Nigerian Militants Influencing Election Campaign

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 4 Issue: 5

Mujahid Dokubo-Asari

A judge in Nigeria on Tuesday rejected jailed Ijaw militant leader Mujahid Dokubo-Asari’s bail request, delaying a decision until June, well after the upcoming April 14 and April 21 elections. Only weeks after Asari threatened to kill Federal High Court Judge Peter Olayiwola and his entire family, there was speculation that he would be released before the elections under a political deal with the government (Daily Trust, February 13; Rhythm FM, March 6). Asari, the leader of the Niger Delta Peoples Volunteer Force (NDPVF), is currently being charged for treason; his detention, however, is one factor behind the surge in kidnappings in Nigeria’s delta region, with the various Ijaw militant groups demanding his release. The main militant group in the delta, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), has claimed that it will not cease its attacks on foreigners and the energy industry until Asari is freed (Daily Trust, February 13; Terrorism Monitor, August 10, 2006). Analysts say that MEND has been responsible for knocking out 20-40% of Nigeria’s oil production capacity, approximately 600,000 to 900,000 barrels per day. This is primarily accomplished by kidnapping expatriate staff working on Nigeria’s energy installations. The government has detained Asari for more than a year, but has had difficulty prosecuting his case. Nevertheless, the failure to release Asari before the polls will not necessarily boost violence in the delta any more than is already expected.

For Nigeria’s South-South region—comprised of the country’s oil producing states—the outcome of the elections is critical since it will determine the control of millions of dollars in oil revenue. As a result, Nigerian politicians are often involved in arming and funding delta militia groups who then use violence and intimidation to rig the elections in their patrons’ favor. The process of arming militias and criminal groups, which also occurred during the 1999 and 2003 elections, affects Nigeria’s oil industry since these same militant groups later use those arms and resources to kidnap and ransom foreign energy staff, especially Westerners. Asari himself benefited from state support when he was leading the NDPVF, but his falling out with the government eventually led to his arrest. Not all of the kidnappings in the region result from Ijaw grievances or from politically motivated violence, as there is a significant amount of criminality involved.

As a result of the violence perpetuated in the delta, the candidates in the upcoming presidential elections have outlined their respective policies to alleviate the delta unrest, an important domestic goal since 95% of the country’s export earnings derive from the oil and gas trade. The main presidential contender from President Olusegun Obasanjo’s Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar’adua, chose as his vice presidential running mate Goodluck Jonathan, who is from the South-South region. Yar’adua also recently promised that, if elected, he would pursue an aggressive development campaign in the delta, based upon the “Marshall Plan” of World War II (This Day, March 13). Another major presidential candidate, current Vice President Atiku Abubakar (who may be disqualified due to corruption charges), has laid out his policies for the delta region extensively, outlining how if elected he would appoint an oil minister from the Niger Delta and create the Ministry of the Niger Delta to accelerate the development of the region, among other initiatives. Furthermore, Atiku suggested setting up a Coast Guard in the delta region—consisting of the very militants who are behind much of the current violence in the delta—to assist naval patrols in the area (This Day, March 4).

Nevertheless, analysts on the ground believe that the PDP will come out as the victors in the South-South largely because they have extensive ties with various militant groups that will be contracted to force that outcome. One recent example of the relationship between political party leaders and militia groups was in Ogun state, when Atiku’s Action Congress’ secretariat was attacked by armed thugs who were allegedly hired by a political party in Ogun that was concerned over opposition party gains (Vanguard, March 12). The latest polls from the region find that the PDP has a significant lead in many of the delta states (This Day, March 11).

The stability of Nigerian oil production is a critical interest of the United States since it relies on Nigeria for about 14% of its energy resources, a number that it hopes to increase in order to decrease imports from the volatile Middle East. Yet it is unclear whether the escalation of violence in the delta is only a result of the upcoming elections, or if it is becoming a more permanent problem. If it is the latter, then the new government that takes power in May will need to spend considerable resources on resolving the crisis in the delta before it loses complete control over the various militant factions, who have the potential to grind Nigeria’s energy industry to a halt.