Are civilians strategic actors in civil conflict, or do they simply take direction from armed groups? In this paper, we explore the question of what, if any, role civilians play during conflict by examining the most likely case for a key civilian role, in civil conflicts in territory rich in natural resources. Why do civilians in resource-rich conflicts cooperate with armed groups in these conflicts? In this study, we explore these questions using original survey data that explores both the attitudes of civilians toward armed groups, but also the information held by civilians and their ability to transmit it to militants. We explore the attitudes and behaviors of civilians, and what role civilians can play and why they might choose to cooperate with militants during conflict.
Scholars have long recognized that difficult terrain such as dense forest or swamps make insurgency easier, because of the informational advantages of locals in navigating the area (Fearon 2003). Our study area, the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, a labyrinthine network of small creeks among a dense mangrove forest, is just such an environment, in which aid in the form of riverine navigation and shelter is critical to combatants, both rebel and state. The popular understanding of the civil war in the Niger Delta oil production region in Nigeria focuses on the grievances of Delta residents against the Nigerian state and the international oil and gas companies, the level of corruption in state governments that receive large shares of the oil wealth, and long standing political disenfranchisement at the federal level.
Civilians, in collaboration with rebel groups with the capacity to produce violence, generate that capacity to obstruct. In the recent conflict in the Delta region, the umbrella militant group MEND is claimed to have had a membership of between 5,000 and 10,000 at its height. This is very few to cover an area roughly the size of Ireland. Rather than collecting intelligence on the locations of oil production and the activities of oil firms directly, the groups can rely on the broad network of civilians living in communities that often abut oil installations or through which oil pipelines flow directly.
We will show in this paper that civilians in the Niger Delta hold substantial information about the oil industry's activities, about navigation in the difficult mangrove swamp terrain of the region, and about the movements of the combatants. We then examine how civilians can share that information with armed groups, by examining the extent of social network overlap between militants and civilians. We show that there is substantial interaction between communities near militant camps and the operations of militant financiers (oil theft organizations), and that nearly a fifth of respondents are estimated to personally know a militant, either a friend or family member. We show in related research that civilians do provide information to the militant groups currently operating in the region. Almost 20% of respondents to a survey of a stratified random sample of communities in the region are estimated to have given information.