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‘Other militant groups in the Niger Delta are bound to feel envious’

Dr Ona Ekhomu

Dr Ona Ekhomu

The President of Association of Industrial Security and Safety Operators of Nigeria (AISSON), Dr Ona Ekhomu, spoke to LAOLU ADEYEMI on the security implication of negotiating with the Niger Delta Avengers, ways to restoring peace in the region, among other issues.

What’s the Security implication of negotiating with the Niger Delta Avengers?
The Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) militant group is causing great economic loss to Nigeria in financial terms and environmental degradation. The activities of the group are also resulting in shortage of gas for power generation in our thermal power plants (Egbin, Afam) and reducing local petroleum refining capacity. The NDA has effectively cut Nigeria’s crude oil output by one-half. Instead of the 2.2million barrels per day Nigeria should be producing, its production declined to 1.4m barrels in May 2016, said Dr. Ibe Kachikwu, the Minister of State for Petroleum Resources.

In four months, NDA attacks have resulted in the shutdown of Kaduna and Warri refineries. The attacks have been rather sophisticated and quite different from the previous experience with MEND and other militant groups in the Niger Delta.

The point being made here is that the Federal Government must dialogue with NDA in its enlightened self-interest. Before the militants commenced the destruction of pipelines including an attack on Shell’s undersea pipeline, and an audacious attack on Chevron’s Okan Offshore production platform, the militants had in January 2016 urged the Federal Government to address some of its grievances which included the take off of the Maritime University in Okerenkoko, environmental remediation, release of IPOB’s Nnamdi Kanu, funding of the Presidential Amnesty Program, review of allocation of oil blocks, etc.

However, the Federal Government opted for military response. This option was not effective in preventing attacks against oil facilities. Nigeria which had been hurting badly from fall in oil prices was then hit by a precipitous decline in oil output. Being a monocultural economy aggravated by our economic vulnerability, the NDA has us at the proverbial gunpoint and the government is wise in seeking dialogue.

Now, other militant groups in the Niger Delta are bound to feel envious, as NDA has tended to be consistent and self-righteous. NDA has consistently attacked oil facilities and has refrained from attacking soldiers or kidnapping individuals. NDA’s violent activities could be said to constitute economic sabotage. I have said on several occasions that the government cannot allow non-state actors to acquire the capability to confront the state. The threat matrix is complete as the militants have capability to deliver violence.

It is wise that the government is toning down its rhetoric about the use of force. This is a struggle that does not have a front line. So, sending in a lot of troops may deepen the crisis as innocent civilians may be harassed and harmed thereby creating more resentment and strengthening the resolve of the militants to carry out more attacks.

The Niger Delta region is the most underdeveloped, most polluted and most neglected region in the country. The militants feel that they have nothing to lose. Fringe militant groups may increase the frequency of kidnappings and attacks on government security forces (GSF) in order to gain some notoriety. Clearly, NDA is the beautiful bride that the Federal Government is courting in order to stop the wanton and senseless destruction of oil assets and the concomitant crippling of the Nigerian economy.

What are the future security implications of dialoguing with Niger Delta Avengers?
The government has a huge responsibility to build up its intelligence gathering and analytic capabilities to enable it cope with the challenges posed by armed non-state actors.

Intelligence officials must aggressively develop basic intelligence on various groups of interest using all-source intelligence (human intelligence, technical intelligence, open source intelligence). Our intelligence agencies must get to work when there is no conflict. It is embarrassing to hear the Joint Niger Delta Liberation Force (JNDLF) boast that it has missiles which it wants to use in a hostile manner against the Nigerian Air Force. While I grant that this capability is unconfirmed, it took the NDA to persuade JNDLF to refrain from using such weapons in the area.

The government must develop intelligence assets everywhere and collected information must be dissected competently. This is not politics or sloganeering. This requires knowledge tools and expert training. If the government commits itself to a program of building good intelligence infrastructure, then the future will not come as a “surprise. However, if the government lacks competent intelligence analysts, then they will not be able to make sense out of what they are seeing. The NDA sufficiently telegraphed its birth, its intentions and capabilities.

Government actions and dismissive comments formed the motivation for engaging in the criminal activities of attacking and destroying critical national assets and infrastructure (CNAI). With expert intelligence analysis, the trajectory of NDA was quite obvious and the attacks predictable. The future begins now. The government must commit itself to eliminating surprises. Who is the next NDA? For example, militant groups are mushrooming in the South East, and the South-south.

Historically tame states like Cross-River and Akwa-Ibom now have budding militant groups. Are there intelligence officials building up information on these groups, their methods, their activities, their funding, their capabilities, their memberships, etc? A community in Ogun State was recently attacked by unidentified persons described as militants. It was later alleged that they were militants from Ondo State. My question: Who is on top of this case – their weaponry, their tactics, their numbers, their words, their dressing, etc? These are all important from both investigative and intelligence points of view.

The negotiation should have been the first option because the military options did not come out with good options. Usually negotiation comes with many unrealistic positions but government should make their own position known.

What other options are available to government?
The most productive option to solving militancy in the Niger Delta is good governance. Niger Deltans are peace-loving people. However, militants live among them. Due to the proliferation of small arms and light weapons in the region, the militants have become quite powerful – enough to challenge GSF in the area. However, if there is good governance, then the frequent resort to force of arms to quell militancy will be unnecessary. In January 2016, NDA made certain demands in order to choose the path of peace. When the group was ignored and called names, it announced the campaign of violence in February 2016.

An important action, which the government should take, is to conduct a detailed study of Niger Delta militancy in order to understand the problem, its drivers, its dynamics, key actors and the menu of solutions to the problem.

The ubiquitous anti-intellectualism to problem solving in Nigeria is quite pitiful. Because we poorly define policy problems, and poorly structure them, we often solve the wrong problem, or the symptoms of a problem. The social media culture and its tendency to dumb down phenomenon cannot replace robust, muscular reasoning and modeling in order to solve complex societal problems. The problems of the Niger Delta are complex, ill- structured, messy. They don’t possess simple means-end solutions. It is jejune to think that threat of military force will solve all problems. President Yar’Adua solved the problem with MEND by offering the PAP.

Are you sure you are not sounding biased because you come from the same region?
I have never supported them but government needs to handle the matter carefully. In Niger Delta, the government made some mistakes initially but they are now on the right track. The fact that government is opening up a negotiation table is a good move because all the NDA wants is recognition. I they just want to be recognized and to benefit from the resources.

What is your advice to the federal government?
The number one tool of restoring peace in the Niger Delta region is by ensuring good governance. Robust mental models for problem solving, Intelligence gathering, Intelligence analysis, Stakeholder Analysis; use of locals to guard pipelines and taking off of Maritime University’ Okerenkoko



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