Almost exactly a year ago (July 8, 2008) I wrote an article predicting that if a solution to the Niger Delta crisis was not quickly found, the militants would extend "their operations to non-riverine areas and major population centres like Lagos and Abuja."
Atlas Cove ÔÇô The Turning Point
Sadly, last week my prediction came true as MEND attacked the Atlas Cove jetty in Lagos, killing up to ten people. MEND had previously restricted its activities to the Niger Delta. However the Lagos attack ÔÇô in Nigeria's most populous and cosmopolitan city has brought the reality of the Niger Delta crisis home to Nigerians of many shades. With its multi-ethnic character and residents with origins from every far flung corner of Nigeria, Lagos is a microcosm of Nigeria. Since most Nigerians have a friend or relative in Lagos, it has shaken Nigerians out of their complacency.
While sympathising with the grievances of the militants, most non-Delta Nigerians have been ambivalent about the situation, and regarded it as something "going on down there" in the Delta. Many Nigerians regard the Delta as someone else's problem. Nigerians may now finally realise that wherever they live, the Niger Delta is their problem too.
Where Did Your City Come From?
A few statistics illustrate the inequity of the Nigerian oil industry: only 9 of Nigeria's 36 states produce oil, and that 75% of Nigeria's oil, and 50% of its earnings, come from only 3 of the 36 states (Bayelsa, Delta and Rivers).
Whether you live in Lagos, Kano, Enugu, Kaduna, Abuja, Ibadan, Jos or Kano, the oil and money from the Delta was, and continues to be used to build your city, the roads you walk and drive on, the schools and universities you and your family attend, and your hospital. It might even pay your salary too if you work for the government.
Modern Nigeria has been built on the blood, suffering and tears of the Delta. Nigeria moved its capital city several hundred miles from Lagos to Abuja and constructed a new modern capital city out of the bush, because it could finance it using Delta oil money. While you might live in a modern city, the people who live in the places where the oil comes from, live with polluted water supplies, dead crops, oil spills that will take centuries to clear, and poisonous gas in their lungs.
The Evolution of the Struggle
MEND's tactics have evolved and become increasingly violent. They started with kidnapping oil workers, then graduated to attacking oil installations in the Delta, and now to a spectacular attack in a far away city. What is the next escalation?
This is a critical juncture for both MEND and Nigerians. MEND has succeeded in bringing the Delta's grievances to the world's attention and has made it a major political issue within Nigeria. However, MEND has not succeeded at educating the Nigerian public about their demands.
A Turning Point
Although MEND succeeded in demonstrating its prowess and ability to attack targets far outside the Delta, the Atlas Cove attack may have been a political miscalculation. Public reaction to the attack has been unusually harsh and combative. Continued attacks in major cities may turn the public against MEND and make it difficult for the government to make concessions. Whether they realise it or not, the Nigerian public are their best friends. Only by winning the public's sympathy can the militants form a groundswell of public opinion sufficient to pressurise the government into finding a drastic solution.
Which Way Next?
The Niger Delta militants are not one organisation operating under a common leadership with unified ideology. There is no central chain of command or a clearly defined political ideal. Rather the militants are a loose eclectic mix of several aggrieved armed factions like MEND and the Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force. The multi-headed militant hydra is not easy for the public to understand.
Their shadowy nature is an asset and a hindrance. While their mystique makes their detection and suppression difficult for the Nigerian security forces, it also makes them faceless and has prevented them from making political progress.
Violence is the Means, Not the End
The militants must understand that violence is the means, not the end. If they rely on violence alone, they will provoke the federal government into a massive military crackdown. The government can sustain a low intensity conflict for several years without an existential threat to Nigeria or its control over the oil industry. The Delta violence even benefits the government in a financially perverse way. Attacks on oil installations disrupt the global oil market and increases prices. Higher oil prices equals more money for the federal government.
The militants cannot succeed through violence alone and at some point will have to engage the federal government in serious negotiations. Violence was used by the ANC, IRA and PLO to bring their opponents to the negotiating table. One day, the militants must make the transition from resistance movement to political organisation. If that day comes, can they negotiate?
The militants require a political wing and a skilled orator to articulate their struggle. The ANC had Nelson Mandela, the IRA had Gerry Adams, the PLO had Yasser Arafat. Who is their interlocutor?
If the militants rely on violence alone, we may end up with another Saro-Wiwa or Adaka Boro outcomeÔÇŽ..