When he was campaigning for the Nigerian presidency last year, Muhammadu Buhari seemed to be channeling Captain America. Like the Marvel character, Buhari’s tough-talking, clean-cut military persona harkens back to a simpler time when his country had clear enemies and even clearer choices.
Back when General Buhari was head of state—in the early 1980s he served atop Nigeria’s executive branch for three years following a military coup—the country’s main challenge was corruption. Now, corruption is just as rampant as it was then, but the country of 182 million faces an insurgency from Boko Haram in the North, attacks from oil-infrastructure-sabotaging militants in the South (the so-called ‘Avengers’), and lingering separatist sentiments in the Biafran East, making the Nigerian president’s choices are more difficult than ever. As this low-grade, low-mobilization civil war rages on multiple fronts, the big question is: With so many villains on the loose, who should Captain Nigeria tackle first?
It’s becoming increasingly clear that Buhari should prioritize the Avengers. He has to subdue them to keep the country’s oil flowing and to make sure that the government can pay its debts and salaries (especially to the soldiers battling Boko Haram in the North). The Financial Times reports on the rise of the shadowy militant group in the country’s oil-rich South:
Attacks by the militants — who say destroying oil wells and the pipelines snaking through their communities is the only way to be heard — reduced oil production by about 700,000 barrels a day to 1.5m b/d in May. As a result, Nigeria slipped from its position as Africa’s top oil producer.
Repairs have pushed output back up by at least 200,000 b/d. But the blow to production has been disastrous for Mr Buhari, a former army general who won elections last year.
The cash-strapped federal government has yet to secure funds to plug a $11bn deficit in this year’s budget, while many state governments have not paid salaries for months.
It’s important to note that, unlike Boko Haram, the Avengers are not motivated by a radical religious ideology. They do live and fight in Nigeria’s predominantly Christian South, and some of them have expressed animosity towards President Buhari, who is a Muslim, but their main grievances have to do with a sense of neglect. The Niger Delta is not so much a microcosm as a magnifying glass for Nigeria, revealing a warped and intensified view of the country’s problems and promise: The Delta is a land blessed with tremendous resource wealth, but challenged by the scourge of corruption, poverty, and militancy. Oil brings jobs and wealth to the country’s business and governing elite, hundreds of miles away in Lagos and Abuja, but spills have poisoned the fishing and farming communities closest to the crude; electrification and income in the Delta lag behind the rest of the country. In sum, the Niger Delta receives few of the benefits of Nigeria’s oil boom and has to shoulder many of its costs instead. It’s an arrangement that has fueled resentment for years.
And in a region that remains destitute despite its riches, militancy starts to look like a pretty compelling alternative to unemployment. The FT article profiles one of the Avenger militants (you should read the whole thing) and reports that he is receiving $70 for every attack he supports. Meanwhile, Buhari has promised to scuttle a government amnesty program that provides job training and monthly payments for former militants in the Delta (the Avengers are only the latest and most damaging in a long line of fighters from the region). The program’s payments haven’t arrived for months and some have suggested that, without the monthly check, some former militants have fallen back on their old ways.
Buhari should certainly think hard about his plan to dismantle the “bribe for peace” program; if it was responsible for the Delta’s decline in violence before this past year, and if the lapse in payments is contributing to the Avengers’ appeal now, it might be worth extending the program. Sustained investment in power infrastructure would also cost far less than years of on-and-off insurgency; a real focus on economic development in the Delta would soften the resentment that flows as easily as the oil there. Whether Captain Nigeria manages to wrangle the Niger Delta’s wayward Avengers into submission remains to be seen; until then, Nigeria’s low-grade civil war will continue to rage on its multiple fronts.