The tentative peace in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta region appears to have finally ended this weekend, sparking fears of a return to the violence that has cut output of the No. 3 crude oil supplier to the United States by more than 25 percent in recent years.
"All companies related to the oil industry in the Niger Delta should prepare for an all-out onslaught," said Jomo Gbomo, a spokesman for the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, in a statement announcing an end to the cease-fire MEND had declared in October. "Nothing will be spared," he added, saying that the companies themselves would "bear the guilt" if their staffs were harmed.
Days earlier, a coalition of Niger Delta rebel groups rejected government offers of amnesty and reintegration into society, with MEND – the largest and most powerful group – calling the amnesty program a “sham.”
The lack of attacks in the Niger Delta had brought back some measure of stability to the region, and has allowed oil companies to restart production of oil on its platforms. But now ailing Nigerian President Umaru Yar Adua’s peace initiative is on the brink of collapse.
Roots of the fighting
The Niger Delta dispute has its roots in a government decision from the 1970s to nationalize all oil supplies, and a persistent belief among people of the Niger Delta that their region has become neglected as politicians from other parts of the country have become rich.
The conflict – like the war in Iraq and piracy off the coast of Somalia – has the potential to rock oil markets. Nigeria has just 3 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves, but it has become a major supplier of crude oil for the United States, and disruptions to Nigerian oil supplies can have an impact on the price of gasoline at the pump.
“We want to own our land, we want control of the land and the resources, so we can determine who comes to our land, but instead we have communities that have been forcibly relocated from their land so that oil companies can start operations,” says Mr. Okah, in an exclusive interview with the Monitor. “It challenges all your senses, so you either submit to it or you do something about it.”
Following decades of nonviolent protests, MEND launched itself in January 2006, sending an e-mail to oil producers that proclaimed: “It must be clear that the Nigerian government cannot protect your workers or assets…. Our aim is to totally destroy the capacity of the Nigerian government to export oil.”
Government amnesty program stalled
The amnesty program has stalled during the two-month absence of Mr. Yar Adua, who has been in Saudi Arabia seeking treatment for a heart condition. MEND, for its part, says that the amnesty program never made much headway even when Yar Adua was still in the country, but that it wanted to give the government a full opportunity to fulfill its promises.
Using small, mobile groups of armed fighters, MEND has carried out a string of bank robberies and attacks on oil platforms in the creeks and mangrove swamps of the Niger Delta, often taking hostages and demanding ransom for their safe return. MEND attacks on oil pipelines and production platforms have caused Nigeria’s overall oil production to drop from 2.1 million barrels a day to just over a million. Meanwhile, MEND has seen its own financial position grow, as the group taps into oil pipelines and sells crude oil by the truckload, using proceeds to buy arms and to pay its fighters.
“This is low-intensity warfare, so you don’t need a lot of money to fight,” says Mr. Okah. “To buy dynamite, we might spend $1,000 to take out a pipeline, but it will cost oil companies millions to repair it.”
While MEND will continue to carry out attacks on oil platforms and take hostages, its tactics will change as the conflict intensifies.
“It’s going to be much, much worse, because people are angry,” says Okah. While MEND units focused their energies on oil production in the Cross Rivers states, it has now sent out 100 separate militant groups of 50 men in each group. “Kidnapping will still happen, but it will escalate. They will carry out attacks on land as well, and take the fight to the government. Officers will be targeted. Soldiers will be targeted. Police stations will be targeted. They will even go to the big hotels to kidnap people.”
The idea is to stretch the Nigerian Army’s capacity to fight and control territory.
“Even if they brought in 100,000 troops, it will be impossible to control an area the size of Scotland,” says Okah. “If we have mobile units of 50 men who are here today and there tomorrow, how can they stop it? The Tamil Tigers [in Sri Lanka] fought for territory and to hold territory. We are blowing up oil pipelines in the middle of nowhere.”
“We actually control what Nigeria exports," chuckles Okah. "And there is nothing the Nigerian government can do about it.”