BY NKASI WODU
A little more than a year ago, the Nigerian President signed the Petroleum Industry Governance Act into Law, to achieve a major reform that had previously stalled in the National Assembly since 1999. As part of this law, the Act established the Host Communities Development Trust (HCDT), which intends to “aid the development of the socio-economic infrastructure of the communities.” The hope is that the HCDT will help to address grievances which have driven agitation and militancy over the years in the Niger Delta’s oil-rich region. While the Act is a significant step in the right direction, it will take much more than that to achieve lasting peace. The goal of the act is to take an inclusive approach to development which will address community grievances and needs. However it does not sufficiently grapple with the complexity of conflict or the inevitable influence of ex-militants and how they may contribute to conflict dynamics in host communities.
Since the Presidential Amnesty Program was established for armed groups in the Niger Delta in 2009, ex-militant leaders have continued to play an increasingly influential role in their communities and the region as a whole, both positively and negatively. For instance, some offer philanthropic aid to marginalized communities and have created job opportunities for unemployed youths. At the same time, some have also remained involved in oil theft, and continue to influence national and subnational elections. With this increasing influence, many maintain significant levels of legitimacy in their communities and have been conferred various roles as traditional chiefs. As persons endowed with formal and informal authority in their communities, they are likely to influence the constitution of the membership of the HCDT, which could undermine the goal of inclusive representation for women, persons with disabilities, and other marginalized groups.
Second, the Act seeks to give communities a platform to determine where and how development projects are selected, with the goal of reducing long-held grievances against companies and the Nigerian State. However, some of these influential ex-militants may seek to undermine this goal, as they continue to receive significant economic benefits from criminal activities such as oil theft, illegal oil refining, and piracy. Without a more intentional effort to disincentivize the thriving conflict economy perpetrated by Non-State Actors in the region, oil theft and other criminal activities associated with it will continue.
Lastly, the Act seeks to address grievances against companies and the Nigerian State to reduce threats to operations and assets. But the realities of conflict are much more complex – to include overlapping communal, ethnic, criminal, and political conflict issues, all of which must be addressed both individually and holistically for lasting peace. For example, in Delta State, local and national elections dredge grievances between two major ethnic groups over the delineation of political wards that supposedly hands one group an unfair advantage over the other. Election-related violence between these groups continues to threaten security in the communities and for the companies as well.
Undoubtedly, the signing into law of the Petroleum Industry Governance Act is a massive step in instituting the needed reforms in a sector that is Nigeria’s most significant revenue earner. However, in the absence of a broader peacebuilding strategy to address the drivers of conflict in the region, focusing merely on mitigating the drivers of militancy will not meet the Act’s objectives. Deliberate efforts need to be taken to ensure that there are specific processes for addressing grievances between host communities and companies. What is the process of the mechanism, and who are the actors in the process are clear questions that need to be answered. Second, the grievance mechanism needs to depart from the current conceptualization of peace involving the protection of oil assets. It must also address ethnic and communal grievances over oil rents and claims to land ownership on which assets are located. Thirdly, the Nigerian Government should leverage the influence of other informal authorities in the communities as dispute-resolution actors. These include traditional chiefs, influential women groups, and even non-state actors such as ex-warlords that have shown a track record of pursuing the ends of peace in the region.
To be sure, no legislation can be comprehensive enough to address every contentious issue, particularly as these issues are long-lived and complex. However, unless these major points are addressed, the objective of lasting peace may not be achieved. Former militants significantly influence violence and criminal activities in the region, and ignoring their influence may be detrimental to addressing the myriad issues confronting the people and the country.
Nkasi Wodu, a Senior New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute, is a lawyer, peacebuilding expert in Africa, and scholar of Global Governance and Human Security at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.
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