All entries for February 2021

February 26, 2021

Let us Talk about Young Men and their Participation in the Niger Delta Violence

Niger delta

Pollution in the Niger Delta (courtesy: Stakeholder Development Network SDN)

Written by Dr Modesta Alozie

Anjo limped as he walks towards me for an interview, I wondered what had happened to his leg. He had been shot in 2003 in Bayelsa during a violent clash between the military and the local youths, many of whom were men. For months, local youths sabotaged oil pipelines in the region and kidnapped oil company staff for ransom, which led the federal government to send in the military to repress dissidents. Although the National Youth Policy (2019) says the age range of youth in Nigeria as 18-29 years, it is not unusual in the Niger delta to find people as old as 45 years old identify as youths. This is because youth, in this context, is mainly a site of marginalisation and contestation rather than an age category.

The violence was not only happening in Bayelsa but across the other eight states of the Niger delta where Nigeria’s oil production takes place, with a huge consequence for the development of the region. Thousands of people have died and thousands have been displaced. Properties have been destroyed, and between 2007-2008, Nigeria’s oil production decreased by 40%. In a country where 88% of the government earning comes from oil, the economic effect of this violence cannot be understated. Peace was eventually restored in 2009 after the government introduced the Amnesty Programme which promised monthly stipends to the youths if they dropped their arms. But sporadic violence still occurs.

Because Nigeria is Africa’s biggest oil exporter, the violence in the Niger delta has huge implications for global oil supply. As such, there is serious interest from academics as well as the media to explain this violence. Economists like Paul Collier tell us that what fuels this violence is greed by young men, and in the media, these young men have been labelled as criminals. Blaming young men for this violence leads to the stigmatisation of young people in the society and obscures the role of the state as well as the oil companies in creating the inequalities that fuel this violence in the first place.

In my doctoral research, I sought to explain this violence from the perspectives of these young men. I spoke with these young men and observed their social environment to understand how their identity as men influence their violent behaviour. Many of the youths I spoke to blame the government and the oil companies, who are in a joint business arrangement with the federal government, for this violence. When Nigeria’s oil revenue surged in the 1970s, the federal government introduced new economic and political structures to monopolise control over oil proceeds. First, a Federation Account was created into which all oil revenues are channelled to be shared subsequently across all the states in the country. Then, the Derivation Principle which regulates the proportion of internally generated revenue to be retained by any state was slashed from 50% to 3% in the 1980s. At the moment, the oil communities retain 13% of the oil profits generated within their region as specified by the Derivation Principle and population size is considered the most important criteria for sharing the revenue collected by the federal government. As such, the majority ethnic groups, especially the Hausa Northerners, have received the largest chunk of the oil proceeds due to their large number. The oil communities see this as distributive injustice. There is a perception amongst the oil communities that their ethnic minority status makes it difficult for them to negotiate a better revenue-sharing arrangement at the federal government level.

Corrupt practices by local politicians and harmful corporate practices by the oil companies further compound the problems of the oil communities. A large chunk of the funds which could have been invested in development projects, such as employment creation is diverted into private pockets, and so the level of unemployment in the region is very high. For decades, oil spills have occurred frequently in the Niger delta often without remediation and compensation to the oil communities. Between 1976-2001, 7000 oil spill incidents occurred in the Niger delta and every year, 240,000 barrels of oil are spilt in the Niger region. This is the highest rate of oil spills recorded anywhere in the world leading the BBC to name the Niger delta ‘the world oil pollution capital’.

Oil spills in the Niger delta occur mainly from operational failures or pipeline vandalisation by youths. By law, the local communities are supposed to be compensated by the oil firms when an oil spill happens due to operational failures. However, compensation rarely happens because the Joint Investigation process (JIV) which is used to determine the cause of an oil spill is seriously flawed. The oil companies provide the equipment and finances required for the JIV, which leaves little room for accountability and transparency in the process. As such, the oil communities believe that most oil spill data from the JIV is unreliable.

In many instances when local residents have gone to the court to challenge the outcome of the JIV, they have been unsuccessful, although a recent court case in which four local farmers won an oil spill case against Shell in a Dutch court brings some glimmer of hope. Because rural livelihood in the Niger Delta is predominantly fishing and farming, local people have watched their future drain away with oil and concern for health continues to rise. It is within this context of exclusion and pollution that young men like Anjo are challenging the oil companies and the institutional structures which they believe do not serve them.

