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Environmental destruction and poor resource governance are provoking a second conflict in Nigeria – an interview with Udeme Akpan

Nigeria has been battling Islamic militants in its North-East since 2009, yet the government now also faces the prospect of a second internal conflict – for very different reasons. Militant groups in the Niger Delta have sabotaged pipelines and launched attacks on vital oil infrastructure in protest after a reigniting of long-standing grievances held by local communities. In an interview extracted from the July 2016 edition of IOA’s Africa Conflict Monitor (ACM), Udeme Akpan, a Nigeria-based IOA consultant and journalist and author with over 20 years of experience examining the dynamics of Nigeria’s energy sector, says that environmental devastation in the Niger Delta is “real and forms the basis of the conflict.”

Oil-sodden marshland in the Niger Delta. Photo courtesy Sosialistisk Ungdom (SU)/Flickr
Oil-sodden marshland in the Niger Delta. Photo courtesy Sosialistisk Ungdom (SU)/Flickr

Since early 2016, violence has flared up in the Niger Delta, the heartland of Nigeria’s oil production. The attacks have been conducted by a range of militia groups, foremost among them the Nigerian Delta Avengers. The group has declared that its goal is to bring Nigeria’s oil industry to a complete halt. Can you tell us more about these militant groups, and the reasons behind their attacks?

The Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) is made up of militants who were formerly a part of insurgent movements in the early 2000s. These militants had in the past demonstrated their commitment to aggressively protecting the interests of the region, lashing out against foreign-owned oil facilities and government paramilitary groups. But the thinking in some quarters is that members of the NDA also have a personal interest in renewing conflict, as they, in one way or another, benefited from concessions made by the previous administration led by then President Goodluck Jonathan.

In 2009, Jonathan brokered an amnesty deal that gave militants a US$ 325 stipend per month and a share in pipeline contracts if the militants ended their attacks. These concessions were dropped by current President Muhammadu Buhari after he came to power in 2015. In other words, the attacks are fuelled mainly by the unwillingness of the current regime of President Muhammadu Buhari to sustain contracts and other things that the former government put in place for the militants.

Also, since the members of the NDA are drawn mainly from Jonathan’s kinsmen – Jonathan is from the Delta region of Bayelsa – it is also perceived as a reaction to President Buhari’s move to probe some people involved in Jonathan’s administration for corruption during their time in office. Another theory is that the militants are out to destabilise Buhari’s present administration; this follows the perception that some of Buhari’s key officials abetted Boko Haram to sabotage Jonathan’s rule.

The threat to the Niger Delta, long overshadowed by Boko Haram’s insurgency in north-east Nigeria, has become serious enough that the military has been deployed to protect key oil sites. What do you foresee as being some of the difficulties for Nigeria’s government, as it is stretched by having to deal with conflict on two fronts?

The government has to be concerned about the threat of dealing with two internal wars. Firstly, the military’s limited funds will be overstretched, especially given the notable levels of corruption within Nigeria’s military, where money meant for equipment and operations is being embezzled by military officials. Secondly, the military is also likely to face a shortage of personnel required to adequately fight both groups. The combination of the two factors may mean that both conflicts could drag on for some time, especially if a political solution cannot be found to placate heavily armed militia groups in the Niger Delta.

On 2 June 2016, the Nigerian government launched a US$ 1 billion clean-up and restoration initiative in the Ogoniland region, of the Niger Delta, to repair widespread environmental damage caused by oil extraction. Some experts think it could take up to 25 years to fully rehabilitate the area. Can you discuss the role environmental destruction, specifically, has played in the Niger Delta conflict?

This constitutes one of the main issues examined in my book, The Niger Delta and Oil Politics. Let me just give you the summary. The environmental destruction of the region is real and forms the primary basis for the conflict. The main reason is that Nigeria was not ready in terms of policies, incentives, environmental regulations and enforcement when national oil production began in 1956. The operators did very little or nothing to protect the environment, especially between the 1950s and 1970s. Oil was spilled into the environment at tremendous rates. Meanwhile, commercial natural gas operations decided to utilise gas flares – elevated towers that simply burn off excess gas flows to avoid generating too much pressure on drilling machinery – which produce a large amount of pollution and are therefore only meant to be a short term solution. However, these flares are still being used today, because for most operators it is a cheaper alternative than putting in place the required technology to capture greater quantities of natural gas or harness the excess and divert it toward other applications.

