Last October 25, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) agreed to a ceasefire with the Nigerian government. Few journalists or analysts felt surprise at seeing the ceasefire collapse on Saturday. Bluntly, neither do I, though I had hopes initially that the amnesty deal might succeed. With President Umaru Yar’Adua receiving long-term medical care in Saudi Arabia, the stimulus package he proposed for the Delta, along with other promised elements of the amnesty, have not been fully implemented, and some of the oil militants are very angry. But that doesn’t necessarily mean all-out war looms on the horizon. Even if the events of the last three months appear clear in hindsight, the future remains murky.
What does MEND want? First of all, it’s uncertain how unified they are. An attack on an oil pipeline in the Delta has already occurred, but the BBC is still parsing MEND’s statement on the end of the ceasefire: “Analysts…said it was not immediately clear if this statement came from the whole of Mend…or just a faction that did not accept the offer of an amnesty from Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua.”
It may be only one faction, but that faction seems ready to carry out attacks. A former commander (presumably one who maintains meaningful links with current militants, but perhaps what he says is unreliable) told VOA that “small bands of rebels will conduct a sustained onslaught against oil pipelines and other facilities in the Niger Delta,” remaining mobile to elude pursuit by the army.
Henry Okah, a major former commander now living in South Africa, laid out a broader and more aggressive strategy in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor.
While MEND will continue to carry out attacks on oil platforms and take hostages, its tactics will change as the conflict intensifies.
“It’s going to be much, much worse, because people are angry,” says Okah. While MEND units focused their energies on oil production in the Cross Rivers States, it has now sent out 100 separate militant groups of 50 men in each group. “Kidnapping will still happen, but it will escalate. They will carry out attacks on land as well, and take the fight to the government. Officers will be targeted. Soldiers will be targeted. Police stations will be targeted. They will even go to the big hotels to kidnap people.”
The idea is to stretch the Nigerian Army’s capacity to fight and control territory.
“Even if they brought in 100,000 troops, it will be impossible to control an area the size of Scotland,” says Okah. “If we have mobile units of 50 men who are here today, and there tomorrow, how can they stop it? The Tamil Tigers [in Sri Lanka] fought for territory and to hold territory. We are blowing up oil pipelines in the middle of nowhere.”
“We actually control what Nigeria exports,” chuckles Okah. “And there is nothing the Nigerian government can do about it.”
So on the one hand you have intensely violent rhetoric, and potentially we are already seeing some actions that back that rhetoric up. But on the other hand, the participation of so many rebels in the amnesty deal, and the way they have framed their withdrawal from the ceasefire in political, rather than ideological terms, suggests that many militants are still interested in a political solution to the conflict. I wouldn’t simplify things so far as to say that violence is just a more extreme negotiating tactic (economic motivations, for example, could also push MEND toward violence), but I do think that MEND, or at least a fair portion of its leadership and base, would still be open to political solutions.
In fact, this report from Punch lacks context, but it says that ex-militants are going to meet soon “with the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Chief Ufot Ekaette.” Given that the story appeared yesterday, after the announcement of the end of the ceasefire, can we assume that some militants are still pursuing integration?
And while MEND commanders like Okay may be correct that the numbers and energy are there to drive a major guerrilla campaign by MEND, I also wonder whether the loss of all the weapons militants handed over to the government last year has reduced their potential for effectiveness. What calculation will militants who gave up their guns make? Will they head back out to fight, confident that they can re-arm easily, or will they wait to see what the government does?
Whatever the scale of the fighting MEND engages in, the end of the ceasefire spells trouble for Nigeria. Disruptions to oil production will hurt the country’s income and long-term investment prospects, and internal military conflict will increase political pressure in the capital. If a chance for a near-term solution remains, I hope the government seizes it before it disappears.