Buhari’s Niger Delta policy may stoke militancy activity in the region

President Muhammadu Buhari’s latest ministerial appointees are set to make the Niger Delta states — Nigeria’s oil rich southern region — a political battlefield. Ministers from the region include: Transport Minister Rotimi Amaechi; Akwa Ibom State’s former PDP governor Godswill Akpabio who defected to the APC in late 2018 and who is now Minister of the Niger Delta; and Festus Keyamo who served as Buhari’s campaign. This has been heightened by the appointment of Timipre Sylva — the 2008-2012 governor of Bayelsa State — who was appointed as Deputy Petroleum Minister on 21 August.

These are political heavyweights who will seek to make their presence felt in the Niger Delta where the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and Buhari have both had their lowest approval ratings over the latter’s first four year presidential term.

Unlike the 2019 presidential elections when Amaechi was the only prominent Niger Delta politician in the APC government, the current cabinet includes four politicians in charge of key Niger Delta related ministries. The resources and the political patronage at their disposal will have an impact on the APC’s poor perception in the region.

The immediate impact is likely to be seen in the forthcoming Bayelsa State gubernatorial elections set for 16 November. They will want to use their positions to show their relevance in government by capturing the state from the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) which has held Bayelsa since 1999. For them to win the state — the home turf of former president Goodluck Jonathan — would be hugely significant.

But for that to happen, they will have to use all the powers of incumbency at their disposal. This means political bargaining, payoffs, intimidation and the full use of the security services. This will result in levels of violence similar to that seen in the Rivers State elections in March 2019 which resulted in many deaths at the hands of the security agencies.

Crucially, Bayelsa’s creeks and waterways are controlled by militants who are usually loyal to the incumbent governor. To take over the state, the four ministers will have to win the loyalty of the militants or create rival groups that can put up a successful challenge. This will lead to clashes and violence that could easily spiral out of control.

Where the APC flexes its muscles by using the security agencies, militants will respond by targeting oil infrastructure. This will result in more uncertainty in the sector and the wider national economy.

Immediately after he was named Minister of the Niger Delta, Akpabio told a delegation of supporters that his appointment marks the end of the suffering of the people of the Niger Delta and the PDP’s control of Akwa Ibom State, which has been governed by the opposition coalition since 2007.

While the appointments show that the Niger Delta now has a strong voice in Buhari’s government, it has also increased the stakes for political violence in a region that remains critical to the country’s economic survival.

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