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Rebels fight government to control Nigerian oil

Sunday Telegraph: Rebels fight government to control Nigerian oil

“on Thursday, the oil giant Shell evacuated more than 250 non-essential members of staff from two facilities in the Niger Delta.”

By Katharine Houreld in Port Harcourt

(Filed: 26/09/2004)

On the widescreen television in front of me, Sylvester Stallone is fondling a semi-naked blonde. Sitting to my left on a sofa, staring at the screen, is Alhaji Dobuko Asari – a rebel leader and oil robber baron whose gang violence has turned Port Harcourt, Nigeria’s oil-producing capital, into a war zone.

Asari, an Islamic convert who admires Osama bin Laden, has been denouncing the decadence of Western society but in truth his rhetoric is as passionless as Stallone’s performance. Only the subject of oil rouses him.

His gang, the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force, is among the rival armed militias who steal and smuggle oil from the pipelines criss-crossing the mangrove swamps in southern Nigeria.

The country is the sixth largest oil producer within Opec and its light, sweet, “bonny” crude is in high demand worldwide. The Nigerian government, however, estimates that £5.5 million-worth of its crude is tapped by the gangs each week, and sold to international grey marketeers.

In recent weeks, the oil supply has been further jeopardised by vicious fighting between the feuding militias. The government, fearing disruption to the lucrative trade, has retaliated with helicopter gunship attacks on the rebel camps. In all, an estimated 500 people have died in the internecine fighting in the past month alone.

After government troops were sent into Port Harcourt – traditionally a peaceful refuge – on Thursday, the oil giant Shell evacuated more than 250 non-essential members of staff from two facilities in the Niger Delta.

The company, which produces about half Nigeria’s daily output of two million barrels of crude, said that output had not yet been affected. But Asari’s men vowed to target wells and pipelines unless the government offensive was halted. The threat contributed to oil prices closing at a record high in New York on Friday of $48.88 a barrel.

“We are fighting the government for resource control,” explains Asari, who trained in Libya. “The government steals the oil revenues and gives nothing to the people. We give something back, and that’s why we have local support.” Nigeria’s oil revenues will top £15 billion this year but corruption has robbed the country of the money to develop. Life expectancy barely tops 50 and 70 per cent of the population survives on less than 55p a day. Gang membership provides a rare sense of motivation and employment for bored and frustrated youths. “It is like prohibition-era Chicago, except they are smuggling oil instead of alcohol,” said one oil industry executive. “If this trend continues, the Niger Delta will be a war zone during elections.”

Asari used to be an ally of the local state governor, Peter Odili, and still styles himself as a political leader. He claims that his purloined oil is sent to a crude refinery deep in the mangrove swamps of the Niger Delta and then sold off at a discount to poverty-stricken local people. While they live in rundown shacks around his militia camp, an hour’s ride in a speedboat from Port Harcourt, the house in which we meet Asari has all the signs of warlord-luxe.

The camp is teeming with heavily armed men, but weapons are left at the door of the house. There is no running water, but the sitting-room boasts an aquarium of terrapins – the goldfish, Asari tells me, died of over-eating – a cocktail bar in the corner equipped with an extensive range of spirits, and a home cinema system with impressive surround-sound powered by a generator.

Throughout the interview, his six mobile telephones ring in sequence with a funky hip-hop ring tone: on the other end are state and military officials, calling to warn him of an impending government attack. “These are the people I went to school with,” Asari explains. Local campaigners against the violence believe that the bonds are even stronger than childhood friendship. Asari’s men have received funds from the local government, said one campaigner, Anyakwee Nsirimovu, and many militias originally had political backing.

“Many of the gangs were formed to intimidate political opposition during last year’s elections,” he said. “But once you give someone a gun, you cannot take it back. After the elections were won, the men turned to crime. The government created this monster and now they must control it.”

Asari, who is in his forties, has two wives and six children but has not seen them since he fell out with Mr Odili last year and took up leadership of the volunteer force. The pair squabbled after Asari publicly criticised Nigeria”s president, Olusegun Obasanjo.

His men are polite, well-disciplined and – unusually for Nigeria – did not ask The Sunday Telegraph for money. His speedboat picked us up at a jetty after we had made contact on one of his mobile telephones. Asari does not drink, or allow drugs at any of his camps.

The camp’s peaceful atmosphere is in contrast to the violence that has flared across the Niger Delta. Asari claims that helicopter gunships from the country’s air force attacked three of his camps south of Port Harcourt last weekend, firing rockets at sites where they believed the militia leader was hiding.

In the fighting between the rival gangs, meanwhile, rockets, grenades and dynamite have been used to destroy ramshackle dwellings. One long-standing feud with a rival militia leader, “Godfather” Ateke Tom, who is said to be funded by the government, left seven dead in a restaurant massacre on September 1. Mr Odili responded by setting up a joint task force involving the navy, army and police, with orders to patrol the waterways 24 hours a day. Still, the violence has worsened.

Asari has responded to the air strikes on his militia camps by declaring 21 “days of rage” against rival gangs and the Rivers State government. Government spokesmen insist that the situation is under control, but residents report that their streets still echo to the sound of gunfire.

A recent report by the International Maritime Bureau says that the gang violence has already made the Niger Delta waterways the most deadly in the world. Further violence threatens to push the oil price – which is nudging towards record levels owing to unrest in the Middle East – even higher.

On the ground, some of the rebel fighters have lost their appetite for battle. “I came from Okrika [Ateke Tom’s stronghold] before all this fighting began,” said one young recruit. “I just want to go home.” His prayers are not likely to be answered. and its sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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