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Nigeria turns fresh fire on oil militants

Financial Times

By Matthew Green

Published: June 1 2009 03:00 | Last updated: June 1 2009 03:00

Speeding up river in a gunboat, Sarkin-Yaki Bello, the general in charge of chasing militants from the Niger Delta, cannot resist a touch of bravado in his message to his number one suspect. “You can run,” he says, above the roar of twin, 225 horsepower engines, “but you can’t hide.”

Escorted by a flotilla of navy vessels, the commander’s journey into the swamps certainly feels like a victory tour – albeit one protected by enough firepower to fight off a small army.

Two weeks ago, the jungle-flanked expanse of Chanomi Creek was the undisputed fiefdom of Government Ekpemupolo – alias Tompolo – a militant leader so powerful he seemed untouchable.

That changed on May 15, when General Bello ordered helicopters to smash Camp Five, Mr Ekpemupolo’s riverside base. The fusillade ripped off roofs and shattered windows. Bullet holes riddled a huge plasma screen television. As troops closed in, Mr Ekpemupolo fled into the creeks.

The attack marks an escalation in the force used in the simmering conflict in the Niger Delta. It has opened a debate over whether military means alone can defeat the militants menacing Africa’s biggest oil industry.

For years, the answer appeared to be ‘no’. A task force of army, navy and air force seemed powerless to stop attacks that have cut Nigeria’s oil production to half the 2.5m barrels per day achieved in 2005.

Gen Bello’s attack on Camp Five is an attempt to rewrite the script. The overwhelming firepower and deployment of large numbers of troops has fuelled speculation that he has made the first move in an endgame to neutralise the militants’ leaders.

The big oil companies will be watching. Last week, saboteurs retaliated by blowing up pipelines belonging to Chevron, whose Escravos oil export terminal is 20 minutes by speedboat from Camp Five. Royal Dutch Shell is still affected by -devastating attacks in Mr Ekpemupolo’s native Delta State in 2006.

By handing out mug shots of Mr Ekpemupolo and branding him a wanted man, Gen Bello has reinforced the impression that his task is a police action. Yet a visit to Camp Five reveals that the conflict is more than a showdown between a more assertive military and a motley crew of militants.

Unless Umaru Yar’Adua, Nigeria’s president, can deliver a coherent political and economic strategy to tackle the deep-rooted grievances that provide such fertile soil for armed groups, then many here believe that pounding camps will do little more than treat the symptoms of insecurity rather than tackle the cause.

A first glance at Camp Five suggests Gen Bello has blown up the offices of an armed entrepreneur. A jet ski lies abandoned on the beach. A bottle of Rémy Martin Cognac Champagne rolls around outside one of the broken houses.

Mr Ekpemupolo typifies the mix of political and commercial motives that drive many delta factions. He championed his Ijaw community in conflicts with their Itsekiri rivals in the 1990s and earned popular support by articulating grievances against oil companies and the government.

Protected by senior Delta State politicians, he evolved into a key figure in the multimillion dollar oil theft industry – in which the military was also involved – using the proceeds to fund his private army. He is regarded as a devotee of Egbesu, the Ijaw God of War, using rituals to inspire loyalty. In the woods outside Camp Five, male and female dolls stand in a palm-frond shrine. A goat skull lies in cold ashes at the foot of a gilt throne.

Finding out how people living in the nearby village of Oporoza feel is problematic because the population has fled the offensive. The silence is a reminder of the challenge confronting troops conducting any counter-insurgency: winning over civilians who might have little choice but to support their enemy.

Gen Bello argues that local leaders must have been collaborators. His helicopters strafed the chiefs’ palace in Oporoza. The two larger-than-life golden figurines of Spartan-style warriors with raised swords that guarded the gate have been felled at the ankle.

Many deltans would applaud if Mr Ekpemupolo and other militant leaders met a similar fate. Yet experience of past offensives suggests lasting peace may hinge on Mr Yar’Adua’s ability to convince communities – and the gunmen who live among them – that he has more to offer than bullets.

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