My research found that while women also experience the economic exclusion resulting from oil exploration, men are disproportionately affected by the social consequences of this economic exclusion. Also, some traditional ideas of manhood encourage violent behaviour amongst Ijaw men. Egbesu, the Ijaw god of war commands young men to rise as men and protect their communities against any external danger and injustice. This cultural context normalises violence to a certain extent and many young men who are socialised in this context see the enactment violence as merely a habitualised way of being a male member of the Ijaw community.

Young men in the Niger Delta are expected to provide for their households as well as to marry, but in the Niger Delta, marriage is a long and elaborate process requiring large sums of cash. Without getting married, many young men remain in limbo as junior men and they are not able to participate meaningfully in local community life. Many young men I spoke to saw marriage and the provider role as essential to who they are as men. They explain how unemployment undermines their ability to perform these roles as well as how violence enables them to meet these social roles.

During my interview with Anjo, he explained that before joining violent militancy, he had no money to pay his children’s school fees and to feed his family as a man, which led to regular insults from his wife. After joining one of the well-known militant gangs in the region, Anjo’s economic situation improved significantly. He and his peers were paid hugely by the oil companies to protect oil territories. Consequently, Anjo received enough money to provide for both his immediate as well as extended family.

Many Ijaw men I spoke to justified violence as a normal way of being a good man in the Ijaw community and in a context characterised by injustice. The dependence on Ijaw men’s strength for community protection shifts the responsibility of resistance against military repression and exclusion on young men, who then use violence to resist an equally violent state.

While many unemployed men struggled to become providers and to marry, I observed in the night clubs and in wedding ceremonies that violent men lived a different life. In the clubs, women wanted them for their cash, and in the wedding ceremonies they were invited as ‘Chairmen’, an honourable Nigerian title almost exclusively reserved for older rich men. In this context of exclusion, violence offered young men an opportunity to insert themselves into the mainstream social and economic life, albeit through the back door.

Since young men are the main perpetrators and victims of this violence, addressing this violence and achieving inclusive development in the Niger delta requires that intervention strategies meet the diverse needs of young men (and women) many of whom live at the margins of the oil communities. Finally, it is time to move towards a society where men are humanised and manhood is not linked with violence.

Author Bio

Dr Modesta Alozie is the Lead Research Fellow on the Data and Displacement Project at the Department of Politics and International Relations University of Warwick, UK. She holds a PhD in Development Planning from University College London. Before joining Warwick, Modesta worked as a research consultant at the Urban Institute University of Sheffield in the LO-ACT low carbon project. Her research has focused on climate change and analysing the complex impacts of oil extraction in Nigeria from an intersectional perspective. Recently, her research has expanded geographically beyond Nigeria to include South Sudan focusing on the experiences of internally displaced people in these two contexts.

February 09, 2021

On Victims’ Recognition: Gendered Politics of the FARC’s Forced Recruitment


Written by Dr Sonia Garzon-Ramirez

When the peace talks between ex-Colombian president Santos and the then Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were about to kick off in 2012, the word “forgiveness” started to occupy Colombian social media and newspapers. While some victims were confronted with the dilemma of whether or not to forgive their perpetrators, others expected the FARC guerrilla to make a gesture of peace and ask their victims for forgiveness. However, at the beginning of the peace negotiations, there was a sense of general shock among the population when, instead of offering an apology, the top FARC commander Rodrigo Granda said during an interview with BBC correspondent Sara Rainsford that the FARC were themselves victims of this war.

With the exception of this controversial interview, there have been no further public discussions about whether the FARC as a group has been a victim of war. However, as recently as December 2019, Colombia’s Constitutional Court issued a decision that touches upon interpretations of Colombian transitional justice law with regard to victims. Indeed, with this decision the Court has opened a door to considering whether there might have been some individual victims within the ranks of the FARC. It might well be that, by not taking this debate forward, Colombia is missing an important opportunity to hold FARC leaders accountable, and to know the truth about the patterns of FARC violence and oppression that kept the war going.

The FARC’s Moves Towards a Formal Apology

Colombian victims had to wait until the last moment, when the peace agreement was about to be signed and voted on in a popular referendum, before receiving a gesture of apology from FARC leaders seeking forgiveness. Fortunately, since the approval of the peace agreement in 2016, several acts of public apology have taken place. Despite the FARC’s initial recalcitrance, Colombians have seen the FARC steadily moving towards the recognition of crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by their forces. As of today, FARC leaders have offered public apologies for forced displacement, massacres, kidnapping, and political assassinations that they had previously downplayed or denied. It is worth noting that the FARC is not the only armed actor responsible for the more than 7 million victims resulting from 5 decades of internal war. Other guerrilla groups such as the National Liberation Army (ELN) and paramilitary groups have also contributed to the record of massive human rights violations, and between 2013 and 2016 during the Santos administration, the Colombian government made significant steps towards recognizing the state’s responsibility for human rights violations.

