Nigeria: Elections and Violence in the Niger Delta

The Niger Delta is back in the news, both for the (alleged?) return of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND – read a backgrounder here) and for the upcoming gubernatorial elections in Bayelsa State, which was the site of a bitter primary election in November. Different sources give different views on how closely the recent oil violence is connected to Bayelsa’s electoral calendar. But clearly the Niger Delta is facing renewed political tension and renewed violence at the same time.

Nigeria last held national elections, including gubernatorial contests, in April 2011, but since then various governors have faced court challenges to their legitimacy. Some have won and remained in office, but others have not. On January 27, the Supreme Court removed five governors from office (for the back story, see here). The situation in one of these states, Kogi, is complicated by the fact that the state held a new election even before the ruling. But the other four states are holding gubernatorial elections this month. Adamawa State, in the Northeast, went already on February 4, and delivered a win for Nigeria’s ruling party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Sokoto State, in the Northwest, will go to the polls on February 18. But before that, two Niger Delta states – Bayelsa and Cross River – will hold elections on February 11. For an overview of the political situation in each state, see here.

Bayelsa State has attracted considerable attention because of the bitterness of the primary there and because it is the home state of President Goodluck Jonathan. Bayelsa has been under the control of the PDP since Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999, but that does not mean the state’s politics are dull. In 1999, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha became governor, with Jonathan as his deputy. Alamieyeseigha was re-elected in 2003, but in 2005 he was arrested in London on charges of money laundering and was impeached. Jonathan became governor, only to be selected as vice-president in 2007 – and the rest of Jonathan’s story is well known. Back in Bayelsa, Timipre Sylva was elected governor in 2007, but faced a challenge in 2008 and had to contest a re-run election, which he won.

At some point before the PDP state primaries in January 2011, Jonathan and Sylva had become foes. Sylva won this first primary, despite reported attempts by Jonathan to find a candidate who could defeat him. Sylva’s victory proved short-lived. The governor was barred from participating in a second PDP primary, held in November, and the party instead nominated Henry Seriake Dickson, “a member of the House of Representatives and close associate of President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan,” as its candidate. Sylva has launched a legal case over his exclusion from both the second primary and this weekend’s election, but he remains barred from running in the latter, and the case looks like it will be tied up in court through April. Opposition parties like the Action Congress of Nigeria hope to capitalize on the PDP’s infighting, but the PDP is determined not to lose. Jonathan came home to campaign and, it seems, to make sure Sylva takes the blame for the state’s current woes.

This, then, is the political context in which recent violence in the Delta has taken place. The violence has targeted both politicians and oil production. Bayelsa is reputed to have a history of electoral violence, and a bombing on January 20 in Bayelsa’s capital Yenagoa brought the present campaign in line with that trend.

Then, just this past weekend, an oil pipeline was attacked in Bayelsa. MEND, which carried out regular attacks on oil production in the Delta before 2009, when many of its leaders agreed to an amnesty with the Federal Government of Nigeria, has claimed responsibility for the attack. If the claim is true, MEND’s return will worry both the government and foreign investors. Yet the Nigerian military is denying MEND’s claim, pinning responsibility instead on criminal gangs. Whoever the true culprits are, Nigeria’s Nation argues that the pipeline incident should not be seen in isolation, but rather as part of a pattern of violence and threats in the Delta that has been intensifying in recent weeks. These events, The Nation continues, suggest a “growing disenchantment with the amnesty package and rivalry among the ex-militants.” Reuters also sees this disenchantment at work, and adds, “Some analysts suspect that regional power struggles ahead of an acrimonious election for the governorship of Bayelsa on Feb. 11 may be the root cause of the attack.”

To sum up, there is a dangerous mix of electoral tension, behind-the-scenes political struggles, grassroots anger, and violence at work in the Delta right now. I do not know whether MEND will return in full force or what will happen in the elections on Saturday, but I do think the problems in the Delta are yet another major headache for the administration, a headache which may grow worse in the coming months. As Reuters says, “President Goodluck Jonathan can ill afford a flare-up of violence in his home state as he struggles to cope with almost daily attacks by radical Islamist sect Boko Haram in the north.”

9 thoughts on “Nigeria: Elections and Violence in the Niger Delta

  1. Reblogged this on the niche and commented:
    폭력은 굉장히 정치적이고, 정치적 제도로 해결되지 않는 경우 가장 severely 증폭되고 사용될 동기를 부여하는 것 같다. 지금 이런 종류의 폭력은 내전에서의 폭력과 다른 종류의 정치 폭력이라고 고려된다. 이런 쪽의 literature에는 어떤 것이 있을까 심히 궁금함.

  2. I don’t see this as anything more than the usual pre-election thuggery. MEND isn’t stupid and MEND has a vested interest in ensuring that Jonathan’s tenure isn’t destabilised.

    What if MEND is also telling Boko Haram that they too are capable of violence (in case they forgot)?

    Jonathan also knows more about MEND / Niger Delta Militants and how to deal with them than any of us.

    Sylva was a pretty incompetent governor, I doubt he could have won a free and fair election/primary – anyway.

    P.S: Did you hear about the National Summit Group discussions in Lagos this week?

    • Didn’t look into the National Summit Group yet, I will though.

      My friends in Kano took the intra-PDP struggles in Bayelsa as a sign of Jonathan’s political weakness – do you agree?

      Agree about MEND’s message to Boko Haram – they’ve said as much explicitly, in the press.

      • Yours friends in Kano don’t like Jonathan (virtually no one in Northern Nigeria does) – so I don’t expect them to say anything different.

        The difficult part is over, Sylva is out and Dickson is set to win the election. If this is pre-election thuggery, it will die down by this time next week. If it is not expect it to drag on. But I don’t expect MEND to destablise the Jonathan administration.

  3. Reblogged this on Niger Delta Politics and commented:
    These renewed attacks by MEND indicate that the amnesty program, which offers salaries and job training, was only a temporary palliative. Buying off a few fighters simply opens up positions for new recruits to join MEND. In terms of the elections, it will be interesting to see how renewed violence affects the message that candidates send to voters, although most believe Seriake Henry Diction already has a win secured.

    • Thanks Laine. I agree about the amnesty program. I am expecting a win by Dickson too, but I am wondering about what comes next for Bayelsa.

    • So what exactly can be done to solve the Niger Delta problem? Any holistic solution is beyond the capacity of the Nigerian Government or any aid agency.

      Nigeria’s problem is no longer whether Nigeria should be united, but whether Nigeria can work. Increasingly the answer to that question is no.

      If Nigeria cannot work it has no future. The government in Abuja is far removed from the teething problems in the Delta and the North. Nigeria is sleep walking to a disaster.

  4. Pingback: Nigeria: PDP Wins Bayelsa, Rumblings of Renewed Militancy Continue | Sahel Blog

  5. Pingback: Fast tracking development in the Niger Delta - GROWGENIC

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