Deep inside Nigeria's violent oil region
Militants are stepping up attacks in the wake of the country's fraudulent elections.
Port Harcourt, Nigeria
With his small fleet of speedboats, hundreds of Kalashnikov-carrying militants, and a string of attacks on government and oil-company targets, Ateke Tom is a major reason for instability in the oil-rich Niger Delta region of Nigeria, Africa's largest oil producer and the fifth-largest supplier of crude to the US.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Critics call him a common criminal. Loyalists call him "godfather." The government calls him Nigeria's most wanted man.
But in an interview last week in his hideout among the mangrove swamps, Mr. Tom says he is fighting to ensure that the oil wealth that is pumped out of his region is used to develop his region.
Oil prices rose above $64 a barrel Thursday after gunmen kidnapped at least 19 people – mostly foreign oil workers of various nationalities – in less than 24 hours. The Monitor could not independently verify if militants loyal to Tom were behind the kidnappings, but attacks like this have increased after last month's presidential and state elections, which were discredited by most observers, including the European Union and Nigeria's biggest election monitoring group.
"Our resources, as you know, they are spoiled by the government," says Mr. Tom, a militant commander, meeting a pair of reporters in a camp of ramshackle tents, surrounded by his personal bodyguards. "Everywhere in the Delta, we are suffering. All the promises, and they do nothing. We want schools, we want them to employ our people, we want lights and water, all those things. It is for this that we are fighting, for our freedom."
Will last month's elections help?
For good or for ill, the future stability of Nigeria may rest in the hands of men like Tom. A growing number of militant groups – including Tom's Niger Delta Vigilantes and a rival group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) – are kidnapping oil company employees, and attacking oil drilling and pumping installations to force the Nigerian central government to plow oil revenues back into the Niger Delta region. The recent elections were intended to bring relief, but observers say the elections may only deepen the sense of alienation and hopelessness that many Niger Delta residents feel toward their government.
"People have realized their votes don't count," says Anyakwee Nsirimovu, director of the Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law in Port Harcourt. "For the past nine months, people have been distancing themselves from the militants, but what does [Nigerian President Olusegun] Obasanjo do? He gives poverty instead of development. He gives bullets instead of bread. People realize these guys with guns are more effective, and sympathy is being built. And what do you get? Chaos."
While the kidnapping of the oil workers may be a signal of business as usual for the militants, this week's apparent kidnapping of the mother of Governor-elect Celestine Omehia may signal a new tactic of targeting elected officials.
"People are so upset, and if the elected officials take office, then there will be more and more people, especially the youth, that will start going after officials," he says. "People can't accept the ballot, and [they] will start to use self-help – the AK-47 – against the politicians who do not care about them except at election time."
First vice president from the Delta
While most Delta residents see the past elections as hopelessly flawed by the ruling People's Democratic Party, some observers say that the inclusion of Niger Delta politician Goodluck Jonathan as the vice president-elect is a sign that Nigeria's political class may finally give serious attention to a problem of regional alienation that has brewed for decades. Niger Delta politicians say they are awaiting a fuller discussion of the new government's announced "plan" to resolve the Niger Delta issue, from development to the control of resources.
Yet few here are holding their breath for dramatic changes.
On paper, a bustling region like the Niger Delta should be prosperous. The gross domestic product of the three top oil-producing states – Rivers, Delta, and Bayelsa – are equal to that of a growing central European country like Croatia. The annual budget of Rivers State alone – at more than $1.3 billion – is larger than the national budgets of many African countries.
But even though this region accounts for nearly all of Nigeria's output of crude oil – officially estimated at 2.6 million barrels a day, but perhaps much higher – the Niger Delta region remains poor. Roads are potholed and often unpaved, schools and hospitals are few and understaffed, and most rural residents have no access to electricity or clean drinking water.