The Nigerian authorities announced that about 15,000 insurgents from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), who have been involved in clashes with Nigerian military and police in the Delta region, have surrendered under the conditions of a two-month amnesty deal,BBC News reported on 8 October 2009.

The current phase of the Niger Delta crisis revolves largely around the presence of foreign oil corporations in the region, home to Africa’s largest oil and gas industry. MEND, an umbrella nationalist insurgent group, has called for the localization of Nigerian oil control as well as other related requests, such as reparations from the Nigerian government for pollution originating from the oil industry. According to Reuters, chief amnesty coordinator Vice Air Marshall Lucky Ararile said that since August, a documented 8,299 insurgents have surrendered, and that the authorities have not yet tallied the numbers of last-minute surrenders occurring before 4 October, the expiration date for the amnesty deal. Mr Ararile told reporters in Abuja: “Eventually we will be looking at about 14,000 to 15,000 by the time the men are fully documented. Most of the groups that we know about accepted amnesty.”

Uncertainty about the Delta region’s future

The Nigeria government’s announcement followed the 4 October surrender of major insurgent leader Mr Government Tompolo. According to BBC News, Mr Tompolo is considered one of the most important rebel figures involved in the Niger Delta crisis. Nigerian Defense Minister Godwin Abbe, who was present at Mr Tompolo’s disarmament, hailed the surrender as a milestone: “It is an act of patriotism that Tompolo and his group have surrendered their arms. The time has come for us to settle down and find solutions to what led to the crisis in the region. Today marks the beginning of the development of the Niger Delta.”

While the surrenders seem to indicate a decline in conflict in the Delta region for Nigerian authorities, other MEND factions have denied reports of a possible retreat. According to the Associated Press, MEND spokesperson Jomo Gbomo said: “We will fight for our land with the last drop of our blood regardless of how many people the government of Nigeria and the oil companies are successful in bribing. MEND considers this next phase of our struggle as the most critical as we intend to end 50 years of slavery of the people of the Niger Delta by the Nigerian government, a few individuals, and the oil companies, once and for all.”

Mr Farah Dagogo, a MEND commander who accepted amnesty on 3 October, also warned that despite the surrenders, there were still insurgents in the Delta region that would continue fighting for their cause, and that only the actions of the Nigerian government could lead to peaceful progress. According to Vanguard, he said, “There are still thousands of people willing to continue fighting in the creeks and only the actions of the government can win over our brothers still bent on fighting.”

Witnesses at the disarmament of Mr Tompolo’s camp, however, expressed hope that the surrenders marked the beginnings of a more peaceful period. Chief Andre Anegba, a traditional Ijaw ethnic community leader, told Reuters: “We came because we want peace. The last militant groups are giving up arms, and that means peace is coming back.”

Nigeria’s oil struggles

The Niger Delta crisis arose from tensions between foreign oil corporations and local communities in the Delta region, and has been ongoing since the early 1990s. While it began through uprisings from ethnic communities living in the Delta region, it became increasingly militarized in 2003 when the Nigerian military and police forces began to target local groups that were attacking oil industries in the region. Nigeria relies on the Delta region for over 90 per cent of its revenue, and attacks have reduced Nigeria’s oil output by about 300,000 barrels per day since May 2009, costing the government billions of dollars in lost oil income.

However, despite Nigeria’s lucrative oil production, most of its population lives in staggering poverty. According to Reuters, the majority of Nigeria’s people live on US$2 a day or less, and some of the most extreme poverty is in the villages of the Delta region. Moreover, due to clashes between Nigerian troops and MEND fighters, as well as fighting between different MEND factions, residents of the Delta region live in a state of recurring violence. Human Rights Watch said that since late 2003, in addition to the deaths of hundreds of mostly young male fighters, the ongoing fight for oil control has left dozens of the region’s residents dead and forced tens of thousands to flee their homes; the violence has created a profound climate of fear and insecurity, leaving local people reluctant to return to their homes or to seek justice for the crimes committed.

Approaching resolution

Understanding the motivations and the people behind the MEND movement is integral to conflict-resolution in the Niger Delta. The MEND fighters, regardless of actions, believe they are fighting for the rights of the Nigerian people. Mr Wole Soyinka, a Nigerian writer and Nobel Prize winner, said in an interview with Democracy Now: “I am in touch with some of these people, these young people, highly motivated. They are not thugs. They are not riffraff, as they are sometimes portrayed. They are disciplined. And they are determined to correct decades of injustice, and that’s all they’re really after. You may disagree with their methods, but believe me, nobody should underestimate the very deep motivation that impels these people.”

Mr Soyinka also emphasizes that the rights of the Delta’s indigenous population should not be disregarded, and that whether or not the withdrawal of insurgent actions occurs, as long as rights are ignored, there will always be conflict. “Well, some of these companies and the governments that they represent, in some cases, make a mistake when they think that the indigenous of the land from whom this wealth is extracted [are] illiterate, not knowledgeable, uninformed; this is the fundamental mistake which they make. … they make a mistake when they think they [indigenous peoples] do not observe the digits of profit, the statistics of profit being turned in by the companies.”

Ms Sandy Cioffi, a filmmaker and director of “Sweet Crude” – a documentary about the Niger Delta struggle – believes that oil companies should be stepping up and getting involved in the resolution process. She told Democracy Now: “The role of the oil companies at this point is quite simple, but they talk about it as being very complicated. They are a major player in the future and the current state of this country. They claim, whenever you ask them critically what they’re doing, they claim that they should not be involved in the affairs of a foreign nation, which is of course absurd, because they’re engaged in influencing the affairs of foreign nations every day. In Nigeria, they literally sit down at the table with the Nigerian government and work with them every day to determine what’s going to happen with petroleum-use laws, with the environment, with actually how to deal with the resistance itself. … These villages are the places where pump stations are right literally in the middle of town. Gas flares right next to where people live. I will tell you that those companies are starting to hear that – because they’re right there on the front line – they are behaving as if they know that the time might run out for their ability to produce.”

