Behind the mask
Militia gains support in the oil-rich
by Ike Okonta
Earth Island Institute Journal,
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 when soldiers of the Joint Task Force, a contingent of the
Nigerian Army, Navy, and Air Force, ambushed 15 members of the
MEND militia and murdered them. The men had gone to negotiate
the release of a Shell Oil worker kidnapped by youth in Letugbene,
a neighboring community. That worker also died in the massacre.
The incident occurred five days after Nigerian President Olusegun
Obasanjo instructed armed forces commanders in the region to "pacify"
the region. Obasanjo had promised MEND in early April that he
would use dialogue and carefully targeted development to return
peace, law, and accountable government to the impoverished Niger
The Ijaw, the largest ethnic group in
the Niger Delta, was represented by prominent Ijaw political and
civic leaders at the burial ceremonies. Ijaw farmers and fishers
had also travelled from their hamlets to pay their last respects
to the slain. Spokesmen of the Nigerian government had sought
to represent the 15 militias as "irresponsible hostage-takers"
in the wake of the slaughter. But those Ijaw who had gathered
that morning spoke only of heroes who had fallen in the battle
for Ijaw liberation.
MEND members say they have never seen armed force as anything
but a last resort after three decades of peaceful entreaty met
with cynical indifference from the central government and the
oil companies. Leaders of the Gbaramatu-based Federated Niger
Delta Ijaw Communities (FNDIC) served as informal representatives
of the MEND militia in negotiations with Obasanjo and Nigeria's
central government following the abduction of nine foreign oil
workers in February. When I interviewed FNDIC President Oboko
Bello in Warri two weeks before the Letugbene massacre, he spoke
warmly about the meetings he and other Ijaw leaders had had in
Abuja with Obasanjo and other government officials in April, and
assured me MEND would put its weapons down if the government addressed
the long-standing grievances of his people.
It was a sombre Bello who addressed his
fellow Ijaw during the burial ceremony. 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."
Though Bello ended his speech on a note
of conciliation, angry voices are rising throughout the delta
vowing revenge. Whether moderate voices will be able to rein in
the volatile, striking arm of the Ijaw political and civic resurgence
remains to be seen.
Bullets or ballots?
The central government announced in late
August that it was working with the US and British governments
to deploy more naval personnel and hardware to "root out
oil rustlers, kidnappers, and other undesirable elements from
the Niger Delta and the wider Gulf of Guinea." To MEND militants,
this sounded ominously like an open declaration of war.
Shortly after the burial ceremony, FNDIC
leaders voiced their concern that the government's belligerent
posture could be an attempt to generate turbulence in the Niger
Delta during the April 2007 general elections, and thus provide
an opportunity for Obasanjo to extend his tenure beyond the constitutionally
stipulated two terms. Although past elections have been massively
rigged, FNDIC officials hope that elections in which the Ijaw
would be fairly represented will provide the solution to the ongoing
political and economic crisis.
But elections in the Niger Delta are usually
turbulent and sometimes violent affairs. Politicians are caching
weapons and resuscitating networks of thugs to intimidate their
rivals, coerce voters to do their bidding, or stuff the ballot
The spectacle of hostages and guns
The MEND militia and its political sponsors
set out in the early months of 2006 to draw the world's attention
to the condition of the Ijaw people. Images of armed youth in
masks wielding sub-machine guns, helpless oil workers at their
mercy, were beamed all over the world. These images generated
intense emotions in government circles, as well as in the environmental
and human rights community in the West. Global oil prices vacillated
with the tone of MEND's press statements and with the physical
condition of the captives, whose photographs were posted on the
Internet. But the dramas invariably ended on a peaceful note,
with MEND releasing the oil workers unharmed.
After the spate of armed attacks on the
Shell facilities and two other oil companies following MEND's
emergence in February, there seemed to be an unspoken agreement
between the militants and the government that these dramas could
continue as long as any oil workers taken hostage were not harmed.
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 take
on the government and the oil companies with which they are allied.
