Behind the mask

Militia gains support in oil-rich Niger Delta


photo of men in masks with mounted machine guns, river in the backgroundReutersMilitia members patrol the Niger Delta by boat.

The fragile truce brokered between Nigeria’s central government and the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) in April 2006 jerked to a bloody halt on August 20 when soldiers of the Joint Task Force, a contingent of the Nigerian Army, Navy, and Air Force, ambushed 15 members of the MEND militia and murdered them. The men had gone to negotiate the release of a Shell Oil worker kidnapped by youth in Letugbene, a neighboring community. That worker also died in the massacre.

The incident occurred five days after Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo instructed armed forces commanders in the region to “pacify” the region. Obasanjo had promised MEND in early April that he would use dialogue and carefully targeted development to return peace, law, and accountable government to the impoverished Niger Delta.

The Ijaw, the largest ethnic group in the Niger Delta, was represented by prominent Ijaw political and civic leaders at the burial ceremonies. Ijaw farmers and fishers had also travelled from their hamlets to pay their last respects to the slain. Spokesmen of the Nigerian government had sought to represent the 15 militias as “irresponsible hostage-takers” in the wake of the slaughter. But those Ijaw who had gathered that morning spoke only of heroes who had fallen in the battle for Ijaw liberation.

MEND members say they have never seen armed force as anything but a last resort after three decades of peaceful entreaty met with cynical indifference from the central government and the oil companies. Leaders of the Gbaramatu–based Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities (FNDIC) served as informal representatives of the MEND militia in negotiations with Obasanjo and Nigeria’s central government following the abduction of nine foreign oil workers in February. When I interviewed FNDIC President Oboko Bello in Warri two weeks before the Letugbene massacre, he spoke warmly about the meetings he and other Ijaw leaders had had in Abuja with Obasanjo and other government officials in April, and assured me MEND would put its weapons down if the government addressed the long-standing grievances of his people.

It was a sombre Bello who addressed his fellow Ijaw during the burial ceremony. “Shell officials were privy to the arrangements Ijaw patriots had made as part of the Joint Investigation and Verification exercise to free the captured company worker and also facilitate the re-opening of the company’s facilities in the creeks. Shell was in direct communication with the commanders of the Joint Task Force, even up to the time our young men set out in their boats to rescue the Shell worker in Letugbene. These young men were not hostage-takers. They were Ijaw patriots, selflessly working to repair the damaged peace between the oil company and our people. For this, they were ambushed and murdered by soldiers in the service of Shell.”

Though Bello ended his speech on a note of conciliation, angry voices are rising throughout the delta vowing revenge. Whether moderate voices will be able to rein in the volatile, striking arm of the Ijaw political and civic resurgence remains to be seen.

Bullets or ballots?

The central government announced in late August that it was working with the US and British governments to deploy more naval personnel and hardware to “root out oil rustlers, kidnappers, and other undesirable elements from the Niger Delta and the wider Gulf of Guinea.” To MEND militants, this sounded ominously like an open declaration of war.

Shortly after the burial ceremony, FNDIC leaders voiced their concern that the government’s belligerent posture could be an attempt to generate turbulence in the Niger Delta during the April 2007 general elections, and thus provide an opportunity for Obasanjo to extend his tenure beyond the constitutionally stipulated two terms. Although past elections have been massively rigged, FNDIC officials hope that elections in which the Ijaw would be fairly represented will provide the solution to the ongoing political and economic crisis.

But elections in the Niger Delta are usually turbulent and sometimes violent affairs. Politicians are caching weapons and resuscitating networks of thugs to intimidate their rivals, coerce voters to do their bidding, or stuff the ballot boxes outright.

The spectacle of hostages and guns

The MEND militia and its political sponsors set out in the early months of 2006 to draw the world’s attention to the condition of the Ijaw people. Images of armed youth in masks wielding sub-machine guns, helpless oil workers at their mercy, were beamed all over the world. These images generated intense emotions in government circles, as well as in the environmental and human rights community in the West. Global oil prices vacillated with the tone of MEND’s press statements and with the physical condition of the captives, whose photographs were posted on the Internet. But the dramas invariably ended on a peaceful note, with MEND releasing the oil workers unharmed.

