NIGER DELTA: BEHIND THE MASK
Ijaw Militia Fight the Oil Cartel
by Ike Okonta
"They have taken crafty counsel against thy people; and consulted against thy hidden ones. They have said, Come, and let us cut them off from being a nation."
—Oboko Bello, president of Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities (FNDIC), quoting Psalm 83:1-5.
The fragile truce brokered between Nigeria's central government and the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) in April 2006 jerked to a bloody halt on August 20. On that afternoon soldiers of the Joint Task Force—a contingent of the Nigerian Army, Navy and Air Force deployed by the government to enforce its authority on the restive oil-bearing Niger Delta—ambushed fifteen members of the MEND militia and murdered them. The slain men were on their way to negotiate the release of a Shell Oil worker kidnapped by youth in Letugbene, a neighbouring community. The Shell staff also died in the massacre.
The incident occurred five days after Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria's president, instructed armed forces commanders in the region to resort to force and quickly "pacify" the region. This marked a sharp turn-around from the promise Obasanjo gave to representatives of the MEND militia in Abuja, the capital, in early April that he would utilise dialogue and carefully-targeted development projects in a new initiative to return peace, law and good government to the impoverished Niger Delta.
The streets of Warri, the city where Shell and ChevronTexaco's western delta operations are based, were thick with tension on the morning of September 2 when Ijo youth converged on Warri Central Hospital in the suburbs to retrieve the corpses of their colleagues and commence the burial ceremonies. The Ijaw are the largest ethnic group in the Niger Delta. The MEND militia draws the bulk of its membership from the Ijaw.
Significantly, there were several prominent Ijaw political and civic leaders at the ceremony. Ordinary people, mainly Ijaw peasant farmers and fisher folk, had left their hoes and fishing nets and travelled from their hamlets in the creeks to pay their respects to the slain. Spokesmen of the Nigerian government had sought to represent the fifteen militiamen as "irresponsible hostage-takers" in the wake of the slaughter. But those massed at the hospital that morning spoke only of heroes who had fallen in the battle for "Ijaw liberation." MEND, it was clear to observers, was firmly embedded in the Ijaw communities from which it emerged in February 2006, and continues to enjoy the support of youth and impoverished peasants alike whose farm lands and fishing creeks—their sole source of livelihood—have been destroyed by half a century of uncontrolled oil production.
However, the MEND militia only considers armed force a tactical tool they have been forced to wield as a last resort after three decades of peaceful entreaty was met with cynical indifference from the central government and the oil companies. Leaders of the Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities (FNDIC), a civic group whose headquarters is in Gbaramatu, have served as informal representatives of the MEND militia in negotiations with President Obasanjo and Nigeria's central government following the abduction of nine foreign oil workers in the creeks of the delta in February. When this writer interviewed Oboko Bello, president of FNDIC, in Warri in early August, two weeks before the Letugbene massacre, he spoke warmly about the peace meeting he and other Ijaw leaders had had in Abuja with Obasanjo and other government officials on April 5 and 18. He even assured that MEND militants would lay down their weapons if the government went some way to address the long-standing grievances of his people.
But it was a sorrowful and stone-faced Bello who addressed his fellow Ijaw during the burial ceremony that afternoon in Warri. He said: "Shell officials were privy to the arrangements Ijaw patriots had made as part of the Joint Investigation and Verification exercise to free the captured company worker and also facilitate the re-opening of the company's facilities in the creeks. Shell was in direct communication with the commanders of the Joint Task Force, even up to the time our young men set out in their boats to rescue the Shell worker in Letugbene. These young men were not hostage takers. They were Ijaw patriots, selflessly working to repair the damaged peace between the oil company and our people. For this they were ambushed and murdered by soldiers in the service of Shell."
Oboko Bello ended his one-hour speech on a note of conciliation, arguing that the peace process between the MEND militia and the government that was begun on March 12 following a meeting between President Obasanjo and prominent Ijaw leaders must not be derailed. But angry voices are rising all over the creeks vowing revenge. These are young men—the volatile, striking arm of the Ijaw political and civic resurgence. Whether moderate voices will be able to rein them in remains to be seen.
For its part, the central government has adopted a new defiant, militaristic posture, publicly announcing in late August that it was now collaborating closely with the US and British governments to deploy more naval personnel and new hardware to "root out oil rustlers, kidnappers and other undesirable elements from the Niger Delta and the wider Gulf of Guinea." To the MEND militants hunkered down in their heavily fortified redoubts in the creeks, this sounded ominously like an open declaration of war.
FNDIC leaders who spoke to this writer shortly after the burial ceremony expressed the concern that the government's belligerent posture could be an attempt to generate political turbulence in the Niger delta during the April 2007 general elections—thus providing an opportunity for Obasanjo to impose an interim government and extend his tenure beyond the constitutionally-stipulated two terms. Although the elections had been massively rigged in the region and even more so in the Ijaw areas by the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in 1999 and again in 2003, FNDIC officials continue to hold out the hope that fair elections will provide the solution to the political and economic crisis. They insist they will continue to work zealously to thwart any attempt to prevent free elections from taking place in Ijaw communities next April.
But elections in Nigeria and the Niger Delta in particular, are usually turbulent affairs, sometimes descending into the bloody and violent. As was the case in the past, politicians are replenishing their arms caches and resuscitating the network of thugs they rely on to intimidate their rivals, coerce voters to do their bidding, or stuff the ballot boxes outright. The region is awash with small arms and hard cash yet again, and the already volatile cocktail of local resentment of the government and oil companies looks set to blend with guns-for-hire prowling the creeks and sire another bloody inferno.