Colombian transitional justice norms as well as the so-called Victims’ and Land Restitution Law of 2011 (hereinafter Victims Act) echo UN principles and guidelines on the “Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law” of 2006. Thus, the Victims Act considers as victims “persons who individually or collectively have suffered damage due to events occurred (..) as a consequence of violations of International Humanitarian Law or of serious and manifest violations of the norms of international human rights violations, which occurred on the occasion of the internal armed conflict.” It also states that there can be direct and indirect victims, as for instance partner or family members, and that victims are also persons who have suffered harm when intervening to assist victims in danger or to prevent victimization. However, the Victims Act explicitly excludes from the victim’s category members of non-state armed actors organized outside the law, such as guerrilla or paramilitary groups, “except in the case when children or adolescents have been separated from the guerrilla when they were minors.”

In 2020 the Colombian government asserted that in the last 20 years, the FARC has recruited 9,000 minors. As academic research has documented, attempts of desertion were severely punished by the FARC regardless of age, even with the death penalty (Gutiérrez 2018; Borch and Stuvøy 2011). Despite the cruelty of these rules and overwhelming evidence, FARC’s top leaders have oftentimes dismissed their use of forced recruitment or have denied the FARC’s responsibility as an organization. Misleading information about the combatants’ recruitment age and the assertion that, if it even occurred, child recruitment was not a policy of the FARC central command (known as the FARC secretariat) have been some of the arguments used by top commanders to avoid assuming responsibility. According to FARC leaders’ elusive discourse, if child recruitment took place, it was undertaken by the guerrilla frontline on the ground, over which the FARC secretariat could not always have control.

Given the above and by providing this exception, it is worth considering whether the Victims Act was creating a legal vacuum. Might the Colombian state have left without protection persons who were forcibly recruited when they were children but who have never had the chance or were unable to flee from the guerrilla’s ranks?

Aligning with International Standards

From the perspective of international frameworks, the prohibition of forced recruitment and the protection of victims are absolute. Regardless of the age of the victim, forced recruitment is described in the Rome Statute Art. 8 (2)(b)(XV) as a War Crime. In addition, the recruitment of children is prohibited in Protocol II Additional to the Four Geneva Conventions of 1949 Article 4(3)(c), and in the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict of 2000. Furthermore, UN resolution 2391 of 1968 affirms “the principle that there is no period of limitation for war crimes and crimes against humanity.” On the other hand, because of the so-called Block of Constitutionality (Garzon 2017; Constitutional Court 2003), the Colombian state is bound to apply the international norms the country has ratified, even if they are soft law. This category refers to agreements, guiding principles and declarations that have no legally binding force, such as the Paris Principles and Guidelines on Children Associated with Armed Forces or Armed Groups. However, as Catherine O’Rourke suggests (2019), the fragmentation of international humanitarian law and its interpretations across different institutions have allowed for uneven applications or unclear impact on domestic contexts.

The case of Helena (pseudonym) ruled on 2019 by the Constitutional Court exemplifies some of the ways in which interpretations of the Victims Act resulted not only in inconsistencies with international frameworks, but in the undermining of the rights of victims to reparation, truth and justice.

Helena was forcibly displaced and forcibly recruited by the FARC at age 14. Once in the ranks, Helena was subjected to forced contraception and forced abortion. In 2019, Helena’s case was brought before the Colombian Constitutional Court by Juliana Laguna and Marina Ardila, lawyers from Women’s Link Worldwide. Her case represented an example of a number of cases of women ex-combatants who were forcibly recruited by the FARC but to whom, willing or not, the Colombian state has denied recognition as victims. Furthermore, her story sets a precedent for how the fragmentation of international norms aimed at protecting women and girls among the guerrilla might have allowed women’s disenfranchisement and FARC top leaders’ impunity for the instrumental use of gender and sexual-based violence to feed the political economy of their war.

Arguing that Helena was an adult when she left the guerrilla, the Unit for Integral Attention and Reparation of Victims (hereinafter Victims’ Unit) created by the Victims Act refused to grant Helena a victim status. This decision removed her right to reparation set within the Victims Act and, indirectly, to adequate access to health services despite having experienced sexual violence. Thus, in the landmark Constitutional Court decision SU-599 of 2019, the Court ordered the Victims’ Unit to include Helena in the National Victims’ Registry for the crimes of forced displacement, forced recruitment and sexual violence (forced contraception and forced abortion), and to meet the conditions to grant her access to the right to reparation.

