Nigeria’s maritime security
Will new President affect change?
Will Buhari Change the Face of Nigerian Maritime Security?
By Cassie Blombaum, Guardian Global Resources
The campaign speeches have long been over, the ballot boxes have been cast aside, now all president-elect Muhammadu Buhari has to do is wait. In less than 3 weeks’ time the leader of the All Progressives Congress (APC) will take to his seat in Abuja where Nigeria-watchers will ruminate over what could be at the top of his agenda.
Buhari’s potential areas of political focus are numerous. From concerns over Boko Haram insurgency in the North, to worries over the lingering effects of corruption, the new head-of-state may have difficulty deciding what problems to tackle first. One issue, however, that could warrant Buhari’s special attention is the state of Nigeria’s maritime security. Threats of a resurgence in pirate activity, once muted in the days immediately prior to the March 2015 election, have grown louder. Kidnappers still loom in the Niger Delta, notably within with Akwa Ibom, Rivers and Bayelsa states. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) has also been whispering about attacks against oil assets. With such worrying scenarios, it should come as no surprise that some are even beginning to question the ability of Nigeria’s maritime security forces, including the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), to respond to such risks. It remains to be seen whether Buhari, himself, has doubts about NIMASA, or the government’s handling, in general, of the country’s sea threats. Nevertheless, rumours now suggest that the president-elect may already be undertaking a decidedly more ambitious approach to resolving the Niger Delta crisis, one that might controversially involve him engaging with MEND on a personal level, or perhaps even more contentiously so, revamping NIMASA in its entirety.
RE-ENGAGE WITH MEND?
Should maritime security come to the forefront of Buhari’s political concerns, his first order of business could be to address intimidations from MEND. But if the rumours are true, the president-elect has already done so. Within weeks after his rival – and erstwhile president – Goodluck Jonathan conceded defeat on 31 March 2015, Buhari was already reported to have been in talks with MEND, a militant organisation and self-styled proponent of the Niger Delta and it citizens. Unusually, however, it was not Buhari who initiated the dialogue, but rather, as local news outlets suggest, MEND, itself, that called upon the President-elect. Although the outcome of the talks has not been fully revealed, it is believed that MEND representatives were not only seeking to address the root causes of deprivation in the Delta, they were also hoping to secure an extension to a 2009 amnesty deal reached with Abuja, which called for the group’s members to put down their weapons in exchange for a monthly stipend of roughly US$400. Former or would-be MEND fighters are apparently eager to see Buhari decree that these allowances be extended until at least 2017.
For Buhari, engaging with MEND could also prove beneficial. For some in the Nigerian South, Buhari is seen as a Northerner’s candidate – a man who, on the surface, may not fully understand the intricacies of the Delta or the problems the local people face. To be sure, Buhari appears to have said very little about the Delta situation, either leading up to or following the March 2015 elections. Talking to MEND may signal his willingness to listen to the Niger Delta residents and their concerns, which include, among other fears, worries over agonsing poverty and pollution. Going as far as to extend the group’s amnesty programme may even stave off attacks against oil installations, or stall oil thievery and even pirate attacks – all tactics of which the group has been accused of employing for its own advancement. Conversely, should Buhari choose to end the payments to MEND, or fully address the environmental degradation within the Delta, MEND fighters could conceivably escalate their assaults. Indeed, former militant leader, Alhaji Mujahid Asari-Dokubo, has already called for a return to violence along the Niger Delta, by noting in early April 2015 that the “conditions that advanced the need to embrace the creeks have been sadly re-energised”.
Buhari has, of course, a tight rope to walk. Talking with MEND, or extending their monthly stipends, could aggravate residents, many of whom actually believe MEND is nothing more than an umbrella group of 9 or so armed gangs that only use the Niger Delta ‘call-to-arms’ as justification for their own selfish goals: to gain more cash, more weapons and more local power. One writer who takes this view is Kess Ewubare. Ewubare argues that the time has come to put an end to the amnesty programme, which he believes is nothing more than a “reward for lawlessness” – one that merely props up “fake freedom fighters” who aim to “enrich themselves and their families”. It has even be said, Ewaubare points out, that the “amount budgeted for the amnesty programme yearly surpasses that of the Nigerian Army, Air Force and Navy combined”. Although these figures may be questionable, Ewubare’s concerns match that of many residents in the Niger Delta, who state that any claim MEND has to fighting for the Niger Delta and its people, through its self-aggrandising statements of ending environmental destruction or distributing Nigeria’s oil-wealth among the poor, have been quashed by the group’s tendency toward self-promotion. Naturally, not everyone agrees with this perspective. Doris MacDaniels, the Chairperson for the Ijaw Mothers Union, an organisation that calls for the development of the Niger Delta, argues that many people have the “wrong perception” about ex-MEND fighters. According to MacDaniels: “some of them are educated, intelligent; some are engineers, Master(s) degree holders who had no job, then got affiliated to MEND. These are forgiven militants for whatever role they may have played in the past…”.
