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Militiamen ‘reclaim’ oil for Nigerians in struggle for rights

Financial Times: Militiamen ‘reclaim’ oil for Nigerians in struggle for rights

By Michael Peel

Jul 13, 2004

At a riverside hideout in Nigeria’s Niger Delta, Alhaji Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, a local militia commander, stands near three large barrels and describes how his armed gang takes oil from pipelines, refines it and sells it cheaply to the local people.

Hundreds of barrels of crude at a time are siphoned by members of his militia. Asked if he considers this theft, Mr Dokubo-Asari replies that he is reclaiming for the people what belongs to them. “As far as we are concerned, it’s the Nigerian state that is stealing oil,” he says.

This economic rebellion is part of a complex and deadly dispute that highlights the deepening crisis affecting the Delta’s people and the companies producing more than 2m barrels a day from the region. Mr Dokubo-Asari claims his gang controls three local government districts and says he is fighting to end the disenfranchisement of his Ijaw people in Nigeria, which is Africa’s largest oil producer and the world’s seventh-largest exporter.

Others see his resistance as amulti-layered story reflecting the mass poverty, criminality and political gerrymandering that have led consultants commissioned by Royal Dutch/Shell to compare the Delta’s level of violence to the turmoil in Chechnya and Colombia.

Seated on a plastic chair with two dozen militia members gathered under coconut trees behind him, Mr Dokubo-Asari estimates “modestly” that he has 2,000 armed volunteers supporting him. He claims he is being pursued by the authorities because he criticised the state government over widespread ballot fraud reported during last year’s national elections.

The official version is that he is wanted over killings during a gangland conflict with another outlaw called Ateke Tom, who Mr Dokubo- Asari claims has been hired by the government to hunt him down and kill him.

Mr Dokubo-Asari, a former president of the Ijaw Youth Council, says his main aim is self-determination for his people. His rhetoric is a reminder of the tensions created in Nigeria by the British colonialists’ decision to form the country in 1914 by fusing its northern and southern halves. Like some leaders from other regions, Mr Dokubo-Asari wants a “sovereign national conference” to decide whether Nigeria should remain a single nation or split up. “Our fathers signed a treaty of protection with Britain,” he says. “We never bargained for Nigeria.”

As a former university student who says he has travelled to many Islamic nations, Mr Dokubo-Asari is more educated and cosmopolitan than many in his ragtag army. Militia mem bers show a boyish enthusiasm to be photographed: one wears flip-flops, which he trips over while trying to show they do not impede his movement. In a makeshift bar at the hideout, Ibiba Fred smokes a joint made of “African grass” and complains about the huge social problems, pollution and economic underdevelopment that the Delta has suffered since oil production began more than four decades ago. “There is not good living for our people,” he says.

Oil installations and a pipeline are visible on the otherwise picturesque mangrove-lined shores around the nearby town of Tombia. Mr Dokubo-Asari takes seven guards on a visit to the settlement, some of whom use protective charms: one holds a leaf in his mouth and has another strapped to his forehead. The town is deserted and ransacked, the plaque marking its 1985 centenary smashed and the roof of the primary school caved in.

“Most of the villages in my area have been devastated. It makes me concerned that my people have suffered so much pain because of me,” says Mr Dokubo-Asari.

The state government dismisses the allegation that it is involved in political persecution.

Magnus Abe, information commissioner, says the dispute between Mr Dokubo-Asari and Mr Tom is a criminal battle between former allies, although he declines to say whether he is echoing accusations by other observers that the two men profit from large-scale oil theft. Last year, a Shell-commissioned report concluded that crude oil thieves earned between $1.5bn and $4bn (€3.2bn, £2.1bn) annually, although multinational and government estimates are generally significantly lower. The Nigerian army says the theft funds arms-buying by militias and involves government officials and members of the army.

Mr Dokubo-Asari accuses Nigeria’s corrupt elite of “eating the money” earned from the country’s oil. Asked how much crude his men take from pipelines each day, his reply hints at the blend of political struggle, opportunism and lawlessness that is both symptom and cause of the Delta’s troubles. “As much as we can. It’s free.”

© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd

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