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The Observer: Crude awakening, part two

For decades, the oil-rich delta of the Niger river has been plundered by western companies and rampant political corruption. But now a small group of ruthless Ijaw tribesmen are threatening to sabotage production unless their demands for compensation are met. Sebastian Junger heads into the secretive mangrove swamps to meet the waterborne warriors who are prepared to trigger a global meltdown

Sunday April 15, 2007

On 10 November 1995 an Ogoni author named Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other anti-Shell activists were hanged by the Abacha government on trumped-up charges of incitement to murder. Saro-Wiwa had been a driving force in the formation of a group called the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People – Mosop – which had taken a stand against environmental damage caused by the oil industry and the uncompensated appropriation of Ogoni land for oil drilling. Ignored by the Nigerian government, Mosop petitioned Shell and the other oil companies directly. They wanted $10bn in accumulated royalties and environmental-damage compensation, and a greater say in future oil exploration. Again ignored, Saro-Wiwa organised mass protests that managed to shut down virtually all oil production in Ogoniland. It was a severe blow not only to the oil industry but to the system of corruption and patronage it had spawned, and the Nigerian military reacted with predictable brutality.

‘Shell operations still impossible unless ruthless military operations are undertaken,’ the commander of the Rivers State Internal Security Task Force wrote to his superior on 12 May 1994. The memo went on to suggest ‘wasting operations during Mosop and other gatherings, making constant military presence justifi able’. (The memorandum was leaked to the press, though its authenticity was questioned by Shell.) Nine days later, the military moved into Ogoniland in force. They razed 30 villages, arrested hundreds of protesters, and killed an estimated 2,000 people. Four Ogoni chiefs were murdered during the chaos – possibly by government sympathisers – and the military used their deaths as a pretext to arrest the top Mosop leaders. Saro-Wiwa was subjected to a sham trial and condemned to death. Before he was hanged, his last words were, ‘Lord take my soul, but the struggle continues.’
Indeed it did. The next major outbreak of violence occurred in 1998, when several Ijaw groups tried to duplicate Mosop’s strategies by declaring Ijaw territory off limits to the Nigerian military and demanding a stop to all oil extraction. Their rebellion was called Operation Climate Change. Within days, the Nigerian military saturated the delta and Bayelsa state with up to 15,000 soldiers and commenced a series of attacks that resulted in dozens – if not hundreds – of civilian deaths. Ijaw militants retaliated by shutting off and destroying oil wellheads in their area, and over the next several years an armed militancy evolved that the government was unable to contain. Fighting also broke out between diff erent armed factions – many of which were hired by politicians to intimidate local rivals – and in 2004 an Ijaw leader named Mujahid Dokubu-Asari retreated into the creeks to wage ‘all-out war’ against the government and the oil companies. His statement helped drive New York oil-futures prices above $50 for the fi rst time ever.

Asari was a convert to Islam and had briefly worried US authorities by expressing his admiration for Osama bin Laden. His overriding concern, however, was control of the oil resources of the Niger delta. One form of control, according to Asari, was simply stealing back the oil that he believes has been stolen from the Ijaw. In Nigeria, stealing oil is called ‘bunkering’, and it is huge business; by some estimates, 10 per cent of the oil exported from Nigeria every year – several billion dollars’ worth – is actually bunkered.

The safest way to bunker oil is essentially to bribe people into letting you steal it. Vastly more dangerous, and common, is tapping crude directly out of the pipelines themselves. Light sweet crude is extremely volatile, so metal-on-metal contact can touch off a massive explosion. Bunkerers start by building a temporary enclosure around a small section of underwater pipe, pumping the water out and then drilling a hole into the steel casing that contains the crude. They then fit the hole with a short pipe and valve and let the creek water back in to the enclosure so that the apparatus is under water, and therefore hidden from inspectors. As the crude moves through the pipeline under a pressure of 600lb per square inch it takes only a few hours to fill up a 1,000-tonne barge. The barge is then moved offshore to a transport ship – an operation vastly simplified by renting the Nigerian military.

