President Goodluck Jonathan pacified rebels who sabotaged lucrative supply of crude but forthcoming elections could disrupt the peace pact.
Reuben Wilson’s militant days of stalking Nigeria’s swamps in search of oil pipelines to blow up are well behind him.
But former Niger Delta insurgents like Wilson say they’re ready to take up arms again if President Goodluck Jonathan doesn’t win elections this week. A son of the oil-rich Delta, Jonathan brokered a gilded pacification deal in 2009.
Though almost all eyes are turned northwards, where Islamists Boko Haram have waged a bloody six-year battle, complex ethnic and political rivalries in the south magnified by elections could reignite fighting that once gripped Nigeria.
“For many years, we fought in the creeks because we were sidelined even though Nigeria’s wealth comes from here,” said Wilson, thumping a fist on a desk cluttered with awards – mostly from organisations he funds with money the government pays him not to bleed oil pipelines.
A clue to his former life lies in an incongruous walkie-talkie among the smartphones on his desk. He uses it to order a whisky – it’s 9.30 in the morning. A man dashes in and pours the drink, his AK47 bumping against his thigh.
Despite providing more than three-quarters of government revenue, the Niger Delta had not produced a Nigerian president since independence from Britain in 1960 until Jonathan inherited the job in 2009 before being returned by election in 2011.
His 2009 amnesty programme ostensibly pacified rebels whose siphoning of oil pipelines – alongside kidnappings and bombings – sometimes slashed output to less than a quarter of the 2m barrels per day pumped in Africa’s largest oil producer.
In return for laying down arms, militant commanders receive lucrative contracts and multimillion dollar payments from the government each month, which are supposed to be shared with their foot soldiers.
The arrangement was due to expire last year but payments were extended for fear of a backlash. Some analysts believe the deal could be scrapped under Muhammadu Buhari, the main opposition candidate from the north of Nigeria.
“The money they use in taking care of this country comes from the Niger Delta,” said Wilson, who is known as Ex-General Pastor in a nod to his former days as a travelling preacher. “Now we say we want our person to be at the top, otherwise we will return to the creeks, and what Nigeria saw before will be child’s play.”
This war of words also reveals the simmering potential of armed groups to derail democracy in Africa’s most populous nation.
“We’re in the middle of an election where these fellows are declaring if we don’t vote their guy, they’re going to burn this country down,” said Folarin Gbadebo-Smith from the Centre for Public Policy Alternatives in Lagos. “In the worst-case scenario, these are the seeds of secession and civil war.”
But it is not only militants who feel it is the delta’s right to field a president for another elected term despite an informal deal that power should rotate between north and south every two terms. The delta has long felt left out of the oil riches that have made fortunes for many Nigerian politicians but returned little to ordinary people beyond catastrophic pollution.
The region’s plight shot to international fame in 1995, when northern military dictator Sani Abacha executed environmental campaigner Ken Saro-Wiwa.
When Jonathan held a rally in his home state of Bayelsa, the biggest cheers were not for the president but for Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, another former militant. Dressed in the traditional white of a local cult of warriors, he cruised through the throng in an open-top Mercedes 4×4, flashing a victory sign.
“I don’t have any natural attachment to Nigeria as a nation. My allegiance first and foremost is as an Ijaw man from the Niger Delta,” he told the Guardian a few hours later, lounging in an opulently furnished government guesthouse.
“The bigger tribes feel they have the divine right to rule others in Nigeria. But he who pays the piper must dictate the tune, and the delta has been paying the piper for so very long. We can make war if we have to,” added Dokubo-Asari, whose Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force pushed oil prices to record highs in 2004 with attacks and threats on the oil industry.
Former militants such as Dokubo-Asari have become multimillionaires on government contracts but there’s little sign of money trickling down, with Bayelsa having a distinctly sleepy, provincial air. Meanwhile, flagship electricity and education projects have had barely any effect in communities such as the small canoe-making village of Otuoke, where the president was born.
“You can’t take photographs here,” insisted the guard in front of the sprawling mansion built by the president, by far the grandest building in the village. “It may end up in the papers and then people will start talking.”
On a street nearby, Janet Ebi shelled periwinkles picked from the murky swamps close to the compound where Jonathan grew up. “Of course, we will still vote for him because he’s our brother but, honestly, I can’t say we’re happy,” she said.
“This is the president’s home town and you can see how it looks. See us sweating here because there’s no electricity,” she added, gesturing at the ramshackle pile of tin-roofed homes.
A few metres away, the only lights on belonged to the pair of smart two-storey houses Jonathan built for his parents.