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Delta Farce: Nigeria’s Oil Mess


SEPTEMBER 19, 2009

Squabbling Rebels, Corruption Cast Doubt on Peace Plan


THE NIGER DELTA, Nigeria — Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua unveiled an offer in June for rebels to turn in their weapons in exchange for amnesty. Militant leader Ateke Tom watched the news conference on a flat-panel TV at his remote camp deep in this oil-rich expanse of wetlands.

“We want to observe the government’s moves before coming out,” Mr. Tom said a few days later in an interview at his outpost. Outside his concrete residence, young men in camouflage tank tops watched American movies and smoked marijuana in cigar-size joints, their AK-47s lying in the mud beside them.

Guard at a rebel camp in the Niger Delta

Agence France-Presse/Getty ImagesGuard at a rebel camp in the Niger Delta.

Mr. Tom, a squat man sporting a G-Unit T-shirt and a gaudy medallion around his neck, said he was negotiating with federal officials, not the state government, which he doesn’t trust. “The governor wants me dead,” he said.

Mr. Tom and other militant leaders have wreaked havoc in recent years on Nigeria’s oil industry — and consequently its economy — from this vast network of densely forested creeks that fan out to the Gulf of Guinea. Now they must decide whether to stop their costly attacks on oil facilities and come out of the creeks once and for all.

The amnesty offer is set to expire on Oct. 4. The most powerful militant leaders have yet to strike any deals with the government, but federal officials and rebels have indicated that an agreement may be close. This week, an umbrella group of militants extended a cease-fire, but warned of more attacks if its demands aren’t met.

Mr. Tom has been down this road before. Five years ago, the government persuaded him and another prominent militant leader, Alhaji Dokubo-Asari, to hand over their weapons in exchange for amnesty — and large bags of cash. Mr. Tom turned over close to 400 AK-47s, receiving more than $2,000 for each, well above their market value.

But that was just a small fraction of his weapons cache, Mr. Tom admits. The peace didn’t last long. His group, the Icelanders, morphed into the Niger Delta Vigilante Force. Fighting broke out with government forces, and between Mr. Tom’s and Mr. Dokubo-Asari’s men.

Since then, every effort to stop the violence has failed, stymied by, among other things, political corruption and easy access for the Delta militants to guns and money.

Nigeria is the world’s eighth-largest oil exporter, the fifth-biggest supplier of oil to the U.S., and long Africa’s dominant oil player. Its oil is classified as “light and sweet,” which makes it easy to refine into gasoline. Its government has earned hundreds of billions of dollars since oil exports began in 1958.

Agence France-Presse/Getty ImagesRebels loyal to militant leader Ateke Tom arrive at their camp in Rivers State in 2007.

Nearly all of Nigeria’s oil comes from the Niger Delta, one of the world’s largest wetlands. Yet few of the Delta’s inhabitants have benefited. Most have no running water or electricity. Roads in the region, where they exist at all, are often impassable. Schools are understaffed, underfunded and overcrowded. Good jobs are rare.

Militant leaders such as Mr. Tom have been active in the area for years. They claim to be fighting to improve living conditions, but many observers brand them as mere criminals, their allegiances less to the community than to politicians who provide them cash and arms. They have received big payoffs from politicians and oil companies alike, and reap additional windfalls by stealing oil from pipelines, according to oil company executives and human-rights groups.

Nigeria depends on oil for more than 90% of its export revenue and more than 80% of its government revenue. This year, attacks on oil installations have reduced the nation’s output to about 1.7 million barrels a day, from about 2.6 million in 2005, government figures indicate. Some experts believe the actual figure is much lower. The attacks nearly halted onshore production in the western Niger Delta by oil giants Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron Corp. Chevron says it has since restored operations; Shell is working on doing so.

Under the amnesty offer, militants who turn in their weapons will get a few hundred dollars a month and job training. The government says it expects at least 10,000 militants to take advantage of the offer. So far, most of the prominent militant leaders have stayed in the creeks. Many experts believe the plan ultimately will fail because it doesn’t address the poverty and political corruption that ignited the militancy.