Spectacle as Weapon
The MEND militia and its political sponsors set out in the early months of the year to draw the attention of the world to the parlous condition of the Ijaw people, deploying spectacle as a powerful weapon. Images of armed youth in masks wielding sub-machine guns in the creeks and helpless oil workers at their mercy, squatting in the bowels of speedboats, were beamed to the media all over the world through a skilful use of the Internet.
These graphic images generated intense emotions in government circles as well as in the environmental and human rights community in the West. Global oil prices surged and fell with the tone of MEND's press statements, and the physical condition of the captives whose photographs they put out on the net. But the drama invariably ended on a peaceful note, with MEND setting the oil workers free unharmed. After the spate of armed attacks on the facilities of Shell and two other oil companies in the western delta following MEND's emergence in February, there seemed to have emerged an unspoken agreement between the militants and the government that this drama could go on, and the actors permitted to air their grievances on the world stage, as long as the oil workers periodically taken hostage were not harmed.
Following the Letugbene murders, the outrage with which this bloody event was greeted by Ijaw youth in the creeks, and rising political tensions all over the country, there is no knowing whose voice will command allegiance in the coming months—the moderates counselling patience and political participation, or the young hotheads eager to return to the creeks and take up against arms against the government and the oil companies.
PRELUDE TO AN UPRISING
Before the emergence of MEND, the last time the Ijaw took up arms against the Nigerian government in an organised effort to assert their political rights was forty years ago. In February 1966, Isaac Adaka Boro, a graduate of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, formed the Niger Delta Volunteer Service (NDVS), a militia comprising of several young and educated Ijaw men. They declared the Ijaw-speaking areas of Nigeria's then-Eastern Region an independent "Niger Delta Republic." In an eleven-point declaration of independence, Boro stated that "all former agreements as regards the crude oil of the people undertaken by the now defunct 'Nigerian' government in the territory have been declared invalid," and that "all oil companies are commanded...to stop exploration and renew agreements with the new Republic. Defiance of this order will result in dislocation of the company's exploration and forfeiture of their rights of renewal of such agreements."
Federal troops, directed from Enugu, the regional capital, soon quashed Isaac Boro's uprising. But the twelve-day revolt jolted the nation, focussed attention on the travails of the riverine communities of the Eastern Region, and re-opened debate about their demand—first raised in the Willincks hearing of 1958—to be separated from the Eastern Region in an independent state of their own. At the time the Eastern Region was dominated by the more populous Igbo ethnic group—obliging the Ijaw, Ibibio, Ogoni and other smaller groups to band together and ask for a new "Rivers State."
Boro and his two associates, Sam Owonaro and Notthingham Dick, were arrested and imprisoned. Developments elsewhere in the country were soon to alter the fortunes of the three militants in a dramatic manner. Nigeria had been convulsed in political crisis following independence from Britain in October 1960. At the heart of the dispute was the unwieldy three-region structure that the departing colonialists bequeathed to the country, ensuring that the Northern region, led by Muslim feudal lords who had cooperated with British administrators in governing the country, were given the largest slice, bigger than the Western and Eastern Region combined. Northern politicians were quick to turn this numerical advantage into political and economic rewards, introducing a corrupt and authoritarian mode of rule in the country that enabled them to transfer wealth derived from the south to their own region. In January 1966 five young army majors, the bulk of Igbo extraction, staged a military coup in an attempt to end to the drift towards misgovernment. Several leading politicians and senior army officers, including the prime minister and the premier of the Northern Region, were killed. The bulk of those that lost their lives were northerners.
Six months later, in July 1966, northern officers staged a counter-coup, and attempted to pull the North out of the Federation—but changed their mind at the last minute (under pressure from the British high commissioner and the US ambassador). Leaders of the coup had killed the military head of state, General Ironsi, an Igbo who had taken over the reins of government after the January coup had collapsed. Over three hundred other officers, the bulk of them from the Eastern Region, were also murdered. The coup leaders appointed Yakubu Gowon, a lieutenant colonel and fellow northerner, the new head of state and declared that the Ironsi government had been overthrown.
The military administrator of the Eastern Region, Col. Emeka Ojukwu, refused to recognise Gowon as head of state, and insisted that the late Ironsi's second in command, Brigadier Ogundipe, take over. Relations between the two sides deteriorated swiftly. Fearing that the East was about to secede, the Gowon regime, hunkered down in Lagos, the federal capital, split the country into twelve new states in May 1967—two for the ethnic minority groups of the Eastern Region. The Ijaw formed the bulk of the new Rivers State. Ojukwu responded a few days later by declaring the East the independent Republic of Biafra. Federal troops invaded Biafra and civil war broke out. Isaac Boro and his compatriots were released from prison by federal troops. He subsequently joined the federal side as a major and commanded his own unit under the Third Marine Commando Division. Boro was to die in battle a few weeks before the war ended.
The bloody civil war which raged for thirty months, and in which an estimated three million people died, was to profoundly alter Nigeria's political landscape. The war ended in January 1970 with a federal victory. Although the Ijaw had reason to be content, having secured the new state they had been asking for since the 1950s, the euphoria was to prove short-lived. The central government had passed on to a victorious federal army the bulk of whose commanders were from the now-defunct Northern Region. These officers quickly turned their attention to the oil wells of the Niger Delta, and in cooperation with civil servants, pushed through a number of military edicts that nationalized the delta oil fields. The formula for sharing revenue was altered. Where previously 50% of revenue went to the region or state from which it was derived, all the states now had an equal share, with the central government in Lagos keeping the lion's share for itself.