Meeting the MEND militia
The first thing that strikes you on meeting
members of the MEND militia is the ease with which they travel.
They are among people who not only identify with their cause but
also go out of their way to offer protection from attacks by Nigerian
The second thing you notice is that the
militants, at least those elected to respond to questions, are
articulate, well-educated, and conversant with the latest political
developments at home and abroad.
MEND leaders are constantly on the move,
extremely cautious, and do not personally take telephone calls,
aware that soldiers hunting for them have electronic devices capable
of pinpointing mobile phone signals.
My first meeting with MEND took place
in a hotel room in Warn. I had sent word that I'd be arriving
that Thursday afternoon, and would like to interview one or two
MEND leaders. A local journalist said he would try to arrange
the interview, but that getting hold of MEND leaders would depend
on the level of Nigerian military presence in Warn that week.
I was in luck. I arrived in Warn when
the peace process, initiated by FNDIC leaders, lawyer and environmental
activist Oronto Douglas, and other Ijaw leaders, was still plodding
on, and the Obasanjo government appeared willing to restrain the
soldiers while the negotiations were concluded. A knock sounded
on the door of my hotel room: A young man, casually dressed, stood
Are you the MEND leader?" I asked,
surprised. The media depicts MEND fighters as muscular masked
men, clutching Kalashnikovs and adopting belligerent postures,
as though ready to fire at the slightest provocation.
There is no such thing as MEND,"
MEND is not an organization in the formal
sense of the word, he explained. It is an idea, a principle underlying
the slew of communal, civic, and youth movements that began to
proliferate in the Niger Delta - particularly in the Ijaw-speaking
areas - in the wake of General Babangida's failed 'structural
adjustment" policies in the late 1980s.
The country had been run by a succession
of corrupt governments since the end of the civil war in 1970.
The ensuing economic hardships, the government's apparent inability
to address this crisis, and its refusal to provide a civic and
political framework in which oppressed citizens could air their
grievances, encouraged a drift towards religious ethnic organizations.
The Ken Saro-Wiwa-inspired Movement for the Survival of Ogoni
People (MOSOP), which emerged in 1990, and the Ijaw National Congress
a year later, have their genesis in this turbulent economic and
These organizations pursued such goals
as the end to military rule, the return of democratic civilian
government, the creation of new states in ethnic minority areas,
and an increase
in the citizens' share of oil receipts.
They used 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 countrywide and Babangida annulled election results in
mid-1993, a wave of desperation spread among urban youth.
Militant, communal youth organizations
emerged in this period, drawing their membership from the Yoruba,
Hausa, and Igbo ethnic groups. The youth militias began to arm.
with the Nigerian military, and also among
themselves, became a staple of Nigerian public life.
Political developments in the Ijaw territory
followed a slightly different trajectory. Skirmishes between Ijaw
youth and the oil companies operating in the Western Delta began
in the late 1980s, when the youth complained that they had not
been offered employment in the industry on their own doorstep,
and which, to make matters worse, was destroying their rivers
Ijaw elders and community leaders mediated
the dispute, and this process gave rise to new youth-led civic
groups. Prominent among these were the Movement for the Survival
of Ijaw Ethnic Nationality (MOSSIEND) and the Movement for Reparations
to Ogbia (MORETO), an Ijaw clan in the central delta.
The government's creation of new local
government councils in the Warn area in 1997 provided the trigger
for the militarization of the youth groups. Three prominent ethnic
groups occupy the Warn metropolis and its hinterland. The Itsekiri
are perceived to be small but politically dominant. The other
two are the Ijaw and Urhrobo. There had been squabbles regarding
land ownership and any resulting rents among all three groups
since the 1920s. These disputes were usually peaceful affairs,
resolved in the courts.
But that changed in 1997 when the military
governor announced the creation of a new local government council
with headquarters in an Ijaw village, and then moved it to an
Itsekiri village the following day. Ijaw youth accused Itsekiri
elites of having pressured the government to relocate the seat
of the new council. The latter countered that they'd had no hand
in the governor's decision. There was a stampede to arm on both
sides, resulting in ethnic massacres and counter-massacres.
