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Time Magazine: Nigeria’s Deadly Days

The country’s poverty-stricken, oil-rich south is accustomed to vandalism and pipeline explosions, but a new threat is raising the stakes. Inside the Delta’s insurgency

By SIMON ROBINSON / OPOROZA
(Story from 14 May 2006 being added to Royal Dutch Plc .com searchable archive)

EXTRACT: Militant attacks have cut production by 20%, hitting companies such as Royal Dutch Shell, and costing the oil majors and Nigeria hundreds of millions of dollars. “There used to be clashes and other problems, but in the past five or six months things have gotten much more serious…”

THE ARTICLE

Teeming with bird and marine life, giant ferns and towering mangrove plants whose roots straddle land and water like the legs of lumbering animals, the creeks and swamps of the Niger Delta lie over one of the biggest reserves of oil on the planet: 34 billion bbl. of black gold.

The region, a watery maze flung across 50,000 sq km in southern Nigeria, is also home to some of Africa’s poorest people, and some of its worst environmental destruction. There are villages without power, water, health clinics or schools; pipelines that scar the earth; oil slicks that shimmer on rivers; flares that blaze bright and loud, burning off the gas that gushes to the surface along with the sweet crude.

So poor are most who live in the Delta that some are prepared to risk their lives for a bucketful of fuel. Last week, more than 150 people died when an oil pipeline on the outskirts of Nigeria’s biggest city, Lagos, west of the Delta, exploded in a massive fireball. The inferno left dozens of bodies charred beyond recognition. Police say that the explosion was most likely caused by vandalism. The pipeline, which ran under a beach, had been uncovered. Small holes had been drilled in it through which thieves could tap off fuel. The leaking pipeline had attracted local villagers who were filling containers when it blew. Nigeria’s Red Cross said that the explosion ignited hundreds of cans full of fuel.

Yet incidents like last week’s tragedy are not the greatest danger to Nigeria’s oil industry. Nigerians have long vandalized pipelines, and some of the operations are organized and professional. In the Delta, gangs of bandits have prowled the brackish swamps for years, stealing oil, harassing oil workers and making millions of dollars. But over the past few months an even deadlier threat has emerged. Frustrated that they remain poor after decades of oil production, locals have begun attacking foreign oil companies, their workers and the Nigerian soldiers who protect them — not, as in the past, for money, but as part of an armed campaign. Unless there is change, they say, there will be war. The government and oil companies “don’t listen to words,” Delta militia member Richard, 27, told Time three weeks ago, the dull roar of a gas flare in the background. “So perhaps they will understand the language of the gun.”

The nascent insurgency has made Nigeria’s oil fields among the most dangerous in the world — and helped push global oil prices past $72 bbl. Nigeria was meant to be part of the solution to the insatiable demands for more oil from the U.S. and fast-growing China and India. When the country returned to civilian rule under President Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999, it was pumping around 1.8 million bbl. a day. Daily capacity had expanded to 2.5 million bbl. before the recent attacks; Nigeria is now the sixth biggest oil exporter in the world. Western oil companies, eager for a supply from outside the Middle East, want to increase production from Africa.

On a visit to Nigeria three weeks ago, Chinese President Hu Jintao signed deals to increase Chinese exploration and production. But Nigeria’s role as a stable producer has taken a hammering of late. Militant attacks have cut production by 20%, hitting companies such as Royal Dutch Shell, and costing the oil majors and Nigeria hundreds of millions of dollars. “There used to be clashes and other problems, but in the past five or six months things have gotten much more serious,” says Manouchehr Takin, senior analyst at the Centre for Global Energy Studies, a London-based consultancy. While it’s impossible to work out exactly how much that contributes to rising oil prices compared to the crisis over Iran and increasing demand, Takin says production losses in the Delta are “a major factor” in the high price of gas.

