The ceasefire announced by the militant group, the Niger Delta Avengers, on Saturday night has offered new hope for the resolution of the crisis in the oil-rich region as several stakeholders welcomed the development on Sunday.
Leading the pack of supporters of the ceasefire, which came a day after a stakeholders’ conference in Warri, facilitated by a former Minister of Information, Chief Edwin Clark, is the Ijaw Youths Council, which hailed the cessation of hostility as a step towards the restoration of peace.
Niger Delta elders, including leaders of thoughts, traditional rulers and senior government officials from the region had met on Friday to deliberate on the resurgence of militancy and increasing violence in the region.
The meeting, which was addressed by Clarke and Governor Ifeanyi Okowa of Delta State, called for, among others, an end to militancy and withdrawal of troops from the region. It also resolved to support the clamour for the restructuring of the federation as recommended by the 2014 National conference held in Abuja. It resolved to form a Pan Niger Delta platform to represent the region in the proposed negotiation between the federal government and the militants.
In an apparent response to the Niger Delta elders’ appeal for peace, the Avengers said it had decided to lay down its arms for a moment pending discussions with the federal government.
The Ijaw Youths Council (IYC) hailed this declaration of ceasefire against attacks on oil installations in the region yesterday in a statement by its spokesperson, Eric Omare, and said was a welcome development.
It said the council had always advocated dialogue as the means to the resolution of the Niger Delta crisis.
“We welcome the conditional declaration of ceasefire by the Niger Delta Avengers if it is actually from them,” it said.
The Avengers, the militant group that had claimed responsibility for bombings of several oil facilities, had weekend formally declared cessation of hostilities in the Niger Delta region.
It declared support for any negotiating team that Chief Edwin Clark’s Niger Delta elders and stakeholders’ conference held last Friday might raise to negotiate with the federal government and multinational oil companies on modalities for de-escalating conflicts in the region.
The Avengers, in a statement by its spokesperson, Mudoch Agbinibo, had said it would continue to observe its unannounced cessation of hostilities against all interests of oil companies but warned it would engage in asymmetric warfare during the period if the federal government use security agencies to harass or intimidate its suspected members.
“We are going to continue the observation of our unannounced cessation of hostilities in the Niger Delta against all interests of the multinational oil corporations, but we will continuously adopt our asymmetric warfare during this period if the Nigerian government and the ruling political APC continues to use security agencies/agents, formations and politicians to arrest, intimidate, invade and harass innocent citizens, suspected NDA members and invade especially Ijaw communities,” it stated.
The Ijaw youths however called on the federal government, especially President Muhammadu Buhari, to take advantage of the ceasefire to aggressively dialogue with the people of the region to address the issues affecting the region.
“For the umpteenth time, we call for a bipartisan and sincere dialogue to resolve the root causes of the recurrent Niger Delta crisis. The dialogue should be issue-based and not to solve immediate problems and massage the ego of personalities.
“President Buhari must avoid listening to political hawks around him at the expense of the country’s unity and development,” it concluded.
This development came up shortly after Leaders of Gbaramatu kingdom in Warri South West Local Government Area of Delta State raised the alarm about the planned invasion of the kingdom by the military under the guise of searching for members of the Avengers.
The Benenibowei of Gbaramatu Kingdom, Chief Godspower Gbenekama, who raised the alarm at a press conference in Warri, said people had been fleeing the various Ijaw communities when it became known that the military had concluded arrangements to invade the kingdom.
“Please help us tell the whole world that the military has concluded plans to invade Gbaramatu communities under the guise of looking for members of the Niger Delta Avengers. It is the innocent people of our communities that will suffer should the military go ahead to bombard our communities. We don’t harbour members of the Niger Delta Avengers. The agitation cuts across the region so why singling out only Gbaramatu kingdom?” he asked.
Gbenekama, who is also the spokesperson of the Gbaramatu Traditional Council, said information available to them was that the kingdom might be invaded by the military, noting that soldiers had already been massed in the region ready to launch attack any moment from now.
Also yesterday, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), which had recently claimed to be in the forefront of the peace process has disparaged the meeting convened by elder statesman, Chief Clark, and urged the federal government to discountenance all efforts by the committee.
According to MEND, the meeting jointly convened by Clark and Governor Ifeanyi Okowa of Delta State in Warri on Friday, would not give the region the much needed calm, which would enable government to develop the area.
It was learnt that the alleged linkage of former President Goodluck Jonathan to the formation of the Avengers might have set several militant groups in the region against one another.
While the Reformed Niger Delta Avengers (RNDA), a splinter group from the NDA, and MEND have recently spearheaded the campaign, some of the groups in the Niger Delta were also said to have been riled over the reports of the linkage.
Over a week ago, the RNDA, believed to be sponsored by MEND, published names of 20 alleged sponsors of the NDA, the group it broke away from, naming the ex-president as well as former and serving governors of southern states as the pillars behind the renewed militancy in the region.
