the Delta for five years. But it was also seen by many Nigerians as being a “bribe for peace”. Mr Jonathan is criticised by some traditional leaders for not doing more to develop the area.
Amnesty stipends have been one of the few steady sources of income for Deltans in recent years. Mr Buhari had pledged to cease the programme by the end of 2015, although it has since been extended until 2018. But former militants say they have not received their stipends for months.
Low oil prices have meant another cash-generator — oil theft of various sorts — has become less profitable. Years of oil pollution has also eroded traditional livelihoods such as fishing and farming. The result is that young Deltans have few options, which risks creating more recruits for the militants.
Sheriff Mulade, a local leader, says: “The only employment the government has been able to create for the youth of the Delta is militancy.”