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Crime, Terrorism, or Insurgency? A Glimpse at the Niger Delta Conflict

Last month’s annual U.S. State Department Country Reports on Terrorism 2008 made not one single mention of Nigeria’s Niger Delta conflict. This past week, the Nigerian military’s Joint Task Force (JTF) conducted offensive cordon and search operations against the militants of the Niger Delta, including the largest umbrella group known as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). The JTF operations were ostensibly in response to the recent series of MEND attacks, which comprised hostage-taking, oil pipeline and vessel attacks, and direct engagements against the Nigerian military. What is occurring in the Niger Delta–crime, terrorism, or insurgency?

The situation the Niger Delta is complex and predates the entrance of MEND in 2006. History and geography, as always, explain much of the current situation in Nigeria. The Delta region, distant from the traditional centers of power in Nigeria, has a history of militancy and underdevelopment (the former not always related to the latter). The predominant ethnic group, the Ijaw community, has been sidelined in domestic politics; as a result, they have been the driving force behind political and military mobilization. Add the black curse of Africa, oil, as well as growing numbers of unemployed youth–and one has a perfect mixture for conflict.

While Western oil companies extract oil from the Niger Delta region, locals have been stealing, or bunkering, oil for quite some time. The difference today is the level of organization and scale involved in this crime. MEND and other militants claim they are fighting for a more equitable distribution of the oil wealth and the release of notable Ijaw figures. This is certainly organized violence that induces fear for political ends. The remaining central question is: can continued full-scale conflict in the Delta lead to the dissolution of the Nigerian government? It may be a stretch to believe that the wild, wild west environment of the Delta will spread to all parts of Nigeria. But one thing is for sure: the motivations, capabilities, and intent of the Niger Delta militants will not wane at the hands of the JTF alone.

The State Department may eventually mention the Niger Delta, perhaps in a future report on human rights abuses as militants claim the Nigerian military has targeted innocent civilians and destroyed palaces and shrines. In the mean time, organized violence will continue to disrupt the follow of oil from Nigeria, weakening the government and U.S. interests while emboldening the militants to continue their acts of crime, terrorism, and insurgency.