Friday, June 10, 2016

Nigeria faces 'almost impossible' fight against 'Niger Delta Avengers'

Nigeria has vowed to rein in the militants who are relentlessly bombing the country's oil infrastructure and have slashed its crude output, reports. But experts say the government of President Muhammadu Buhari lacks the military capacity and institutions to tackle the threat — and military action could make things much worse anyway.

Little is certain about the motives of the Niger Delta Avengers. But the group claims through its website and Twitter feed that it wants a bigger share of the Niger Delta's resource wealth to go to the region's people, and it wants some sort of environmental remediation after decades of rampant oil and gas pollution.

What is certain is that the Avengers are effective. Nigeria's oil production has fallen from 2.2 million barrels per day to roughly 1.6 million after a spate of attacks, which come as the country was already in crisis mode thanks to a rout in global oil prices.

Nigeria has deployed more troops to the delta and begun talks with state and local leaders to address their grievances. This week, Nigerian Oil Minister Emmanuel Ibe Kachikwu called on the Avengers to "sheath their weapons and embrace dialogue with the government." The Avengers responded in their Twitter feed: "We're not negotiating with any committee. If Fed Govt is discussing with any group they're doing that on their own."

The Nigerian military has slim hopes of finding and defeating the militant group in the delta's swampy network of creeks, say experts. The terrain confounded soldiers during a prior, yearslong campaign against oil militants, who stopped bombing oil installations only after the government began paying them as part of a 2009 amnesty program.

"I think it would be very difficult to tackle this issue using essentially police methods," said John Campbell, former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria. "The delta doesn't lend itself to military or police action, and in fact, it failed the last time there was an insurrection there." The military, which Buhari is trying to remake into a more professional fighting force, also has little support among delta residents, and its presence could make matters worse, according to Campbell.

Abuse of civilians at the hands of the military in northern Nigeria provided a potent recruitment tool for Boko Haram, Campbell said. That group has gone on to become one of the world's most deadly terrorist organizations. If similar abuses were repeated in the delta, more militants would likely emerge, he said.

This week, the federal government said it would withdraw troops from villages after complaints of heavy-handed tactics. Meanwhile, the Avengers have at least tacit support from some locals in the delta. Members are viewed as part bandit and part Al Capone, but they are also seen as part Robin Hood, said Gerald McLoughlin, an independent analyst and former U.S. foreign service officer with experience in Nigeria. That sympathy, coupled with a lack of economic opportunity in the delta, make the group extremely difficult to combat.

"Quite frankly, it's almost impossible. It's not like an insurgency in the classic sense," he told CNBC. "If they find these guys and hunt them down and shoot them, there will be another group the next day. What else can you do if you live there?" he said.

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