A series of recent government clashes with Niger Delta militants has displayed the difficulties in solving the delta crisis through the use of force. After Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo’s August 15 order for security services to use “force for force” against the militants, the military increased its operations in the delta. These operations, however, have revealed the inherent difficulties in fighting an enemy that uses guerrilla-style tactics and is indigenous to the region. On October 2, for example, 15 government soldiers were escorting a group of barges that belonged to oil company Royal Dutch Shell in Cawthorne Channel in Rivers State. The convoy of ships was ambushed by militants at a bend in the sea and five soldiers were killed (Vanguard, October 7; AFP, October 11). The militants captured a barge of diesel fuel and kidnapped 25 Shell workers. Major Sagir Musa, the public relations officer for the army, explained that approximately 70 militants in six boats encircled the soldiers and quickly began firing on the convoy. According to Musa, “It was a surprise attack. Our soldiers were 15 and the militants were 70…At a narrow corner on the sea, unknown to the soldiers, the boys [militants] had laid ambush. The soldiers were not seeing ahead because of the bend” (Vanguard, October 7).
In a region like the delta, with its vast swamps, dense mangroves and maze-like waterways, knowledge of the terrain is a decisive advantage. The militants consist of men from the Ijaw ethnic group, which is indigenous to the delta. This allows them to wage a low-scale conflict by choosing their targets judiciously and commencing attacks on their own terms. Additionally, because the government is not waging a full-scale war in the delta, their security patrols contain small contingents of men, allowing the militants to overwhelm them numerically during ambushes. These guerrilla methods reduce the losses to the militants’ ranks and increase their opportunities for successful operations. Musa further explained these difficulties: “some soldiers are not used to the geography of the waters. The militants were born here…some soldiers’ experience had been that when you followed a route in the water, by the time you’re coming back, that route would have already been blocked. Fighting in an area where you are not knowledgeable can be a problem. Besides, the militants always outnumber the soldiers deployed to locations.”
In addition to these clashes, delta militants have engaged in a series of brazen kidnappings in recent weeks. On October 3, for example, 18 militants stormed the Esa Akpan Estate in Eket, in eastern Akwa Ibom state, and kidnapped seven expatriate workers. The workers were sub-contracted to an Exxon-Mobile facility. As part of the kidnapping, the militants killed two security guards on duty, and then disappeared with the hostages into the Eket-Etinan swamp before police arrived on the scene. The operation was significant since militants have rarely stormed expatriate residential compounds (This Day, October 5).
Unable to confront the militants directly, the security forces have responded by mass arrests in some cases, and the razing of villages in others. On October 5, for example, the army allegedly razed the Ijaw village of Elem-Tombia in Rivers state. The destruction of communities often increases local anger against the government, thus adding indigenous support to the various local militant groups.
Overall, the situation in the delta shows no sign of improvement. In fact, it may regress further as national elections approach in 2007; during past election years, politicians have armed and funded criminal and separatist groups in exchange for the intimidation of their opponents, which is part of the reason why the delta is so unstable today. One of the main Ijaw militant groups leading the insurgency, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, said in an early October statement that its goal “remains the destruction of the Nigerian oil industry and all who stand on the pathway to our objective,” warning that a “worst-case scenario” could result in a one to two year shutdown of Nigeria’s oil industry in the delta (Terrorism Monitor, August 10; AFP, October 4).