Niger Delta

Author: Tomas Malina

Map of the Niger Delta

Strategically located along the Gulf of Guinea and atop enormous high quality oil reserves, the three Nigerian states of Delta, Bayelsa and Rivers – commonly referred to as the Niger Delta – have been plagued with armed groups and insurgents for decades. Although its tremendous resource wealth should make the Delta one of Western Africa’s most prosperous regions, decades of neglect by the Nigerian government, widespread corruption, and the environmental damage caused by the MNCs operating in the region has alienated and marginalized the local population and allowed armed groups to proliferate.1 Compensation paid out by the MNCs for appropriated and polluted land has led to inter-communal and inter-ethnic violence, most notably between the Ijaws and the Itsekiris in the Warri area of Delta State.2 Since the discovery of oil in the Delta, this type of ethnic conflict has been driven primarily by the desire to control resources along disputed community borders.

Whether these armed groups are genuinely fighting for social justice for their communities or are interested merely in profit, most sustain themselves through criminal activity such as piracy, kidnapping, and oil theft or “bunkering”. While it is hard to estimate how much oil is actually stolen, there are indications that it might be as high as 5-10% of Nigeria’s total national production.3

In an effort to combat oil bunkering, the Nigerian government began to increase its military presence in the Delta in 2003; this culminated in the deployment of a Joint Task Force (JTF) in 2008. However, these actions triggered serious unintended consequences, as some military personnel took the opportunity to participate in the illicit trade. In addition, reports of extortion, rape, and the general intimidation of the populace by the security forces drove even more alienated youths into the armed groups.4 While violence was initially directed at the MNCs, the attempts of the JTF to curtail the militant groups led to increased fighting between the militants and the army. Yet, aside from the military and some sporadic and fleeting programs, the Nigerian government has virtually no presence in the region. As an oil executive puts it: “you won’t find police stations, court houses, or primary schools for vast stretches. There are no post offices. There is no presence of the government for miles. No electricity is provided. There is no water supply.”5

Beyond legitimate concerns for human rights, the United States has clear strategic interests in a stable Niger Delta. In the run up to national elections in 2007, militancy was at fever pitch and the combination of theft and sabotage reduced oil industry output by 25-35% of capacity. Despite the clear instability of the Delta, Nigeria continued to rank 15th in global oil output in 2008, and was the 5th largest supplier of oil to the US.6 As attacks on the local oil industry have caused clear spikes in the worldwide price of crude, a steady and secure supply from the Delta would go a long way towards stabilizing the global market, helping to wean the United States from its reliance on Middle Eastern imports, and enhancing energy security.

Who are the Main Militant Groups?7

Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) – Emerging in late 2005, MEND established its presence by kidnapping four foreign oil workers and articulated a set of demands that included increased political participation, a greater share of the profits derived from local oil and gas, socioeconomic development, and the reduced militarization of the region. Although it is the Delta’s highest profile militant group, MEND remains misunderstood by most outside observers. Rather than a single entity with clear political goals, MEND has evolved into a conglomeration of distinct militant groups with constantly shifting alliances and loyalties. These shifts are more often dictated by personal interests and rivalries rather than by coherent political differences. In some cases, different groups merge under the MEND banner for a single operation before parting ways afterwards. Although many commentators in both the international and Nigerian press refer to arms dealer and oil bunkerer Henry Okah (aka Jomo Gbomo) as the group’s leader, MEND has no clear hierarchical structure and no single individual in direct control of its subsidiary groups, which include:

  • Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities (FNDIC) – Operating under the MEND umbrella, and sometimes referred to as Western MEND, the FDNIC was founded in Delta State where militants organize along more rigid ethnic lines than in Bayelsa or Rivers. The group called for Ijaw self determination in the Warri area and openly opposed both the oil industry and the Nigerian government. Led politically by Oboko Bello and militarily by former oil industry employee turned criminal Tom Polo, the FNDIC built a heavily fortified complex in the region’s creeks. Although it engages in the same criminal activities as other MEND factions, it has remained at least nominally committed to the political goals of the Ijaw community. The FDNIC leadership is believed to receive political patronage from Delta State Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan.8
  • “General” Boyloaf – Operating under the MEND umbrella in Bayelsa State, Boyloaf’s organization is sometimes referred to as Central MEND. The pseudonym of militant leader Victor Ben, Boyloaf has the closest ties of any Delta militant to Henry Okah, who often issues statements to the press on behalf of Central MEND. Boyloaf is believed to receive political patronage from Bayelsa State Governor Timipre Sylva.9
  • Outlaws – Operating under the MEND umbrella in Rivers State, Outlaws were formed by the NDV’s (see below) former number two, Soboma George. The Outlaws leadership is believed to receive political patronage from Rivers State Governor Rotimi Amaechi.10
  • Niger Delta Strike Force (NDSF) – Operating under the MEND umbrella in Rivers State, the NDSF is sometimes referred to as Eastern MEND. The NDSF was formed in 2005 by Farah Dagogo, a former independent commander of a separate militant organization. Initially the NDSF developed a close partnership with the Outlaw’s Soboma George. By 2008, however, the two groups had become sworn enemies while remaining nominally linked through their association with MEND.

Other groups include:
Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF) – Founded by Mujahid Dokubo-Asari and operating mostly in Rivers State, the NDVP broke from the more politically mainstream activist Ijaw Youth Council (IYC) in 2004 and threatened an all-out war on the oil industry. The threat of guerilla operations aimed at the disruption of oil production caused a spike in global oil prices to a then-high of $50 a barrel. Asari’s arrest in 2005 by the Nigerian government on treason charges played a key role in the formation of MEND, though his release in 2007 did not lead to the NDPVF joining the umbrella organization. Asari openly admits to funding his group through the sale of stolen oil, claiming that he is just taking back what has been stolen from the Ijaw people.11 Members of the Reformed NDPVF participate in the Joint Revolutionary Council (JRC) along with members of MEND and a group known as the Martyrs Brigade.

Niger Delta Vigilantes (NDV) – Formed in Rivers state in 2003 by Ateke Tom, a bitter rival of NDPVF leader Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, the NDV battled other groups over control of oil bunkering territory. Tom accepted a government amnesty in late 2009 and agreed to surrender arms. Tom is believed to receive political patronage from Rivers State Governor Rotimi Amaechi.12

People’s Liberation Force (PLF) – Led by Egbiri Papa, also known as Soboma Jackrich. Sometimes allied with Dagogo’s NDSF.

Niger Delta Survival Movement (NDSM) – Formerly under the MEND umbrella, the NDSM broke ranks in February 2010, claiming that MEND had become corrupt and had lost its founding vision.13

Amnesty and an Uneasy Ceasefire

The summer and fall of 2009 witnessed a significant reduction of tension in the Delta. In late June, President Umaru Yar’Adua announced an amnesty plan that would grant immunity from prosecution to any militant who willingly laid down his arms within a 60 day period. Promises of a bigger share of oil revenues and development projects caused attacks to drop sharply, and the plan was accepted by many prominent militant leaders, including Tom Polo, Ateke Tom, Soboma Jackrich, Boyloaf, and Farah Dagogo. Although elements claiming to represent MEND threatened continued attacks after the expiration of the deal, October 2009 ended on a promising note for stability in the Delta, as high profile meetings between Yar’Adua and Henry Okah led MEND to declare an indefinite ceasefire.14

It did not take long for skeptics of the plan’s success to be vindicated, however, and only a month after the amnesty came into force, Ateke Tom had become publicly impatient about the pace of job growth in the region and was threatening a resumption of hostilities.15 While violence remained low, kidnappings, oil bunkering, and other incidents did not disappear completely.