As with other previous cases brought by feminist organizations before the Constitutional Court, the experience of Helena reaches out to the broader FARC guerrilla economy of war. On one hand, it shows how the guerrillas operated in ways which were inconsistent with the discourse of gender equality that their Marxist doctrine and propaganda have spread (NCHM 2017). Patriarchy is malleable as Cynthia Cockburn and Cynthia Enloe claim (2014) and, in effect, allowing women to hold arms and assigning them to military activities did not spare the FARC from reproducing the hierarchical patriarchal structures that they claimed to have overturned among their ranks. Rather, the FARC machinery prompted a form of militarized femininity that involved sexual heteronormativity and manipulated women’s sexuality so as to feed into its own political aims.

Malleable Patriarchy and the FARC’s Tactical Use of Women’s Forced Recruitment

Testimonies of women ex-combatants collected by the National Centre for Historical Memory (hereinafter NCHM) describe the FARC’s appraisal of a hegemonic patriarchal masculinity, and its promotion of tactical aggressiveness against the fragile or the weak and of a female militarized subjectivity. To illustrate, the NCHM refers to personal features such as “strength, roughness and violence” (2017: 165), which were encouraged among the guerrillas and even traded off by FARC commanders against privileges over access to women’s sexuality. In parallel, women’s promotion possibilities in the FARC hierarchy were often mediated by sexual exchanges. Rigorous and detailed control of women’s sexual and reproductive lives made women carry the full weight of brutal forms of forced contraception on their own bodies. Thus, contraception within the FARC ranks was not an expression of women’s sexual freedom or autonomy but a tool to guarantee that women were available for both sex and war. Moreover, pregnancy was a privilege which, if ever allowed, was only granted to women related to guerrilla leaders (NCHM 2017: 119). Thus, the guerrilla machinery was built on a process that sought to transform women who had to adapt in order to navigate through its patriarchal structures if they were to survive.

By 2018, the peace agreement had made possible the demobilization of more than 13,000 FARC fighters and, according to the FARC self-assessment, women made up 40% of the guerrilla. Looking at such a level of women’s participation might prompt us to go beyond asking where the women were within the guerrilla ranks. We might instead ask why women were recruited on such a massive scale and how women’s recruitment fed into the FARC’s political economy. Gutierrez & Carranza (2017) describe an interlinked dynamic of push and pull factors driving women’s recruitment by the FARC guerrilla. As with the story of Helena, ethnographic research of the NCHM provides evidence of the use of menaces, extorsion and violence by the FARC to enforce child recruitment, which account for some of the push strategies used by recruiters. But in the meantime, NCHM’s research shows that the FARC, indeed, tapped into social, economic and cultural inequalities as well as everyday forms of oppression endured by women living in rural contexts. Using these factors as push forces, the FARC recruiters managed to disseminate an appealing discourse with the promise of a better life, freedom, women’s autonomy, empowerment, and personal advance. Those push and pull factors might explain the FARC’s recruitment success. Yet, they alone are not sufficient to explain the why of FARC’s gendered recruitment politics, as in fact the FARC has not always included women in its ranks (ibid.).

Indeed, the history of the FARC reflects a transition from being a peasant self-defence group in the 1950s to becoming a mobile hierarchical military structure able to achieve territorial control over extensive rural areas. While such transformation was fuelled by the FARC’s decision in the 1990s to gain control over drug-trafficking related activities, it would have not been possible without the FARC’s ability to become a socially self-contained organization. To this end, the FARC sought to control its fighters’ lives and pushed forward women’s forced recruitment so as to prevent their male guerrilla from engaging in sentimental relations with civilian women.

It would be misleading to claim that massive women’s recruitment by the FARC was just the result of their voluntary decision. To prevent the reparation of women who suffered forced recruitment and the clarification of the truth about the gendered use of forced recruitment would mean for Colombia to fail in its duty of memory and to guarantee the victims’ right to non-repetition. The legal advocacy of women's organisations in Helena's case can allow many victims to overcome the legal void created by the fragmentation of international humanitarian law and the gender blindness of inadequate interpretations.

Author Bio

Sonia is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of International Politics at Aberystwyth University, UK. She joined WICID as visiting researcher in November and December 2020. Her research lies at the intersections of peacebuilding, transitional justice, and gender and its intersectionalities. Sonia received her PhD in Comparative Gender Studies from Central European University, Budapest.

More information about her MSCA Research Project is available in the blog


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