Special Reports

Nigeria’s Buhari faces toughest of tests in the Niger Delta


In the Niger Delta, Nigeria. Photograph by Rhys Thom.

Nigeria appears to finally be making some inroads against Boko Haram, the Islamist militant group that has plagued it for years. But as one threat looks like it might be starting to recede, another may re-emerge: the conflict in the Niger Delta. That conflict is often forgotten in the shadow of Boko Haram’s headline-grabbing suicide bombings and kidnappings, but it now stands as a potent threat to Nigerian domestic security.

In 2009, before Boko Haram was a household name, Nigeria finally forged a peace deal that stemmed fighting in the southern Niger Delta, bringing hope that it would spell the end of a conflict that had displaced thousands and cost the Nigerian government an estimated $100 billion in oil revenue through bunkering. But that peace deal is set to expire this year, and the conflict could pick up where it left off — taking the optimism brought about by the 2015 election with it.

Insecurity in the Niger Delta adds to a long list of concerns for Nigeria’s new President Muhammadu Buhari. He faces a delicate balancing act, trying to hold together a fraying country with strong regional identities. But unlike his predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, Buhari seems ill-equipped to use the two main tools successfully wielded by the Jonathan administration to stave off conflict: patronage politics and paying off militants.

Both tools, applied strategically, were enough to stave off further bloodshed in the Niger Delta – for a time. The region comprises nine states that lie at the extreme south of Nigeria. Its residents long suffered from the social and environmental costs of oil production while getting little in return. From 2005 to 2009, these frustrations fueled a violent insurgency in which armed groups bombed pipelines and kidnapped foreign workers, while engaging in piracy and oil bunkering.

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