But yesterday, a splinter Niger Delta ex-militants’ group, the Reformed Egbesu Avengers (REA), vowed to go after those it said have recently begun a smear campaign against ex-President Jonathan by linking him with the current violent militancy in the region.
In a statement issued in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State, by the group’s spokesman, ‘General’ Columbus Okolobo, the group specifically pledged to hunt down the leadership of the RNDA, which it said had become the mouthpiece of politicians who are bent on rubbishing the ex-president’s ‘rising profile’.
It particularly singled out one Cynthia Whyte, spokesperson of the RNDA, the arrow head of the campaign, for ‘peddling falsehood’ and challenged the spokesperson to reveal his/her true identity.
The Egbesu Avengers described the purported security/intelligence report linking Jonathan with the rising militancy in the area as a cover for the accusers’ sinister motives and advised the group to return to the original tenets of the struggle.
“The lid has blown open over Cynthia Whyte, as Nigerians now understand that the same person is the spokesperson for MEND and the RNDA. We urge them to quit acting scripts because they can no longer masquerade, the carpet is off their feet.
“The cordial relationship between RNDA and other militant groups with security agencies points to the fact that there is a romance to hatch devilish allegations and machinations against perceived political foes,” the Egbesu group alleged.
Meanwhile, oil companies and even Nigerian officials are losing faith in a deal anytime soon with militants who have slashed the nation’s oil output, casting doubt on a production recovery in what is typically Africa’s largest oil exporter, Reuters has reported.
In the six months since the first major attack on Nigeria’s oil – a sophisticated bombing of the subsea Forcados pipeline – dozens of attacks have pushed outages to more than 700,000 barrels per day (bpd), the highest in seven years.
Talk in the country has shifted from ceasefire optimism and oil companies’ assurances that repairs were underway, to hedged comments from the government and radio silence from oil majors.
Yesterday, the Avengers, which have claimed several major pipeline attacks, said in a statement they were ready to give dialogue a chance.
But highlighting the fracturing of militants into small groups, the previous day, a group called Niger Delta Green Justice Mandate claimed an attack on a gas pipeline in the southern swamps lands.
Without a unified command and groups dominated by “generals” unable to fully control their own fighters, it is difficult for the government to identify the right people to talk to or enforce any ceasefire.
“People are giving up in the short term,” one oil industry source told Reuters of a resumption in exports of key Nigerian grades such as Forcados or Qua Iboe, adding you “can’t get anything” out of the majors, including Shell, Chevron, ExxonMobil or ENI, about when the oil might come back.
Shell declined to comment, while the other companies did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In June, Nigerian government officials said privately it had a ceasefire with militants. But pessimism crept in, with even Oil Minister Emmanuel Ibe Kachikwu telling journalists this week “we are talking but (it) is not an easy thing,” and “we need a ceasefire” – a contrast to the belief that a ceasefire was underway.
He has also said another challenge to brokering a ceasefire is that there were several militant groups to talk to.
The problems reflect deep-seated issues in the Niger Delta, which produces the bulk of oil but whose local communities complain of pollution, a lack of opportunities and what they say is an insufficient share of petro dollars. These problems are compounded by an economic crisis and a government battle with Boko Haram militants in the north.
“This is likely the beginning,” Elizabeth Donnelly, deputy head and research fellow of London think-tank Chatham House’s Africa Programme said of the unrest, adding that “the resolution that will come will not come quickly”.
The government this month resumed cash payments to militant groups that it stopped in February, just before the launch of the worst violence since the payments began under a 2009 amnesty. But attacks continued anyway.
The Avengers claimed the bulk of them, announcing strikes on Twitter even before oil majors themselves knew their remote pipelines had been hit. Twitter shut the group’s account, but sources said the Avengers have extensive knowledge of oil sites, and follow the media closely to track companies’ actions.
“With the Avengers, you don’t want to say ‘we’ll be back up next Wednesday’, because then you’ll get a bomb next Tuesday,” one oil executive said. “They have to be careful.”
But new groups, such as the self-styled Revolution Alliance, which claimed an attack on a Shell-owned oil line, loom, while non-violent local protests have also exacted a toll.
Collings Edema, a local youths leader of the Itsekiri group that has blocked access to Chevron’s Escravos tank farm for almost two weeks, said “the oil companies have not shown any sign that they are ready to improve our lives”.
Experts warned that as long as people are unhappy, militants and their targets could evolve in unpredictable ways.
“This is also about frustrations of younger people coming up in the Niger Delta and needs not having been addressed,” Donnelly said. “This isn’t just about militancy, though the political and economic context feeds it.”
Adding to the division of the militant scene, MEND, another group which agreed to a ceasefire in 2009, denounced the Avengers due to its “criminal and treasonable activities”.
“MEND reiterates its full support for the ongoing military presence in the Niger Delta,” it said in a statement, referring to a recent military campaign to hunt down the Avengers.