The new fiscal regime, which now left the Ijaw and the other oil-bearing communities of the Niger Delta at a distinct disadvantage, took nearly ten years to achieve. The process began in the heat of the civil war, when the Gowon government enacted Decree 15 of 1969, removing the control of the oil fields from their states of origin to the federal government. By the time civilian government was restored in October 1979, a rash of decrees and edicts (including the 1978 Land Use Act that placed the oil-bearing land of the delta under the "protection" of the central government), had transformed the Niger Delta into a colony whose inhabitants bore the brunt of the oil production on which the national economy relied but enjoyed virtually none of the benefits.
The new civilian government, under President Shehu Shagari, a northerner, was purposeless and corrupt. This ill-fated Second Republic was overthrown in December 1983 by General M. Buhari. On Buhari's watch, the portion of oil revenue that went to the Ijaw and the other oil-bearing communities of the Niger Delta plunged to a derisory 1.5%. Meanwhile Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), the local subsidiary of the Anglo-Dutch oil giant, and other Western oil companies operating in the Niger Delta continued to benefit from legislation that had reduced the delta communities to squatters on their own land. Shell, which began operations in 1956, now accounted for half of the country's total oil production of two million barrels per day.
By the provisions of the legal regime guiding oil production, the oil companies were not required to obtain the permission of the local communities on whose land and creeks they sought to mine oil. They were only answerable to government officials far away in the capital. All that the oil companies were asked to do was pay "compensation" to local people for crops and other valuables destroyed in the course of oil production. Estimation was largely left to the discretion of Shell officials, and they were quick to undercut the local people. Environmental protection laws were also flagrantly breached by all the companies, resulting in the devastation of the farm lands and fishing creeks on which the Ijaw and the other communities had relied for livelihood for millennia. Where previously decades of government neglect had reduced the delta communities to excruciating poverty, now their very existence was threatened.
General Ibrahim Babangida overthrew General Buhari in a palace coup in August 1985, and introduced a Structural Adjustment Program supervised by the IMF. Ostensibly designed to ameliorate the financial crisis into which decades of corrupt and inefficient government had plunged the country, Babangida's new economic policies only succeeded in plunging the people into worse poverty. The currency was devalued, hiking up the price of imported necessities. Social services were cut.
The already impoverished Delta communities felt the new harsh economic climate particularly keenly. There were neither factories nor government jobs in the region. The enclave oil economy employed a handful of local people; even as it left environmental destruction in its wake. Hospitals, roads, piped water, schools, paved roads and electric power were grossly inadequate where they existed at all. As thousands of Ijaw, retrenched from their jobs in the cities and towns, began to stream home in late 1980s, the Niger Delta region began to heave. It was clear to the discerning that a political storm was about to break.
The first storm came in the shape of an attempted military putsch, led by Ijaw and other Delta elements in the army. In April 1990 these young military officers stormed the central Dodan Barracks, and reduced its perimeter walls to rubble with mortars and AK47s. But General Babangida managed to escape, rallied senior commanders to his side and mounted a counter-attack. Outflanked and outgunned, the coup plotters surrendered. After a hasty trial, closed to the public, they were executed.
The defiant utterances of the young officers as they faced the firing squad, declaring that they had "struck a blow for the oppressed people of the Niger Delta in the spirit of Isaac Boro," were to prepare the ground for the emergence of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) sixteen years later.
MEND: EMERGENCE OF A PEOPLES' MILITIA
The first thing that strikes you on meeting members of the MEND militia is the ease with which they move about in Warri metropolis, and also in the creek villages, indicating clearly that they are amongst people who identify with their cause and are ready offer them protection and safe haven during attacks by Nigerian federal troops. However, their movements are constrained by the ever-prowling soldiers.
The second thing you notice is that the militants—or the ones elected by the others to respond to your questions—are articulate, well-educated, and conversant with latest political developments in Nigeria and other parts of the world. This writer's introductory encounter took place in a hotel room in Warri, arranged through a local journalist. But there were no firm promises, as getting hold of MEND leaders would be dependent on the level of Nigerian military presence in Warri that week.
MEND leaders are constantly on the move, extremely cautious, and do not take telephone calls personally, aware of the fact that the soldiers hunting for them have electronic devices capable of pinpointing mobile phone signals with accuracy. But this wrtier arrived in Warri when the peace process—initiated by FNDIC leaders, lawyer and environmental activist Oronto Douglas, and other Ijaw representatives—was still plodding on. The Obasanjo government appeared willing to restrain the soldiers for the negotiations to be concluded. A knock sounded on the hotel room door. A young man casually dressed in blue jeans and shirt sleeves stood there smiling.
"Are you the MEND leader?" I asked, surprised. The media images beamed out to the world always depict MEND fighters as muscular masked men, clutching Kalashnikovs and adopting belligerent postures, as though ready to fire at the slightest provocation.
"But exactly what do you understand by MEND?" he countered. "There is no such thing as MEND. What I do know is that there are armed youth in the creeks who say they have had enough of the oil companies' double standards, and are determined to put to an end the exploitation of their people by Shell, Chevron and the federal government."
MEND is not an "organisation" in the formal sense of the word. It is an idea, a general principle underlying the slew of communal, civic and youth movements that began to proliferate in the Niger Delta, and particularly in the Ijaw-speaking areas, in the wake of General Babangida's failed adjustment policies in the late 1980s. The Ken Saro-Wiwa inspired Movement of the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), which emerged in 1990, and the Ijaw National Congress, birthed in Port Harcourt a year later, have their genesis in this turbulent economic and political milieu.
