On June 15, during a visit to the Niger Delta, I visited a hospital just outside of Warri in Delta State. The hospital was serving as a gathering point for internally displaced persons (IDPs) who fled as the result of the recent military offensive of the Nigeria military’s Joint Task Force (JTF). The offensive was launched near the Escravos oil installation in an area known as the Gbaramatu Kingdom and included army troops, navy gunships, and attack helicopters. Delta state is one of three core states of the Niger Delta and produces roughly 40 percent of Nigeria’s oil.
At the hospital I visited, there were 200 to 300 individuals, mostly women and children, living under the outdoor, covered walkways. We spoke with the liaison to the State government committee, who is responsible for feeding the IDPs. She said that they are taking care of roughly 3,500 IDPs. Local estimates are that there are 20,000 IDPs in total, but there is no way to assess the accuracy of this number. The IDPs were being fed, but I saw no other supplies — no tents, no blankets, no medical supplies. There was no humanitarian presence whatsoever at the hospital.
I was told that the reason the IDPs are not going back to their communities is lack of access, not insecurity. The JTF will not let them back into their communities. I was also told that men are afraid to come to the IDP camps for fear of being arrested or killed.
Since the initial fighting which began on May 13, the JTF has continued to patrol the creeks, thereby limiting access to communities by members of the community, media, and humanitarian actors. The lack of freedom of movement has caused severe hardship for the individuals in these communities who rely on the waterways to get food and other basic supplies.
There have also been several attacks on oil installations by the militants since May 13. This illustrates the fundamental military stalemate in the area. The militants cannot defeat the JTF militarily, but the JTF cannot prevent the militants from engaging in economic sabotage. I was told that since the attacks on the oil pipelines occurred, the JTF has begun to reach out to community leaders in the affected communities. While this is a positive sign, it also serves to reinforce the idea that the only way to get the attention of those in power is to engage in violence.
Clearly, there are complex issues driving the conflict in the Niger Delta, issues that are not going to be resolved in the near future. Efforts to create a formal peace process in the Delta continue, but so far have not borne fruit. Nonetheless, in the near term, the United States and other members of the international community should send clear signals to the Nigerian government that they are paying attention to the developments in the Delta and that they expect the government of Nigeria and the Nigerian military to adhere to basic humanitarian principles, including the protection of civilians, unfettered humanitarian access, and freedom of movement for noncombatants.