After the spate of armed attacks on the Shell facilities and two other oil companies following MEND’s emergence in February, there seemed to be an unspoken agreement between the militants and the government that these dramas could continue as long as any oil workers taken hostage were not harmed.

There is no knowing whose voice will command allegiance in the coming months – the moderates counselling patience and political participation, or the young hotheads eager to take on the government and the oil companies with which they are allied.

Meeting the MEND militia

The first thing that strikes you on meeting members of the MEND militia is the ease with which they travel. They are among people who not only identify with their cause but also go out of their way to offer protection from attacks by Nigerian soldiers.

The second thing you notice is that the militants, at least those elected to respond to questions, are articulate, well-educated, and conversant with the latest political developments at home and abroad.

MEND leaders are constantly on the move, extremely cautious, and do not personally take telephone calls, aware that soldiers hunting for them have electronic devices capable of pinpointing mobile phone signals.

My first meeting with MEND took place in a hotel room in Warri. I had sent word that I’d be arriving that Thursday afternoon, and would like to interview one or two MEND leaders. A local journalist said he would try to arrange the interview, but that getting hold of MEND leaders would depend on the level of Nigerian military presence in Warri that week.

I was in luck. I arrived in Warri when the peace process, initiated by FNDIC leaders, lawyer and environmental activist Oronto Douglas, and other Ijaw leaders, was still plodding on, and the Obasanjo government appeared willing to restrain the soldiers while the negotiations were concluded. A knock sounded on the door of my hotel room: A young man, casually dressed, stood there smiling.

“Are you the MEND leader?” I asked, surprised. The media depicts MEND fighters as muscular masked men, clutching Kalashnikovs and adopting belligerent postures, as though ready to fire at the slightest provocation.

“There is no such thing as MEND,” he countered.

MEND is not an organization in the formal sense of the word, he explained. It is an idea, a principle underlying the slew of communal, civic, and youth movements that began to proliferate in the Niger Delta – particularly in the Ijaw-speaking areas – in the wake of General Babangida’s failed “structural adjustment” policies in the late 1980s.

The country had been run by a succession of corrupt governments since the end of the civil war in 1970. The ensuing economic hardships, the government’s apparent inability to address this crisis, and its refusal to provide a civic and political framework in which oppressed citizens could air their grievances, encouraged a drift towards religious ethnic organizations. The Ken Saro-Wiwa-inspired Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), which emerged in 1990, and the Ijaw National Congress a year later, have their genesis in this turbulent economic and political milieu.

MEND is not an organization in the formal sense of the word. It is an idea, a principle underlying the slew of communal, civic, and youth movements.

These organizations pursued such goals as the end to military rule, the return of democratic civilian government, the creation of new states in ethnic minority areas, and an increase in the citizens’ share of oil receipts. They used non-violent protest marches, advocacy in the mass media, petitions addressed to the government, and awareness-building seminars to press their case. However, as economic conditions worsened countrywide and Babangida annulled election results in mid-1993, a wave of desperation spread among urban youth.

Militant, communal youth organizations emerged in this period, drawing their membership from the Yoruba, Hausa, and Igbo ethnic groups. The youth militias began to arm. Clashes with the Nigerian military, and also among themselves, became a staple of Nigerian public life.

Political developments in the Ijaw territory followed a slightly different trajectory. Skirmishes between Ijaw youth and the oil companies operating in the Western Delta began in the late 1980s, when the youth complained that they had not been offered employment in the industry on their own doorstep, and which, to make matters worse, was destroying their rivers and farmlands.

Ijaw elders and community leaders mediated the dispute, and this process gave rise to new youth-led civic groups. Prominent among these were the Movement for the Survival of Ijaw Ethnic Nationality (MOSSIEND) and the Movement for Reparations to Ogbia (MORETO), an Ijaw clan in the central delta.