These organisations pursued such civic goals as the end to military rule and the return of democratic civilian government, creation of new states in ethnic minority areas, and increase in their share of oil receipts. They utilised non-violent protest marches, advocacy in the mass media, petitions addressed to the government, and awareness-building seminars to press their case. However, as economic conditions worsened country-wide and election results were annulled by Babangida in 1993, a wave of anger and desperation began to spread.
Militant youth organisations such as Odua Peoples Congress (OPC), Arewa Peoples Congress (APC) and Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) emerged in this period. These were communal organisations that drew their membership from the Yoruba, Hausa, and Igbo ethnic groups respectively. OPC and MASSOB wanted dissolution of the federation, which they said should be replaced with new independent countries based in the various ethnic groups. APC, on the other hand, called for perpetuation of the centralized system, but under Hausa political and military leadership. The youth militias began to arm. Clashes with the Nigerian military, and also among themselves, became a staple of Nigerian public life from 1994 onwards. General Sani Abacha had toppled the interim government Babangida had installed before he quit in November 1993. He threw Moshood Abiola, winner of the June 1993 presidential elections, into jail, and unleashed a wave of terror targeted at journalists, democracy activists, and the youth militias challenging his right to rule.
Political developments in the Ijaw territory followed a slightly different trajectory. The ethnic group had not benefited from the various state creation exercises embarked upon by the government in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Skirmishes between Ijaw youth and the oil companies operating in the western delta had begun in the late 1980s. Ijaw elders and community leaders had mediated, and this process gave birth to new youth-led civic groups. Prominent among these were Movement for the Survival of Ijaw Ethnic Nationality (MOSSIEND) and Movement for Reparations to Ogbia (MORETO). Ogbia is an Ijaw clan in the central delta, and from which Oronto Douglas hailed.
The creation of new local government councils in the Warri area by the government in 1997 provided the trigger for the militarization of youth groups in the area. Three prominent ethnic groups occupy Warri metropolis and its hinterland, extending into the creeks. The Itsekiri are perceived to be small but politically dominant. The other two are the Ijaw and Urhobo. There have been squabbles turning on ownership of land, and the rents to be derived therefrom, among all three groups since the 1920s—usually peaceful affairs, fought out in the courts.
But the lethal cocktail of economic deprivation, military dictatorship and worsening environmental crisis in the western delta ensured that when the next round of land tussles arrived, the entire city would go up in flames. This was exactly what happened in 1997 when the military governor announced the creation of a new local government council with headquarters in an Ijaw village, and then rescinded the decision the following day and moved it to an Itsekiri village. Ijaw youth accused Itsekiri elites of having pressured the government to relocate the seat of the new council to their area. The latter countered that the entire Warri territory belonged to the Itsekiri, but that they had no hand in the governor's decision. Youth from both groups quickly entered the fray. There was a stampede to arm on both sides. Events quickly degenerated into ethnic massacres and counter-massacres.
The proliferation of small arms in the Warri area inevitably fed into "oil bunkering," an illicit activity which had been practised on the high seas by government officials in collaboration with oil workers for decades. Fringe elements in these militarized youth groups now helped illegal oil barons to tap into pipelines, siphoning crude oil which was then taken to waiting ships. With the return of electoral politics in 1999, politicians in the Niger Delta also recruited from these armed elements to intimidate their political opponents and rig the vote. The oil companies also offered local youth "protection work" in their facilities, arming them with lethal weapons in a cynical move to divide the politically assertive youth organisations. The Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), a new influential organization founded by Oronto Douglas, Asume Osuoka and others in 1998, had united youth all over Ijaw land in a peaceful but powerful opposition to the oil companies and the federal government in the region. The famous Kaiama Declaration, a document adopted by youth from several Ijaw clans, spelling out their grievances and demands, was the brainchild of the IYC leadership.
It is important to note that it was a small number that drifted into oil bunkering and protection "services" for the corrupt politicians and oil companies. The overwhelming majority of Ijaw youth remained solidly with the civic and communal organisations they themselves had founded, even after they had come under brutal attack from government troops in such towns as Kaiama and Odi in 1998 and 1999 respectively.
The IYC was to subsequently split into factions following a leadership tussle. Asari Dokubo, one its leaders, went on to establish the Niger Delta Peoples Volunteer Force (NDPVF), declaring that the peaceful methods of the IYC had not been effective and that what the new civilian government headed by President Obasanjo would heed was militant action. Even so, the bulk of the remaining IYC members continued on the path of non-violent political action.
In the morning of February 15, 2006, government helicopter gun-ships attacked the Ijaw village of Okerenkoko in the western delta. Okerenkoko is a part of Gbaramatu, an Ijaw clan in the western delta. Government officials alleged that Okerenkoko and neighbouring villages were the epicentre of the illegal oil bunkering activities President Obasanjo had resolved to stamp out, and that federal troops had been instructed to "deal with" the Ijaw youth participating in the activity. The gun-ships returned again on 17th and 18th, flattening houses and huts and killing several innocent people. Enraged youth all over Ijawland vowed revenge. It was this bloody incident that triggered the birth of the MEND militia.
MEND AND ITS METHODS
The founding core of MEND's membership is from the Gbaramatu clan which was in the eye of the storm in the 1997 local government crisis, and then bore the brunt of the helicopter attack of February 2006. But as already stated, MEND is not so much an "organisation" as an idea which many civic, communal, and political groups have unified around.
