Part 1 of this article can be found in Issue 7 of Terrorism Monitor.
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) first burst onto the international stage in December 2005, when it blew up Shell’s Opobo pipeline in Delta state. It followed with several high profile group kidnappings, further bombings and attacks on oil installations that left many dead. Apart from its devastating impact on Nigerian oil production, the initial bombing garnered attention because the militants had carried out an action that did not benefit them directly financially—unlike kidnappings or oil bunkering. MEND’s strategic placement of the bombs, which took out nearly a quarter of Nigeria’s oil production, showed an intricate knowledge of the thousands of miles of pipelines that may well have been gathered in previous bunkering operations.
There are no card-carrying militant members of MEND. Like most of the groups with long, politically idealistic names—the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF) or the Niger Delta Freedom Fighters—it draws on the same pool of fighters from communities across the delta, ethnic militias in the west and cults (partially absorbed into the NDPVF or the Niger Delta Vigilantes) in the east. It does, however, use recognized leaders to control each of the three main states and each leader has a deputy. MEND’s flexible structure allows it to channel arms and funds across the delta to regions where it is concentrating operations. It differs from the cults and the ethnic militias because its kidnappings appear primarily motivated by publicity rather than ransom (although money often changes hands) and by placing its struggle in a social rather than ethnic context .
For example, “Mike” from Gbaramatu can fight for MEND one day, rig an election for his local government chief the next, kidnap a foreigner for ransom and get in a cult clash on Saturday. He can be, but is not necessarily, a militant, a political enforcer, a criminal and a gang member all at the same time. He can be motivated by money, a sense of injustice, reprisals against his community by the military, or fear of attack from a rival gang. All of these loyalties overlap, meaning that his political patron will protect him from the police when he kidnaps a foreigner, and he can call on his brothers in the cult to come and fight with him for MEND. He can fight for MEND one day and the Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities (FNDIC) the next. This is the source of a lot of the confusion over conflicting MEND statements.
When 24 Filipinos were abducted from the Bacoliner ship earlier this year and threatened with execution in Delta state, many were confused by apparently conflicting statements both claiming and denying that the attack was conducted by MEND. The MEND leader, known by his nom de guerre Jomo Gbomo, disclaimed the attack from a recognized e-mail address. “We do not attack cargo vessels, issue ultimatums nor do we execute hostages in our custody without good reason,” he said. Another MEND spokesman, however, appeared using another email address, claiming that the attack had been carried out by members of MEND and threatened to execute the hostages.
A close study of the demands issued by the second spokesman, which included the replacement of the ruling party’s gubernatorial candidate, reveals that they were far more politically specific demands than previously issued by Gbomo. The demands echoed a series of advertisements and interviews taken from Nigerian newspapers by local chiefs, including Ijaw chief Edwin Clark, demanding Delta state Governor James Ibori’s cousin Emmanuel Uduaghan step down as the gubernatorial candidate (Vanguard, March 6). Clark has often called for more oil revenues to be diverted to the Ijaw people and was frequently linked to members of FNDIC. The articles and advertisements pointed out, correctly, that the corrupt Delta government had failed to provide even the most basic services for its citizens during the last eight years. The signatories protested that Uduaghan would probably continue the tradition.
Thus, the Bacoliner attack was carried out using FNDIC affiliated fighters who had previously fought for MEND. They may have called themselves MEND because that has greater resonance with the media and perhaps because MEND supplied the weapons. Certainly, the CNN report that was shown in February was filmed with these fighters. The report helped spark a warning from the U.S. Embassy of further attacks, which drove up oil prices by more than a dollar when it was released. The effect of the report on oil prices underlines the ability of the militants to manipulate the media and oil prices merely by making threats. The fighters subsequently claimed to have seized explosives (actually destined for commercial use) from the boat. They said they were destined for political use. Despite public assurances to the contrary, security sources say that a large ransom was paid .
MEND’s masked fighters in matching body armor are better organized and more disciplined than Alhaji Dokubo-Asari’s flip-flop wearing boys, and their spokesman Jomo Gbomo is far more skilled at media manipulation . He issues e-mail messages to confirm or deny attacks and occasionally to warn of an impending bomb. MEND set off five car bombs in 2006—one at a refinery, one at a military barracks (which killed two people), one at a state government house and two in the car parks of oil companies. “Bombs…were triggered by cell phone and were a cocktail of military and commercial explosives…The operative in one location reported a concentration of civilians at his location and that bombing was aborted at the very last minute to prevent loss of innocent lives,” the group said .
MEND has repeatedly stressed that their aim is not to kill civilians or even Nigerian armed forces personnel, but to force oil companies to leave the delta and to economically paralyze Nigeria, forcing reform. The December car bombs appeared to use about five pounds of explosives each, enough to destroy the car, but not to cause much damage to the surroundings. They appeared to be parked out of the way of normal civilian traffic. Militants have said that the deaths of two people at the military camp were caused by the car bomb detonating prematurely.