‘Most of the soldiers are paid 15,000 naira [$100] a month, so you go to the military man and say, “I want to make you richer,”‘ a bunkerer in Warri told me. He had just worked all night moving bunkered oil; the work had probably netted his boss $100,000. ‘You say, “This pipe will bring money; every night you will work here.” Then they will guard you. We give them five months’ salary in a single night. Every time they bring in new people we make new friends.’

This man claimed the federal government could easily stop bunkering if it wanted to, but local offi cials are making so much money from it that they would revolt. Ideally, he’d like to get out of the business. ‘There’s so much risk in bunkering – fire risk, water risk, ambush risk. What I want to do is work for the oil companies as a production supervisor,’ he said. ‘I’m just bunkering until I get a job. There are plenty of people here with degrees in petroleum engineering who can’t get jobs. They’re off ered positions by the bunkerers, so of course they take them.’

Bunkering would not be possible without guns – militant groups are constantly fi ghting one another over access – and of course those guns are bought with oil money. The most impressive weapons I saw were Czech-made Rachot UK-68s that looked like they had just been unpacked from their crates. Rachots are highly portable general-purpose machine guns that can also be mounted on tripodsfor use against aircraft; they are not the sort of second-hand weapons commonly found in west African war zones. Someone brought those in with a special purpose in mind. ‘Their supplies seem to be unending,’ an arms expert named Dr Sofi ri Joab-Peterside told me in his office in Port Harcourt. ‘The police have to count the rounds that they use – they don’t have more than 10 or 15 each. The militants have belt-fed guns that can sustain action for 20 minutes. That, too, is a problem.’

According to another contact of mine – a man who freely associates with the militants – the most recent arms shipment was 300 Russian-made AK-47s, built in 1969 but never used, that came from Moscow via London. He also said that in early October a South African businessman unloaded a ship full of weapons in the creeks in exchange for bunkered oil, which he then sold on the international market. Nigerian soldiers who have recently returned from peacekeeping missions in Liberia and Sierra Leone are known to sell their guns, he told me, as are soldiers currently stationed in the delta. There are even rumours of floating weapons bazaars – freighters fi lled with guns – anchored off the Nigerian coast. All you have to do is pull up in your boat with cash.

The original concerns of activists such as Ken Saro-Wiwa were environmental degradation of the delta from oil spills, and the extreme poverty and backwardness of the villages. Twoand- a-half million barrels of crude spilled or leaked into the delicate riverine environment between 1986 and 1996, resulting in wholesale devastation of the fi sh stocks most villagers rely on. Flaring of excess natural gas has produced a blighting acid rain in the mangrove swamps, and freshwater even around wells that have been capped for years is still so polluted with hydrocarbons that it cannot be drunk safely. But people still drink it.

The costs of fully protecting the delicate delta ecology are almost incalculable. Once the militants participate in crime, however, the Nigerian government can dismiss the entire movement. ‘I recently directed the Nigerian security services to arrest and prosecute persons responsible for kidnapping … under whatever guise the criminals and terrorists carry out these dangerous acts,’ President Olusegun Obasanjo declared in August 2006. Further complicating the issue is that much of the oil pollution in the creeks is from sloppy bunkering operations – which villagers then use as a basis for further claims of environmental damage to the delta. Shell recently appealed against a decision by the Nigerian courts that ordered it to pay $1.5bn to the Ijaw people in compensation for environmental damage to the delta. Under the current system, everyone involved in the oil business – from corrupt government offi cials to military commanders to the militants themselves – makes vastly more money than he or she would in a transparent economy. And the bunkered oil isn’t lost to the market; it simply becomes an additional tax borne by the oil companies for doing business in Nigeria.

The brutal functionality of this system started to break down in January 2006, when Mend arrived on the scene. Mend was not simply another bunkering cartel; it renewed the grievances first voiced by Ken Saro-Wiwa and began to seriously disrupt the flow of oil . ‘We are not communists or even revolutionaries,’ Jomo commented by email to a journalist. ‘We’re just extremely bitter men.’

