Dawn in the Creeks: Former Niger Delta militants move toward a more peaceful future

By Lauren Bohn and Chika Oduah 

NEMBE, Nigeria —  Former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari has become the first opposition candidate to win a presidential election in Nigeria. He defeated incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan, widely criticized for his administration’s tepid response to rampant religious violence, corruption and inequity.

With all eyes now on Buhari to bring a much-needed sea change to Nigeria, meet a forgotten segment of society struggling to create a new narrative for one of the continent’s most important economies and one of its most turbulent countries.

Long before the militant Islamist group Boko Haram launched a deadly campaign of terror, Nigeria was mired in a different conflict. 

In the 1980s, local communities in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta region began to demand greater access to the billions of dollars that the Nigerian government and foreign oil companies were reaping. Their demands were simple. They wanted clean water. They wanted electricity. They wanted job opportunities. The region lacked basic infrastructure, and socioeconomic indicators were significantly worse than the national average.

“We wanted to let the government know that what they were doing to the Niger Delta region was unfair,” says Emmanuel Bristol Alagbariya, a community activist and secretary general of the Ijaw Youth Council. 

“It’s a huge conspiracy.” Alagbariya said. “[Nigerian government officials] all benefited from the oil.”

Estimates reveal that Nigeria, Africa’s largest producer of oil, has generated upwards of $400 billion in oil revenues since its independence in 1960. Historically marginalized ethnic communities in the Delta, primarily the Ijaw people – outgoing President Jonathan’s ethnic group – were largely left out of this wealth. 

The peaceful struggle soon pivoted toward a deadly path of destruction. The internationally condemned execution of the Niger Delta’s most prominent activist, Ken Saro Wiwa, by the military regime in November 1995 ignited the discontent of the region’s youth — many of them jobless, jaded university students and graduates. Many took up arms to fight for what they believed was a worthy cause. 

In November 1999, tensions between civilians and Nigerian soldiers erupted into riots and what local media reported as “massacres” in towns such as Odi, where more than 2,000 people — mostly elderly — were killed when then-President Olusegun Obasanjo reportedly ordered a deployment of Nigerian troops after youth had allegedly killed about a dozen police officers. 

The region had become a case study in ethnic-fueled political conflict, ignited by the “oil curse” that had seemed to simultaneously jinx and bless Nigeria.

“[The Niger Delta was a] meeting ground of unimaginable wealth … and the unremitting economic and political marginality of a complex mosaic of ethnic minorities,” explained researchers from the Institute of International Studies at the University of California in Berkeley in a 2004 report. 

“The delta has provided the fertile soil in which youth militancy, communal violence and intense struggles over customary authority has flourished over two decades or more.” 

Violence had become the language of the struggle and youth like 28-year-old Alamco Robinson were fluent. Robinson says taking up arms was the only way to get the government to hear the people’s woes.

“We didn’t just start militancy like that,” says the former guerrilla commander, snapping his fingers. He says vast inequality forced them to fight.  

Now, eight years after the brokering of an amnesty program between the Nigerian government and those involved in the armed conflict, a ceasefire keeps the region relatively calm. But with tens of thousands of youth still waiting for employment, tensions could spark at any time. 

“Let’s just say we’re watching the government and seeing if they take real action,” says Ateke Tom, a former militant commander who is reportedly being paid millions by the Nigerian government to guard delta pipelines they used to attack. “I won’t fight again, but there’s a whole other generation. They’re waiting.”

In this fragile state of truce, community development initiatives have taken root in the Niger Delta, aimed at engaging young people. The most recent, “Dawn In the Creeks: A Niger Delta Legacy,” have brought together almost two dozen youth across the region. 

By changing the narrative of destruction and violence to one of progress and peace, the initiative  — a collaboration between a local NGO, the US Department of State and famous Nollywood film director Jeta Amata — offers Niger Delta’s youth an outlet to positively channel their energies. They’ve been given a rare opportunity, one the region has been fighting for over decades: the opportunity to become change-makers. 

“Human nature can be changed,” said Amata, at a screening of the series last year. “We can change.” 

The project centers around a reality TV series following selected youth from the Niger Delta as they work on creating films about their communities.

Amata ventured to the ancient kingdom of Nembe, one of the largest and oldest oil-producing areas in the Niger Delta, to handpick seven youth and take them to the heart of Nigeria’s entertainment industry, Lagos, for filmmaking training. 

The filmmakers are now back in Nembe, equipped with camera equipment and a budget to produce true stories portraying the region’s complicated narrative of corruption, oil wealth, poverty, conflict and reconciliation. 

Meet three of the filmmakers – three youth struggling to create a new generation for their country. They have taken the first steps in telling the story of the Niger Delta people, and in doing so, are changing their own stories.

