A rare military raid on a militant camp in Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta last week points to a new, tough approach by the Nigerian military that could force the region into a deeper state of anarchy.
Militants have responded to the pre-dawn raid with a series of deadly counter attacks on oil facilities and military positions. The delta's most prominent rebel group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) issued a statement Sunday via e-mail declaring an "oil war."
"MEND has declared an oil war in response to the unprovoked aerial and marine attacks on a MEND position in Rivers state of Nigeria on September 13, 2008 by the armed forces of Nigeria," read the statement.
MEND emerged as a fighting force in the delta almost three years ago. Since then, it has sought to portray itself as a unified political militant group. But the reality has been somewhat different with MEND operating as an umbrella organization for a host of armed gangs. Their coordinated attacks against oil infrastructure and personnel have slashed Nigerian oil output by a fifth.
Following the Sept. 13 military attack, formerly disparate gangs are looking increasingly unified, raising fears that long-running unrest in the delta could hit new levels. "When it comes to a common enemy, we all help each other," says a senior MEND leader, who declined to be identified. "The Army is not as formidable as they say, and we are ready to take them on."
Armed gangs, including one headed by a notorious delta criminal, Ateke Tom, and the Niger Delta Volunteer Force, have buried previous differences with MEND to attack the military and foreign oil infrastructure this week.
Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua has received criticism for moving too slowly to address the problems of the Niger Delta, which he promised to make a priority for his administration when he took office a year and a half ago. Last month, he replaced his top military commanders. Given the military's recent attacks, some analysts conclude the new appointees want to take a tougher line with the delta militants.
But the Nigerian government is keen to downplay this week's violence, saying the government, which recently established a cabinet level ministry for the Niger Delta, is working with the Nigerian people to find a lasting solution to regional problems.
"There is no war [in the Niger Delta]," says John Odey, the Nigerian information minister. "The Nigerian government is trying a combination of dialogue, consultation, and development of the region and after consultation we created a dedicated ministry to address these issues."
The Niger Delta is one of the most oil- and gas-rich regions in the world, making Nigeria the world's eighth-largest oil exporter. Successive corrupt governments have prevented oil revenue funds trickling down to delta residents, leaving their communities underdeveloped. Choked by oil-industry pollution, many of the region's unemployed and uneducated young men have abandoned the subsistence farming and fishing of their grandfathers and taken up arms instead.
The region's problems are exacerbated as members of the Nigerian military and political elite are accused of being in league with the delta gangs, sharing in profits from the illegal oil theft and gun-running. Oil theft is a lucrative business, with oil industry insiders estimating that as much as 10 percent of Nigerian oil, worth millions of dollars, is stolen before it reaches export terminals.
In at least one of six states that make up the Niger Delta, the state government has opted to distribute payments to armed gangs in exchange for a cessation of activities. According to Dimieari Von Kemedi, a member of the Bayelsa State government, this solution is imperfect, but has proved effective in Bayelsa, which has so far remained calm through the current run of violence.
MEND does not enjoy popular support among the Nigerian people. But Mr. Von Kemedi says that offices like his are aware that they are fighting a daily tussle to keep angry youths out of the conflict.
"The ultimate priority is the people themselves," says Von Kemedi. "We need to be serious knowing that someone else is competing for the hearts and minds of these young men."