The “oilfield” wars in Nigeria’s Delta region have been in the international spotlight from the emergence of the Ken Saro-Wiwa-led Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) in 1990 to the current insurgency led by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). This latter group is known for its tactic of hostage-taking and its frequent clashes with the Nigerian military. The activities of MEND have greatly influenced peak global oil prices with consequences for production capacities and consumption.
A Loosely Organized Insurgency
Many Niger Deltans claim that the region has been neglected, marginalized and cheated by the oil industry and Nigeria’s federal government for nearly five decades. In their view the oil resource endowment has brought only military occupation, environmental degradation and deterioration of the aquatic habitats in the region. Travels across the region reveal many people living in primitive conditions despite the presence of modern day technology all around them. In Nigeria’s Delta, the MEND group is one among many insurgent organizations that have come to the fore to confront the Federal Government of Nigeria for the perceived injustices done to the people of the region. Interviews with organizers of the recent London protests against Britain’s offer of military counter-insurgency assistance to Nigeria reveal that MEND is a highly coordinated but largely faceless organization composed of clusters of small groups with no single or distinct structured leadership (The Guardian [Lagos], July 20).
The most prominent name attached to the MEND leadership is that of Comrade Jomo Gbomo, who acted as the online spokesman and apparent leader of the group. In September 2007, Henry Okah, an alleged Nigerian gunrunner and occasional Niger Delta political activist, was arrested in Angola and extradited to Nigeria to face charges of treason and gunrunning. The Nigerian government maintained that Okah was the real Jomo Gbomo and had been running MEND’s insurgency from the safety of South Africa. To confuse the issue, emails continued to be issued from a MEND spokesman using the name Jomo Gbomo that insisted the imprisoned Okah was a victim of mistaken identity. Okah’s identification with Gbomo was later confirmed by his wife and other militant sources. MEND now demands the release of Okah as a condition for negotiations.
A careful look at the various activities of MEND reveals that there are two distinct groups in the Rivers and Bayelsa States of the Niger Delta (The Sunday Sun [Lagos], July 20). Both groups seem to be consistent in attacking the policies of the federal government but not those of their state governments, led by the Hon. Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi and Chief Timipre Sylva respectively.
Asari-Dokubo and the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force
MEND is closely tied to Alhaji Mujahid Asari-Dokubo’s Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF). In October 2004, the NDPVF declared a military offensive tagged “Operation Locust Feast” against the oil multinationals and the Nigerian security forces in response to the alleged aerial bombing of its bases with chemicals by military helicopters . This ultimatum led to a sharp and immediate rise in oil prices on international markets. The NDPVF, like MEND and other local insurgent groups, are accused of financing their operations through the practice of “bunkering,” a euphemism for oil theft from the pipelines that cross the Delta region (the term originally referred to the process of filling a ship with oil or coal). A convert to Islam, the NDPVF leader is a former president of the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC) who was arrested and detained by the former President Olusegun Obasanjo administration on the charge of treason. Asari-Dokubo was released from prison during the current regime of President Umaru Yar’Adua, partly due to intervention from his kinsman, Vice President Dr. Goodluck Jonathan. Asari-Dokubo recently responded angrily to accusations that the Delta region’s leaders bore some responsibility for regional development problems as a result of having squandered government funds allocated to the area. Describing northerners as “parasites” who live off the Delta’s oil revenues, the NDPVF leader declared: “Nothing will stop us until we control our resources. Most of these Northern people think they are gods. They are flesh and we are flesh. They have blood and we have blood. They should not try us, because we are waiting for them. They are stealing our oil and they are still talking. How many Niger Delta people have oil blocks? How many Niger Delta people have licenses to lift oil? How many Niger Delta people have oil concessions?” (The Daily Sun [Lagos], July 21).
A non-violent Ijaw advocacy group that has often differed with MEND is the Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities (FNDIC), led by Dr. Bello Oboko from its headquarters in Oporoza. FNDIC has been in the forefront of the fight against what it describes as political, economic and environmental injustices in the Warri Local Government Areas of Delta Stat as well as championing Ijaw interests in the Warri region of Delta State. The Ijaw are an indigenous group of over 12 million people, found mainly in the Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Delta, Edo and Rivers states of Nigeria’s Delta region.
