If Nigeria’s government plans to sit down with the militant groups that have wreaked havoc on its oil industry, they will need a lot of chairs.
More than a dozen groups have appeared since attacks on oil pipelines started earlier this year, each claiming their own constituencies and making their own demands.
While some in the Niger Delta say dialogue is the best way to save lives and quell the ongoing insurgency, others say the government’s July decision to talk with the militant groups is merely encouraging them.
“They are criminals. Their activities are criminal,” said Edward Ekpoko, the chairman of a development organization based in the delta city of Warri. “You see, it’s like saying government is harmonizing armed robbers, so they can dialogue not to rob again. It’s an impossibility.”
Starting earlier this year, a group calling itself the Niger Delta Avengers took credit for a series of blasts targeting pipelines and other types of oil infrastructure that severely disrupted Nigeria’s oil output.
They claim to be fighting for a greater share of oil revenue in the delta, which was also the demand of militant groups who fought in the delta until 2009, when the government started paying them off and offering job training as part of an amnesty program.
Despite years of promises by three different Nigerian administrations to develop the region, the delta remains poor.
Nigeria’s state-owned oil company said in a statement released last week that the recent violence in the delta could be “crippling” to the industry. Production has dropped to 1.5 million barrels per-day, from its usual level of around 2.2 million barrels.
Nigeria is now in a recession due to a shortfall in oil revenue.
The Avengers have since been joined by other groups, who have announced their presence with statements posted on social media or emails to journalists.
The Joint Niger Delta Liberation Force, Utorogun Liberation Movement, Red Scorpion and the Reformed Egbesu Boys are all groups that have popped up in recent months.
Some, like the Niger Delta Greenland Justice Mandate, say they’ve carried out attacks. Others merely list demands, or claim they’re not taking part in government negotiations.
“You must separate criminality from the genuine struggle for development,” said Ekpoko, who favors deploying the military against the groups.
But attorney and retired police officer Edward Oforomeh says the government shouldn’t write off the different actors.
“Whether they are justified or not will come up when they are discussing,” Oforomeh said. “It is an opportunity for everybody to come up, then they will all harmonize.”
The government hasn’t completely ruled out using its armed forces to stop the militants. Last month, Nigeria’s military sent troops into the delta as part of “Operation Crocodile Smile,” an ongoing campaign targeted at criminals and oil militants.
Lawrence Dube, head of the governance team at the Niger Delta-based Center for Environment, Human Rights and Development, said negotiation would be useful in preventing violence in the delta from escalating.
But deciding who should be at the table with government negotiators and who is just making empty threats will be a tough chore.
“It’s very difficult to detect the real identity of these people,” Dube said. “We’ve not been able to capture anybody. Our government intelligence has not been able to provide any reality regarding who is who and who is really not who.”
He acknowledged some groups could be attempting to ride on the coat tails of the Avengers or other more well-known organizations as a way of getting the government’s attention.
“In this region it had become fashionable to believe that ... until that you carry gun and put government under threat and make the country unstable, nobody listens to you,” Dube said.
Hilary Uguru contributed to this report from Warri, Nigeria.