The militants’ campaign kicked off on Jan. 11 when three speedboats packed with gun-toting men attacked a Nigerian navy boat and a vessel leased by Shell. No one was killed. But the attackers, who said they were part of a new group called the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (mend), kidnapped four foreign contractors. Since then the group, which numbers just a few hundred people, according to a local human-rights campaigner and militant members, has kidnapped at least eight more foreign oil workers and attacked several oil installations, killing some 14 Nigerian soldiers posted to guard them. In the past month, militants have also exploded two car bombs as “warnings” of coming chaos. When I set off with three guides in a cigar-shaped fiberglass boat into the swamps last month, a Nigerian naval officer aboard a warship in the port city of Warri warned me not to go on. “Even we don’t go there,” he said, motioning along the Warri River. Then he slowly drew a finger across his throat.

Downriver, it’s easy to see the cause of this deadly hostility. Since the 1950s, when oil was first found in recoverable quantities, the Delta and the waters off Nigeria’s coast in the Gulf of Guinea have made the country and oil majors such as Chevron, Agip, ExxonMobil and Shell hundreds of billions of dollars. Nigeria currently earns more than $3 billion a month from oil — which accounts for some 95% of its export earnings and 40% of its gdp. But the vast majority of the people of the Delta still live in severe and visible poverty.

One of the first activists to speak out against this imbalance was businessman, TV writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, from the Ogoni region, east of Nigeria’s oil capital Port Harcourt. Saro-Wiwa preached nonviolence, but Nigeria’s then military government charged him with having “counseled and procured” the murder of four Ogoni elders, and in 1995 hanged him, to international condemnation. Despite the return to democracy and government promises to improve the lives of Delta dwellers, little has changed. Today in Oporoza — the traditional center of the Gbaramatu kingdom in whose backwaters, locals say, mend has its bases — villagers gather in a meeting hall and list their grievances. “Poverty is the major problem we are facing here,” says Odiki Miebi, a local chief.

True, some of the houses in the village are built of brick and concrete — much more substantial dwellings than the flimsy reed huts that are home to many people in the region. And there is a school, though it has been seriously vandalized, its rooms emptied of furniture donated by Shell. But the village, about 90 minutes from Warri by fast speedboat, is hardly thriving. A water tank installed about a decade ago doesn’t work, forcing people to scoop their water from a muddy hole. Worst of all, complains Macaulay Elekute, another elder, there are no local jobs.

Violence in the Delta is nothing new. Tribal conflict has plagued the region for years. Well-armed and organized gangs have been present almost as long as the oil companies, making tens of millions of dollars in “bunkering” operations in which oil is illegally siphoned off (and causing, oil companies have long maintained, most of the local environmental damage as a result). The gangsters have also extorted money by kidnapping oil workers and supplying “security” services in exchange for not attacking installations. In some ways, the situation has been exacerbated since Nigeria’s return to civilian rule. According to local lawyers and international human-rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and the London-based Stakeholder Democracy Network, ruling-party politicians have armed local youths — many of them gang members — to ensure that votes go their way. Weapons flooded the region before the 2003 poll, which in many parts of the Delta was less an election than an armed contest. Commonwealth observers found that in the Rivers state and other areas there was “serious violence, intimidation and vote rigging.” Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, one of the youth leaders armed by politicians, later turned on Nigeria’s security forces and engaged them in gun battles in the streets of Port Harcourt. After Dokubo-Asari called for the breakup of Nigeria last year he was arrested for treason — a charge he denies. Some of his followers are also mend members, according to activists in Port Harcourt and Onengiya Erekosima, spokesman for the political wing of Dokubo-Asari’s organization.

The latest wave of attacks, though, is different. The government dismisses mend and similar groups as the same criminal gangs responsible for bunkering and past attacks — and there is undoubtedly some crossover of membership. The region is awash with unemployed men; weapons are easy to find, either left over from the 2003 election or smuggled in by boat from neighboring countries. But the latest attacks appear to have been driven more by frustration and an ideology of armed resistance than by thoughts of criminal gain. While it is “very difficult to draw a line between the criminals and the so-called liberators,” according to Anyakwee Nsirimovu, a human-rights lawyer in Port Harcourt, “You do now have groups that articulate certain policies and ideas and principles.” Those principles — the oil belongs to us; give us development and compensation or get out — have been cemented by the Nigerian government’s handling of the crisis. Dokubo-Asari was little known when he began, say activists in Port Harcourt. But when he turned on the government he became a self-styled liberation leader. By jailing him, the government risks making him the martyr he says he is. mend has demanded his release.

