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The Observer: Death rules the delta in battle to control oil

Kidnappings and ethnic war in Nigeria have one root cause – oil. The power struggles and corruption that flow from it have claimed thousands of lives. Eleven years after his own father was killed there, Ken Wiwa reports from the Niger Delta on the persistent conflict that is tearing the country apart
Sunday March 5, 2006
In a hotel in the city of Warri in southern Nigeria, a mobile phone rings impatiently. Even at six in the morning the city is roasting under a fierce sun. Warri is waking up to another hard day in its hard history. Populated mainly by three ethnic groups, it has been the theatre for the fierce rivalry and drama that animates the Itshekiri, Urhobo and Ijaw. Money has since been poured onto this smouldering ethnic fire from the proceeds of oil, turning the city into an industrial beast with the character of a frontier town.
At the end of the phone is a deep baritone voice. 'I am Adams of Mend,' the caller says, revealing himself as a member of the newly notorious militia, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta.
A few minutes after the call a new okada pulls up outside the hotel. A short young man steps off the small motorbike. 'Please come mister journalist, I know you,' he calls out, 'I am Adams of Mend.'
After a short bike ride and a two-hour speedboat journey, we arrive at a small village community to the west of Warri. As the boat comes to a stop, about 25 men emerge from a house, armed with AK 47 rifles and with rocket-fired grenades wrapped around their waists.
The insurgents don't bother to hide their identity. They are polite and friendly. At a thatched house in the community, which they insist on calling a 'camp', the militants showcase their arsenal, repeatedly insisting that they are prepared to go to war.
The history, politics and culture of the Niger River Delta is as rich, complex and intricate as the ecology of the Africa's largest floodplain. The delta covers an area of dense rainforest, sand ridges, mangrove forests and swamps with a labyrinthine distribution of tidal channels, streams, rivers and creeks. Rich in natural resources such as timber, coal, palm oil, natural gas and crude oil, it is also one of the most densely populated areas of the globe and one of the world's largest wetlands. And it is virtually impossible to patrol.
This rich but fragile ecosystem is often described as the heart and lungs of Nigeria and, since oil was discovered there in 1956, the region has delivered some $300bn to Nigeria's treasury.
It is the revenue from oil that keeps the 400 or so ethnic groups known as Nigeria together. Without it, the country might already have split. The kola nut that binds the agreement at the heart of the Nigerian constitution is known as the 'derivation formula'.
At independence in 1960, each of Nigeria's three regions was entitled to half the revenue from minerals found there, with the balance going to the federal government. Over the next 30 years fiscal chicanery reduced the formula so that the regions received as little as 1.3 per cent; central government got the rest.
In the Nineties my father, Ken Saro-Wiwa, stoked the embers of Niger Delta politics, agitating for a greater share of federal oil revenue. There had been a history of groups and movements demanding a greater share of the resources, the struggles alternating between violent and non-violent. One such movement, led by an Ijaw army officer, Isaac Boro, declared a Federal Republic of Niger Delta in 1966. It lasted 12 days. Boro was killed in mysterious circumstances during the Nigerian civil war but his memory has periodically fanned the flames of Niger Deltans and especially those of his Ijaw peoples who are the largest ethnic group in the region and the fourth-largest in Nigeria.
During his lifetime my father proselytised on behalf of the region but it wasn't until he anchored his political philosophy to the rights of the Ogoni that he attracted national and then global attention to the problems of the delta. His adoption of a non-violent approach was met with state violence by the then ruling military regime of General Sani Abacha.
In my father's final statement to the tribunal that convicted him in October 1995, he wrote: 'I predict that a denouement of the riddle of the Niger Delta will soon come. The agenda is being set at this trial. Whether the peaceful ways I have favoured will prevail depends on what the oppressor decides, what signals it sends out to the waiting public.'
It may come as a surprise to the visitor but Port Harcourt is known as the 'garden city'. Once a quiet, leafy place on the Atlantic coast, now the city's streets and neighbourhoods are a study in the challenges of governing Nigeria. The city's okada drivers and mass transit drivers appear to obey only one rule: to defy common sense and traffic regulations whenever possible. Despite road users' worst intentions, the Port Harcourt traffic is approaching manageable proportions and the city is enjoying a relatively peaceful dry season – but most people here are aware that the respite may be temporary. All the ingredients for civil strife are in the air: the city is not far from Owerri, scene of bloodshed over the Danish cartoons. Every week people pour in from Warri and the western Niger Delta, fleeing the upsurge in violence. Foreigners increasingly employ armed guards.