The formation of Mend seems to have been triggered by the arrest of Mujahid Dokubu-Asari in September 2005. Asari had threatened to ‘dismember’ Nigeria, which smelled enough like treason for the Obasanjo government to fi nally go after him. The fi rst Mend attack came four months later and was soon followed by emails from Jomo Gbomo demanding the release of both Asari and Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, the Bayelsa state governor charged with corruption. (Alamieyeseigha is Ijaw and was closely connected to Asari.) The first four oil workers kidnapped by Mend were lectured for 19 days on the poverty and environmental degradation of the delta. More than ransom money, the militants said they wanted all foreigners to leave their territory. In other words, they wanted control of their oil.

A former hostage whom I talked to (who did not want to be identified ) reported essentially the same experience. He was a contract pilot for Shell who was taken from a landing platform in 2000 and held for two weeks. He was never physically abused or threatened, though he did worry that he might eventually get malaria and die. ‘Their grievances are legitimate,’ this man told me. ‘It’s just that those who do the kidnapping don’t necessarily do it for the community. There’s no water in these communities, no education, no medical facilities whatsoever. To be out in the swamp without any electricity or drinking water – of course they’re upset.’

We were sitting at an open-air bar inside the Shell compound near Warri. It was early evening, and bats fl itted through fl oodlights that illuminated a tennis court. On the other side of the compound’s fence was a local village that had been plunged into darkness. ‘The host community here,’ the man waved at the ramshackle houses, ‘they are without electricity for days sometimes. This is obscene. They are looking through the fence at golf courses and tennis courts where the floodlights are on at midnight. Why not throw them an electric line? I mentioned it to someone at Shell. I said, “Why not? You’ve got the turbines! Let there be light!” He said, “If we do that, they’ll all want that.”‘

After his release, the pilot was repatriated and immediately came down with malaria. While recovering, he received a letter from the lead militant of the group that kidnapped him. It was directed to his wife and children, and even had a return address. ‘I apologise for kidnapping your husband and father,’ the letter read. ‘I did it because of Shell. I am born again and I will not do it again. I should be forgiven.’

‘They used light plastic speedboats with 75hp engines,’ the man said. ‘They take the top off the engine to get more cooling. They know exactly what they’re doing. The army will never have a chance.’

This is why oil is so valuable: one tank of petrol from a typical SUV has the energy equivalent of more than 60,000 man-hours of work – roughly 100 men working around the clock for nearly a month. But easily accessible reserves are running dry, which means that the industry must develop increasingly ingenious – and costly – techniques for getting at the oil. Deepwater drilling, for example, now happens so far offshore that rigs can no longer be anchored to the sea bed; they must be held in place by an array of propellers, each the size of a two-car garage. The cost of deepwater drilling is close to twice that in shallow water. As a result, oil is one of the few commodities with virtually no surplus production; just about every drop that gets pumped gets used. The world currently goes through 84m barrels a day, a figure that is expected to rise to almost 120m barrels in the next 25 years. Thus far, nearly half of the proven, exploitable oil reserves in the world have been used up. Barring the discovery of new reserves or new drilling technology, some experts predict the world will run out of oil by 2040.

Added to these technological problems is the fact that most of the world’s oil reserves happen to be in politically unstable parts of the world. (The alternative theory is that oil exploitation tends to destabilise underdeveloped countries.) Because of the financial risks involved, oil reserves in politically stable countries have more value, per barrel, than oil in politically unstable countries. As we speak, the value of Nigerian oil – as a function of the capital investment that must be risked to produce it – is in steady decline.

That is Mend’s trump card. It has several times threatened to shut down all Nigerian oil production, but it’s possible Mend doesn’t quite dare, because of the chance it will provoke a military retaliation it wouldn’t survive. By the same token, the Nigerian military has threatened to sweep the delta with overwhelming force, but it doesn’t know whether that might force Mend to carry out one devastating counterstrike – taking out the Bonny Island liquefi ed natural gas facility with a shoulder-fi red rocket, for example. An act of sabotage on this scale could drive Shell and the other oil companies from Nigeria for good, completely wiping out the national economy. One major company, Willbros, has already discontinued operations in Nigeria because of the security threat.

