The Nigerian government will scale back its military presence in the oil-rich Niger Delta in order to foster dialogue with militants and reduce attacks in the restive area. The change in strategy came after a new group, the Joint Niger Delta Liberation Force (JNDLF), warned of possible missile attacks on 7 June.
The group, which claimed affiliation with the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) militants, urged the army to withdraw from the Ijaw communities or face dire consequences. The NDA calls for attacks targeting exclusively oil facilities and not the population while JNDLF has threatened to attack government buildings including the State House and Defence Headquarters in the capital Abuja.
Following the threats and repeated attacks on oil facilities, for which NDA has claimed responsibility, Ibe Kachikwu, the minister for petroleum resources, said a dialogue with the militants was needed after renewed violence caused Nigeria's oil production to drop to 1.6m barrels per day (bpd), from 2.2m bpd.
"The president has appointed a team led by the NSA [National security Adviser] and I serve in one of those, to begin the process of a very intensive dialogue with those caught in the middle of this," Kachikwu was quoted in the Nigerian media.
"The NSA is going to be working with the various arms of the armed forces to descale the intensity of military intervention in the area within a week or two so that dialogue can take place. We are making contacts with everybody who is involved, the ones that we can identify, through them, the ones that we can't identify so that there is a lot more inclusiveness in this dialogue. Our prayer is that this works so that we can resort to dialogue rather than use of force," he continued.
Local community leaders and the minister of the Niger Delta will also take part in the talks.
The birth of militant groups in Niger Delta
Militant groups in the oil-rich Niger Delta region took hold in the early 2000s following the deterioration of people's living conditions blamed on the increase of oil-related activities by foreign exploration corporations. Tensions flared up in the local communities as some ethnic groups felt they were being exploited and did not benefit from the crude oil on their land.
The repeated oil spills that considerably damaged the environment and affected people's health further deepened the communities' frustrations. After being elected in 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari extended a 2009 amnesty granted to 30,000 former militants in the area.
New militant groups in Niger Delta
NDA and JNDLF are the latest militant organisations to wage war against Nigeria due to perceived marginalisation in the Niger Delta. Attacks blamed on NDA forced Chevron and Royal Dutch Shell to close two plants, with the group vowing to bring the country's oil production "to zero".
Brigadier General Rabe Abubakar, Nigeria's director of defence information, told IBTimes UK the government considered these groups as criminals and not a threat.
Counter-terrorism expert David Otto, however, believes the groups' threats should not be underestimated, even if it might just be propaganda.
"New groups like the JNDLF are often keen to prove a point to draw global media attention to their perceived grievances and cause," Otto, who is the CEO of UK-based global security provider TGS Intelligence Consultants, told IBTimes UK.
President Muhammadu Buhari had been scheduled to travel to Ogoniland, Niger Delta, to meet regional leaders to discuss ways to tackle renewed violence in the region and to launch a clean-up operation in areas polluted by years of oil spills but has since cancelled the visit.
Just before the cancellation, IBTimes UK reported that a man suspected of belonging to the NDA warned the president's life would be in danger if he visited the Niger Delta.