Dec 19, 2006

Ogoni: Paying the Price for Resistance

This has been a violent year across the Niger Delta. The reason behind the attacks seems clear: The government, which has received nearly all its income from oil for decades, has done little for the 20 million people of the delta.

OKERENKOKO, Nigeria -- This riverside village along remote creeks of the Niger Delta is a base for a violent insurgency that has forced a 20 percent to 25 percent cut in Nigeria's oil output - the fifth-biggest source of petroleum imports for the United States - and helped fuel this year's higher gas prices.

The winding path through the creeks is so dangerous that scores of oil workers have been evacuated to guarded compounds in Warri, a rundown city 90 minutes away by speedboat. Those brave or naive enough to travel the creeks risk being detained by the Nigerian navy and strongly urged to turn back.

The village itself is near the spot where militants held nine foreign oil workers hostage this year, a brazen move praised by villagers like Mosco Johnny, a scowling 37-year-old. "I don't like Shell," he said. "They cause so much problems. We have youths who don't have work to do. Sometimes they get up and say, 'Look at these people taking oil; let's go and meet them.' "

This has been a violent year across the delta. Militants have killed 37 Nigerian soldiers in attacks; seized, and later released more than 70 hostages in almost weekly incidents; blown up a pipeline to an export terminal; and detonated a car bomb near tanker trucks.

The agitation began in this western region of Delta state, where some 500,000 barrels per day that could be pumped remain "shut in," costing oil companies and the government some $30 million a day. It has spread east to Port Harcourt, Africa's bustling, dysfunctional oil capital. Numerous attacks have been credibly claimed by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, which claims to be an umbrella group of militants.

In the latest incident, militants linked to MEND seized four oil workers Dec. 7 after raiding an export terminal operated by the Italian company Agip. MEND said the men, three Italians and one Lebanese, would be released only in exchange for unspecified delta natives held by the Nigerian government. It also threatened "more ruthless" attacks.

"We say to all oil companies in the delta, your nightmare has not even begun," a MEND spokesman using the pseudonym Jomo Gbomo said via e-mail.

Since emerging in January, MEND has repeatedly warned Western oil workers to leave or risk attack. Its demands include a vastly increased share of Nigeria's oil revenues and a $1.5 billion payment by Royal Dutch Shell for past exploitation. The group also insists on the release of Alhaji Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, a militant leader jailed last year on treason charges for espousing violence.

"We have, in effect, given a voice to the people of the Niger Delta," Gbomo said via e-mail. "There is a wind of change blowing in the Niger Delta. Without doubt, we have been greatly responsible for this."

The logic behind the attacks seems clear: The government, which has received nearly all its income from oil for decades, has done little for the 20 million people of the delta. To force officials to help the people, they try to hit where it hurts most - by slashing oil production and government revenues.

Gbomo, who communicates with reporters only through e-mail and does not give his real name, has said MEND is planning "more spectacular" attacks "to press home our point." Analysts worry that the bloodshed will worsen as April's high-stakes national elections draw near, because politicians have previously used armed thugs to intimidate opposition supporters at voting time.

"There's always been this background threat that things will get a lot worse," said Julian Lee of the Center for Global Energy Studies in London. "If these guys really wanted to close down Nigerian oil production, they have the capability to do it." That is a big if, however.

One diplomat based in the capital, Abuja, argues that the militants do not care about raising the abysmal living standards in the impoverished delta. Mostly, he says, they want to be paid ransom by oil companies or the government, and they are flexing muscle to persuade authorities to let them continue stealing oil, a racket known as "bunkering" for the way oil is siphoned onto barges.

"MEND, in our view, is oil-bunkering thugs," said the diplomat, speaking on the condition he not be named. "We believe the bottom line is they want money, they want power."

Dokubo-Asari, the militant leader, has admitted taking oil and selling it. But, he told an interviewer last year before his arrest that "the oil belongs to our people, and we have every right to take it."