The government’s creation of new local government councils in the Warri area in 1997 provided the trigger for the militarization of the youth groups. Three prominent ethnic groups occupy the Warri metropolis and its hinterland. The Itsekiri are perceived to be small but politically dominant. The other two are the Ijaw and Urhrobo. There had been squabbles regarding land ownership and any resulting rents among all three groups since the 1920s. These disputes were usually peaceful affairs, resolved in the courts.

But that changed in 1997 when the military governor announced the creation of a new local government council with headquarters in an Ijaw village, and then moved it to an Itsekiri village the following day. Ijaw youth accused Itsekiri elites of having pressured the government to relocate the seat of the new council. The latter countered that they’d had no hand in the governor’s decision. There was a stampede to arm on both sides, resulting in ethnic massacres and counter-massacres.


The proliferation of small arms in the Warri area encouraged oil bunkering, an illicit activity that had been practiced by powerful government officials in collaboration with oil workers for decades. Fringe elements in these militarized youth groups helped illegal oil barons tap into pipelines. With the return of electoral politics in 1999, politicians in the Niger Delta also recruited from these armed elements to intimidate their political opponents and rig the vote. The oil companies also offered these youth protection work in their facilities, arming them in a cynical “divide and conquer” move. It was a small minority that drifted into oil bunkering and protection “services” for the corrupt politicians and oil companies. The majority of Ijaw youth remained solidly committed to the civic and communal organizations they had founded, even after brutal attacks from government soldiers in 1998 and 1999.

The Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), founded in 1998, had united youth in a peaceful but powerful opposition to the exploitative activities of the oil companies and the federal government. The Kaiama Declaration, a document that spelled out the grievances of Ijaw youth, was the brainchild of the IYC leadership.

However, the IYC subsequently split into factions following a leadership crisis. Asari Dokubo, one of its leaders, established the Niger Delta Peoples’ Volunteer Force (NDPVF), declaring that the peaceful methods of the IYC had not been effective and that what Obasanjo’s government would heed was militant action.

photo of a man on a boat, surrounded by masked men with gunsReutersHostage Macon Hawkins is held captive by ethnic ljaw militants in the volatile
creeks of the Niger Delta, February 24, 2006.

On the morning of February 15, 2006, government helicopter gunships attacked an Ijaw village. Government officials alleged that Okerenkoko and neighboring villages were centers of oil-bunkering activities. The gunships returned on February 17 and 18, killing several innocent people. Enraged youth all over Ijawland vowed revenge, triggering the birth of the MEND militia.

MEND’s methods

The founding core of MEND’s membership is derived from the Gbaramatu Ijaw clan, which bore the brunt of the February 2006 attacks. But as already stated, MEND is not so much an organization as an idea into which many civic, communal, and political groups have bought.

MEND’s strength and military successes so far lie in four key factors:

It has successfully tapped into the 50-year-old Ijaw quest for social and environmental justice in the Niger Delta. There is no village in the Niger Delta where MEND sympathizers do not exist. Consequently, the movement operates in friendly and cooperative terrain, able to mount attacks and meld into hamlets undetected.

Secondly, MEND is a loose coalition of armed militants that doesn’t constrain the ability of the various units to make their own decisions and mount military attacks independently of the others. The units also co-ordinate with other units in joint expeditions when necessary. They are thus active in all parts of the delta, adopting hit-and-run tactics, making it difficult for Federal troops to box them into a particular area and launch a massive attack.

Thirdly, MEND militants fight in familiar territory, having fished and farmed since childhood in the Niger Delta. The Nigerian Army and Navy have superior hardware, but they often lose their way in the unfamiliar terrain, rendering them ineffective and vulnerable.

Finally, MEND is an astute manipulator of the mass media, and has ensured that its case against the government and the oil companies has been clearly and eloquently made in Nigeria and worldwide.

