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Nigeria Moves to Oust Militants

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

JUNE 18, 2009

Rebel Groups Occupy Oil-Rich Niger Delta; Sides Weigh Amnesty

By WILL CONNORS

CAMP FIVE, Nigeria — From this small cluster of blue-roofed houses at the confluence of the Escravos River and Chanomi Creek, a militant named Government Ekpemupolo got rich.

Oil and cargo vessels going to the port of Warri paid protection money to pass Camp Five — a former construction-company site taken over by militants a few years ago, according to Nigerian military officials and employees of oil companies operating in the area. Those who didn’t pay were often accosted by militants, in speedboats mounted with machine guns, who would demand money or abduct their crews.

[Map of Nigeria]

But an assault last month on a military convoy escorting an oil tanker provoked a counterattack that marked a new phase in the Niger Delta conflict.

The Nigerian military responded with a rare use of firepower and gained control of Camp Five, one of several militant bases in the area. The delta region has a population of about 15 million people — nearly 10% of the country’s population — belonging to more than 100 ethnic groups.

What began as a mission to rescue missing servicemen and crew has evolved into an effort to rid the entire Niger Delta of militant strongholds, though no one knows exactly how many there are or how many militants use them.

The government says it hopes that after repeated military failures, the success at Camp Five and a sustained offensive can wrest control of the oil-rich area from the militants — numbering in the thousands by some estimates, many operating under the umbrella group Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND.

President Umaru Yar’Adua told reporters that he will unveil this month an offer of amnesty, the first of its kind, to militants who laid down their weapons.

The militants say they are fighting for a greater share of the oil wealth derived from communities that are still without adequate roads, water or electricity. The movement, which attracts many disaffected young men from poor rural areas, has been building for years.

Nigeria’s military considers the militants criminals.

“If we haven’t reacted before, now we have reacted,” said General Sarkin-Yaki Bello, commander of the military’s Joint Task Force overseeing the Niger Delta, in an interview.

“Which means next time [the militants] do their action, our response will be much heavier than this. That’s how it should be.”

The founder of Camp Five, and one of the central targets of the military offensive, is a shadowy figure many security analysts consider the most powerful man in the region’s Delta state: Government Ekpemupolo, better known as Tompolo. He hasn’t been found, according to the military, which says he is head of MEND in the western Delta.

The results of the Nigerian offensive have been mixed. The military has claimed several victories, including the rescue of the hostages taken in the May attack and driving militants away from bases such as Camp Five. The military said it has discovered weapons caches and information on militant conspirators from foreign countries and in the Nigerian government, which it has not yet disclosed.

But rooting out the militants will be neither quick nor easy. On May 25, a Chevron Corp. pipeline carrying 100,000 barrels of oil a day was attacked, forcing the company to shut it down. MEND claimed responsibility. Four more Chevron installations have been attacked in recent weeks. The extent of damage done or the amount of oil production affected hasn’t been confirmed.

For President Yar’Adua, midway through his four-year term, the stakes of the military push are high. Mr. Yar’Adua campaigned alongside a former governor from the Niger Delta, Goodluck Jonathan — now Nigeria’s vice president — promising to bring stability to the country’s volatile oil industry, which accounts for more than 95% of Nigeria’s export earnings.

The military offensive, if successful, could free up hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil for global markets for Royal Dutch Shell PLC, Chevron, Eni SpA and other companies that drill here.

Mr. Yar’Adua has said he wants to find a political solution to the crisis. A committee spent months crafting a report on possible solutions, and a ministry was established to deal with Niger Delta affairs.

Several state governors and the vice president — to the dismay of some observers in Nigeria — have visited Camp Five over the past two years.

Several militant leaders have said they will accept an amnesty offer on certain conditions, including the release of their jailed leader, Henry Okah, charged with treason.

Ateke Tom, a militant leader from eastern Rivers State, said he would accept the offer in exchange for immunity from arrest and prosecution, a return of property he claims was taken or destroyed by the military, and his men reintegrated into society.

“We want them to give us full amnesty so we can come out and put down our arms,” he said.

The hostilities last month began with a heavy show of armed strength by the militants. On May 13, the CM Spirit, contracted to the state oil company, was attacked by eight heavily armed speedboats as it passed Camp Five, heading to Warri with 15,000 metric tons of fuel, according to the military and the ship captain. At least one soldier in the ship’s military escort died, according to Gen. Bello, the Niger Delta commander.

Two days later, Gen. Bello, launched an aggressive counterattack, using helicopter gunships and gunboats to destroy suspected militant hideouts and arms caches.

Joint Task Force commanders acknowledged that militants more familiar with the meandering creeks still ply the waterways in speedboats at night.

At the back of Camp Five is a small creek the militants used as a getaway. Six young soldiers sat recently on makeshift cots in one of the hideouts. Bullet shells littered the sand in front of them.

When asked if any recent fighting had caused them to shoot their weapons, they smiled nervously. “Warming the barrel, we call it,” one said. “We fire at night to let the militants know we are here.”

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