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.
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.
Emmanuel Okah, spokesman for outgoing Gov. Peter Odili of Rivers State, says that the blame for this neglect falls on the shoulders of the military governments that ruled Nigeria for decades until 1999. "Corruption had crept into the body fabric of the nation," he says. "The natural consequence of that is that the interests of the people suffered."
He then ticks off accomplishments of the civilian government since 1999: free medical care for children and the elderly; construction of three general hospitals; construction of three new power plants, at state expense; and a 34 kilometer "Unity Road" through the swamps to reach Ogoni, Andoni, and Okobo, areas that had been unreachable except by boat.
Militant groups say that they no longer trust in government promises or even in completed projects. "We are not interested in schools and clinics and the like," writes Jomo Gbomo in an e-mail. Mr. Gbomo claims to speak for the militant group MEND and has helped journalists arrange visits with MEND in the past. "We are demanding control over our resources."
This skepticism is shared by residents. At the village of Okujagu Ama, just a short boat ride from Port Harcourt, the impact of state spending is minimal at best. A water tower, built two months ago by the Nigerian government, has received none of the clean water that was promised. This forces residents to rely on the brackish water from their own bore-wells.
Two new schools have been built, with European Union funding, but no new teachers have been provided to teach in them. A healthcare clinic has been built, but there are no doctors or medicines. The only electricity comes from private generators. At night, most residents live in darkness.
Princewill Bipialaka, a traditional elder for the community, sits in the living room under a photo of himself in his uniform of a Nigerian immigration service officer. He worked for the government for 30 years, but never received a pension.
"We are stranded here," he says. "There are no factories where our boys can go work. We used to fish, but our fish are being poisoned by the pollution coming from these refineries." He sighs. "If you box me, what am I going to do? I must fight. That is what is happening. It's not a thing we want to do, it's because of frustration."
Victor Fingesi, a former chairman of the central government's Petroleum Task Force, says that the Niger Delta remains poor for one reason alone: corruption.
Fingesi estimates that more than a third of Nigeria's total oil production is sold illegally. According to Fingesi, Nigeria's production is much higher than the official figures, around 3.8 million barrels a day (not 2.6 million). As a member of the OPEC cartel, Nigeria is only allowed to export 2.2 million barrels a day, leaving 1.6 million barrels for its own internal consumption.
"The problem is that our refineries are not working to capacity, so we can only turn 300,000 barrels per day into diesel or petrol for domestic consumption," says Fingesi, who quit his government job in 2003 because of death threats. "So then Nigeria has this excess crude that it cannot sell, and the only way to sell it is illegally. 1.6 million barrels a day, at $65 per barrel, you're talking $100 million a day, and none of it goes into government coffers."
Getting the excess oil out is a risky – and illegal – business, one that has been taken up by armed local gangs and militant groups. These groups break into oil pipelines and siphon off hundreds of barrels of oil at a time into nearby tanker trucks or small fishing vessels. This "bunkered" oil is then taken out into the high seas and sold to waiting oil tankers, bound for Asia, Europe, Russia, and even the US. Sometimes, instead of paying in cash, shipping captains pay the militants with arms and ammunition. One oil company executive, speaking on condition of privacy, says that the only solution is for the government to rein in corruption.
"One of the key problems in Nigeria is rotten corruption," says this executive. "This country produces oil. It could be a rich country. So when you see corruption on one hand and poverty on the other hand, and then this instability as well, it's a big problem."
In his swampland hideaway, just a half-hour speedboat ride from the outskirts of Port Harcourt, Tom says that he promised Governor Odili not to disrupt this election. "I promised not to do anything this time, since they promised to settle with us," he says. "But if [the government] does not do anything [to help the Delta's people] after the election, I will start to attack them again."