Five years after ceasefire, Niger Delta’s retired militants warn of new violence
Young combatants who handed their guns over to the government in 2009 say oil-soaked corruption and inequality are pushing the next generation back toward bloodshed.
PORT HARCOURT, Niger Delta, Nigeria — It’s been five years since 32-year-old Livinus Damka turned in his two AK-47s. Those guns used to be his livelihood. They helped bring him decent money.
When Damka was 23 years old, he was one of the thousands of youth in the Niger Delta who took up arms against the Nigerian government, demanding a share of the country’s vast oil wealth channeled through pipelines in their local communities. Frustrated by a lack of opportunities, Damka became a militant in the Niger Delta’s armed insurgency — a violent struggle marked by kidnapping of foreigners for ransom, vandalizing oil pipelines, setting up illegal oil refineries and fighting Nigerian soldiers.
“It was freedom fighting,” Damka says. “We were fighting for our rights.”
He and his wife, Rita, live in a small one-bedroom house along a winding, narrow dirt road in Ikwerre, a farming and fishing community in the Niger Delta. They barely make enough money to meet their monthly expenses. As the popular Nigerian saying goes, they are “just managing.”
“How long must we stand by while the government makes a profit off our land and resources, while we are left suffering?”~Livinus Damka
They thought their lives would be different after 2009, when the Nigerian government brokered a ceasefire with the militants. Damka and about 30,000 former combatants signed up for the amnesty program, handing in their guns with the promise of a monthly stipend and vocational training in Nigeria and abroad — all paid for by the federal government.
Damka travelled to Poland to study sea navigation at Ggdynia Maritime for two and a half years.
He received about $700 a month from the Nigerian government while he lived in Poland. After finishing the first phase of the training, Damka returned with an “Officer of the Watch” certificate and no assurance of when the government will send him back to Poland to finish the program.
In the meantime, he’s managed to grab a temporary position as a deck cadet with a shipping company.
“I’m happy doing this maritime job,” says Damka, sitting under a portrait depicting the crucifixion of Jesus. “It’s OK.”
But his real hope is to see the government carry out the promises made with the amnesty. “How long must we stand by while the government makes a profit off our land and resources, while we are left suffering?”
Rita, 33, who is unemployed with an accounting degree says there were and are few options to move forward, raising the specter of renewed violence. “If they don’t give us jobs, it’s only natural we’ll look for a way out.”
Nigeria’s blood oil
More than 90 percent of Nigeria’s highly prized, low-sulfur light grade of crude oil is found in the world’s largest mangrove forest — the Niger Delta.
The region, which accounts for 37 billion barrels of reserves, is the lifeblood of the Nigerian economy. According to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), oil revenues account for about 70 percent of Nigeria’s total exports revenue, with India, the Netherlands and the United States as some of the top buyers.
But a toxic mix of corruption and corporate irresponsibility — and what is often referred to as a “slick alliance” between the oil companies and the Nigerian government — has left the region under-developed and impoverished. Oil spills have traumatized the land, killing animal species and destroying the rich ecosystem in places like Ogoniland, where spillage from Shell-operated pipelines was so pervasive that the UN estimated it could take 30 years and $1 billion to repair what it described as the “world’s ‘most wide-ranging and long-term oil cleanup.‘”
Royal Dutch Shell admitted liability for two oil spills, in 2008 and 2009.
“Between 1976 and 2001, there were over 5,000 spills amount to 2.5 million barrels,” reported researchers from the Institute of International Studies at the University of California in Berkeley in a 2004 report. They cited evidence revealing “Nigeria has some of the highest spillage and flaring rates anywhere in the world.”
The oil revenues have yet to effectively trickle down to Niger Delta’s residents. Living standards here are low and decent jobs are scarce. For many, education had become a dead end. That’s why Damka dropped out of school and picked up a gun.
The struggle for rights
In 1998, more than a reported 5,000 youth of the Ijaw ethnic group gathered to issue the now-infamous Kaiama Declaration. With a lengthy letter addressed to oil companies, they demanded a cessation of oil exploration activities in their communities.
“Nobody seemed to listen because it’s a huge conspiracy,” says Emmanuel Bristol-Alagbariya, the national secretary of the Ijaw Youth Council. “They [Nigerian government officials] all benefited from the oil.”
Over the course of a decade after Nigeria’s 1999 transition to civilian rule, the fighting escalated and the oil sector suffered. At one point, Nigeria was losing 500,000 barrels a day as more and more pipelines were sabotaged.
Christopher Eugene was barely in his 20s when he started illegally tapping the pipelines and selling the crude oil to smugglers.
“There were just no jobs,” he says, shrugging his lean soldiers and staring off into the distance.
Eugene, a meek and soft-spoken 25-year-old, joined the armed struggle to make some money after he finished high school and failed to find employment. He had dreams to open a supermarket, but didn’t know how. As part of the amnesty program, he participated in a two-month entrepreneurship program at a local institution, which he said was cut short inexplicably by the government.
Today, Eugene still does not have a job. When he’s feeling up to it, he walks around town looking for day gigs at construction sites where he can earn about $18 a day. When asked about the amnesty program, he simply shakes his head.