“I’m very skeptical about amnesty,” says Joel Bisina, director of the advocacy group Niger Delta Professionals for Development. “It may create even more militants. In 2004, when the government bought back arms from [militants], it created an incentive” to obtain weapons.

Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua (center), with militant leader Victor Ben Ebikabowei, known as Boyloaf (right), announce the surrender of some rebel arms under an amnesty plan on Aug. 7

AFP/Getty ImagesNigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua (center), with militant leader Victor Ben Ebikabowei, known as Boyloaf (right), announce the surrender of some rebel arms under an amnesty plan on Aug. 7.

The Delta’s first militant groups were set up by gang leaders who had helped politicians rig elections, often through violence, according to militants and human-rights groups. Messrs. Tom and Dokubo-Asari became known during political campaigns in 1999 and 2003. When the elections were over and the politicians didn’t come through on promises of jobs and money, Messrs. Tom and Dokubo-Asari took to the creeks and began their violent struggle, the two men said in interviews.

The militants began kidnapping foreign oil workers for ransom and bombing pipelines when oil companies and politicians didn’t come through with payoffs or security contracts. They adopted noms de guerre such as Young Shall Grow, Africa, Osama Bin Laden and Busta Rhymes.

Disparate groups took root. In 2006, a media-savvy umbrella organization emerged, calling itself the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND. It went on to take credit for a string of attacks on the oil infrastructure. In a three-year stretch, more than 200 foreign oil workers were kidnapped, dozens of oil pipelines were blown up, and gun battles on the creeks grew common. Oil prices sometimes spiked when MEND emailed reports about pipeline attacks.

Nigerian politicians far removed from the Delta took note. In July, the National Assembly passed a resolution to form a task force to watch out for MEND infiltrators in their midst, possibly selling street food or phone cards.

Although the militants appeared from the outside to be organized, people who have visited their camps say they are unfocused and easily divided, smoking lots of marijuana, drinking beer and local gin, and burning through money when it comes. Over the summer, while trying to show off his shooting skills for CNN journalists visiting a camp, a militant lost control of his weapon and killed a colleague.

Only one militant leader, Government Ekpemupolo, nicknamed Tompolo, exerted any real control over his men, say former and current militants. By many accounts, he became the most powerful man in the western Delta. He controlled waterways through which oil and cargo vessels had to pass, and used fear of attacks to win lucrative security or construction contracts.

[Nigeria Map]

His men extorted money from ships and attacked pipelines when contracts were given to companies they didn’t approve of, or payoffs weren’t made on time, according to the Nigerian military. He even helped the government secure the release of hostages when rogue groups kidnapped oil workers in his territory. In May, his fighters attacked a military convoy and killed several soldiers. The military retaliated, destroying several of his camps.

The camps controlled by Mr. Tom are on the eastern side of the Delta. A recent trip to his main outpost began with a twilight ride in a worn speedboat fitted with two outboard engines. The boat whipped up a winding creek, brushing mangrove trees. Monkeys clamored around oil pipelines and faded signs reading “Danger: Oil.”

After an engine failure and a change of boats, the creek became too shallow. Passengers had to get out and walk through thick mud as countless small crabs scuttled along the creek’s edge. The sound of a thumping bass emerged from a thicket of trees. The outline of a few green tents was visible.

As visitors entered the camp, a heavily muscled man in a camouflage tank top and a green beret took their cellphones. Outside a women-only tent, a few women stood cooking. Dogs lingered around the food.

Tarp-covered barracks provided sleeping quarters for most of the militants. Three rocket-propelled grenade launchers lay outside the door to the only concrete building, Mr. Tom’s residence. The building, completed this summer, features white latticed entryways, air conditioning and indoor plumbing. Four leather couches sat in a sunken living room. A well-stocked bar stood in one corner, a glass dining table in another.