History of unrest

Since oil production began in the late 1950s, the Niger Delta has been the site of frequent unrest. In 1966, Isaac Boro, a former police officer angry at how oil companies were operating, staged a short-lived attempt to create a separate republic.

Perhaps the most famous opponent of Big Oil has been Ken Saro-Wiwa. He gained a worldwide following for leading peaceful protests against Shell's financial and environmental practices in Ogoniland, a small region in the delta.

The movement in 1993 drove Shell out of Ogoniland, a corporate exile that continues to this day. The next year, the generals then ruling Nigeria arrested Saro-Wiwa and others on dubious murder charges in the deaths of four dissident Ogoni leaders. Nine were convicted and sentenced to death by a military tribunal. Despite global pleas for leniency, Saro-Wiwa and eight others were hanged in 1995.

The most recent militant figure to gain local prominence has been Dokubo-Asari. After years of militancy, he reached a peace deal with the federal government in 2004. He moved openly in a fancy Lincoln Navigator and lived in a big house in Port Harcourt.

But last November he was charged with treason after threatening to resume his violent campaign. He is being held in Abuja, where he awaits trial and could face the death penalty.

"If you're looking at who created this monster of militancy, they were created by politicians in this region," said Anyakwee Nsirimovu, a human rights lawyer in Port Harcourt.

It began in 1999, he said, when Nigeria moved to democracy, and continued in 2003. Politicians "used these young men, brought in AK-47s, to fight elections for them. Now that they have failed to deliver responsive governance, these weapons are being used to intimidate and create problems in the community."

To youths with few legitimate employment options, militancy holds considerable appeal, said Chris Albin-Lackey, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. "There is the very real possibility of making real money by either being part of a militant group or engaging in bunkering or allowing themselves to be hired out as a thug around election time."

Oil companies, which say little publicly about the unrest, have had to forgo production of 500,000 to 800,000 barrels a day at times this year, leaving output at about 2.3 million barrels per day. The firms speak about funding sustainable development to raise living standards and ease the seething frustration. But they insist it is the government's job to provide basic services.

In a controversial practice, the companies quietly employ some of their harshest critics. One, Messio German, 35, said Shell pays him to provide surveillance of pipelines and flow stations in the creeks. He says he employs a staff of 72 but will not say how much he earns. Critics call this "protection money." Shell did not answer questions about German.

German is from Okerenkoko. Amid the entrenched hardships, such as murky drinking water and a lack of electricity, his village displays just enough oil-related wealth to inspire envy. While most people live in small houses of wood or concrete, one man - an oil contractor, villagers say - has an expansive compound with his own generator. German himself lives in Warri, where he has a comfortable house and a nice sedan.

Fighting militants

The task of combating oil theft and militancy, and generally keeping peace in much of the Niger Delta, rests with Brig. Gen. Alfred Ilogho, a burly man with a ready smile. His initiative is called Operation Restore Hope.

A lot rides on his ability to keep oil flowing. Nigeria derives nearly all its foreign income from crude oil exports, and oil companies say the federal government is earning about 95 percent of the net profits on every barrel that is exported at current prices of around $60 a barrel.

Ilogho, whose training included a stint at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., leads the Joint Task Force from a drab military barracks outside Warri. Since March, he has overseen a contingent of army, navy and police units, and he has taken a conciliatory tone.

"The issue at stake is not an issue of arrest or bringing anybody to book," he said in an interview. "The government believes, strongly, the issue at stake should be looking at objectives and finding long-standing solutions to problems on the ground."

By this he meant the lack of development and jobs and praised the latest proposal from President Olusegun Obasanjo to improve conditions in the delta.

"I have adopted a strategy of dialogue," Ilogho said, "and I think it's working out."

