A 1975 UN definition of organized crime says it is “…large scale and complex criminal activity carried on by groups of persons, however loosely or tightly organized, for the enrichment of those participating and at the expense of the community and its members.” In addition, organized crime networks have generally been known to “… employ violence and bribery to maintain its operations, threats of grievous retribution (including murder) to maintain internal and external control, and thuggery and contribution to election campaigns to buy political patronage for immunity from exposure and prosecution. Its activities include credit card fraud, gun running, illegal gambling, insurance fraud, kidnapping for ransom, narcotics trade, pornography, prostitution, racketeering, smuggling, vehicle theft, etc.

The nature of organised crime in Nigeria (Niger Delta)

The modus operandi of organised crime in Nigeria isn’t any different from what is obtainable in other climes. In fact, it fits right with the definition given above. In his book This Present darkness, a history of Nigerian organized crime, Stephen Ellis succinctly captures that organized crime in Nigeria involves drug trafficking, prostitution rings, fraud, cybercrime and political corruption etc. Organized crime, as a report by the United Nations University puts it, relies on a number of different actors with militants, criminals and politicians each playing a different role. The report also went further to state that “However, the involvement of smaller syndicates, made up of militant groups, student cults and other criminal groups with shifting alliances to state actors has been widely discussed, with individuals and groups profiting from bribes, ‘security’ payments or providing services to bunkerers.”

In the Niger Delta region, organized crime manifests most visibly as supremacy clashes between cult groups such as the Icelanders and Greenlanders, or Deywell versus Deybam etc. Over the past decade, such clashes have killed thousands of people and have further complicated an already challenging operating environment for businesses. However when one looks beneath the veneer of cultism and the territorial battles, there is in existence an active criminal network engaging in kidnappings, oil theft, robberies, drug trafficking, extortion and illegal security contracts to mention a few.

Despite the uniqueness of the Niger Delta context, organized crime in the region shares traits often found in other parts of the world. For example, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), it most often flourishes in environments characterized by significant internal divisions, depleted infrastructure, high poverty rates, and group or sub-group hostility towards the state.  No stranger to cycles of electoral violence, militancy, criminality and communal clashes, many of the Niger Delta states face challenges associated with rule of law and governance that enable an environment of impunity.

Further feeding a cycle of instability, organized crime undermines governments, fuels corruption, and facilitates criminal infiltration of state structures. It also exploits and deepens societal divisions, keeping grievances alive while undermining peace processes. Organized crime also weakens state-society relations by undermining stability, eroding trust and legitimacy, and fostering the creation of parallel or compromised state and local security services. According to the 2017 World Bank Annual Report, and similar findings from a 2016 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report on illicit cash flows, these factors result in disincentives for economic investment and growth.

In the Niger Delta, organized crime is often intertwined with, and feeds off of, other known conflict drivers. For example, communal violence, militancy, and general political violence, especially around elections. Peace and security actors in the Niger Delta have developed effective tools for addressing political violence (civic education, strategic communication, and peace messaging), communal/sectarian violence (community engagement, conflict mediation and arbitration), and militancy (high-level negotiations and development strategies). Organized crime, however mainly manifested as cultism in the Niger Delta, presents a particularly difficult challenge for peace and security actors, both in terms of addressing cultism itself, as well as complicating efforts to address the other conflict dynamics.

Nigerian militant youths display weapons surrendered by former militants at an arms collection centre at Tourist beach in the oil hub Port Harcourt, October 3, 2009. Photo: REUTERS/Austin Ekeinde

Implications for the 2019 elections

Looking ahead to the election in 2019, it is important for organized crime to be seen as a cross-cutting factor this is especially important, as social cohesion is stressed across a range of fault lines causing the environment to become more conducive to violence entrepreneurs.

Organised crime, predominantly manifesting as cultism in the Niger Delta, flourishes in environments experiencing communal, militant, and political violence. Similar to a parasite that takes advantage of a weakened host, cult groups in the Niger Delta utilize the chaos and discontent caused by the growth of intercommunal, political, and other types of violence for both short– and long-term economic gains. Their business model takes advantage of (and exacerbates) societal cleavages and mistrust between the government and  local populations, not only by providing parallel systems of commerce, but also stepping into the role of security for hire.