In March, his wife gave birth to their son, Prince. When asked what he’d do if Prince turned to militancy, he frowned. “I’d tell him not to go that path,” he says. “It’s not worth it. Only God can change the situation.”
Damka and his wife Rita dream of leaving the hardships of the Nigerian reality behind them and living in Canada.
“It’s peaceful there,” Damka says.
But according to Christopher Roberts, the CEO of KayJay Energy Services, running away is not the solution. The consultancy firm recruits skilled professionals to work at production and non-production facilities in Nigeria. He says Nigerian youth lack initiative and believes they are waiting for handouts.
“Most of the youth you see standing around have a get-rich-quick mentality,” he says from his large leather chair. “They are waiting for handouts from the government.”
More than 300 people have been hired through Robert’s firm, working on oil rigs and deep water units.
“There are lots of things these unemployed people could be doing,” he says, a painting of the famous biblical passage of Jesus teaching his followers how to fish hovering above him. “You can’t wait around for opportunities in Nigeria.”
For him, Nigeria’s inept education system, with its glaring failure to foster leadership and innovation, is the main problem. He sighs in frustration, thinking about the deterioration of a system that was once hailed for its academic rigor. After years of ruthless military regimes and political instability, the education infrastructure has virtually crumbled.
“You have a system that does not encourage merit and celebrates mediocrity…and nepotism,” he says. “What is being churned out [of the universities], no longer has quality.”
Roberts, part of Nigeria’s slim but omnipotent top “1 percent” by income, represents the money-driven aspirations of many Niger Delta youth. He’s a local man who used his own skills and initiative to create and manage a lucrative firm, but in the current state of Nigeria’s dilapidated education system, few will manage to get there any time soon.
Teachers and administrators at the nearby Institute for Petroleum Studies (IPS) offer a select few a pathway to that level of success. The brainchild of a former president of the MacArthur Foundation, IPS offers top-performing first-degree graduates with a world-class education in petroleum engineering, geosciences and related studies.
The one-of-a-kind program hosted at the University of Port Harcourt is a potential solution for redefining Nigeria’s academic system. IPS graduates go on to work at international oil companies in Nigeria and around the world.
But getting to IPS is a scramble. Every year, almost 600 applicants apply for only 20 spaces. Celestina Johnson, an administrator at the institute, said she often wants to cry during the interviews because so many of the applicants will never get a chance.
“Because of this unemployment, there is a lot of militancy,” she says. “Our children are being kidnapped. Hunger is an issue here….life is too hard for Nigerians.”
Currently the country is being rocked by another insurgency — different in philosophy and severity — though thriving in the same blighted landscape of desperation, illiteracy, and poverty.
In April, the militant Islamist group Boko Haram seized the world by kidnapping almost 300 Nigerian female students.
To date, none of the girls have been rescued by the Nigerian government. Boko Haram continues abducting girls, women and boys across northeastern Nigeria. Like the Niger Delta militants, the Islamic insurgents feed off governmental corruption and ineptitude.
An unstable peace
Across Nigeria, millions of young people are living Damka and Eugene’s life of wretchedness. In the oil-rich Niger Delta, grim poverty is juxtaposed with flashy wealth: oil magnates driving expensive cars and living in million-dollar mansions set behind barbed-wire fences.
“They say love unites all…but the only link that is common among all Nigerians is poverty,” says Bristol-Alagbariya, the national secretary of the Ijaw Youth Council.. He and many others believe Nigeria’s stark economic disparities will combust at any time.
“For now we are nonviolent, but they will become violent if they need to,” he says. “The oil is in our communities. If I want to blow a pipe, I know where to go.”
The precarious peace is held loosely by money. In 2012, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Nigerian government is paying millions of dollars each year to former militant commanders like General Ateke Tom to “have their men guard delta pipelines they used to attack.”
The newspaper confirmed that the Nigerian state oil company had given Tom a sum of $3.8 million.
From his lavish home in the low-income Okrika community, Tom sits with his feet padded in olive green Gucci shoes. Stroking his gray beard, he looks through his Ferrari sunshades at an expansive green lawn where a peacock and a turtle rest in the shade under a hooded patio. His Toyota jeep is marked with a federal government license plate.
During the militancy, Tom was a formidable figure, mobilizing thousands of young fighters.
“Before the amnesty, poverty was real,” he says. “If not for the freedom fighting, I would not be here today…people here are better off with the amnesty.”
It’s not clear what type of business Tom is now into (he only divulges that he has six companies), but what is transparent is his money and power. His picture is plastered on trees and walls around the community. His “boys” guard him with vigilance and two dogs at the gate bark viciously at strangers.
Tom says he doesn’t even go near the two lions that he bought. He just wanted to buy them.
From this high-priced vantage point, one cannot help but to think that if you play your cards right in Nigeria, it pays to be a militant.
“Peace is expensive,” says Bristol-Alagbariya, the Ijaw Youth Council’s national secretary. “The Nigerian government should see youth as an advantage to the growth and development of this country. Not as a liability.”
The amnesty program is set to end in 2015. But with endemic youth unemployment and dire living conditions, it’s clear that it wouldn’t take much for violence to return to the Niger Delta.
“Let’s just say we’re watching the government and seeing if they take real action,” Tom says. “I won’t fight again, but there’s a whole other generation. They’re waiting.”