Resentment at the government and oil companies runs deep in all Ijaw clans in the delta. An intricate maze of creeks links these clans all the way from Port Harcourt in the east to Warri in the west. The explosion of mobile telephony and Internet services in Nigeria since 1999 has ensured that communication and coordination between armed units can be effected within minutes.
MEND's strength and military successes so far lie in four key factors:
It has successfully tapped into the fifty-year Ijaw quest for social and environmental justice in the Niger Delta. There is no village in the Niger Delta where MEND sympathisers do not exist. Consequently, the movement is able to mount lightening attacks and melt into the hamlets undetected.
Second, MEND is a loose coalition of armed militants, guided by a collegiate leadership, but which does not in any way constrain the ability of the various units to take their own decisions and mount military attacks independent of the others. The units plan their attacks separately, but are able to coordinate with other units in joint expeditions when necessary. Consequently they are active in all parts of the delta, adopting hit-and-run tactics and making it difficult for federal troops to box them into a particular area and launch a massive attack.
Third, MEND militants fight in familiar territory, having fished and farmed in the maze of creeks, marshes, and mangrove swamps that constitute the Niger Delta since childhood. The Nigerian army and navy have superior hardware, but they often lose their way in the creeks when they mount attacks or give chase to the militants, rendering them impotent or—worse—vulnerable to counter-attack. Several soldiers and naval ratings have lost their lives in this manner.
Fourth, MEND is an astute manipulator of the mass media, and has ensured that its case against the government and the oil companies has been clearly and eloquently made in newspapers and television networks in Nigeria and world-wide. Its case has been helped by the tragic events of 1990-1995 in the Ogoni area, when Shell officials worked actively with the Abacha junta to unleash harsh repression, culminating in the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the "Ogoni Eight"—peaceful activists framed on murder charges—on Nov. 10 1995. Journalists and activists in Nigeria, Europe and America who followed in the Ogoni struggle have enthusiastically taken up MEND's case.
Political logic of hostage-taking
MEND's weapon of choice is kidnapping of foreign oil workers. The calculation here is simple. The Nigerian government is notorious for its cavalier attitude when the lives of its citizens are at stake. But other countries—particularly the United States, France, United Kingdom and Italy—which have massive oil installations operated by their citizens in the Niger Delta, cry out in loud protest when the latter are taken hostage. Foreign workers are thus the militants' favourite targets. MEND's most spectacular hostage taking was carried out at Shell's Forcados oil terminal in February 2006. Militants grabbed nine workers employed by Willbros, an engineering firm contracted by Shell, and spirited them away in a speedboat. Following several weeks of complex negotiations between the militants, Ijaw leaders, the Obasanjo government, the oil companies and the American and British governments, the last three of the hostages were set free on March 27.
It is significant that since MEND began to take hostages early in the year, none has been harmed. Government officials have sought to present this aspect of MEND's activities as racketeering, claiming that the militants usually extort ransom from the hostages and the government before the former are released. While it is true that there are fringe elements in the Niger Delta who have embraced hostage-taking as a lucrative commercial venture, they are not to be confused with MEND militants. The objective of the latter is fundamentally political: to focus the attention of Western governments and the world media on the Niger Delta, exploiting the blaze of publicity generated by hostage-taking to press their grievances and demands.
However, MEND militants have displayed little restraint in their attacks on Shell's facilities, an indication of their deep anger at the company's callous treatment of the Ijaw. Shell participated in military attacks on delta communities all through the 1980s and 1990s, providing cash and logistics (weapons, vehicular transport, etc.) to Nigerian soldiers repressing local communities in the 1990s. Shell also established its own security force, that also repeatedly harassed local activists during the period.. In my interview with several of the militants in August, they reeled off the names of the towns and villages that had tasted Shell's guns: Iko, Umuechem, Ogoni, Nembe, Kaima, Odi... It was a very long list.
MEND's attack on the Forcados oil-loading platform was as audacious as it was crippling. The oil company was forced to suspend production of 19% of its daily Nigerian production. The company's Cawthorne Channel flow station and Odidi II flow station were also destroyed. Pipelines all over the delta were blown apart, and Shell workers threatened with slow and painful death.
ChevronTexaco, Elf and ENI did not escape MEND's attention. Their facilities also came under attack, and their staff routinely abducted. At the height of MEND's military assaults in April, a quarter of Nigeria's oil production had been shut down, and Shell's giant offshore Bonga oil field—although protected by naval ships and gun boats—was also considered a potential MEND target. Dr. Edmund Daukoru, a former Shell employee and since 2003 President Obasanjo's oil minister, was so worried that he hurried to Washington DC to confer with Sam Bodman, the US energy secretary, on ways and means of taking the MEND "problem" on hand.
In response to what they deemed to be an imminent invasion by special forces from the United States, MEND and Asari Dokubo's NDPVF in April 2006 joined with two new groups, the Martyrs Brigade and Coalition for Militant Action in the Niger Delta (CMND), to announce the formation of a "Joint Revolutionary Council" and pledged that they would deploy newly acquired heat-seeking rockets to attack and disable Shell's offshore Bonga Oil Field. Given that they had successfully attacked several offshore oil facilities in the past, this announcement triggered panic in the international market. Spot prices surged towards the roof, hitting $72 per barrel.