Hostages as weapons

MEND’s weapon of choice is foreign oil workers. The Nigerian government is notorious for its cavalier attitude when the lives of its citizens are at stake. But other nations, particularly the US, France, United Kingdom, and Italy, all of which have massive oil installations in the Niger Delta, usually protest loudly when their citizens are taken hostage. MEND’s most spectacular hostage-taking was carried out at Shell’s Forcados oil terminal in February 2006. Militants grabbed nine expatriate workers employed by Willbros, an oil engineering firm under contract to Shell, and spirited them away in a speedboat. Following several weeks of negotiations between the militants, Ijaw leaders, the Obasanjo government, the oil companies, and the American and British governments, the last of the hostages (several had been released previously) were set free.

Since MEND began to take hostages early in 2006, none have been harmed. Government officials have portrayed this aspect of MEND’s activities as racketeering, claiming the militants usually extort ransom from the hostages and their governments before the victims are released. While it is true that some fringe elements in the Niger Delta have embraced kidnapping as a lucrative venture, they are not to be confused with MEND militants. The objective of the latter is fundamentally political: focus the attention of Western governments and the world on the Niger Delta when they grab these hostages, and announce their grievances against the Nigerian government in the blaze of publicity that follows.

MEND’s attack on the Forcados oil-loading platform was as crippling as it was audacious. The oil company was forced to cut its daily production by 19 percent.

ChevronTexaco, Elf, and ENI did not escape MEND’s attention. Their facilities also came under attack, and their staff was routinely abducted. At the height of MEND’s military assaults in April, a quarter of Nigeria’s oil production had been shut down, and Shell’s giant offshore Bonga Oil Field, although protected by naval ships and gun boats, was considered a potential MEND target. Dr. Edmund Daukoru, a former Shell employee and, since 2003, Obasanjo’s minister in charge of petroleum, hurried to Washington to confer with US Energy Secretary Sam Bordman on how to address the MEND ‘problem.’

photo of a man splashing water on his face in a scene of smoke and fire and rubbleReutersA man runs from the scene of a fuel pipeline explosion in Lagos, December 26, 2006.

In response to what they deemed an imminent invasion by US Special Forces, MEND, NDPVF, and other groups announced the formation of a “Joint Revolutionary Council” and pledged they would deploy heat-seeking rockets to attack Shell’s offshore Bonga Oil Field. Given their successful attacks on several offshore oil facilities in the past, this announcement triggered panic in the international market. Oil prices hit $72 per barrel.

MEND’s press statements are also intended to influence US and European companies with investments in the Gulf of Guinea’s oil and gas industry – of which the Niger Delta is the heart — to put pressure on the Nigerian government. Leading the pack are Merrill Lynch, Société Génerale, Bank of America Securities, Credit Suisse First Boston, Morgan Stanley, UBS Investments, Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, and Lehman Brothers. These financial behemoths, whose investments in the Nigerian oil and gas industry total an estimated $15 billion, met with Nigerian government officials in November 2005 after confidential reports by American embassy officials indicated the Obasanjo government was losing control of the delta to the militias.

MEND’s shock tactics yielded dividends initially. Chevron and Shell had backed military attacks on local communities all through the 1990s, insisting that their business interests obliged them to offer support to Nigerian troops in order to protect the delta oil fields. But as attacks on its facilities in the Western Delta accelerated in 2003-2004, resulting in the killing of company workers (three Nigerians and two Americans and their guards), and shutting down 140,000 barrels of daily production, Chevron executives began to rethink their policy, and subsequently made the unprecedented statement that the company opposed military solutions in the Niger Delta.

Fred Nelson, head of Chevron’s West Africa operations, said in early June that “Brute force does not work in the long term. Our strategy is dialogue with the communities to solve their problems. If we can solve their problems, the security issue will go away.” MEND spokespersons claimed this new stance as a victory.

Shell officials secretly approached the US military in early March to attempt to intervene in the Delta.

