Nigerian govt vs. militants: A game of cat and mouse

*Armed Niger Delta militants.

*Armed Niger Delta militants.

Oscarline Onwuemenyi

24 July 2016, Sweetcrude, Abuja – The brick-a-bat between the Federal government and militants blowing up hydrocarbon assets in the Niger Delta has devolved into a righteous food fight over who may be speaking the truth about ongoing peace efforts, if any, and who is not.

Even as President Muhammadu Buhari reportedly confirmed that his administration is in talks with Niger Delta militants with the help of oil companies and law-enforcement agencies to find a lasting solution to the insecurity in the region, the militants have come out quickly to douse talk of any such event.

Similar statements of entreaties attributed to government officials in the past have been rapidly dismissed as non-existent and an effort to deceive the public. In the absence of any direct or indirect talks, many Nigerians are wondering how any resolution may be reached on the crisis in the region

In the meantime, the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA), arguably the most destructive of the militant groups operating in the region, has claimed responsibility for the recent wave of attacks on oil assets in the region; it has also issued another threat to oil workers, asking all of them to vacate the oil fields and terminals because it was ready to wage a dirty war.

Many industry watchers acknowledged to our correspondent that in the face of collapsed oil prices and continuing uncertainty in the global crude market, and giving the country’s singular reliance on oil for economic survival, the government needs to engage the militant groups if there is to be any hope of peace in the region, which will allow for the exploitation of crude resources.

The urgency for a sustainable resolution to the carnage in the Niger Delta is sharpened in the face of increasing revenue losses, which has threatened the Federal government’s implementation of the 2016 budget. Only yesterday, the federal government admitted that the Nigerian economy is in a recession, and it expressed worries that unless the militancy in the oil-rich Delta is checked there may be not be much hope of an economic improvement.

Speaking yesterday in Abuja, the Group Managing Director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Dr. Maikanti Baru, lamented that due to the activities of pipeline vandals, over 3000 vandalism incidents were recorded every year from 2010-2015, while in 2015 alone, pipeline losses of petrol volume of over 643 million litres were incurred.

He noted that, “From January to May this year, almost 1,447 cases of pipeline hacking were recorded, resulting to a loss of 109 million litres of petrol and 560,000 barrels of crude oil to refineries, posing a great threat to the nation’s economy and the 2016 federal budget.

“The 2016 budget plan was based on 2.2 million barrels per day (bpd) of crude oil production. However, the budget plan is now grossly impacted due to renewed militancy with about 700,000bpd of oil production curtailed due to pipeline vandalism.”

A statement issued in Abuja yesterday by the president’s media aide, Mr Garba Shehu, said Buhari spoke of the government’s engagement with the militants in the oil-rich region when he met with the outgoing Ambassador to Germany, Mr. Michael Zinner, at the State House.

Buhari assured his guest: “We understand their feelings. We are studying the instruments. We have to secure the environment, otherwise investment will not come. We will do our best for the country.”

The President’s attempts in the past to use strong-arm tactics and threats to corral the militants have met with little or no success. Military deployment of personnel and equipment such as gun boats and helicopters to the area has yielded minimal fruits. And international observers have warned the government that an outright military action in the region would only worsen the state of affairs in the region.

Meanwhile, the militant group, Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) on Friday told President Muhammadu Buhari to stop deceiving the people and international community that his administration is in talks with its members in the region.

In a statement signed by its spokesman, Mudoch Agbinibo, NDA said there was no such meeting with the Federal Government. It noted that if there was any such meeting, it then means that the President was talking to his mercenaries sent to disturb the genuine struggle of the agitators

“Our attention has been drawn to media report that the President is in touch with Niger Delta agitators including the Niger Delta Avengers but the truth is that we are not aware of any peace talk.

“If there is any such peace talk, it means the President is talking to their mercenaries set to disturb the genuine struggle of the agitators.

“President Buhari-led government is not sincere to the Nigerian people and their foreign allies.

“If we are to engage in any peace talk, we made it clear that the international community must be part of it. The President knows our demands. So they should stop deceiving the international oil companies, the general public and the international community”, it stated.

But as Buhari assured the ambassador of peace talks in the oil region, the Avengers issued another threat to oil workers, asking all of them to vacate the oil fields and terminals because it was ready to “fight dirty”.

The militant group, in a statement by its spokesman, Mudoch Agbinibo, yesterday morning, specifically warned the two major oil workers’ unions in the country – the Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) and Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN) – and foreign oil company workers to leave the oil fields and terminals because “it will soon be very dirty”.

Another group, the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC) dismissed the government’s position, noting in a statement by its spokesperson, Mr. Eric Omare, that such a statement by the President Muhammadu Buhari showed lack of seriousness by the present administration to end attacks on oil facilities in the region.

“The Ijaw Youth Council worldwide says that President Buhari and the Federal Government of Nigeria should stop deceiving Nigerians and the international community about talks with Niger Delta militants on how to stop attacks on oil facilities in the Niger Delta region,” the statement said.

“It is highly ridiculous and laughable for President Buhari to say that his government is negotiating with Niger Delta militants through oil companies and law enforcement agencies during the farewell audience with Mr. Michael Zinner, the outgoing Ambassador to Germany on Thursday, on the 21st of July, 2016.”

The group argued that what was happening in the region was beyond what oil companies and security authorities could handle without the direct involvement of the government.

It said, “The IYC wonders if Nigeria is back to the pre-colonial and independence Royal Niger Company days where international companies govern Nigeria. The point must be made that the issues at stake are completely beyond the capacity of oil companies to resolve.

“For the umpteenth time, the IYC call on the aides and advisers to President Buhari to properly advise him on how to solve the current hostilities in the Niger Delta region and equally display a determination to resolve the problem as his predecessors did.

“Only a sincere and holistic dialogue with the people of the Niger Delta region which is aimed at addressing the remote causes of recurrent militancy can bring permanent peace to the Niger Delta region. This can only happen when President Buhari as the political leader of Nigeria comes down to the negotiation table.”

President Buhari, one may conclude from his body language and utterances so far, is unlikely to personally engage the agitators any time soon. As a former general, he may be inclined to believe that only a total and unconditional surrender by the militants is palatable. But, remarkably, the militants have refused to play his game. They are indignant in their righteous claim to the natural resources from the region and have staked their claim. In the meantime, the region, soaked in oil, burns everyday, even as the national economy continues its spiral into deeper recession.

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