Two weeks after our first trip to the creeks, Jomo Gbomo told me by email that he would arrange for Mend to take us into its camp. It was deep in the mangrove swamps, and he said that no journalist had ever been there. Allegedly, the only foreigners who have ever seen the Mend camps were hostages.

We hired a boat at the Port Harcourt waterfront and headed south into the creeks, hoping not to run into any Nigerian gunboats. We had the feeling that the authorities knew what we were up to, and it seemed like an encounter that would end badly. We passed a few fishing villages and a flow station and two gas flares, and then we swung into the broad expanse of Cawthorne Channel. Twenty miles to the east, wobbling in the heat shimmer, was the Bonny Island LNG facility. The rumour in Port Harcourt was that Mend was planning to blow it up. A wind had come up, and we banged our way southward into a hard chop and fi nally swerved into one of the nameless creeks, and ran our boat into the village where we’d been two weeks earlier.

Calls went out, and half an hour later a boatful of raggedly dressed militants pulled into the landing, and we climbed on board. We continued south for a while, almost to open ocean, then plunged back into the mangrove up a creek that got narrower and narrower until we had to duck to avoid getting hit by branches. We passed under a talisman strung between two trees, and minutes later we were at the camp. Every tree, it seemed, had a man behind it with a gun pointed at our heads.

Mike and I stepped out on to land and were immediately blessed by a man who dipped a handful of leaves into what might have been palm wine and splashed us twice. No one blesses someone before killing him, I thought. The camp was a rough wood barracks hidden in the trees with a few nylon tents scattered around. There was a small generator and a satellite hook-up for television. There were two Egbesu shrines. The men had stocking masks on their faces with leaves sticking out of the eye slits, and they watched our every move through the slits, though they had stopped pointing their guns at us. Some of the militants couldn’t have been 15 years old. They carried old British guns from the colonial days and ugly little sub-machine guns with the clips sticking out to the side – and the big belt-fed Rachot machine guns that Nigerian soldiers are so scared of. We walked through the camp rubber-kneed and weak, or at least I did. Their leader was named Brutus and he sat on a wooden bench. He motioned me to take a seat next to him, and I opened my notebook and sat down. His men surrounded us in a semicircle with guns cocked at all angles.

‘I have been instructed by Jomo to answer any question you have,’ he said. ‘And to let you take any pictures you want. The Nigerian government has been marginalising the people who have the resources of this country. We are deprived of our rights. This time around we don’t even want to wait for them to attack. When the order is given we can go ahead and crumble whoever we can crumble, because we don’t die; we live by the grace of God. If one man remains, that man can win the cause – that is my own belief.’

I had heard this before, that the delta was bracing for a wave of attacks – rumoured to include car bombings, assassinations and hostage-taking. I asked Brutus what was going to happen next. ‘The first phase was just a test run for the equipment,’ he assured me. ‘Soon the real violence will be let loose. We are waiting for the orders from above and we won’t waste an hour … This is modern-day slavery. They have killed so many people in the struggle. The government will attack us, but we are very ready for them. We are just waiting for orders from above. Then we will move.’ Brutus looked at me through the eyeholes of his mask. ‘When the Nigerian man moves,’ he said, ‘nothing can stop him.’,,2055423,00.html and its sister non-profit websites,,,,,, and are owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia feature.

1 Comment on “The Observer: Crude awakening, part two”

  1. #1 barbara smith
    on Feb 24th, 2008 at 14:22

    I am sorry to say this i am 59 years old – not sorry abourt being 59 what i am sorry about is that we are controlled by thieves – ie: oil – gas prices. i am sorry that we allow them to continue to rule our lives they are nothing but another bonnie and clyde- we just allow them to get away with this kind of behaviour because they say they GOVERNMENT AND THEY KNOW WHAT IS BEST. HA we are a sorry bunch of folks who allow this to continue.

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