A new ideological coloring to the attacks has been backed by increasingly sophisticated tactics. A car bomb just over two weeks ago, at an oil-truck stop in Warri, was activated by a cell phone and came just days after China’s Hu met with Nigeria’s leaders. The bomb was “the final warning” before fresh attacks on oil workers, storage facilities, bridges, offices and other “soft, oil-industry targets,” a mend official wrote in an e-mail to news organizations. But it was also, the e-mail said, a message to “the Chinese government and its oil companies to steer well clear of the Niger Delta. The Chinese government by investing in stolen crude places its citizens in our line of fire.”

Western companies have grown used to working with the threat of attack. But the dangers are increasing. U.S. oil executive Ricky Wiginton, 51, was shot dead in Port Harcourt by assailants riding a motorbike as he drove to work at drilling-equipment maker Baker Hughes last week, and a day later three oil workers with Italian oil contractor Saipem were kidnapped in the same city but later released. mend says it was not responsible for either act, but whoever is doing the killing has spooked the oil companies. Shell, which is by the far the largest operator in Nigeria, has been forced to evacuate staff and scale back operations in the past few months. Time asked representatives of a number of oil companies to comment for this story, but all declined interviews. In an e-mailed statement, a Chevron spokesman said, “We take the security of our people and facilities seriously, and for obvious reasons cannot discuss the measures we implement to mitigate these risks.” A Shell spokeswoman pointed to the company’s 2004 report entitled People and the Environment, which details the steps the company is taking to clean up environmental damage, train local employees in the Delta, build schools and health centers for local communities, and end the wasteful and destructive “flaring” of gas, as Nigeria’s government requires it to do by 2008. But a letter in the report from Shell’s local managing director Basil Omiyi conceded that the people of the Niger Delta “see few of the benefits” from oil.

Nigeria’s federal government has been promising to help the Delta for decades. But government bodies have come and gone with little progress. The latest, the Niger Delta Development Commission (nddc), was set up in 2000 to coordinate development activities in the region. Funded by the oil companies, which are required to give 3% of their local budgets to the nddc, and by Nigeria’s federal government, the Commission has about $235 million to spend every year. “That is peanuts compared to the problems of the area,” says the nddc’s head of corporate affairs, Anietie Usen. Projects are often delayed, he says, because the federal government is slow to cough up its share. Grandiose announcements, such as the unveiling by Obasanjo last month of plans to construct a $1.8 billion highway through the region and create 20,000 new jobs in the military, police and state oil companies, do little to appease feelings of neglect. “We have not received money from the federal government since last September. It makes things very difficult,” Usen told Time last month. Many see the nddc as mere window dressing. In March, a bomb was thrown into the car park of its Port Harcourt office, and plastic explosives were later smuggled into the building in an apparent attempt to blow it up.

Corruption doesn’t help. A Nigerian government audit of the oil industry last month showed discrepancies worth hundreds of millions of dollars between what oil companies say they paid the government and what authorities say they received. The federal government says it is tightening up its oversight. And there’s the problem of what state governments do with the money they receive from Abuja. Thanks to high oil prices, Rivers, one of the biggest oil-producing states, has seen its revenues increase. But many schools still don’t have furniture and roads are crumbling. Rivers’ Information Commissioner Magnus Abe says that “there are lots of things we are doing” to develop the state. “Things are changing — whether rapidly depends on how you look at it.” A copy of the 2006 state budget obtained by Time shows Government House overheads increasing from $38.6 million in 2005 to $81.1 million this year, while spending on salaries for state employees went up by less than the rate of inflation. Last year the state government bought two corporate jets (it says one of them is an air ambulance available for rent). Abe says that “it’s not nice to suggest” Rivers may be spending too much in certain areas. “I don’t think we can fight poverty by going back to live in caves,” he says. “We need aircraft for a variety of reasons.”

