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Stratfor, the global intelligence company based in Austin, Texas, has published a thoughtful analysis by the well-known Nigerian journalist Pius Utomi Ekpei that is well-worth reading, though I disagree with his fundamental premise. He takes as his starting point a possible deal between the Jonathan administration and the Delta militant leader Henry Okah, now imprisoned in South Africa (at Nigeria’s behest) for alleged terrorism. Okah has long been thought a senior leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) that carried out extensive attacks on the oil industry in the Niger Delta between 2005 and 2009. Pius Utomi Ekpei places MEND in the context of national politics and posits that a deal with Okah could be part of an effort to secure MEND’s cooperation in the run-up to the 2015 presidential elections, and the struggle for ruling party leadership, which, he suggests, is already underway. He sees MEND’s successes from 2005 to 2009 as a direct result of its protection by the delta region’s governors and security officials. MEND’s activities largely stopped as the result of a national amnesty that included a massive payoff of MEND warlords and the region’s political leaders.
Pius Utomi Ekpei suggests that Boko Haram may be “The North’s Answer to MEND.” The North has no oil, but Boko Haram has successful undermined public confidence in President Goodluck Jonathan’s ability to govern. He suggests that Boko Haram, like MEND, is protected by political insiders. So long as Boko Haram limits its operations to internal–not international–targets, Boko Haram will survive.
Implicit in Pius Utomi Ekpei’s argument is that Jonathan could end, or at least significantly decrease, Boko Haram’s activities by buying-off its leaders and according its sponsors with greater political influence.
Pius Utomi Ekpei appears to see MEND and Boko Haram as mostly the proxy battles of elite politics. I see a much greater popular dimension to both than he allows. Highly diffuse, Boko Haram includes a popular, religious millenarian dimension that makes it immune to the accepted ways Nigerian politicians “settle” their opponents; mostly by payoffs. Similarly, MEND taps into a deep sense of popular grievance in the Delta over the region’s failure to benefit from oil while at the same time it suffers from the industry’s environmental impact.
In both the North and the Delta, popular grievances are probably growing. Until they are addressed politically, continuing cycles of violence seem inevitable.