The proliferation of small arms in the
Warn area encouraged oil bunkering, an illicit activity that had
been practiced by powerful government officials in collaboration
with oil workers for decades. Fringe elements in these militarized
youth groups helped illegal oil barons tap into pipelines. 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
these youth protection work in their facilities, arming them in
a cynical divide and conquer" move. It was a small minority
that drifted into oil bunkering and protection services"
for the corrupt politicians and oil companies. The majority of
Ijaw youth remained solidly committed to the civic and communal
organizations they had founded, even after brutal attacks from
government soldiers in 1998 and 1999.
The Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), founded
in 1998, had united youth in a peaceful but powerful opposition
to the exploitative activities of the oil companies and the federal
government. The Kaiama Declaration, a document that spelled out
the grievances of Ijaw youth, was the brainchild of the JYC leadership.
However, the TYC subsequently split into
factions following a leadership crisis. Asari Dokubo, one of its
leaders, established the Niger Delta Peoples' Volunteer Force
(NDPVF), declaring that the peaceful methods of the IYC had not
been effective and that what Obasanjo's government would heed
was militant action.
On the morning of February 15, 2006, government
helicopter gunships attacked an Ijaw village. Government officials
alleged that Okerenkoko and neighboring villages were centers
of oil-bunkering activities. The gunships returned on February
17 and 18, killing several innocent people. Enraged youth all
over Ijawland vowed revenge, triggering the birth of the MEND
The founding core of MEND's membership
is derived from the Gbaramatu Ijaw clan, which bore the brunt
of the February 2006 attacks. But as already stated, MEND is not
so much an organization as an idea into which many civic, communal;
and political groups have bought.
MEND's strength and military successes
so far lie in four key factors:
It has successfully tapped into the 50-year-old
Ijaw quest for social and environmental justice in the Niger Delta.
There is no village in the Niger Delta where MEND sympathizers
do not exist. Consequently, the movement operates in friendly
and cooperative terrain, able to mount attacks and meld into hamlets
Secondly, MEND is a loose coalition of
armed militants that doesn't constrain the ability of the various
units to make their own decisions and mount military attacks independently
of the others. The units also co-ordinate with other units in
joint expeditions when necessary. They are thus active in all
parts of the delta, adopting hit-and-run tactics, making it difficult
for Federal troops to box them into a particular area and launch
a massive attack.
Thirdly, MEND militants fight in familiar
territory, having fished and farmed since childhood in the Niger
Delta The Nigerian Army and Navy have superior hardware, but they
often lose their way in the unfamiliar terrain, rendering them
ineffective and vulnerable.
Finally, 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
Nigeria and worldwide.
Hostages as weapons
MEND's weapon of choice is foreign oil
workers. The Nigerian government is notorious for its cavalier
attitude when the lives of its citizens are at stake. But other
nations, particularly the US, France, United Kingdom, and Italy,
all of which have massive oil installations in the Niger Delta,
usually protest loudly when their citizens are taken hostage.
MEND's most spectacular hostage-taking was carried out at Shell's
Forcados oil terminal in February 2006. Militants grabbed nine
expatriate workers employed by Willbros, an oil engineering firm
under contract to Shell, and spirited them away in a speedboat.
Following several weeks of negotiations between the militants,
Ijaw leaders, the Obasanjo government, the oil companies, and
the American and British governments, the last of the hostages
(several had been released previously) were set free.
Since MEND began to take hostages early
in 2006, none have been harmed. Government officials have portrayed
this aspect of MEND's activities as racketeering, claiming the
militants usually extort ransom from the hostages and their governments
before the victims are released. While it is true
that some fringe elements in the Niger
Delta have embraced kidnapping as a lucrative venture, they are
not to be confused with MEND militants. The objective of the latter
is fundamentally political: focus the attention of Western governments
and the world on the Niger Delta when they grab these hostages,
and announce their grievances against the Nigerian government
in the blaze of publicity that follows.