Most fighters are issued a Kalashnikov or another assault rifle, although there are also plenty of General Purpose Machine Guns (GPMGs) and Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs). A researcher who tracks weapons from the delta says that significant quantities of new and heavier arms are being distributed throughout the delta . Several researchers in Port Harcourt believe that MEND simply provides money and weapons for specific operations to pre-existing groups and brokers alliances between them .
MEND typically holds hostages longer than most other groups and kidnaps more people at a time. The initial batches of four and nine oil workers were held for several weeks; the latest ended with the release of two Italian hostages last month who had been held for 99 days, a record for Nigeria. Gbomo frequently issues press releases and photos of the hostages to ensure they are kept in the news. He denies that MEND solicits ransoms, although he admits to “confiscating” over half a million dollars offered by oil company Agip during the most recent kidnapping and that his fighters “freelance” when not engaged on MEND missions . He also says that MEND encourages the proliferation of smaller, criminal gangs that take hostages for purely financial reasons, saying that the actions of such gangs help MEND in their quest to make the delta “ungovernable” .
After Asari was put in prison and rival gang leader Ateke Tom was declared wanted, Ateke’s former number two, Soboma George, stepped in to fill the power vacuum. Soboma leads a large breakaway faction of the Icelanders known as the Outlaws . He fell out with Ateke after he was charged with murder and Ateke did not do enough to help him. He subsequently escaped from jail and began to work against his former boss. In January of this year, Soboma was arrested for a traffic violation. Police later admitted that they had no idea whom they had detained and it appears unlikely that Soboma would have been arrested if they had . Within hours, more than 50 heavily armed militants stormed the prison, which lies in the heart of Port Harcourt and is minutes from the main police station and military camp. They appeared to face little resistance as most of the buildings around the prison were not marked by heavy gunfire.
After Soboma’s release, MEND issued a statement saying that he was a “senior commander” in the movement . Subsequently, foreign journalists met with Soboma, senior militants and a government official on the outskirts of Port Harcourt. Many believe factions within the state government are seeking to use Soboma against Ateke just as they used Ateke against Asari. Police say that Soboma is heavily involved in crime, including kidnappings, gang warfare and narcotics . Prior to his arrest, however, he was able to move around the city relatively freely, despite the outstanding murder charge. Former gang members say the alliance between MEND and the Outlaws (and defected Icelanders) is significant because it has a deliberate strategy of infiltrating urban areas with fighters who have traditionally been based in the creeks.
Before the April elections, MEND said that the polls would not affect their ultimate aim of resource control. While that may be true for their main spokesman, it is obvious that several of the groups that MEND collaborates with had a vested interest in the Nigerian election. Money or weapons supplied by MEND for other operations may have been turned against political opponents and their supporters during the polls.
It remains to be seen whether or not MEND will be a long-term force in the delta. So far, it has bequeathed local groups with heavier weapons, better organization and more sophisticated tactics, as well as linking up smaller groups that previously operated independently. In the mercenary world of Niger Delta fighters, such alliances are always subject to change and it is likely that the government will continue its tactics of co-opting senior militants with cash payments or positions and sending the military after those who will not submit. MEND’s relatively small leadership structure means it is vulnerable to changes in top personnel. If that happens, however, it is common to subcontract fighters, meaning that several heavily armed militias will remain, ready to fight for the next would-be leader. If MEND disappears, another would-be umbrella organization will eventually take its place in the same way that MEND replaced the NDPVF. As long as the delta remains underdeveloped and corrupt, increasingly bloody battles will be fought over the oil industry since it is the only source of funds.
1. Author e-mail correspondence with Jomo Gbomo, spokesman for MEND, 2006.
2. Author interview with private security contractors, Lagos, 2007.
3. Author interview with MEND militants, 2006; author interview with Alhaji Dokubo-Asari, 2004.
4. Author e-mail correspondence with MEND spokespeople, 2006.
5. Author interview with a Geneva-based organization, 2007.
6. Author interview with a local conflict resolution organization headquartered in Port Harcourt, 2007.
7. Author e-mail correspondence with MEND spokespeople, 2006.
8. It should be noted that despite frequent complaints over lack of clean water, schools, clinics and rhetoric about redistributing wealth, there is not a single recorded instance of a militant group ever spending money on a project to develop their own community.
9. Author interview with former senior Icelander commander, 2007.
10. Author interview with an officer from the station in which Soboma was held, 2007.
11. Author e-mail correspondence with MEND spokespeople, 2007.
12. Author interview with Police Commissioner Felix Ogbaudu, 2007.