For example, in facilitating the trafficking of weapons to aggrieved groups in the Niger Delta, or into and out of the sub-region, cultists undermine the legitimate monopoly on the use of force by the state. In offering their services to ethnic groups and political parties, as well as by playing the role of middleman between these groups and others, especially oil smugglers and pirates, they further provide opportunities for illicit profit while fueling instability. Thus, in order to protect their business model, cult groups act as spoilers in efforts to mitigate any type of conflict in isolation, by leveraging pre-existing networks and manipulating grievances to stay ahead of peace and security actors.

Political tensions and violence were sharply elevated in both the lead-up to and the aftermath of the 2011 and 2015 elections. Broadly speaking, violence entrepreneurs such as cult groups, profited from the chaotic environment created by political dynamics.

Cult groups were active during both the 2011 federal and gubernatorial election period. While not always explicitly connected to political parties, clashes between rival groups in supremacy battles underscores the history of these groups in fueling violence and undermining stability by utilizing networks and group affiliations.

According to data uploaded to the P4P Peace Map an interactive map operated by PIND Foundation, there were several incidents related to cult and political violence during these election periods. For example, there were reported incidents of clashes between cult groups in the lead-up to the gubernatorial elections in Yenagoa LGA in Bayelsa which resulted in 15 fatalities. In addition, there were also reported cases of cult groups clashing in Rivers State in the lead up to the 2011 General elections in Rivers State.

In the 2015 election season, political tensions were again sharply elevated in the run-up to the March federal election, the April gubernatorial elections, and the May local elections. The 2015 elections saw the rise and ultimate victory of a stronger opposition party,  as Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) defeated the sitting President Goodluck Jonathan of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in the federal election. While, on the surface, this was indicative of deepening political democratization in Nigeria, it simultaneously also created a broader marketplace for violence entrepreneurs.

Reports of cult violence in the Niger Delta have been on the rise since 2015, peaking in 2016.  Again, the Peace map data revealed multiple incidents of clashes between cult groups and attacks on political opponents. In the lead-up to, and the aftermath of, the 2015 elections, cult groups were actively recruited and co-opted by political parties to propagate violence for profit. For example, in the 2015 elections, rival cult groups reportedly clashed at polling centers, resulting in several fatalities. Violence then continued between these groups after the election. Other incidents include reports of attacks on electoral campaigns, attacks on opposing party chieftains and their supporters, attacks on security forces and officials of the election management body as well as burning down of a collection center.

The aftermath of the 2015 presidential elections represented one of the most violent periods in the Niger Delta since the end of the 2009 militancy. This has had lasting implications for communities and businesses alike. Now, looking forward to the 2019 elections in the region, the stakes for violence and their impacts remain high.

In the lead-up to 2019, peace and security actors must approach peace-building efforts in an integrated way that takes the risks of cult groups into serious consideration alongside the other conflict dynamics such as communal and political cleavages.  As cult groups begin jockeying for influence and increasingly attempt to demonstrate their ability to monopolize violence in specific LGAs and communities, it is critical to get ahead of the curve. Once organized crime takes hold in an area, it becomes difficult to root out, and has the potential to make conflict management much more difficult, even as related to political and communal violence. In acknowledging cultism as the preeminent manifestation of organized crime in the Niger Delta, and mainstreaming it across all interventions, it may be possible to get ahead of the curve.

Finally, in examining the role of organized criminal violence in the Niger Delta, as manifested most directly through cultism, it is paramount to understand its cross-cutting nature in order to successfully mitigate its effects. While prior efforts have often treated cultism, militancy, political violence and communal violence as separate dynamics, fueled by distinct and discrete entities, interests, and ideologies, this can no longer be the default assumption. Community leaders and political actors need the awareness, ability, and will to reject cooption by criminal elements no matter how tantalizing it may appear in the short term to monopolize the use of violence for political and monetary gains.  Only by taking a proactive and holistic approach to the problem of organized crime and violence entrepreneurs in the Niger Delta can a repeat of the violence of 2015 be avoided in 2019.

This piece is an adaptation of a report from PIND Foundation. The original report can be found here.

Elections Niger delta Nigeria Organised crime Peace

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