MEND's attack on the Forcados oil-loading
platform was as crippling as it was audacious. The oil company
was forced to cut its daily production by 19 percent.
ChevronTexaco, Elf, and ENI did not escape
MEND's attention. Their facilities also came under attack, and
their staff was 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 considered a potential
MEND target. Dr. Edmund Daukoru, a former Shell employee and,
since 2003, Obasanjo's minister in charge of petroleum, hurried
to Washington to confer with US Energy Secretary Sam Bordman on
how to address the MEND 'problem.'
In response to what they deemed an imminent
invasion by US Special Forces, MEND, NDPVF, and other groups announced
the formation of a "Joint Revolutionary Council" and
pledged they would deploy heat-seeking rockets to attack Shell's
offshore Bonga Oil Field. Given their successful attacks on several
offshore oil facilities in the past, this announcement triggered
panic in the international market. Oil prices hit $72 per barrel.
MEND's press statements are also intended
to influence US and European companies with investments in the
Gulf of Guinea's oil and gas industry of which the Niger Delta
is the heart to put pressure on the Nigerian government. Leading
the pack are Merrill Lynch, Société Génerale,
Bank of America Securities, Credit Suisse First Boston, Morgan
Stanley, UBS Investments, Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, and Lehman
Brothers. These financial behemoths, whose investments in the
Nigerian oil and gas industry total an estimated $15 billion,
met with Nigerian government officials in November 2005 after
confidential reports by American embassy officials indicated the
Obasanjo government was losing control of the delta to the militias.
MEND's shock tactics yielded dividends
initially. Chevron and Shell had backed military attacks on local
communities all through the 1990s, insisting that their business
interests obliged them to offer support to Nigerian troops in
order to protect the delta oil fields. But as attacks on its facilities
in the Western Delta accelerated in 2003-2004, resulting in the
company workers (three Nigerians and two
Americans and their guards), and shutting down 140,000 barrels
of daily production, Chevron executives began to rethink their
policy, and subsequently made the unprecedented statement that
the company opposed military solutions in the Niger Delta.
Fred Nelson, head of Chevron's West Africa
operations, said 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 spokespersons claimed this new
stance as a victory.
The militia has also carefully positioned
itself to derive maximum mileage from the activities of other
militant groups, which, although not as well-organized or politically
coherent, nevertheless shared similar grievances and regularly
mounted their own military attacks on oil company facilities and
government troops. MEND spokespeople deplore the actions of these
groups when they veer away from the explicitly political objective
of advancing the cause of self-determination and equitable sharing
of oil receipts, but are quick to spring to their defense when
soldiers and riot police attack them unjustly.
MEND's military exploits have not dented
the offensive capabilities of Nigeria's armed forces. But they
have demoralized the troops, and forced local journalists to question
the combat-readiness and overall effectiveness of the army and
navy. Most importantly, MEND has transformed the image of the
Ijaw from hapless and quiescent victims popularized in the press
- ever on the receiving end of atrocities deployed by the government
and the oil companies - to an increasingly organized and assertive
Worse than Iraq?
It is not yet clear whether the August
20 massacre at Letugbene will turn out to be a crippling blow.
But one fact is clear: Both the central government and the oil
companies have retreated from their "peace and dialogue"
stance of last April. The new policy, although not favored by
some of Obasanjo's senior commanders, is containment and subsequent
evisceration of the youth militias through superior fire-power.
Shell led the "return to the warpath"
initiative when its officials secretly approached the US military
in early March to attempt to intervene 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. When Admiral
Henry Ulrich, commander of the US Naval forces in Europe, visited
Nigeria last March, a delegation of oil company officials led
by Shell asked him to deploy his ships to the region to "protect
Ulrich turned down the request, explaining
that "It was difficult to conceive of a way that foreign
forces could intervene because attacks on oil facilities and vessels
were occurring very close to shore in territorial waters, or from
the shore itself."
On the occasion of a courtesy visit to
Nigeria's chief of naval staff in Abuja on March 19, Ulrich, informed
journalists that the US government 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" in the
region, and that he had deployed two ships to the Gulf of Guinea
to help West African navies police their shores more effectively.
