ABUJA, Nigeria — Former militants are offering to help security forces combat what appears to be a surge in piracy and kidnapping in the Niger Delta. This comes after a report that the government pays other former militant leaders millions of dollars yearly to protect the oil pipelines they used to attack.
“Peace” in the Niger Delta is an expensive balancing act, and the people that keep it regularly change alliances to maintain the calm or make the most of the funds.
Between 2003 and 2009 it was an all-out battle in the Niger Delta. Militants say they were fighting oil companies and the government for the people’s share of Nigeria’s considerable oil wealth. Foreign oil giants and the government extract more than 2.5 million barrels of crude oil daily from the region.
Payment program generates great demand
In 2009, the government rolled out an amnesty program, investing tens of millions of dollars in paying fighters to lay down their weapons and get job training. Since then, former militants - or freedom fighters - have jockeyed for a larger share of the amnesty funds, now hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
Last month, The Wall Street Journal reported that individual former militant leaders are being paid between $3.8 million and $22.9 million a year to protect the oil infrastructure they used to attack. Not all militant leaders have been so lucky.
Captain Mark Anthony is a spokesperson for the Niger Delta Liberation Front, a group that claims to be operational, but not currently fighting. In June, Anthony said his group was preparing for battle and demanded more than $6 million to keep the peace.
He now says the government should pay him and his men to protect communities from a new crime wave that the Nigerian police say includes 32 kidnappings in August alone.
“Insecurity is everywhere, particularly kidnapping," said Anthony. "And we felt that we could give support to the security authorities and the state if we are allowed because we know what is happening. We are from the roots, from the communities.”
Turnabout for militant group's counsel
Casely Omon-Ihabor is a lawyer who represents Anthony’s group. A few months ago, he railed against the government, saying it had paid off some militants to make peace, but had done nothing to fix the issues they were fighting for.
In recent months, though, he says kidnapping and armed robberies have become near-daily events and this has changed his mind. Now he wants the group to help the government fight criminals so the government can focus on development.
“So somebody should put their hands on deck to avoid anything that will undermine the development of the Niger Delta," said Omon-Ihabor. "We don’t want the federal government to have an excuse not to develop the Niger Delta. So we are not going to support kidnappers or armed robbery.”
Challenging the conventional wisdom
Nigerians are generally fond of sayings - like “it takes a thief to catch a thief” - and many agree with this logic. Others, however, think the whole idea of paying former militants to fight crime is absurd.
Edward Oforomeh is another lawyer in Warri, a run-down oil city in the Niger Delta known for frequent kidnappings. He said the government should spend more money equipping their security forces and none toward paying former militants.
"They are hoodlums. As far as I am concerned, they are hoodlums," said Oforomeh. "Train the people on the ground. Train the police. Give them the wherewithal to do their jobs.”
Oforomeh said the Nigerian police have the capacity to fight crime, but lack training and equipment. He said re-arming the same groups that created chaos in Niger Delta years ago would just re-create the chaos.
Hilary Uguru contributed to this report from Warri, Nigeria