Less Blood for Oil: Nigeria's Fragile Amnesty

By Yang, Catherine | Harvard International Review, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Less Blood for Oil: Nigeria's Fragile Amnesty


Yang, Catherine, Harvard International Review


Member countries of OPEC have grown flush with wealth from their oil resources. Unfortunately, this wealth has often been accompanied by violence and suffering. Nigeria, the only member of the organization in sub-Saharan Africa, has perhaps suffered the most. Since the first commercial production of oil in the Niger Delta in the 1950s propelled Nigeria to the top of Africa's oil-producing countries, the country has been wracked by regional conflicts over exploitation of its natural resources. In an effort to decrease violence and kidnappings, the Nigerian government offered an ongoing amnesty to militants in August 2009; the amnesty has kept fragile tranquility in place. Attaining lasting stability, however, is a tall order. Given the economic incentives of Niger Delta militants and the many obstacles facing the peace process, the amnesty is unlikely to reverse this history of violence.

Nigeria's ongoing conflict began in the 1990s and has continued through the country's transition to democracy. The Niger Delta's multiple ethnic groups initially each claimed to be the true indigenous group of the region, with primary control over the land and its valuable resources. In December 1998, the Ijaw, one of the ethnic groups, formed the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC) to protest the injustice of bearing most of the costs of oil production and receiving few of the benefits. The IYC began to disrupt Nigerian oil pipelines throughout Ijaw territory, attacking oil structures and kidnapping workers for bargaining leverage.

What ostensibly began as a resource-based ethnic struggle quickly degenerated into widescale militarization of the Niger Delta as political officials offered financial support to the paramilitary groups that they believed would support their own agendas. These factions coalesced into two main forces in 2003, each an amalgamation of loosely allied, Ijaw-dominated militias: the Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force (NDPVF) and the Niger Delta Vigilante (NDV). Both groups escalated attacks on the oil industry through oil bunkering, or the larcenous siphoning of oil from pipelines, which is often carried out with hacksaws. The NDPVF and NDV not only raided oil resources but also fought each other over bunkering routes, devastating" the local environment and population. This conflict escalated when the Nigerian government intervened in favor of the NDV in the summer of 2004, inciting the leader of the NDPVF, Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, to declare all-out war on the government. After Asari's arrest in 2005, the conflict shifted from an inter-group struggle to a series of attacks on the oil industry--a pattern that persists to this day. This is the unstable foundation upon which the 2009 amnesty is built.

The synthesis of the ethnic conflict in the Niger Delta with the economic needs of the Delta's impoverished citizens poses a daunting challenge, both to the amnesty and to any future peace process. The language of ethnic struggle, dating back to the formation of the IYC, grants militant groups a certain legitimacy, allowing them to rationalize their actions and to draw in recruits of a nationalist bent. Asari, for example, recruited militants by emphasizing the Ijaw's "rightful control" over Nigerian oil. As the struggle between NDPVF and NDV indicated, however, militants seek not only to benefit ethnic minorities but also to profit from illegal activity. Gradually, the emphasis on the ethnic divide has been pushed aside in favor of rhetoric focused on the economic divide. Studies show that around 80 percent of Nigeria's oil wealth goes to 1 percent of its population, and militants now claim that those deprived of their country's wealth are justified in regaining it through any means. …

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