The Gulf of Guinea, comprising 15 west
and central African countries, is critical to US oil security.
The region accounted for half of the nine million barrels produced
daily by Africa in 2004. In the same year, the continent supplied
an estimated 18 percent of US net oil imports, with Angola and
Nigeria the leading suppliers. This development has meant an increase
in the number of oil tankers that pass by the west coast of Africa
on their way to America's east coast.
Right-wing American journalists and think-tanks
have played up the "surge in Islamic terrorist threat in
the Gulf of Guinea" angle, 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 antiterrorist aid to the region had 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 think tanks
have been able to support those claims.
Significantly, reference to "another
Vietnam" and "the new Iraq" is now routine in the
Niger Delta, and such talk is not restricted to armed militias.
When rumors began to make the rounds in February that the US government
had resolved to send in the Marines to assist Nigerian troops
in rescuing the nine expatriate workers MEND had kidnapped, there
was a general uproar. Patrick Bigha, leader of the Warn Ijaw Peace
Monitoring Group, an organization that espouses nonviolent 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."
US deployment of military hardware in
the region continues apace. The US-European Command has concluded
plans to construct a naval base in São Tome and Principe,
and to complement the permanent military base in Djibouti. On
August 28, Nigerian and American officials in Abuja announced
a new Nigeria-United States 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
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 military attack and subsequent
disruption of production would threaten US and Western Europe's
energy supplies, and billions of dollars in lost investments could
throw their economies into a tailspin. The energy security initiative
is the American response to this potential threat.
From poverty to political freedom
I have traveled extensively in the Niger
Delta's communities since the late 1980s, but nothing prepared
me for what I encountered in Oporoza and its satellite hamlets
in the Western Delta last August. Poverty and neglect take shape
in the form of flimsy huts on decayed wooden stilts, bracken greenish
water ponds from which the 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 violent exclusion
from the civic sphere can bring about.
As author Amartya Sen so brilliantly demonstrated
in his book Development as Freedom, poverty and famine flourish
only 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, greased by oil company executives, have elbowed ordinary
people out of the public sphere.
Academics, journalists, and development
workers who espouse the so-called "Resource Curse" theory
argue that resource-rich countries like Nigeria inevitably degenerate
into authoritarian and corrupt rule because it is easy for the
military elites and their civilian allies to hijack the oil fields
by force, and redesign political institutions to sustain the new
regime. But there is nothing inevitable about resource-rich regions
regressing into poverty, as the cases of oil-rich Norway and Canada
illustrate. Nor is it the case that all authoritarian movements
are driven by the lure of easy spoils. Nigerian politics was already
well on the way to unaccountable government before oil production
commenced in 1956. This was largely the legacy of colonial conquest,
and 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 go on to protect their interests after
the colonial rulers quit in 1960. The Maxim machine gun, not the
ballot box, was the instrument of rule in the Niger Delta and
Nigeria in the age of colonialism.
Nigeria is a basket case today because
its 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 Frederick Lugard employed to
"pacify" the natives at the behest of the Royal Niger
Company at the turn of the 20th century. Shell and crude oil may
have replaced Nigeria's founder George Taubman Goldie and his
thirst for palm oil, but the marriage of egregious violence and
the resources of local people remain undisturbed.
It is telling that topping the list of
MEND's grievances in its negotiations with government officials
last March was the exclusion of the Ijaw from meaningful political
participation in the Nigerian project following the return of
electoral politics in 1999. Anxious to arrange a cease-fire so
oil production could resume, a delegation made up of two Shell
executives and Timi Alaibe, finance director of the government-controlled
Niger Delta Development Commission, visited MEND's "Council
of Elders" in June at Camp Five, a fortified island near
Oporoza, where the MEND members were ensconced. 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, according to him, "We believe that we
have to seek first our political freedom and every other thing
Ike Okonta is a Nigerian freelance writer
who works with Earth Island's West Africa Rain forest Network.