Effort by the Nigerian government to secure lasting peace in the oil heartlands of the Niger Delta futile as community leaders say, threatening a return to violence that would overturn any broader recovery in the crude-reliant economy.
With Africa’s largest economy stalled in recession, delegations including Acting President Yemi Osinbajo are in talks with community leaders in the restive oil-producing states in Nigeria’s southeast.
Oil exports are now set to exceed 2 million barrels per day (bpd) in August, the highest in 17 months, from as little as just over 1 million bpd at certain points last year. That is due to a steady decline in attacks on pipelines, providing a much-needed injection of cash into Nigerian government coffers.
Despite the expansion, ex-militants and local chieftains argue that since those “town hall” discussions, little has been done – the government has not followed up on issues raised, is stalling on key demands and has not even appointed a full-time negotiating team.
Sources say given that the Niger Delta people feel that Abuja is ignoring their needs, their leaders maintained that they will resort to the only tactic that has ever yielded results: attacks on oil facilities.
“The people of the Niger Delta can hold this government or any government to ransom because we are the people feeding the nation,” said Godspower Gbenekama, a chief in the Kingdom of Gbaramatu.
“This peace is a graveyard peace,” he said. “Nobody can assure anybody that nothing will happen in the Delta.”
A spokesman for the office of Nigeria’s acting president rejected suggestions that the government was not doing enough.
“The government has not reneged and will never renege on any agreement,” he said, pointing to more spending on an amnesty program for ex-militants and progress on a clean-up project.
The spokesman added it was just a matter of time for other agreements to come to fruition, such as the planned opening of a flagship university in October and of small-scale refineries with community ownership in the fourth quarter.
An inter-ministerial group met regularly with Osinbajo to discuss the Niger Delta and a “technical committee” liaised between the government and affected communities, he also said.
Some locals, however, are in no mood to wait. In a sign of their mounting frustration, groups such as the New Delta Avengers and the Niger Delta Marine Force have formed in recent months.
“Call for resuming attacks when the government is diligent in actualizing the terms of the agreements and requests made will not help matters,” said the acting president’s spokesman.
But some of the communities of the Niger Delta also have more earthly demands.
Some people called for environmental clean-ups from oil spills that have devastated swathes of forest and waterways; others want roads and better power supply; others jobs and the regional university.
The peace talks are “lies and deceit,” said Annkio Briggs, a leading activist in the southeastern oil city of Port Harcourt.
“This latest Osinbajo move … is all about revenue. How do we get the Niger Delta calm enough that we can continue to derive revenue to sustain our budgets?”
Others are also bitter that the government only appears to respond to violent action, while peaceful activism and protests have historically achieved little.
The communities have also asked for ownership of oil blocks, and for all states in Nigeria to become fiscally independent – a move that would see oil revenues pooled in the southeast.
The glitches of the Delta may not be easily solved: enmity runs deep between locals and the federal government, violence is often the answer and some of the demands may not be as attainable as community leaders hope.