The militia has also carefully positioned itself to derive maximum mileage from the activities of other militant groups, which, although not as well-organized or politically coherent, nevertheless shared similar grievances and regularly mounted their own military attacks on oil company facilities and government troops. MEND spokespeople deplore the actions of these groups when they veer away from the explicitly political objective of advancing the cause of self-determination and equitable sharing of oil receipts, but are quick to spring to their defense when soldiers and riot police attack them unjustly.

MEND’s military exploits have not dented the offensive capabilities of Nigeria’s armed forces. But they have demoralized the troops, and forced local journalists to question the combat-readiness and overall effectiveness of the army and navy. Most importantly, MEND has transformed the image of the Ijaw from hapless and quiescent victims popularized in the press – ever on the receiving end of atrocities deployed by the government and the
oil companies – to an increasingly organized and assertive political bloc.

Worse than Iraq?

It is not yet clear whether the August 20 massacre at Letugbene will turn out to be a crippling blow. But one fact is clear: Both the central government and the oil companies have retreated from their “peace and dialogue” stance of last April. The new policy, although not favored by some of Obasanjo’s senior commanders, is containment and subsequent evisceration of the youth militias through superior fire-power.

Shell led the “return to the warpath’”initiative when its officials secretly approached the US military in early March to attempt to intervene in the delta. Faced with MEND’s increasingly focused attacks on its facilities, the company had shut down 455,000 barrels of daily crude output, evacuated the bulk of its staff, and declared force majeure. When Admiral Henry Ulrich, commander of the US Naval forces in Europe, visited Nigeria last March, a delegation of oil company officials led by Shell asked him to deploy his ships to the region to “protect our investments.”

photo of several unhappy-looking people sitting with gun-toting masked people behind themReutersPhilippine hostages are guarded by militants of MEND at an undisclosed
location on the creeks of Niger Delta.

Ulrich turned down the request, explaining that “It was difficult to conceive of a way that foreign forces could intervene because attacks on oil facilities and vessels were occurring very close to shore in territorial waters, or from the shore itself.”

On the occasion of a courtesy visit to Nigeria’s chief of naval staff in Abuja on March 19, Ulrich, informed journalists that the US government planned to increase its naval presence in the Gulf of Guinea for the sole purpose of ensuring maritime safety in the region. He explained that his primary concern was the proliferation of “terrorist activities” in the region, and that he had deployed two ships to the Gulf of Guinea to help West African navies police their shores more effectively.

The Gulf of Guinea, comprising 15 west and central African countries, is critical to US oil security. The region accounted for half of the nine million barrels produced daily by Africa in 2004. In the same year, the continent supplied an estimated 18 percent of US net oil imports, with Angola and Nigeria the leading suppliers. This development has meant an increase in the number of oil tankers that pass by the west coast of Africa on their way to America’s east coast.

Right-wing American journalists and think-tanks have played up the “surge in Islamic terrorist threat in the Gulf of Guinea” angle, arguing that with billions of dollars of US investment now in the region, thousands of US workers in the oil fields, and strategic supplies of energy at stake, US anti-terrorist aid to the region had become imperative.

Local journalists and environmental activists in Nigeria and other Gulf of Guinea countries have questioned the assertion that the region is crawling with Islamic terrorists, pointing out that neither the Bush government nor the think tanks have been able to support those claims.

Reference to “another Vietnam” and “the new Iraq” is now routine in the Niger Delta, and such talk is not restricted to armed militias.

Significantly, reference to “another Vietnam” and “the new Iraq” is now routine in the Niger Delta, and such talk is not restricted to armed militias. When rumors began to make the rounds in February that the US government had resolved to send in the Marines to assist Nigerian troops in rescuing the nine expatriate workers MEND had kidnapped, there was a general uproar. Patrick Bigha, leader of the Warri Ijaw Peace Monitoring Group, an organization that espouses nonviolent political action, quickly called a press conference in the city and declared: “The Niger Delta is not Afghanistan or Iraq and any attempt to dare us will end in a bloodbath and the greatest defeat in the history of the American Army.”