Political Crisis and a Return to Militancy

The ceasefire and amnesty began to unravel in late November, as the health of President Yar’Adua came into question. With the President away in Saudi Arabia seeking medical treatment for a heart ailment, the proposed rehabilitation and reintegration programs stalled and could not go ahead as planned.16 With serious questions being asked across Nigeria about who was actually running the country, MEND fired a warning shot on December 19, attacking a Shell/Chevron pipeline in Rivers State with rocket launchers, heavy caliber machine guns and assault rifles.17 The ceasefire officially came to an end on January 30, 2010 through a MEND statement warning the MNCs to prepare for “an all-out onslaught against their installations and personnel” further claiming that “nothing will be spared.”18

Although some aspects of the amnesty and rehabilitation program have continued to move ahead, the continued absence of Yar’Adua and promotion of Vice President Goodluck Jonathan to Acting President in mid-February led to more instability. Although Jonathan hails from the Delta, is the former Governor of Bayelsa State, and is thought to have had close ties to MEND at one point, militants in the Delta declared his assumption of power illegal and promised to continue attacks.19 While Yar’Adua returned to the country in the dead of night on February 24, observers are still unsure who is actually wielding power in Nigeria, a fact that will no doubt lead to continued militancy in the Delta in the coming months.

An Uncertain Future

The situation in the Delta is further complicated by uncertainty about the impact of the amnesty collapse on the structure of the region’s militant organizations. With many senior militants stepping out of the way, the door is now open for a new generation of leaders to seek the profits made by their former commanders. Should the high-profile militants who accepted the amnesty decide to return to the fight, they might find their former positions filled by others and could go on to form new groups to fight for their former territories and criminal rackets.20

As recent months have shown, Nigeria’s unstable political system has the ability to fuel and drive militancy in the Delta. Elections pose a unique threat to regional stability, and although the next national elections are not until April 2011, there has been a tendency in Nigeria for violence to emerge in the year leading up to the vote, as militants are hired by political parties to intimidate opponents and mobilize votes. Even more troubling will be the elections of 2015, when the presidency is expected to be rotated to another geopolitical zone of the country.


  • Augustine Ikelegbe, “The Economy of Conflict in the Oil Rich Niger Delta Region of Nigeria” Nordic Journal of African Studies 14(2), 2005. Ikelegbe, 220.
  • United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Transnational Trafficking and the Rule of Law in West Africa: A Threat Assessment”, July 2009.
  • United States Institute of Peace, “Special Report: Blood Oil in the Niger Delta”, August 2009.
  • William Rosenau … [et al.] “Corporations and Counterinsurgency”, Rand Corporation Occasional Papers, 2009. 10.
  • Energy Information Administration: Country Profiles. Located at
  • Judith Burdin Asuni, “Understanding the Armed Groups of the Niger Delta”, Council on Foreign Relations, September 2009. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, and there is an array of smaller groups not discussed in this backgrounder.
  • Stratfor, “Hierarchy of Niger Delta Politics – February 2010”
  • Stratfor, “Hierarchy of Niger Delta Politics – February 2010”
  • Stratfor, “Hierarchy of Niger Delta Politics – February 2010”
  • United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Transnational Trafficking and the Rule of Law in West Africa: A Threat Assessment, July 2009.
  • Stratfor, “Hierarchy of Niger Delta Politics – February 2010”
  • Emma Amaize, “Group Breaks Away From MEND”, Vanguard, February 14, 2010.
  • “Nigeria militants declare ceasefire” Los Angeles Times, October 26, 2009
  • Adam Nossiter, “Poverty Could Imperil Amnesty in Niger Delta, New York Times, November 26, 2009.
  • Sola Adebayo, “Yar’Adua’s Illness Stalls Post-Amnesty Programmes” Punch, November 30, 2009.
  • Emma Amaize, “MEND breaks ceasefire rule, attacks Shell/Chevron pipeline”, Vanguard, December 19, 2009.
  • Dulue Mbachu, “Nigerian Rebels End Delta Cease-Fire, Will Resume Oil Attacks” Bloomberg, January 30, 2010.
  • “Niger Delta militants say Nigeria’s acting president is illegal” The Daily Maverick, February 11, 2010.
  • Thomas Strause, “Will Nigeria’s Amnesty Campaign Have a Lasting Impact on the Delta Insurgency?”, Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor, October 30, 2009.
  • Thomas Strause, “Will Nigeria’s Amnesty Campaign Have a Lasting Impact on the Delta Insurgency?”, Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor, October 30, 2009.