60-Second Expert: A Tipping Point in the Niger Delta

For the past two months, the Nigerian military has been engaged in a standoff with armed resistance groups in the Niger Delta. The full-scale offensive, launched by Nigerian forces on May 13 with fighter-planes and gunboats, has destroyed villages and displaced upwards of 30,000 people from the region.

The abundance of oil has left a legacy of poverty, ecological devastation, and violence in Nigeria, one of the world’s largest oil producing nations. Despite the hundreds of billions of dollars in oil revenue that have flowed into the country, the vast majority of Nigerians live in extreme poverty. The environment, too, has suffered as oil spills have destroyed valuable ecosystems.

For over 50 years, the Nigerian government has colluded with multinational companies such as Shell and Chevron to allow unregulated oil production in the Niger Delta. Oil companies have, in turn, provided financing, weapons, and transportation to the military to keep local resistance in check. Such measures have resulted in unrestrained violence and egregious human rights violations.

While grassroots activists have encouraged nonviolent resistance to the encroachment on their homes and communities, their peaceful demonstrations have been repeatedly broken up with gunfire and dynamite. The armed resistance group, Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta Peoples (MEND), emerged in 2006 as protestors were increasingly left without any legitimate opportunity to negotiate with the government.

Against a backdrop of soaring oil prices, the U.S. government, too, holds a stake in this crisis. Its dependence on Nigerian oil is expected to grow substantially over the next few years. The United States should, therefore, lead an international diplomatic effort to de-militarize the Niger Delta region and mediate a peace agreement before this humanitarian disaster escalates.

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Kia Mistilis is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus and an independent journalist and photographer based in San Francisco, California.