US deployment of military hardware in the region continues apace. The US European Command has concluded plans to construct a naval base in São Tomé and Principe, and to complement the permanent military base in Djibouti. On August 28, Nigerian and American officials in Abuja announced a new Nigeria-United States Gulf of Guinea Energy Security Initiative aimed at “securing” $600 billion of new investments in oil fields in the region.

Present estimates indicate that the Gulf hosts some 14 billion barrels of crude in deep offshore fields. There are 33 fixed crude oil production platforms – 20 floating production facilities, and 13 floater and off-take vessels in the Gulf. This is expected to increase to 159 fixed platforms and 700 oil wells by 2008. Any military attack and subsequent disruption of production would threaten US and Western Europe’s energy supplies, and billions of dollars in lost investments could throw their economies into a tailspin. The energy security initiative is the American response to this potential threat.

From poverty to political freedom

I have traveled extensively in the Niger Delta’s communities since the late 1980s, but nothing prepared me for what I encountered in Oporoza and its satellite hamlets in the Western Delta last August. Poverty and neglect take shape in the form of flimsy huts on decayed wooden stilts, bracken greenish water ponds from which the inhabitants drink, and polluted fishing creeks long denuded of life. To visit Oporoza and Egbema is to encounter the very nadir of the noxious embrace of Big Oil, unaccountable government, and the excruciating indigence that only violent exclusion from the civic sphere can bring about.

As author Amartya Sen so brilliantly demonstrated in his book Development as Freedom, poverty and famine flourish only where people are deprived of the right to participate in the political and civic process. This is only too true of Oporoza and the wider Niger Delta, where the machine guns of the Nigerian military, greased by oil company executives, have elbowed ordinary people out of the public sphere.

The Maxim machine gun, not the ballot box, was the instrument of rule in the Niger Delta in the age of colonialism.

Academics, journalists, and development workers who espouse the so-called “Resource Curse” theory argue that resource-rich countries like Nigeria inevitably degenerate into authoritarian and corrupt rule because it is easy for the military elites and their civilian allies to hijack the oil fields by force, and redesign political institutions to sustain the new regime. But there is nothing inevitable about resource-rich regions regressing into poverty, as the cases of oil-rich Norway and Canada illustrate. Nor is it the case that all authoritarian movements are driven by the lure of easy spoils. Nigerian politics was already well on the way to unaccountable government before oil production commenced in 1956. This was largely the legacy of colonial conquest, and the undemocratic institutions of governance put in place by the British to exploit the wealth of the country undisturbed by the local people, subsequently handed over to carefully chosen political leaders who would go on to protect their interests after the colonial rulers quit in 1960. The Maxim machine gun, not the ballot box, was the instrument of rule in the Niger Delta and Nigeria in the age of colonialism.

Nigeria is a basket case today because its people were still under unaccountable colonial rule when oil was discovered in the Niger Delta in 1956. The machine guns that slaughtered the innocents of Letugbene last August are directly descended from the Maxim guns that Frederick Lugard employed to “pacify” the natives at the behest of the Royal Niger Company at the turn of the 20th century. Shell and crude oil may have replaced Nigeria’s founder George Taubman Goldie and his thirst for palm oil, but the marriage of egregious violence and the resources of local people remain undisturbed.

It is telling that topping the list of MEND’s grievances in its negotiations with government officials last March was the exclusion of the Ijaw from meaningful political participation in the Nigerian project following the return of electoral politics in 1999. Anxious to arrange a cease-fire so oil production could resume, a delegation made up of two Shell executives and Timi Alaibe, finance director of the government-controlled Niger Delta Development Commission, visited MEND’s “Council of Elders” in June at Camp Five, a fortified island near Oporoza, where the MEND members were ensconced. The MEND spokesperson argued that discussions must go beyond “mere provision of electricity and water” and focus on the political marginalization of the Ijaw because, according to him, “We believe that we have to seek first our political freedom and every other thing will follow.”

Ike Okonta is a Nigerian freelance writer who works with Earth Island’s West Africa Rainforest Network.

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