Mr. Tom declined to explain how he had gotten such things to his camp. His assistant, a portly man in T-shirt that read “God Gave Me Style, God Gave Me Grace” on the front and “Can’t Be Touched” on the back, said, “We have our ways.”

Mr. Tom wore camouflage waterproof pants, camouflage flip-flops and a matching hat pulled low over his eyes. Three gold chains hung from his neck, one holding a pendant that spells out his first name, Ateke. His subordinates address him as Chief Comrade.

He settled into the sofa to discuss the amnesty offer. He said he was eager to strike a deal with the government. “I want to come out,” he said. “I haven’t seen my family in two years.”

Mr. Tom said he has had talks with the inspector general of the police and several other senior government officials. “We’re engaged in discussions on how best to come out, but there’s nothing concrete yet. We’re all waiting for peace.”

He said he also wants assurances from the federal government that the governor of Rivers State, where Mr. Tom is based, won’t come after him if he surrenders.

Rivers State, with its plentiful oil fields, is the richest state in Nigeria. According human-rights groups and to Messrs. Tom and Dokubo-Asari, the governor, Rotimi Ameachi, used militants to rig his 2007 election.

Mr. Tom said in the interview that he received more than $300,000 to help ensure that Mr. Ameachi would win the election. Mr. Tom said he sent his militant followers to local polling stations to make sure voters understood whom to vote for, and to steal ballot boxes.

When Mr. Ameachi asked the militant leader to continue working for him after the election, Mr. Tom said, he refused. According to Mr. Tom, Mr. Ameachi responded by burning down his home, sending him once again into the creeks.

A spokesperson for Mr. Ameachi declined to comment.

Mr. Tom said he also wanted something else in exchange for taking the amnesty offer: Cash for arms. “We have to get something,” he said in an interview.

The government has said repeatedly it won’t offer money for arms this time. But militants who have accepted the current amnesty offer have already been paid to do so, according to people with knowledge of the deals. The government denies making payments.

Militant leader Victor Ben Ebikabowei, known as Boyloaf, the MEND commander for Bayelsa State, recently turned in his weapons in an event attended by government officials, the local and international media and thousands of young men claiming to be ex-militants. In exchange, he received between $1.6 million and $3 million from the state governor, Timi Sylva, according to several people with knowledge of the deal. Bayelsa State officials weren’t available for comment.

This month, several hundred young men claiming to have fought under Boyloaf took to the streets to protest not receiving their cut of the money. They claimed their former commander guaranteed them $60,000 apiece to turn themselves in, but he hasn’t paid them yet.

Other militants have been paid as much as $3,600 for each AK-47 they have turned in, according to the people with knowledge of the deals.

Some observers say the current amnesty offer could be part of an effort to forge new alliances ahead of 2011 elections. It might be “to prepare the groundwork for recruiting gangs for the coming election campaign,” says a Western observer with years of experience in the Niger Delta.

Recent government efforts to bring development to Niger Delta have met with little success. The Niger Delta Development Commission, a government-sponsored aid body, has been mired in one controversy after another. A former head of the NDDC was dismissed after he was accused of burning $4.6 million in paper currency from the commission’s budget in a local ritual to ward off political rivals and increase his virility.

Another former NDDC head, Timi Alaibe, ousted after a budget shortfall controversy, is now the government’s chief amnesty negotiator.

The recently created Ministry of Niger Delta allocated over 50% of its budget to a single road project.

The lack of development has left many young people unemployed and frustrated. In August, a new militant group emerged. It calls itself the Urhobo Revolutionary Army, after the ethnic group based primarily in the Delta. The group has taken credit for the August bombing of a Shell-run gas plant.

An old name has also resurfaced. Mr. Dokubo-Asari, who was thought to have exited the world of pipeline attacks, seems to have tired of civilian life.

“Four years later, and still no genuine dialogue or efforts for peace from the government,” Mr. Dokubo-Asari said in an interview. “Since they are not ready for change, our units will come out and we will start all over. We’re better armed now. We will confront them. People will know us again.”

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A1 and its also non-profit sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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