Looming Challenges in Niger Delta Could Threaten Nigeria’s Election Afterglow

Twin car bombings on Tuesday, May 20, 2014, killed at least 46 in central Nigeria in the latest in a series of deadly blasts that will stoke fears about security despite international help in the fight against militants. (AFP PHOTO / STR)

While international attention has focused on the election of President Muhammadu Buhari and the continued instability in the north of the country, events surrounding the gubernatorial elections in Nigeria on April 11 could also have significant repercussions in the coming months, especially with signs of an increasing threat of violence arising from the oil-rich Niger Delta region.

As with the presidential poll, the 29 Nigerian states that held elections swung away from former leader Goodluck Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party toward Buhari’s All Progressives Congress. The APC’s success, unprecedented for an opposition party in Nigeria since the country’s transition to democracy in 1999, can largely be attributed to frustration with Jonathan’s response to the northern security crisis sparked by Boko Haram. Preventing further Boko Haram attacks will be a challenge for the new leaders, as the militant Salafi-Jihadist group has claimed roughly 20,000 lives since 2009 and has recently expanded its attacks into neighboring Cameroon and Niger.

But while Boko Haram is undoubtedly the most lethal group in Nigeria, it is not the only source of violence in the country. There is also a persistent threat from the Niger Delta, whose communities have long felt aggrieved at their perceived marginalization, despite the economic importance of their activities. So far, leaders of regional militias have publically congratulated Buhari and agreed to enter into negotiations with him to ensure ongoing peace. The gubernatorial elections, however, saw sporadic outbreaks of violence, suggesting that tensions are high and there is a strong potential for further instability. The Niger Delta militants are overwhelmingly comprised of Christians from southern ethnic groups, while Buhari is a Muslim from the north.

Nigeria’s Independent National Election Commission (INEC) recorded 66 cases of violence during the elections, of which 16 were in the Niger Delta’s Rivers State, which has the second highest budget in Nigeria at nearly 2.5 billion USD. Many more of the outbreaks occurred in similarly economically significant states. Both political parties, and their respective constituencies, are eager to maintain control over these riches. If the victors of the gubernatorial elections do not make an effort to govern in an egalitarian and non-partisan manner, they may continue to foster a sense of marginalization.

Complicating matters is the fact that an amnesty program for Niger Delta militants is scheduled to expire in May, just as Buhari and the winners of the gubernatorial elections are slated to take office. Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, Nigeria’s oil-producing states in the delta played host to a number of armed militias that engaged in attacks against government officials and multinational oil companies. These groups arose out of a belief that the extraction of oil had failed to benefit the surrounding communities. Specifically, they claimed that “in comparison to other parts of the country, the region has not been fairly treated in the areas of infrastructure, which has continued to raise the unemployment figure in the region.”

The groups engaged in oil theft from pipelines, kidnapping of foreigners working for oil companies, and bombings. While the violence arose in a variety of oil-producing communities during the period 2003-2009, the crisis centered on those in Rivers State. The Nigerian president at the time, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, who came to office in 2007, implemented the amnesty program following violent engagements between Nigerian armed forces and these militants.

Under the scheme, the militants surrendered their weapons in exchange for job training programs, counseling, and a monthly stipend of more than $400 USD, prior to being reintegrated into civilian society. In addition to addressing the individual motivations for joining rebel movements, the program was coupled with a federal effort to dedicate a higher proportion of oil wealth towards community development. The program’s success in promoting development is contested. However, it has undoubtedly contributed to defusing the violent and disruptive Niger Delta crisis until now.

Despite its relative gains, it is currently unclear if the program will be extended. Local political analysts have noted “Buhari is inheriting a much-depleted treasury” from Jonathan, and that “Buying peace to protect oil production–the policy of previous governments–may no longer be an option.” The amnesty program is expensive—the BBC has previously estimated that it costs 500 USD million a year to maintain. With the collapse of oil prices worldwide, this investment may no longer be justifiable to protect the country’s oil industry. Under the circumstances of political division and reduced government coffers, the possibility of renewed violence in the Niger Delta therefore also remains a source of much speculation.

While most observers considered the 2015 presidential and gubernatorial elections to have displayed the robustness of Nigerian democracy, and have praised the remarkable capacity of INEC, significant threats to a peaceful political transition remain. The patterns of violence that have emerged—as infrequent as they might have been compared to previous election cycles—suggest that President Buhari and the new class of Nigerian governors should not focus so intently on the crisis in the north that they lose sight of the storm clouds in the south.

Hilary Matfess is a researcher with the Nigeria Social Violence Project at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.