MEND’s Fluid Leadership Structure

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 4 Issue: 18

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) is one of the most prominent non-state, armed groups in the oil- and gas-rich Niger Delta. MEND is known for its insurrectionist campaign, which includes deadly clashes with security forces protecting the region’s oil facilities. The guerrilla group dates its formation to January 11, 2006; its stated mission is to wage armed rebellion in order to regain the “birthrights of our stolen heritage” (MEND Press Release, January 30, 2006). MEND, however, is not a typical organization, but rather an umbrella group for established armed militias and militarized youth groups in the delta (Pambazuka News, November 2, 2006). Those that fight on behalf of MEND are fighting for an idea, and claim to be attacking the Nigerian government and multinational oil companies in response to decades of environmental pollution, injustice and the marginalization and oppression of the people of the Niger Delta.

According to Dr. Ike Okonta, a research fellow at the University of Oxford, the coalition of insurgents that make up MEND are guided by a “collegiate leadership.” Dr. Okonta writes that the core leadership of MEND “does not in any way constrain the ability of the various units to make their own decisions and mount military attacks independent of the others. The units plan their attacks separately, but are able to coordinate with other units in joint expeditions when necessary. Consequently, they are active in all parts of the delta, adopting hit and run tactics and making it difficult for federal troops to box them into a particular area and launch a massive attack” (Pambazuka News, November 2, 2006).

MEND’s leadership is highly amorphous, and various leaders—such as General Columbus Brutus Ebipade, Jomo Gbomo, General Tammo or Akpos Nabena—frequently issue statements on behalf of the group. The above names are believed to be pseudonymous, and MEND is careful not to reveal the true identities of its various commanders. MEND possesses hubs in various states across the Niger Delta area—primarily in Bayelsa, Delta, Rivers and Ondo states—which are in communication with each other. In 2006, MEND and related groups such as the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF), the Martyrs Brigade and the Coalition of Militant Action (COMA) forged a clearing house for their joint activities. The clearing house was named the Joint Revolutionary Council (JRC), which coordinates the various activities of disparate networks such as MEND. The JRC is led by Cynthia Whyte, an influential member of Mujahid Dokubo-Asari’s NDPVF (Joint Revolutionary Council Statement, May 9).

MEND draws combatants from existing militias and cult collectives. In Delta state, for example, the Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities (FNDIC) populates and controls MEND. Government Ekpemupolo, the director of mobilization for FNDIC, is a senior commander of MEND. His counterpart in Rivers state is Soboma George, who leads the Outlaws cult. In early 2007, Soboma George was arrested by security agents in Port Harcourt and detained at a police station in the city. In response, MEND constructed a rescue operation and freed him (The Midweek Telegraph, February 7-13). Groups such as the Niger Delta Strike Force (NDSF), led by Prince Farah Ipalibo, an estranged commander of Dokubo-Asari’s NDPVF who later founded NDSF, and others were involved in the Port Harcourt operation to free Soboma George on behalf of MEND. This incident demonstrates the overlapping identities of those fighting under MEND’s banner.

In MEND’s armed attacks, the lines between political struggle and banditry are often hazy. Late last year, for example, CNN aired a documentary from an alleged MEND camp in a delta swamp. A number of its combatants were holed up in a densely populated mangrove forest wielding AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, guarding a group of Filipino hostages who had been captured from a vessel. A MEND commander, General Tamuno, who veiled his face with a black piece of cloth and brandished his weapon, spoke on behalf of MEND and warned that there would be more violence in the delta unless the government released from detention Dokubo-Asari and Diepreye Alamieseigha, the deposed governor of Bayelsa state currently standing trial for money laundering and false declaration of assets. Recognized MEND spokesman Jomo Gbomo later issued a public statement describing the documentary as a “hatchet job” and the armed militants as political thugs and oil bunkerers, and he dissociated MEND from the belligerents.

The fact that MEND functions as an umbrella group encumbers efforts by authorities to destroy it. This structure, however, simultaneously prevents its leaders from obtaining complete control over all operations, which can potentially engender splintering within the group itself.