Almost as unquantifiable and uncontrollable as the delta itself is the informal network of armed youths who claim to be fighting for the emancipation of the Niger Delta.Their exact origins, size and operations are not easy to gauge. The lack of employment and career opportunities tempted many young graduates and unemployed youths into criminal syndicates.
A recent addition to criminal activities is oil bunkering – siphoning oil from pipelines onto barges, which are then sold on the high seas. Official estimates suggest that Nigeria loses 100,000 barrels daily through oil bunkering. The lucrative practice is rumoured to involve the complicity of oil company employees and highly placed government officials.
The full story is waiting to be told. Thus far only two naval officers have being held in connection with bunkering but it is an open secret among youths here that the 'business' is an alliance of mutually beneficial arrangements between officials, soldiers, ex-soldiers and the militias. If the business is shrouded in clandestine operations, the chain of violence is clear enough: Human Rights Watch says that oil bunkering is responsible for fuelling the gang-related violence in the delta that killed 1,000 Nigerians in 2004.
Port Harcourt and the eastern Niger Delta may be relatively calm – due to the non-violence that the Ogoni advocated – but there is a deeper irony in that much of the current instability in the Niger Delta can be traced to armed gangs that mushroomed and thrived there.
Beyond belonging to a mutual admiration society, Osama bin Laden and Niger Delta militia leader Alhaji Asari Dokubo have one other thing in common: the global oil markets respond to their actions. Asari Dokubo gained his notoriety in 2004 when his threat to blow up all oil facilities in the delta sent oil prices soaring above $50 for the first time. Calling his group the Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force(NDPVF), Asari Dokubo claimed right up to his arrest in September 2005 that he had 10,000 men ready to reclaim the resources of the Niger Delta for its people.
Whether or not the figures are correct, the reality is that the NDPVF is a decentralised amalgam of groups working in cells that are connected only by a common ambition. For a time Asari Dokubo was clearly the leader but his star peaked after sending oil prices past the $50 barrier and waned once the Bush administration encouraged the Nigerian government to broker an arms for cash deal with the NDPVF.
The 'deal' is said to have caused some disagreements within the NDPVF, leading to the creation of the breakaway faction operating as Mend. Although the NDPVF's fortunes appear to be linked to the personality of Asari Dokubo, last week's demands by Mend that Asari Dokubo be freed would suggest that the network is intact and perhaps working under an umbrella movement.
Tackling oil bunkering is the nettle that needs to be grasped and government efforts to do so led, indirectly and unintentionally, to the recent spate of hostage taking and kidnappings.
If President Obasanjo had hoped that a Joint Military Task Force would cut off the supply of oil, arms and money to the militia, he will be disappointed by the results so far. Reports suggest that, rather than enforcing the peace, the activities of some members of the JTF, as the task force is known, have created resentment among local people and the militia.
'When we saw they were involved [in oil bunkering] the boys got angry,' one youth told us last week. 'Why should they take away the oil when they are not even from here?'
Other reports accuse the soldiers of taking over the lucrative boat rental business to oil companies, which used to be the preserve of local operators. 'Because of JTF, we are almost unemployed now. Officers go to the oil companies and supply them boats for security patrol. We charge less but the oil companies prefer them because of their military connection,' an operator told a reporter from one Nigerian newspaper.
The latest sequence of events began on 11 January when Mend militants stormed a Shell oil vessel and took four foreigners on board hostage. Mend made a three-pronged demand: the release of Asari Dokubo; freedom for the impeached Bayelsa State Governor, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, who is on trial on money laundering charges; and payment of $1.5bn approved by the Nigerian Senate as compensation from Shell to communities affected by oil spills.
Four days later in a show of strength Mend militia attacked two houseboats, killing 15 JTF soldiers. Two weeks later Mend announced the release of the hostages on humanitarian grounds – and three communities were attacked by a JTF helicopter gunship. The JTF claimed the attacks were meant to stamp out oil bunkering but insiders insist that they were reprisal raids. Nine more hostages were taken in response to these attacks and, although six of them have since been released, the militia have vowed to fight on until the federal government meets their demands.
'We are continuing with our attacks on oil facilities and oil workers. We will act without further warning,' they said.
So far they have not fulfilled their promise but the country is holding its breath. Oil markets are jittery and, although the situation appears to be contained in the delta for now, this being Nigeria, anything is possible.
· Additional reporting by Barry Nalley

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