Members of a pro-Biafran movement that calls for the independence of Biafran territories forcibily annexed to Nigeria during British colonisation have claimed affiliation with the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) militant group. The Biafra Herald claimed the militants are fighting for the freedom of people "enslaved" by the Nigerian government.
"For the avoidance of doubt, the NDA is fighting for the freedom of the people of Biafra and not for amnesty payment or for resource control as some commentators would like to believe," said the website. "The notion and talk of amnesty for our own freedom fighters (the NDA) is a misnomer and should be taken out of any discourse. The NDA is doing the right thing by demanding the freedom our people from the perpetually repressive Nigerian state."
The claims were made after NDA, among other things, repeatedly urged the Nigerian government to release Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (Ipob), who is standing trial in Nigeria on six counts of treasonable felony charges.
Who is behind NDA?
NDA is the latest militant organisation 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 down "to zero".
Nigeria, Africa's biggest oil producer, has already been negatively affected by renewed violence in the area as oil production has dropped to 1.4 million barrels per day (bpd), from 2.2m bpd.
There are several and contrasting claims on whom is behind the NDA. Although pro-Biafrans claim NDA are their freedom fighters, the group does not openly calls for the independence of the Biafran territories. NDA's call for Kanu's release is only one of the many demands the group said the governement must meet if it wants to engage in a dialogue with the militants.
Counter-terrorism expert David Otto believes NDA and pro-Biafrans have decided to ally given the discontent both groups feel towards the Nigerian government.
"The NDA's demand – amongst others – for the unconditional release of Kanu and former Goodluck Jonathan's NSA – Sambo Dasuki – is a clear indication that a relationship of common interest has developed between the NDA and pro Biafra," he told IBTimes UK. "This is a dangerous unholy alliance between one group seeking independence and another group seeking for environmental redress."
On 19 June, the Niger Delta Patriotic Front (NDPF) group claimed NDA had nothing to do with the advocacy of basic rights for people in the Niger Delta. NDPF went on alleging NDA was sponsored by Chief Government Emuokpolo, commonly known as "Tompolo", chief commander of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend).
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, Buhari extended a 2009 amnesty granted to 30,000 former militants in the area.
Tompolo, who was granted amnesty by the Nigerian government, has always denied any links with NDA and has urged the group to engage in talks with the government and cease attacks on oil facilities.
Some analysts, however, believe this might be a tactic that both Tompolo and NDA are using to show they are not linked when, in reality, they are fighting together to achieve shared objectives. This view is strengthened by the fact that another group, the Joint Niger Delta Liberation Force (JNDLF) group – which claimed affiliation with NDA– urged the government to defreeze Tompolo's bank accounts.
"Former Mend leaders like Tompolo and Asari Dokubo had indirectly and directly threatened that Nigeria will never be in peace if former President Goodluck Jonathan lost the election to President Muhammed Buhari," Otto explained.
"Dokubo believed that Boko Haram was created by Northern political elites to make Nigeria ungovernable for any Southern Christian leader, including Goodluck Jonathan. Dokubo had always said that he holds Niger Delta in his hands. It should not be surprising that he and his cohorts are behind the activities of the Avengers, despite him and Tompolo distancing themselves from the Avengers but supporting their grievances."
Government's position on NDA
Earlier this year, Buhari accused the NDA of vandalism and warned that the Nigerian government would deal with the group in the same way it is tackling Boko Haram in the country's north-east.
However, earlier in June, Nigeria announced it would scale back its military presence in the Niger Delta in order to foster dialogue with militants.
After initially refusing, NDA accepted the proposition to start talks. However, the group said the federal government must meet its demands before a "genuine" dialogue can take place.