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Alamco Robinson, 28

It was Alamco’s first time on a plane. Descending into the steamy bustle of the Lagos airport, Alamco said he never imagined he would be given a chance to learn how to make movies. Having been tasked as the team’s director of photography, Alamco now has high hopes. He’s expecting the Dawn In the Creeks project to change his life and bring him job opportunities. 

He needs them, desperately. 

The 28-year-old was raised in the creeks of the Niger Delta. He waded in its grimy, oil-polluted waters as a fighter during the armed struggle. He climbed the ranks and became a commander, smashing pipelines and selling the stolen crude oil in the murky black market. 

“I was just a ghetto boy from the creeks,” he says. From his hardened face and deeply set eyes, Alamco’s gaze is scattered. His energy is hyper, almost erratic, and as he reminisces about the past, anger begins to break his voice like crackled paper.

“We didn’t have anything to do and thousands of youth are looking for opportunities,” he says. 

Amata approached Alamco when he was at a low point, trying to survive off the small stipend he was receiving from the government-brokered amnesty program. Like most former militants, Alamco had turned in his guns and enrolled in peace-building courses at an institution in Calabar, a populous city in southern Nigeria. He thought he’d go abroad for job training like some of the other militants, but he wasn’t offered the opportunity. And he still loathes his former commander, who he says has earned millions of dollars under the “corrupt” amnesty program. He admits he has often thought about calling him, but says it’s better they never speak again.

For the most part, he says the amnesty program has not lived up to its promises and that many of the former militants have returned to their old ways. 

“Sometimes,” he says, “I worry we’re back to square one.”

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Regina Josiah, 22

If Regina could summarize the Niger Delta struggle, she’d probably say, “In every situation, there must be a solution.” She uses the hopeful proverb often as it applies to many of the challenges she and youth in the Niger Delta face.

For her, that solution came in the form of filmmaking. Regina says she has always been creative: she started dancing when she was three years old and has made appearances in a few low-budget locally produced films. 

Every evening before daylight fades, she walks home through the narrow alleys of ancient Nembe, where just a few years ago residents say they saw leakage from an oil-well, operated by Shell, spilling into the waterways. 

Oil spills have traumatized the land, killing animal species and destroying the rich ecosystem in places like Ogoniland, where spillage from Shell-operated pipelines was so pervasive that the UN estimated it could take 30 years and $1 billion to repair what it described as the “world’s ‘most wide-ranging and long-term oil cleanup.'”Royal Dutch Shell admitted liability for two oil spills, in 2008 and 2009.

“Between 1976 and 2001, there were over 5,000 spills amount to 2.5 million barrels,” reported researchers from the Institute of International Studies at the University of California in Berkeley in a 2004 report. They cited evidence revealing that “Nigeria has some of the highest spillage and flaring rates anywhere in the world.”

Such statistics aren’t mere numbers for Regina; they’re memories that leave her frustrated. 

“Tribal chiefs and kings sit on the resources and don’t distribute them,” she says. “We don’t see any profit.”

She’s still skeptical of the amnesty program. She’s seen so many people who came back to Nembe with a program certificate, but still haven’t been able to find work. Some of them have gone back to the barracks and “their old ways.”

Since joining the film program, Regina and other participants have become celebrities in Nembe. She can’t walk around her dirt neighborhood without people approaching her. “People expect stuff from us, they think we have connections,” she says. “They still haven’t realized that they need to help themselves.”

The kidnappings, the oil spill, the poverty and shattered hopes for peace – these are some of the realities of life in the Niger Delta that Regina hopes to capture in her film. But she says she wants to change the narrative.

“I want to change the story on Nembe. People think we’re militants. The story is ‘Fight, fight, fight. This war, that war,’” she says. “But we’re more than that.”

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Joel Jumbo, 32

It was a no-brainer. Back in the early 2000s, Joel says he was offered 200,000 naira (about $1,000) to fight, so he joined the militants.

When he picked up a rifle, he already knew how to shoot. Joel had been a soldier in the Nigerian army and was deployed to Nembe on a peacekeeping mission. But he soon left the military and found himself dodging bullets from his former colleagues.

“I didn’t do good things,” he says tersely but softly. A combustible mix of marijuana, cocaine and heroin plus his inability to find a job, left him in the dangerous hands of idleness.    

“In Nembe, there’s a lot of isolation,” he says. “You forget yourself.”

For him, the fighting can be boiled down to a simple, failed trajectory.

“You finish school, you get a certificate,” he says, his voice raised and strained, rarely speaking in first person. “And you go and there is no job. How can the government expect them not to become violent?” 

But the solutions aren’t as simple.

“It’s up to you to raise yourself up,” he says, lounging poolside at a chic Lagos hotel where the crew is staying for the premiere of the series, a universe away from the mangroves of the Delta. “But that’s hard.”