Sadly, this legacy of pollution has not been stopped for multiple reasons. First, the government has not been able to provide adequate resources to fund joint venture projects with international oil companies to persuade them to upgrade their technology. Second, the government watchdog and clean-up agencies such as the Department of Petroleum Resources and National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency (NOSDRA) are also not well funded. They lack adequate equipment to enforce compliance. Third, the increased hostilities in the region have exacerbated the pollution problem through pipeline vandalism and other activities that either create spills or prevent authorities from assessing their damage and engaging in clean-up operations.

You have spent much of your career as a journalist and investigative reporter covering Nigeria’s energy sector. Could you elaborate on the potential consequences that a prolonged depression in global oil prices, combined with a destabilised Niger Delta, could have for the Nigerian economy? What policies could the government pursue to guard against a worst-case scenario?

The prolonged low oil prices will continue to haunt Nigeria and its economy. The nation depends on oil for almost everything. Efforts targeted at diversifying the economy have not yet yielded fruit. Depressed oil prices have meant that international and state oil companies, and the spin-off industries and government departments dependent on the revenue they generate, have been compelled to cut their budgets by over 40%. The result is that contracts for many projects and associated programmes have been reviewed, suspended or cancelled. Consequently, the rig count has dropped drastically in the industry. Also, many oil servicing companies have virtually nothing to do and their workers are being retrenched. Many oil-bearing states, and others who depend on the Federal Government for monetary allocation, have not been able to pay workers for months.

Moreover, the prolonged drop in oil prices has also reduced the capacity of the government to fund its 2016 budget. At present, there is a budget deficit of N2.2 trillion (US$ 7.8 billion) – the equivalent of 36% of the budget or 2.41% of gross domestic product (GDP). Furthermore, the depletion of foreign reserves has crippled the ability of Nigeria’s central bank to defend the Naira and has led to the devaluation of the currency on 20 June. To stave off a debilitating crisis, the government must show prudence in the management of the nation’s scarce resources; the government must also immediately initiate actions toward diversifying the economy. In order words: the government should not continue to talk about diversification, it should lead the efforts.

Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari was elected in May 2015 due, in large part, to running on a campaign platform that promised to crack down on the pervasive corruption that flourished under his predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan. How would you appraise his efforts thus far, and what further strategies must be pursued?

Many Nigerians perceive President Buhari as the epitome of transparency and accountability. In the past few months, the administration has made efforts to prosecute many Nigerians suspected of stealing public funds. But some observers believe that Buhari’s actions have not been far-reaching enough. Specifically, the administration has been criticised for targeting mainly members of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) – the party of Buhari’s predecessor Goodluck Jonathan, which ruled Nigeria from 1999-2015. In addition to these efforts, the government should strengthen institutions that can fight corruption, as well as demonstrate that anti-corruption measures apply to members of Buhari’s own party, the All Progressives Congress (APC) just as much as it does to other parties.

Close to two-thirds of the population of Nigeria – Africa’s most populous nation – are under the age of 30 and experience a youth unemployment levels approaching 50%. Could you discuss some of the latent socio-economic challenges that Nigeria faces, and which of them could spark further conflict in the future?

The nation has a large population that will continue to grow in the coming years. The major challenges that stare the nation in the face include a booming youth demographic, huge unemployment, high inflation and abject poverty. If not properly handled, these could lead to social crises, including mass protest and escalating crime – including violent crime, such as armed robbery – as many people will seek illegal ways and means to survive.

This will continue to put pressure on the government, especially in terms of development. It should, however, be noted that the problem of Nigeria is not between the North and South, as it is regularly described – that is an oversimplification. Even though many states in the South have done well in terms of development there are still deprived states there, just like in the North.

Interview conducted by ACM Associate Editor, Kyle Hiebert