Insurgents and Government Accuse Each Other of Terrorism
In light of the region’s oil-based conflict, the word terrorism has become more and more often associated with analysis of the Niger Delta. In many instances, state officials and the oil industry have described the activities of the youth and ethnic militias as terrorist acts and therefore have urged security outfits to deal with them as such. MEND spokesman Jomo Gbomo refuted allegations of any connection between MEND and al-Qaeda: “It is ridiculous to imagine Christians in the south of Nigeria, fighting against a glaring injustice will be aligned to Islamic groups thousands of miles away. There is simply no connection. Whenever the US government intends to meddle in the internal affairs of countries, suspicion of an al-Qaeda connection is usually a preferred reason for its involvement” (Saharareporters.com, March 30, 2007).
The concept of “eco-terrorism” was brought to the fore by FNDIC leader Dr. Bello Oboko during a recent interview with the author. Eco-terrorism goes beyond the common perception that terrorist activities consist solely of political assassinations, violent political revolutions and bombings to include various forms of violence and sabotage committed in the name of the environment. Dr. Oboko argues that the oil companies are also terrorists for their “inhuman and environmentally devastating activities” such as running oil at high pressure through old and outdated pipelines that give rise to explosions, destroying the surrounding environment. Industry calls for security support have led to the militarization of oil flow stations and have been a factor in inter- and intra-communal conflicts. The oil firms have also been accused of providing logistical assistance to the military in attacking local village communities in the Niger Delta.
Many of the insurgent groups claim to have arisen to give a voice to the people’s sufferings in the hands of the Nigerian security forces and the oil firms. The environmental group Environmental Rights Action (ERA), with headquarters in Benin City, Nigeria, asserted that the voices of local Niger Deltans have been muffled in most cases because they do not have access to the media and the laws are not in their favor. ERA has also accused Chevron of supplying helicopters for use by government forces in attacks on the Opia and Ikenyan Ijaw communities . Similar cases have been reported from across the Niger Delta.
The activities of the Niger Delta insurgent groups have had a great influence in pushing global oil prices even higher. MEND has always claimed to have the ability to take on the military might of the federal government of Nigeria. With claims of large numbers of volunteer fighters in their camps, the militants have taken to destroying flow stations and other industrial installations. Expatriates working in the oil industry continue to be victims of kidnapping and many oil companies have relocated to neighboring African countries due to the region’s insecurity. Although Nigeria is the world’s eighth largest oil exporter, the bombings of oil platforms and kidnappings of oil workers have cut Nigerian production by a fifth since early 2006, helping push world oil prices to record highs.
A MEND spokesman using the name Jomo Gbomo urged President Yar’Adua in a recent online interview to show the same enthusiasm and action in dealing with the developmental challenges facing the Delta region as he has in soliciting military support from Britain. According to Gbomo: “As a group, we are embarrassed that the Nigerian armed forces have to beg the UK for help to fight us. If the country was invaded by Cameroun, are they going to wait for the UK before defending the country?” (The Guardian [Lagos], July 18). MEND claims the whole military institution is a fraud and questions what has happened to all the overseas military training and weapons that have been purchased since Nigeria’s independence in 1960.
The group has urged Britain and its Prime Minister Gordon Brown not to cooperate with President Yar’Adua’s reported appeals for military support to stem illegal oil theft in the Niger Delta, saying the real “bunkerers” are made up of the military and a wide range of Nigerians. Following a state visit last week to London by President Yar’Adua, a presidential advisor described any suggestion that Nigeria was seeking British military aid as “unfounded,” adding: “I wonder where some people got the idea that the government is adopting a military option to tackle the problem” (This Day [Lagos/Abuja], July 23).
In the event of a full-scale attack on the insurgents by Nigerian forces, a spokesperson for the Joint Revolutionary Council (representing MEND, the NDPVF and the Martyrs’ Brigade) warns: “If they attack our units, then all the Bantustan states of the Niger Delta must be ready to declare 24 hour curfews because we will take aim on every living thing that carries the banner of the armed forces of the Nigerian state. Every soldier of the Nigerian state (not their families) will bear the brunt of any attack on our units. We have committed ourselves to death if and when it comes. Even an amateur gun man can take an easy aim on loitering soldiers of the Nigerian state. They are every where in the Delta, Rivers and Bayelsa States” (Saharareporters.com, June 21).
1. Robert Chesal, Nigerian Rebels Push Oil to a Record (Radio Netherlands interview with Anslem Okolo), September 28, 2004
2. Environmental Rights Action, “Chevron Commandos Raid Hapless Villagers,” in Environmental Testimonies, Benin City, ERA/FOEN, 2000