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Financial Times: We are not terrorists, insist secretive Nigerian militants

By Dino Mahtani in Warri
Published: March 3 2006 02:00 | Last updated: March 3 2006 02:00
Surrounded by mangrove forest deep in Nigeria's western delta region, masked militants in slick combat gear and carrying sub-machine guns and rocket launchers give reasons for their devastating attacks against Nigeria's oil industry.
“We are not terrorists, we are freedom fighters,” says a commanding officer as his men sit quietly on guard on open-topped boats with high powered motors, not far from several oil wells and flow stations dotted around the creeks.
The secretive, militant Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta has claimed responsibility for attacks and abductions that have forced Africa's largest oil producer to cut output by a fifth so far this year. On Wednesday Mend released six of the nine oil workers they had kidnapped after an attack 12 days ago but still rattled oil markets by threatening to execute a “huge crippling blow to Nigeria's oil industry”.

The group says it is fighting for the rights of the delta's largest tribe, the Ijaw, many of whom complain of political marginalisation and of being cheated out of their oil wealth by the government and multinationals while they live among oil slicks and gas flares.

But behind the group's rhetorical mask lies a tangled web of dealings involving militant activists, local community leaders and ambitious political figures.
While state officials in the western delta have been given the task of brokering the release of the remaining three hostages, they are having to use former militants to act as intermediaries with Mend, underlining the complex nature of the talks.
Such former militants were given official state appointments in exchange for bringing their footmen under control, after an earlier campaign of insurgency ahead of the 2003 elections.
“All of us are in this together. We know everybody. We know who is who and we know what is what,” James Ibori, a western delta governor from Nigeria's ruling party who has been given the job of leading the negotiations with Mend, told journalists earlier this week.
But many of the former militants acting as intermediaries remain critical of the authorities for, they claim, breaking promises to em-power more Ijaw leaders in local governmental authorities that would be responsible for handling cash payments. “Until there is fair play, there will be more trouble,” says one former militant called “Duty Calls”.
Mend may have strong connections to the now fragmented group responsible for the 2003 uprising, but security analysts say its level of operational mobility, co-ordination and discipline is recognisably better than the other armed militia and criminal gangs in the Delta. “The way they hold their guns, with the finger outside the trigger, is just one sign that they are well trained,” says one diplomatic source referring to the weapons Mend uses, which include American M-16 rifles.
Industry officials say that many armed groups in the Niger Delta have built up sophisticated arsenals from the illegal trade in stolen crude oil, and that such groups often operate protection rackets with oil companies and work in cahoots with powerful military and political figures. Many such groups were originally sponsored by political figures to fight turf battles in the run-up to elections in 2003.
Mend hotly denies it is part of any oil theft cartel, saying it is a grassroots movement. It has called for the release of Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, a prominent militant from the eastern delta, who has been arrested and charged with treason.
Some security analysts doubt that Mend can reach out to militant groups in the east, who are acting out their own localised strategies. But many Mend commanders talk of an impending attack in the eastern delta, where Royal Dutch Shell, Nigeria's largest oil producer, has already withdrawn some workers from remote oil facilities.
The ease with which the militants move in their own territory is obvious. “We want development!” screams one militant on a boat as it speeds past a large tanker heading towards oil export terminals, while close by nervous soldiers guard oil facility jetties.
Impoverished local communities nearby, where oil slicks wash on to fishing nets, say they are bearing the brunt of increasing military forays against the militants. In Ogbodubogbo, a small community, villagers complain of attacks from helicopter gunships. Other villagers elsewhere are keen to get the most publicity from the hostage crisis.
“I plead to white men to talk to the federal government to talk to the white men who have been in charge of [oil companies] Chevron and Shell,” says Pius Iyadongha, a 23-year-student, as an orange gas flare burns in the distance.

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