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The old adage states that “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” In Nigeria’s Niger Delta the armed gangs who have mounted a years’ long armed campaign against the Nigerian federal government have so far been tagged “militants” despite a sustained campaign of vandalism against oil installations and kidnapping which has badly disrupted Nigeria ‘s oil production and contributed to spiralling global oil prices.

Despite their activities, the armed gangs responsible for these attacks have not been dubbed “terrorists”. In today’s post September 11 dichotomy, being labelled a terrorist organisation is a death knell and would cripple their struggle. Perhaps the gangs have been able to avoid the terrorist yoke because there is genuine sympathy for their cause in Nigeria and abroad.


While daily oil drilling and gas flaring causes oil spills which pollute their water supplies, kill their crops, poison their lungs, disrupt their daily life and stunt their children’s development, the residents of the Delta have little to show for the “black gold” and billions of dollars of oil revenue pumped from their lands. The spectacular sums of money derived from the Niger Delta are evident in the lavish six lane highways and skyscrapers in Abuja and Lagos that were built with the blood and sacrifice of Niger Delta lands and communities.


Under Nigeria ‘s constitution, mineral resources (including oil) belong to the federal government. However the principle of derivation states that a certain percentage of oil revenues produced by a state is returned to the state from which the oil was obtained. This is meant to “compensate” the state from which the oil was obtained. When substantial amounts of oil first started being pumped in southern Nigeria in the late 1960s, 50% of revenues from oil were remitted back to the state of origin. However the increasingly powerful federal government and military regimes gradually decreased the derivation percentage until it fell to a miserly 2%. It was eventually raised to 13% by the time civilian democratic rule returned in 1999. The oil-producing states of Delta, Rivers, Bayelsa, and Akwa Ibom, received twice as much oil revenue as the other states of the federation. Yet those four states are no better off (and in many cases are worse off) than their counterparts elsewhere that survive on a fraction of the revenue.


Niger Delta agitation for a fairer distribution of oil revenues is nothing new. As far back as February 1966, a former police officer from the Delta named Jasper Adaka Boro was leading a rebellion on behalf of the Niger Delta. Boro recruited 40 men into an organisation known as the Niger Delta Volunteer Force. Boro gave his men training in the use of firearms and explosives in the creeks and bushes. On February 23, 1966 the men attacked a police station at Yenagoa, raided the armoury and kidnapped some officers including the police officer in command of the station. They also blew up oil pipelines, engaged the police in a gunfight and declared the Niger Delta an independent republic. The revolt was suppressed and Boro and his men were sentenced to death (the sentence was not carried out).


In the 1990s Ken Saro-Wiwa attempted a more peaceful agitation for compensation for environmental damage caused by oil drilling and a greater slice of oil revenues. Saro-Wiwa’s charisma and appeal for greater autonomy struck a dangerous nerve with Nigeria’s then military regime which brooked no opposition and was hyper-sensitive to any threat or challenge (real and imagined) to its control of oil resources. Saro-Wiwa and his followers were sentenced to death by a Civil Disturbances Special Tribunal and hanged.


With Nigeria returning to civilian democratic rule in 1999, the latent frustrations that were brutally suppressed by past military regimes were released as increasingly confident Niger Delta youths began an armed campaign and demand for greater control of the oil resources from their land.

Unlike armed resistance movements in other countries, the Niger Delta gangs are not one organization operating under a common leadership with unified ideology. There is no central chain of command like the IRA had or clearly defined political ideal. Rather the gangs are a loose eclectic mix of several aggrieved armed factions like the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) and the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force. The gangs’ modus operandi is reminiscent of other armed groups and guerrilla armies around the world. They operate and place themselves in the midst of heavily populated civilian areas, making it difficult to distinguish fighter and civilian. They also take advantage of their superior knowledge of dangerous and inhospitable home terrain.

Their shadowy nature is an asset and a hindrance. While their mystique makes their detection and suppression difficult for the Nigerian security forces, it has also made them faceless and prevented them from making political progress. They lack a single articulate spokesperson who can speak for their cause such as a Gerry Adams or Yasser Arafat. The multi-headed militant hydra is not easy for outsiders to understand. This is where they are in dangerous territory.

The gangs’ activities has brought the issue of the Niger Delta to the world’s attention and has made it a major political issue within Nigeria. However while the public are vaguely aware of the Niger Delta issue, the gangs have been abysmal at articulating their demands. The Delta militants have failed miserably to turn publicity gains into political gains. Several years into their campaign, the derivation formula remains pegged at 13% and there not nearer to achieving any of their objectives.

Despite the disruption to oil supplies, the Delta violence benefits the government in a financially perverse way. Continued attacks on oil installations by the militants disrupts the global oil market and drives prices higher. Higher oil prices equals more money for the federal government. The federal government is therefore able to sustain a localized low intensity conflict for years without an existential threat to Nigeria or its control over other areas of the country.

The hidden danger is that if the status quo does not change, the gangs will be tempted to become increasingly daring and amplify their violence. This could emerge by way of a spectacular mass casualty attack or by extending their operations to non-riverine areas and major population centres like Lagos and Abuja. Should they do so, the Nigerian army’s hands are tied. If they retaliate with massive force, they will incur heavy civilian casualties and exacerbate the crisis. The IRA and Palestinian groups used the intensification of violence as a political tool. Originally operating almost exclusively within Northern Ireland, the IRA took its bombing campaign to the streets of England in cities like Birmingham and London and in two separate failed attacks, nearly succeeded in assassinating the entire leadership of the English government. The Palestinians of Hamas and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades similarly decided to take their struggle from the alley ways of the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza into the streets of Israel . They carried out suicide bombings inside Israel as a way of bringing their grievances to the doorstep of every single Israeli.

The militants’ cause has also been hijacked by criminal gangs who kidnap the wives and infant children of civilian officials. Being tainted and associated with such elements makes the militants appear like bandits. The militants quite simply do not have enough firepower, numbers or political stroke to achieve their demands by armed struggle alone. Now that they have the federal government’s attention, they need to make the evolution that the ANC, IRA, and PLO made from armed rebels to political parties. The militants require a political wing and a skilled orator to present a human face for their struggle. If they rely on brawn alone…they will disappear like Boro and Saro-Wiwa.