MEND's press statements are not only calculated to create maximum panic in the international oil markets, but to leverage the concerns of the giant US and European financial companies that have invested heavily in Gulf of Guinea's burgeoning oil and gas industry, with the Niger Delta as its epicentre. Leading the pack are Merrill Lynch, Societe Generale, Bank of America Securities, Credit Suissie First Boston, Morgan Stanley, UBS Investments, Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, and Lehman Brothers. These financial behemoths, who together have invested an estimated $15 billion in the Nigerian oil and gas industry (a sum not including direct investments by oil companies and related industries), held meetings with Nigerian officials in November 2005 when confidential reports by US embassy officials in Abuja indicated that the Obasanjo government was speedily losing control of the delta to emergent youth militias.
MEND's shock tactics yielded dividends initially. Chevron and Shell officials had backed military attacks on local communities all through the 1990s, insisting that their business interests obliged them to offer logistical and financial support to Nigerian troops protecting the delta oil fields from "miscreants." But attacks on its facilities in the western delta accelerated in 2003-2004, resulting in the killing of company workers (three Nigerians and two Americans and their guards), shutting down 140,000 barrels of daily production. Chevron executives in California began to rethink their martial policy, and subsequently made the unprecedented statement that the company was not in support of military solutions to restore peace in the Niger Delta. In 2006, Chevron unfurled a new Global Memorandum of Understanding, which they promised would tackle development problems in the impoverished communities. Fred Nelson, head of Chevron's West Africa operations, told journalists in early June that "brute force does not work in the long term. Our strategy is dialogue with the communities to solve their problems. If we can solve their problems, the security issue will go away." MEND's spokespersons claimed this new pacific posture as a victory.
The militia has also carefully positioned itself to derive maximum mileage from the activities of other militant groups that, although less well-organised and politically coherent, share similar grievances and regularly mount their own military attacks on oil facilities and government troops. These groups have a bewildering array of names, forging alliances and coalitions as quickly as they dissolve them. Prominent are the South-South Liberation Movement (SSLM), the Movement for the Sovereign State of the Niger Delta (MSSND), the Niger Delta Vigilantes, DE Gbam, and Meninbutus, among others.
MEND spokespersons regularly deplore the activities of these groups when they veer from the political objective of advancing the cause of self-determination and equitable sharing of oil receipts. But MEND is also quick to spring to their defense when soldiers and riot police attack them. On July 1, the MEND-led Joint Revolutionary Council issued an ultimatum to President Obasanjo to hand over the Rivers State police commissioner for "fair trial." The police had attacked and killed three Ijaw youth in Abonema town in the eastern delta, who they subsequently claimed were gangsters involved in bank robberies in Port Harcourt. MEND rejected this claim, insisting that the slain youth were Ijaw patriots who had "fallen in the field of battle." Four days after the expiration of the ultimatum, militants struck in the remote oil facility area of Sangana, and abducted four naval ratings.
MEND's military exploits have not dented the offensive capabilities of Nigeria's armed forces. But they have demoralised the troops, and also forced local journalists and other public commentators to question the combat-readiness and overall effectiveness of the army and navy. Most importantly, MEND has transformed the image of the Ijaw, and the entire local communities of the Niger Delta, from that of hapless and quiescent victims to an increasingly organized and assertive political bloc, able to hit back at their oppressors.
WORSE THAN IRAQ?
It is not yet clear whether the massacre at Letugbene on August 20 will turn out to be a crippling blow, compelling MEND militants to beat a retreat and explore peace alternatives with greater vigor. One fact is clear, though. Both the central government and the oil companies have retreated from their "peace and dialogue" stance of last April when overtures were made to Ijaw youth and community leaders to come to Abuja and discuss a new "Marshall Plan" for the Niger Delta. The new policy, although not favored by some of President Obasanjo's senior commanders, is containment and subsequent evisceration of the youth militias through superior fire-power.
Shell led the return to the hardline when its officials secretly approached the US military in early March to broach the possibility of intervenention in the delta. Faced with MEND's increasingly focused attacks on its facilities, the company had shut down 455,000 barrels of daily crude output, evacuated the bulk of its staff, and declared force majeure. Company executives adopted two policies at the same time in this period, both designed to serve the same end of ensuring that Shell remained the top player in the delta. When Admiral Henry Ulrich, commander of the US Naval forces in Europe, visited Nigeria in March 2006, a delegation of oil company officials led by Shell asked him to deploy his ships to the region to "protect our investments." The meeting was revealed in a Reuters report of March 23.
At the same time, company officials were briefing local journalists in Lagos and Abuja that they favored dialogue with Ijaw youth as the only route to lasting peace in the restive region—a manoeuvre seemingly designed to buy time while they readied their military option.
Admiral Ulrich turned down the request. According to Reuters, while maritime analysts at the US Office of Naval Intelligence in Fort Lauderdale openly acknowledge that the Nigerian government is no longer able to ensure security in the delta region, they have been careful to avoid giving the impression that increased US military presence in the Gulf of Guinea is a prelude to "Vietnamization" of West Africa's oil-rich belt.
However, Ulrich, on the occasion of a courtesy visit to Nigeria's chief of naval staff in Abuja on March 19, informed journalists that the US planned to increase its naval presence in the Gulf of Guinea for the sole purpose of ensuring maritime safety in the region. He explained that his primary concern was the proliferation of "terrorist activities," and that he had deployed two ships with training and repair facilities to the Gulf of Guinea to assist West African navies in policing their shores more effectively.