MacDaniels’ assertions aside, there are concerns that re-engaging with MEND, even if some of its members have good intentions, could inspire local, potentially non-MEND-affiliated groups to undertake acts of violence in order to secure financial payments of their own. Already this year there have been reports of localised militant organisations launching assaults against pipelines or other assets. More recently, between 02 – 03 April 2015, an armed group, which calls itself Urhobo Gbagbako – in a reference to the ethnic Urhobo minority community – blew up oil pipelines operated by the Nigeria Petroleum Development Company (NPDC) in Delta State. It is believed that Urhobo Gbagbako had been attempting to raise awareness of their perceived exclusion from pipeline protection contracts with NPDC. Of course, this aforementioned incident is not directly connected to maritime security, nor is it necessarily linked with MEND. Nevertheless, Buhari’s decision to promote dialogue, or continue the amnesty programme with MEND, could conceivably invigorate Urhobo Gbagbako and other armed groups – a development that could ultimately have implications for Nigeria’s maritime situation. Case in point: historically, many of the same individuals responsible for attacks on land along the Niger Delta have also had a hand in maritime piracy.
POTENTIAL REVAMP OF NIMASA
President-elect Buhari may ultimately choose to ignore MEND, something the groupevidently accused Jonathan of doing toward the end of his tenure. What the APC leader cannot do, however, is completely discount Nigeria’s ability to thwart maritime crime altogether. In other words, Buhari may need to consider bolstering his support for the Navy, or examine the effectiveness of maritime security departments, such as NIMASA. Although clear-cut changes to the country’s maritime security system have not been made public, adjustments to its leadership roles are within the realm of possibility. Buhari has already been charged with appointing a range of new security leaders, including higher-ups in the State Security Services (SSS). On the maritime front, Buhari is additionally expected to make significant changes, by at the very least replacing the Chief of Naval Staff (CNS), Vice Admiral Usman O. Jibrin. Rumour has it that Buhari may also consider transforming NIMASA, or even doing away with the organisation completely. Although the later scenario appears unlikely, Buhari could realistically begin by replacing the organisation’s employee pool with personnel more sympathetic to his position. The reasons behind this alleged overhaul are varied. However, any potential changes could be due in part to Buhari’s own feelings of ill will toward an organisation that is believed to have started a ‘political war’ against his presidency. In early March 2015, Buhari went as far as to accuse NIMASA of “sponsoring a hate campaign” against him and his family, one that allegedly entailed the maritime security department using “government funds” to create and air anti-Buhari documentaries on local Nigerian channels, including African Independent Television (AIT). NIMASA, for its part, has hit back at Buhari’s camp, with Director General Ziakede Patrick Akpobolokemi vehemently denying that either he or the organisation engaged in such mudslinging. Despite NIMASA’s rebuttals, the controversy’s mere mention by Buhari and his aides could conceivably impact the power of NIMASA, and may ultimately see more NIMASA employees out the door. Perhaps aware of these ramifications, by 03 April 2015, Akpobolokemi was already rumoured to be mulling over his own resignation.
Buhari’s alleged disputes with NIMASA may not stop with annoyances over its perceived pro-Jonathan bias. The President-elect could also have apprehension over the security organisation’s reported entanglements with none other than ex-MEND fighters, including the notorious Government Ekpemupolo. Ekpemupolo – better known as “Tompolo” –earned the equivalent rank of “General” in MEND. Following the signing of the 2009 amnesty agreement, Tompolo is believed to have learned the ins and outs of Nigerian petroleum politics before ultimately pursuing a powerful role within Nigeria’s security sector. That was until December 2014, when Tompolo and NIMASA both made the national spotlight after the former was accused of procuring refurbished gunboats from the Norwegian government via a third-party, UK-based maritime company known as CAS Global. According to reports, Tompolo, or more accurately his company, Global West Vessel Service, is alleged to have been “illegally commissioned” by NIMASA to acquire the 6 “fast-speed Hauk-class guided missile boats, now re-armed with new weapons”. NIMASA, meanwhile, denies that the deal fell afoul of Nigerian regulations, and further claimed that Tompolo did not even “buy the warships”. While NIMASA’s decision may have been legal, there are concerns that Buhari could end up ‘cancelling’ Tompolo’s deal with NIMASA altogether, a move that, if undertaken, could demonstrate the President-elect’s willingness to remodel the maritime security organisation to his own liking.
THE WAY AHEAD
Predicting what step Buhari will take first is a difficult one. To begin with, the newly-elected leader will not actually ascend to the presidential hot seat until 29 May 2015. Eventually, however, Buhari will need to address the very real threats facing the Niger Delta and determine whether the country’s current maritime security system is capable of tackling them. Such threats should not be discounted: roughly 20,000 ex-MEND fighters still reside along the Delta. Although most have integrated into wider Nigerian society, some have not, due, at least partially, to a lack of steady employment. While engaging with MEND or overhauling NIMASA may not solve the crisis in the Delta or even prevent piracy, taking a more delicate approach to the Nigerian South could illustrate Buhari’s eagerness to pay heed to a region whose residents may end up deciding the fate of his latest presidential legacy.