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War in Nigeria

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Fiendish terrain presents daunting task

By Matthew Green

Published: September 23 2008 19:26 | Last updated: September 23 2008 19:26

Unshaven, with the strap of his combat helmet dangling past his chin, Uche Nnabuihe, a Nigerian paratroop captain, wears the hollowed-out look of a soldier who has seen bad and expects worse.

Holed up in a remote creek in the Niger Delta, guarding an oil-rig belonging to Chevron, the US energy giant, he has ordered his platoon to fill sandbags to reinforce the two-storey houseboat the company provides.

But he takes evident pride in recounting how his outpost fought off an attack a few nights before by men who roared out of the darkness in seven speedboats to strafe their position with gunfire and rockets.

”We are good to go. My boys are rugged,” he told the Financial Times, as the sun began to set over the wall of jungle across the water. Then he shouted: “All the way airborne!” and they yelled a war cry of: “Ahua! Ahua! Ahua!”

Nigeria’s army rarely opens its positions to reporters, but officers are so frustrated with the internet publicity campaign waged by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend) that they invited the FT to inspect the forces defending Nigeria’s oil production.

The trip revealed less about the truth of conflicting claims on casualties than it did about the scale of the task the military faces in hunting down the 2,000-3,000 gunmen it believes are active in Rivers State.

Seen from a helicopter, the terrain looks like the ideal place to film a Hollywood re-make of the Vietnam war: swamps dotted with the spidery root systems of half-submerged mangroves. Looped with river formations culled from every page of the geography textbook, the delta resembles the most fiendish maze nature ever devised.

As the helicopter comes into land at the first stop-off – a facility run by Royal Dutch Shell – the virtually deserted complex feels distinctly eerie. All non-essential staff have been evacuated and only a few workers in orange boiler suits have remained since an attack a few days earlier. Suraj Lawal, a lieutenant in charge of the defences, is nevertheless dismissive of his foes.

“Let everybody just relax their mind. It’s just their propaganda, they exaggerate everything,” he said. “With the way we hit them I believe they will rethink and lay down their arms.”

It is difficult to verify independently anything the Nigerian army says in the Niger Delta – where security forces have detained a number of foreign journalists who have attempted to visit the creeks this year. The military’s sudden willingness to allow soldiers to act as spokesmen is in some respects a testament to the success of the propaganda war waged by its opponents.

Mend has driven the news agenda by using a free Yahoo e-mail account to post claims of attacks shortly after they are carried out. Even threats to attack have routinely pushed up oil prices.

Sarkin-Yaki Bello, the brigadier-general in command in Rivers State, says he has studied river campaigns from the 19th-century Seminole wars fought by the US army against native Americans in Florida to the cocaine-fuelled insurgency in Colombia, but he will need to employ some imaginative officers to match Mend’s purple prose.

“We are like mosquitoes, and come out only at night to suck the blood from the oil majors,” Mend said in a recent e-mail to the FT.

Mend often peppers its statements with calls for a fairer share of Nigeria’s oil wealth for the delta. But Gen Bello said such claims masked the group’s true nature as what he described as a criminal racket based on the industrial-scale stealing of crude.

Behind the war of words, both sides are more complex than they look. Parts of the military have long colluded with the militants in the multi-billion dollar oil theft industry. Politicians seeking thugs to intimidate opponents at elections in 2003 helped create the gangs now active in Rivers, leading many to wonder whether last week’s upsurge in violence might be linked to a power struggle in state-level politics.

Staring at the oil-rig rearing out of the channel, Captain Nnabuihe said he had asked Chevron to donate spotlights so his men could see where to shoot. “They keep promising,” he said. “But we’ve not seen the promise.”

EDITOR’S CHOICE

Nigeria president replaces military chiefs – Aug-21

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008

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