WAC Global Services, a consultancy that specializes in resolving conflict and promoting mediation between oil companies and local groups in the Niger Delta, acknowledges dialogue with Delta locals and redistribution of oil profits is key to resolution. In a report entitled “Peace and Security in the Niger Delta”, they say that for the best-case scenario to be realized and the worst-case situation to be understood, whatever dialogue currently exists between different parties involved in the crisis needs to be continually built upon. Through increasing dialogue, the consultancy believes that redistribution of oil benefits can be achieved in a sustainable manner.

According the United States Institute for Peace (USIP), the roots of the conflict need to be examined closely in order for the appropriate next steps to be made. For USIP, the next steps should include a movement towards a peace agreement that resolves the principal conflicts in the Niger Delta by improving Nigeria’s basic physical and organizational structures and facilities, including the country’s conflict management professionals and institutions.

For Ms Kelly Campbell, an analyst for the USIP, the largest problem is that the Nigerian administration has yet to initiate an effective process to broker peace in the region. In her report entitled “Bringing Peace to the Niger Delta,” she wrote: “Any credible peace process must involve all parties to the conflict, including representatives of the government, the communities of the Niger Delta, the militants and the leading oil companies in the region. A framework for discussion, a forum for articulating grievances, and a well-developed agenda are all needed to begin a negotiation process that will lead to a comprehensive solution of the relevant political, economic, and security problems.”

Others also believe the problem lies with the Nigerian government, and that oil policies are in dire need of a change. According to Mr Orikinla Osinachi, a Nigerian blogger, the federal government of Nigeria should treat crude oil like cocoa and other cash crops and minerals by handing over the resource control to regional states and let the states pay taxes to the Federal Government. On his blog called The Nigerian Times, he wrote: “We must practice true federalism and not this plutocracy of kleptomaniacs called the Federal Government of Nigeria. All the illegally acquired oil blocks and oil wells must be returned to the oil producing states, illegal oil bunkering must be stopped, and this can be done. Nigerian Naval officers are all implicated in the corruption of illegal oil bunkering and we know all these criminals in uniform and their civilian accomplices. We must change the corrupt system of government in Nigeria by peace or by force.”

Some even label the Nigerian authorities as the cause of aggression in the Delta region, and believe that the Nigerian security forces, called the Joint Task Force (JTF), needs to be disbanded before further steps can be taken. Mr Samuel Oyadongha, a writer for allAfrica.com, said: “It is highly hypocritical and offensive for the Nigerian state to talk of peace when it is aggressively procuring weapons to annihilate the Ijaw and consolidating the Joint Task Force in the Niger Delta by relocating it from Warri to Yenagoa in the heart of the Niger Delta. It goes without saying that the total withdrawal and disbandment of the JTF is an important prerequisite for disarmament and peace in the Niger Delta.”

Dr Ebipamone Nanakumo and Mr Lincoln Snither, President and Secretary, respectively, of the Ijaw Foundation, argue that amnesty programs are not the right way to achieve peace as they only accept the surrender of insurgents as a solution and do not address the rights of local people. According to allAfrica.com, Dr Nanakumo and Mr Snither released a statement that outlined their views: “The amnesty programme of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua’s administration is not a genuine effort to achieve peace in the Niger Delta because it deliberately fails to address the fundamental causes and issues of the Niger Delta conflict. … The programme is fundamentally unjust and unconscionable because it presents the unacceptable scenario whereby the Nigerian state that perpetrates heinous violence and genocidal military attacks against the Ijaw would keep and enhance its arms and ammunition, while Ijaw youths who are acting in self-defense will unilaterally surrender their arms so that the Nigerian state would, in an aggravated and accelerated manner, kill defenseless Ijaw people, destroy their habitat and means of sustenance, and rob them of their God-given wealth of crude oil and natural gas.”

The rights of Nigeria’s people are an important issue for others as well. The Democrative Alternative of Nigeria (DA), one of Nigeria’s smaller political parties, believes that the Nigerian people should have a greater voice with regards to the Delta crisis. In a press conference organized by the DA, they asserted that solutions can only be reached with the involvement of the Delta region’s locals: “The Niger Delta crisis cannot be solved by force. The solution is to be found in the constructive involvement of the Niger Delta peoples themselves in the resolution of the mounting and daunting socio-economic problems of the Niger Delta. … A patronising federal power is as undemocratic and oppressive as a foreign invader. …There is no alternative to commencing immediately and without delay a process of interactive dialogue with the people of the Niger Delta with a view of fashioning out an acceptable strategy for the development of the area.”

Ms Cioffi interviewed residents of the Delta region for her documentary, and said that she was surprised at their perspective on Nigeria’s oil industry. In her interview with Democracy Now, she said that while people demand their rights to oil, with the ongoing violence, many would not be disappointed if the oil industry’s presence vanished altogether from the Delta: “You would think that people would say, ‘Well, if the oil companies leave, then, well, where will we get any revenue at all?’ But I’ve heard many village people say, ‘Just fine. Just go ahead. Leave. We would prefer to see the environment be remediated and go back to fishing and farming.’”

However, some hope exists that these conflicting desires and needs can be addressed constructively. In recent years, Nigerian federal authorities and private companies began introducing initiatives in development efforts to improve conditions in the Delta region. These initiatives included the government mandated Niger Delta Development Commission, and the Development Initiative, a non-governmental organization; both have emphasized their commitment to the region’s development, but continue to call for cooperation between the Nigerian government, insurgent movements, the Delta’s local people, and foreign oil corporations.