It would help matters if there was an effective opposition to enforce accountability. But in Rivers, Obasanjo’s ruling People’s Democratic Party fills every seat at both state and local level. Many frustrated citizens see next year’s elections as a chance to get rid of the party. But the poll could prove bloody. Human-rights lawyer Nsirimovu says opposition groups have realized “that AK-47s are a necessary ingredient in elections in the Niger Delta,” and will try to arm their own supporters in an attempt to counter ruling-party intimidation. “Then things will get really ugly.”

mend, too, is looking toward the election. A militant from the group who spoke with Time on condition of anonymity said that it would fight efforts by supporters of Obasanjo to change the constitution to allow the President to run for a third term — moves that last week looked as if they may be blocked by Nigerian lawmakers. But even if the war that Dokubo-Asari and others have threatened never comes to pass, the violence could get bad enough to force oil companies to close down more of their land-based installations and concentrate production offshore.

The militants’ campaign has widespread local support. One of the most popular new songs in the Delta describes a police raid on a house. A young man tells the police that he won’t go with them to the station and warns: “If you fire [shoot at] me, I fire you.” “There is overwhelming community sympathy for what they are doing,” says Ledum Mitee, a human-rights campaigner in Port Harcourt, who describes the Delta’s problems as “a crisis of frustration,” which he hopes can be solved without violence. “[The militants] are seen as people who can stand up to the oppressors.”

Mitee heads the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (mosop), the group founded by Saro-Wiwa. In January, he was asked to negotiate the release of the first hostages taken by mend. When Mitee arrived at the camp where the hostages were being held, he was shocked. “I consider myself a person who can speak on these issues — our problems and protests,” he says. “But getting there and seeing 200 to 300 young men in uniforms, machines guns, rocket launchers and ammunition” — Mitee moves his hands through the air in front of him making the shape of a heaping mound of ordnance — “I said, ‘God, so we have come to this.'”

Related Time Magazine Article

Nigeria: Big Oil’s Burden  
BY VIVIENNE WALT

Monday, Jan. 23, 2006

In the global scramble for energy, Nigeria is blessed. Its resources earn billions of dollars each year, and it bobs atop enough oil and gas reserves to ensure wealth for generations. Yet try telling that to impoverished villagers in the country’s Niger Delta region, where Royal Dutch Shell has drilled for nearly 50 years. “Look at this—the crops are stunted, the water is polluted,” rails Bari-Ara Kpalap, grabbing a wilted stalk of cassava as he stands ankle-deep in oily water. For Kpalap, a local activist, there is one obvious culprit: “A great part of our problems have been caused by Shell.”

Ten years have passed since Nigerian soldiers hanged activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others after protests targeting Shell’s operations turned violent. Today, the company—which has long maintained that pollution from its oil operations in the Delta is due largely to sabotage—is still struggling to regain the locals’ trust. Shell has a new strategy. After seeing millions of dollars from its contributions to development funds vanish in the hands of corrupt officials, Shell last month signed a four-year contract with village leaders that puts $7.7 million at their direct disposal. There is no shortage of worthy causes. The region is plagued by malaria and AIDS, and does not have enough schools or health clinics. “We have to do our part,” says Emanuel Etomi, who heads Shell’s sustainable-development unit in the Delta. Shareholders should be pleased, too: Etomi says winning friends is essential to safeguarding Shell’s pipelines and wellheads. Indeed, oil prices soared last week after the Delta’s rebels kidnapped four Shell workers and attacked three Shell facilities, shutting down more than 200,000 barrels a day of the Delta’s output.

Winning hearts and minds could take years, however. “We still do not trust Shell,” says Ledum Mitee, who runs the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, which Saro-Wiwa founded before being hanged. Mitee claims his members aren’t responsible for the latest attacks. He says Shell must apologize for its practices of the past and begin direct talks with activists. Until then, “this is a situation which is really prone to violence,” he says. With global oil supplies still tight, that’s a warning that producers and consumers around the world would do well to heed.

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