PORT HARCOURT – The militant leaders who once wrought havoc in the Niger Delta oil industry have suddenly gone quiet following the defeat of Nigeria’s incumbent president, Goodluck Jonathan, in an election this week.
But in the run-up to the election, several trumpeted threats to return to war should Jonathan lose the election.
He lost by a landslide to former military ruler and Muslim northerner Muhammadu Buhari, and called for peace amongst Nigerians as he conceded defeat.
Despite their earlier threats, the militants appear to be keeping their own counsel now.
“People are asking where are the militants?” Alagoa Morris, a delta environmental activist, told Reuters.
In the early 2000s, the militants’ campaign of blowing up pipelines and kidnapping oil workers in the creeks and mangrove swamps of the Niger Delta pushed oil prices to record highs.
Morris echoed the thoughts of some delta residents in saying he did not want to see a reprisal of those days.
“They should let sleeping dogs lie. We need peace in the creeks.”
Former rebel leader Kingsley Kuku, a militant turned advisor to Jonathan who was quoted in newspapers as saying his Ijaw ethnic group would go to war if the president was not re-elected, did not respond to requests for comment.
Nor did Tompolo, who has become a multimillionaire on government contracts to secure pipelines he used to attack.
Self-styled “Ex-General” Reuben Wilson, a normally garrulous former fighter, told Reuters he was “in no mood to talk”.
Perhaps the prospect of going from luxury back to living in mosquito-infested swamps is a decision that requires some thought.
Many militants now sit comfortably now in big houses with swimming pools and have built up huge business empires that can probably outlast the amnesty’s end.
During the election, Reuters visited the house of a militant called General Ogunboss which had marble floors and throne-like chairs.
“Considerations are different this time,” said Edward Obi, head of an environmental group. “They are self-interested human beings, and there is nobody out there to protect them now”.
Thousands of foot soldiers also stand to lose their meal tickets if the amnesty programme, which expires at the end of 2015, stopped. It provides a stipend for about 30,000 people while they study, its spokesman Daniel Alabrah said.
“If you stop the programme today it might create some kind of unrest,” he said. “The expectation is that it will be extended by up to two years”.
None of this addresses the underlying issue that led to the militant unrest in the first place – the delta’s deep sense of injustice at producing the oil that funds Nigeria’s government and pays for nearly everything the nation imports but receiving little back except environmental devastation.
Having a man from a humble a background in the delta helped placate that sense of injustice, but Nigeria continued to suffer oil theft and piracy on an industrial scale.
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Unless Buhari addresses these grievances, militant violence could return.
“Where there is no true justice there will never be peace,” said Louis Chukwu, a resident of the oil town of Port Harcourt, said after hearing of Buhari’s win.
“We cannot continue being marginalized and cheated”. (Additional reporting by Tim Cocks in Abuja; Editing by Tim Cocks and Angus MacSwan)(Reuters)