The Gulf of Guinea, comprising fifteen west and central African countries, is critical to the United States' oil security. The region accounted for half of the nine million barrels per day produced by Africa in 2004. In the same year, the continent supplied an estimated 18% of US net oil imports, with Angola and Nigeria as the leading suppliers. This has meant an increase in the number of ships and oil tankers that pass through the west coast of Africa on their way to America's east coast. Ulrich was quoted in the Nigerian daily This Day on March 20: "In this day and age, all nations have a vested interest in knowing the ships that are coming into their waters, their territory and what they are carrying."
Right-wing American commentators and think-tanks, with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in the lead, have also been playing up the supposed Islamic terrorist threat in the Gulf of Guinea, arguing that with billions of dollars of US investment now in the region, thousands of US workers in the oil fields, and strategic supplies of energy at stake, US efforts to boost the capability of these countries to repel terrorist attacks has become imperative.
Local journalists and environmental activists in Nigeria and other Gulf of Guinea countries have questioned the assertion that the region is crawling with Islamic terrorists, pointing out that neither the Bush government nor the right-wing think-tanks have been able to produce compelling evidence to back up their claims. They have expressed fears that the new ring of steel being put in place in their region by the US navy is an underhanded attempt to encourage attacks on oil facilities by armed militias and then use this as justification for military occupation of the Gulf of Guinea.
References to "another Vietnam" and "the new Iraq" are now routine in the Niger Delta creeks, and such talk is not restricted to armed militias like MEND. When rumors began to make the rounds in February, at the outset of MEND's offensive, that the US government had resolved to send in the Marines to assist Nigerian troops in rescuing the nine workers they had kidnapped, there was a general uproar. Patrick Bigha, leader of the Warri Ijaw Peace Monitoring Group, a civic pressure group that espouses non-violent political action, quickly called a press conference in the city and declared: "The Niger Delta is not Afghanistan or Iraq and any attempt to dare us will end in a bloodbath and the greatest defeat in the history of the American Army."
Such utterances are sweet music to American journalists like Jeffrey Taylor of the Atlantic Monthly, who, after travelling in the Niger Delta for a couple of days, wrote an article in the magazine's April 2006 edition making the controversial claim that Nigeria had become the largest failed state on earth, threatened with take-over by radical Islamic forces. This, Taylor, argued, would endanger the region's abundant oil reserves that the US government had vowed to protect. He added that "should that day come, it would herald a military intervention far more massive than the Iraqi campaign."
US deployment of military hardware in the region continues apace. The Pentagon's European Command has concluded plans to construct a naval base in Sao Tome and Principe, off the West African coast, to complement the permanent military base in Djibouti, in the strategic Horn of Africa. On August 28, Nigerian and US officials in Abuja announced a joint Gulf of Guinea Energy Security Initiative aimed at securing $600 billion of new investments in oil fields in the region.
Present estimates indicate that the Gulf of Guinea hosts some 14 billion barrels of crude in deep offshore fields. There are 33 fixed crude oil production platforms, 20 floating production facilities, and 13 floater and off-take vessels in the Gulf. This is expected to increase to 159 fixed platforms and 700 oil wells by 2008. Any disruption of production would not only threaten US and European energy supplies, but the loss of billions of dollars in investments could throw their economies into a tail-spin. The energy security initiative is the American response to this potential threat.
But critics ask if building a new infrastructure of state violence in the Gulf of Guinea an effective answer to the fundamentally political questions that fifty years of uncontrolled oil exploitation, massive corruption, and cynical exploitation of the local communities have raised—questions now given militant expression by the MEND militia.
CONCLUSION: BRINGING THE CIVIC BACK IN
This writer has been travelling in the Niger Delta's devastated communities since the late 1980s, but nothing prepared him for what he encountered in Oporoza and its satellite hamlets in the western delta in August 2006. Poverty and neglect are the norm in the region. But in Oporoza—and further still in the clutch of creek hamlets that constitute the Ijaw clan of Egbema—they rise up to smack you rudely in the face, in the shape of flimsy huts on decayed wooden stilts, bracken greenish ponds from which the bedraggled inhabitants drink, and polluted fishing creeks long denuded of life. To visit Oporoza and Egbema is to encounter the very nadir of the noxious embrace of Big Oil, unaccountable government, and the excruciating indigence that only complete exclusion from the civic sphere can bring about.
For as Amartya Sen has so brilliantly demonstrated in his book Development as Freedom, poverty and famine only result where people are deprived of the right to participate in the political and civic process. This is only too true of Oporoza and the wider Niger Delta, where the machine guns of the Nigerian military have elbowed ordinary people out of the public sphere.
Jeffery Sachs, the Columbia University economist and adviser to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on Millennium Development Goals, developed the so-called "Resource Curse" theory to explain the seeming inability of resource-rich states in Africa and Latin America to industrialize and prosper like their counterparts in Southeast Asia. Academics, journalists and development workers that espouse the this theory argue that resource-rich countries like Nigeria inevitably degenerate into authoritarian and corrupt rule. Governments plentifully supplied with dollars from oil sales will inevitably reduce its citizens to powerless spectators. Poverty, corruption and violence will inevitably follow.
But there is nothing inevitable about resource-rich regions regressing into the ditch of privation, as the cases of oil-rich Norway and Canada today illustrate. Nor is it the case that all movements toward authoritarianism are driven by the lure of easy spoils. Nigerian politics was already well on the way to centralized and unaccountable government before oil production commenced in 1956. This was largely the legacy of colonial conquest: the undemocratic institutions of governance put in place by the British to exploit the wealth of the country undisturbed by the local people, subsequently handed over to carefully chosen political leaders who would continue to protect their interests after the colonial rulers quit in 1960.
