Amnesty is good, but rights would be better

The government of Nigeria is trying to end the armed struggle in the Niger Delta with an offer of amnesty to rebels. It may do better to give the people the rights to their land.

The struggle in question is largely over oil revenues. The Niger Delta is rich with oil. Two million barrels a day come from the Delta, almost twice as much as from Alberta, and provide 75% of Nigeria’s export earnings. Some of the revenue is redistributed to the people of the Delta, some of it goes to other parts of the government, and a lot of it goes into officials’ pockets. (1)

Oil extraction in the Delta causes environmental damage. The Niger Delta has one of the highest concentrations of biodiversity on Earth. The government generally turns a blind eye to large oil companies’ operations, leading to carelessness about oil spills. 72% of oil spills are caused by old pipelines and oil extraction. 28% are due to sabotage. Oil spills have led to the destruction of mangrove forests, crops and aquaculture. (2) The industry has not left the area easy to live in. And the locals have noticed.

Even before independence from Britain in 1960, unrest in the Niger Delta has centered on the rights of the indigenous people. Nigeria’s First Republic gave the regions a large degree of autonomy, including a favourable oil revenue-sharing agreement, but successive dictatorships have left these original agreements long behind. So not only is there environmental damage, which some people would be willing to bear, but the people do not feel they are fairly compensated. Throw in regional and ethnic tensions, separatism and corruption, and you have the makings of a violent rebellion. This rebellion claimed 1000 lives and $24b of damage in 2008 alone. (3)

The Nigerian government recently offered amnesty to the rebels of the Niger Delta. It said that those willing to lay down their weapons would be granted a pardon for any past violence. The biggest rebel organisation, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, has rejected the peace offering. Apparently, MEND is happier with the other side of the government’s statement, that it would crack down harder on rebels who do not take its offer.

Governments often offer amnesty to insurgents as a form of negotiation. China gave amnesty to those who handed in firearms, largely illegal in China, in 2006. Uganda offered not to prosecute Joseph Kony in order to stop the violence done by his army (although the International Criminal Court is not so forgiving). Amnesty is also behind the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, set up to understand what happened during Apartheid and forgive those responsible. How better to insure against violence? And in a country with a weak legal system like Nigeria’s, it is a reasonable short term solution. The problem that I see, however, is that the people do not own the land they live on.

As I wrote in an earlier post, individual rights are essential to democracy and equality. One of the most important rights, or perhaps the only important right, is the right to property (assuming that one’s body is one’s property). At the moment, the government is spending more and more to protect oil supplies and the people of the Niger Delta are not much happier than before. If they spent that money on cleaning up Nigeria’s justice and law enforcement systems (not an easy task, of course), they could be laying the foundation for giving the indigenous people the rights to their land and its resources.

If you own your own land or other property, you have the final say on what happens to it. You can choose to sell some of it to an oil company, or to contract it out. You can decide that oil extraction is not right for your property, and enjoy the mangrove forests instead. Contracts are enforced, meaning that, if you say that oil or mining companies must clean up any mess they make, not only must they do so, but they will be far more careful than they are now. While I recommend individual ownership of land, communities can come to decisions as to how they feel the land should be utilised. Property rights are the basis of democracy and economic growth in the rich, democratic countries. But they require the rule of law, not of corrupt elites and oil corporations that are above it.

It is clear that the government of Nigeria wants to keep the situation such that the rebels are at bay while it continues to make money off oil. It is not interested in any lasting peace but in the unsustainable status quo: we get money from the oil, they bomb a pipeline; we get more money from the oil, they kidnap a few foreigners. My guess is, the cycle of violence will only end when the people have the right to the land under their feet.