Kidnappings escalate as Niger Delta militants say violence is their last resort
Matthew McAllester in Port Harcourt
Sunday November 5, 2006
Oil wells poke out of the greasy, caramel-coloured waters of the Niger Delta only yards from where Owbellem Joseph Harry and his men train.
Like most of the 20 million people in the Niger Delta, where 35 billion barrels of oil sit in lakes beneath their feet, he gets none of the wealth flowing from the wells to the government and foreign oil companies. So he has taken up arms.
‘What belongs to me does not come to me,’ explained Harry, leader of a militant group who call themselves the Russians. ‘So I have to fight to get it. By all means. Even if it will take my life I will stand and fight and get my own. OK, if today I die my children are coming. They are going to benefit in what I prepare for them. So the Niger Delta fight is the right fight.’
It is also an escalating fight. On Thursday, militants seized more oil workers, one British and one American. More than 50 have been kidnapped this year. This weekend US diplomats emailed a warning to Americans in Nigeria: ‘The US government has learnt that a militant Niger Delta group may have finalised its plans for a unified attack against oil facilities in the region,’ it read. ‘The attacks allegedly will be carried out during the first week of November and will include 10 to 20 simultaneous bombings of land-based targets and separate attacks on oil installations in which expatriate workers will be taken hostage.’
The conflict has degenerated into a crisis threatening to halt oil production in the world’s eighth largest oil exporter. Production this year is down by about 600,000 barrels a day. On Friday prices rose by more than a $1 a barrel in reaction to the news of the expected attacks.
Militants up the labyrinthine creeks of the Scotland-sized Delta region and in the oil capital of Port Harcourt said that their patience with the government and multinationals had run out. They will intensify the fight until they get electricity, schools, roads, medical clinics.
‘If we don’t use violence we find it difficult for the government and the companies to attend to our needs,’ said Earnest Tonye, a young militant in Port Harcourt. ‘It works. When you are quiet, nobody cares about you even if you are dying.’
At the heart of the anger is what they see as decades of exploitation and corruption by the government and foreign firms. Last year the Nigerian government earned about $45bn in oil revenue while more than 70 percent of Nigerians live on less than $1 a day.
World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz said last month that over the past 40 years about $300bn in oil wealth had ‘disappeared’ from Nigeria. Much has gone into overseas accounts but some is spilled in accidents or sabotage. On a journey to visit the Russians in their training camp near the village of Soku, a trail of crude oil appeared on a bend in the river. It covered the riverside, killing all vegetation and animal life.
Oil companies acknowledge that they cause spills but point out that criminals stealing oil also cause spills. In the region of Ogoniland a well has been burning for over two months. Ogoniland is the homeland of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the activist executed under the Nigerian military regime in 1995. Although Shell ceased its operation here in 1993, its wells remain.
‘Somebody tried to steal that well-head,’ said a US firefighter, flown from Texas by Shell to try to cap the inferno that had spread to the forest. The rumours were that it was sabotaged by locals, either trying to make money by selling the equipment or to harm Shell, against whom many nurse a grievance.
‘Everybody’s angry in the Niger Delta,’ said Marvin Yobana, a member of Saro-Wiwa’s Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. ‘They are angry because 50 years of oil exploration has spelt doom for Niger Delta people.’
One of those kidnapped this year was 69-year-old Texan Macon Hawkins, who spent 12 days in captivity before being released because of his age and health. Hawkins is full of sympathy for his kidnappers. All they wanted, he said, was water and electricity. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘it shouldn’t and wouldn’t cost a tremendous amount of money to supply those things.’
· Fire in the Delta, part of the ‘Unreported World’ series, will be broadcast on Friday at 7.30pm on Channel 4.