Norway is prosperous because her institutions of accountability were well-established and self-propelling long before she struck oil. Nigeria is a basket case today because her people were still under unaccountable colonial rule when oil was discovered in the Niger Delta in 1956. The machine guns that slaughtered the innocents of Letugbene last August are directly descended from the Maxim guns that Baron Frederick Lugard employed to "pacify" the "natives" at the behest of the Royal Niger Company at the turn of the twentieth century. Shell and crude oil may have replaced Sir George Taubman Goldie and his thirst for palm oil, but the marriage of egregious violence and resource extraction remain undisturbed—a potent link which in the specific case of oil, is illuminated by Prof. Michael Watt's "petro-violence" thesis.
Top on the list of the grievances that MEND pointed to in its negotiations with government officials in March was the exclusion of the Ijaw from meaningful political participation in the Nigerian project since the return of electoral politics in 1999. Anxious to arrange a ceasefire so oil production could resume, a delegation comprising two Shell executives and Timi Alaibe, finance director of the government's Niger Delta Development Commission, visited MEND's "Council of Elders" in Camp Five, a fortified island near Oporoza where they were ensconced in early June. The MEND spokesperson argued that discussions must go beyond "mere provision of electricity and water" and focus on the political marginalization of the Ijaw—because, he said, "we believe that we have to seek first our political freedom and every other thing will follow."
Oboko Bello had earlier framed these grievances in the handbook Constitutionality of the Ijaw Struggle thus: 'The Ijaw of Warri, hitherto denied liberty, political space, and peace, have been continuously robbed of equal participation in democracy and good governance of the Federation at the local, state and central governments... These entities corruptly control oil and gas resources, which exploration has had devastating impact on the Ijaw people and their environment."
Oronto Douglas, the Ijaw lawyer and environmental campaigner, again put these political issues in the forefront of the list of demands he and other Ijaw leaders presented to their fellow delegates when they participated in the constitutional dialogue President Obasanjo convened in Abuja in 2005.
We have it on the authority of the Atlanta-based Carter Centre that local and presidential elections were massively rigged in the states comprising the Niger Delta in 1999, following the return of the armed forces to their barracks. Former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalyn travelled to the region to monitor the elections and reported: "Serious problems were observed in the National Assembly elections of February 20, partially caused by low voter turn out and the unknown status of many candidates who had been nominated by the political parties. Some ballot boxes were stuffed, election officials bribed, and the final results incorrectly tabulated. In addition to our normal reports, I wrote personal letters to the presidential candidates asking them to urge their supporters to refrain from improprieties during the presidential election."
Carter's well-meaning entreaty was ignored, and the Peoples Democratic Party proceeded to rig the presidential election in March 1999 and install Olusegun Obasanjo president. The PDP also rigged the vote four years later, and returned Obasanjo and all the PDP governors to office. In Bayelsa State in particular, Shell and ENI executives provided cash and logistics to ensure that the local and governorship elections went the way of their favored candidates in 2003. In the Niger Delta, several influential politicians and community leaders who spoke out against this massive disenfranchisement of the local people were set-upon by government-sponsored thugs and murdered.
Prominent members of such civic groups as the Ijaw Youth Council were lured with promises of cash and government contracts and made to work for the governors of the various Niger Delta states as enforcers and thugs. Indeed, the metamorphosis of political activism in the delta region from non-violent advocacy to armed insurrection is partly explained by the deliberate infiltration of activist ranks by government and oil company agents, thereby narrowing the civic options of those who refused to be co-opted. In desperation, elements of the latter group embraced the AK-47 to seek redress.
The venality and corruption displayed by the governors of the delta states following the return of electoral politics in 1999 is driven by the fact that they rigged themselves into office with the support of powerful patrons in Abuja, and now loot local treasuries at the behest of the latter. Such government development initiatives as the newly-established Council on Socio-economic Development of Coastal States in the Niger Delta (COSEDECS), ostensibly designed to address long-standing poverty and social neglect in the region, have also been transformed into avenues to dispense perks and favors to the friends and relatives of the PDP leadership in the capital.
Authoritarian in conception and execution, these projects, like the "community development projects" run by the oil companies, have not been able to deliver jobs, social amenities and peace—the so-called "dividends of democracy" that President Obasanjo promised the people of the region when he took office in May 1999.
Those who sneer at youth activists in the Niger Delta today and claim that the return of electoral politics has only transformed them into younger versions of the corrupt military leaders they battled against in the 1990s fail to acknowledge the fraudulent nature of the elections which put the present crop of political "leaders" in the region in power in 1999. At the heart of the Niger Delta crisis, which has now ballooned into armed insurgency, is this democracy deficit.
MEND, properly understood, is the violent child of the deliberate and long-running constriction of any public space in the Niger Delta through which ordinary citizens, now reduced to penurious subjects, could exercise their civil and political rights. Behind the mask of the MEND militant is a political subject forced to pick up an AK-47 to restore his rights as a citizen.
The journey to peace and prosperity in the region can only commence when the civic is brought back in.
Dr. Ike Okonta is a Leverhulme Postdoctoral fellow in African politics at the University of Oxford, and also serves on the advisory board of Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth, Nigeria. He is co-author, with Oronto Douglas, of Where Vultures Feast: Shell, Human Rights and Oil. Research for this article was facilitated by Community Defence Law Foundation, Port Harcourt, Institute of International Studies, University of California, Berkeley, and the United States Institute of Peace.
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Reprinting permissible with attribution