Human rights workers say that events in February 2005 illustrate the military's previous strategy: violent suppression. That month, task force soldiers were sent to Odioma amid fighting between two villages over compensation from Shell for the right to drill new wells. The task force said soldiers met armed resistance and began shooting. In the process many houses caught fire, according to Amnesty International, which reported that "at least 17 people died as a result of the attack, including young children and elderly people. Of these, 14 were reportedly burned to death."

As evidence that his gentler strategy is working, Ilogho noted that nine Western hostages seized months earlier by MEND were released without any ransom paid or other conditions met. He also said MEND had undertaken no new attacks in weeks.

Since then, though, MEND has claimed responsibility for more attacks. And Gbomo, its spokesman, said in an e-mail that a ransom was indeed paid - to members of the Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities, a group sometimes associated with MEND.

In addition, some attacks are the work of what MEND calls "freelancers" who have strayed from the group. In others, community members nursing a local grievance against an oil company take it upon themselves to storm pumping stations: That happened in October when protesters briefly occupied three Shell pumping stations and one belonging to Chevron.

Slow progress

Ilogho said in a recent phone interview that he remains pleased with his progress. "Settlement does not come overnight," he said, when asked about more recent attacks. On balance, "the situation is calmer now. Things are working out very fine."

Experts and oil executives agree that improvement has occurred in one area: Bunkering has dropped below levels once estimated at 10 percent of Nigeria's production, although not all of them give credit to Ilogho's command since the downward trend long predated his arrival.

Shell, which produces nearly a million barrels a day, has charted a steady decline in thievery - from 100,000 barrels a day in 2003 to fewer than 40,000 barrels last year.

But MEND argues that its members are not "oil-bunkering thugs." It says only government and military officials have the capability of bunkering because of the high visibility of barges moving through the creeks. Ilogho did not answer a question in May about whether militants or the authorities were presently involved in bunkering.

Ilogho is more direct, almost angry, when it comes to MEND's recent threats to launch "more spectacular" attacks that would stop, rather than just slow, Nigeria's oil output.

"Somebody can sit down in his bedroom, concoct a name and send out several e-mails across the globe," Ilogho said in October, referring to Gbomo. "They are frivolous propaganda e-mails just to create the impression that something is on when nothing is on."

Gbomo, however, gained credibility among reporters this year when he warned of a bombing shortly before it occurred. He earlier expressed pleasure that MEND's militancy had the power to move world petroleum markets, as attacks helped push up oil prices.

Whether the group could, or would, stop oil production is a different matter. With their automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, today's militants command a far more lethal arsenal than their predecessors. But a total shutdown would require enormous coordination to pull off.

"I will not go into details," Gbomo wrote, "but be sure it will be very easy to shut in Nigeria's entire export in one attack."

Foreign perspective

If the military had the ability to stop the militants, John Anderson might be out drilling oil wells instead of sipping another Heineken on another lazy night deep inside a guarded compound away from the masses in Warri.

Anderson works for Houston-based Parker Drilling, a Shell contractor that maintains existing wells and drills new ones. He is, or was, assistant manager of a "swamp rig," a floating platform that operates in the creeks.

Anderson and his co-workers were evacuated to Warri in February, due to growing violence, and confined within the gated Edewor Estate. If he wants cigarettes, he gives money to a guard to buy them. If he wants to go to the office nearby, he needs an armed escort.

"This is the worst I've seen," said the British-born Anderson, 60, sitting at a private bar that excludes Nigerian men but lets in the young Nigerian women who keep many white expatriate workers company. Half a dozen Parker employees were inside, some having drinks, some playing pool. Anderson and a colleague sat out on the patio in the thick evening air.

Anderson, who first visited Nigeria for work in 1978, expressed a view of the situation here that is echoed by many other European and American oil workers on assignment to the delta.

"When I first came here, we didn't have armed guards ferrying us around. There was no kidnapping going on. I was here when the military was in charge. Then the civilians took over. It's all gone downhill from there. If you ask me, the military government seemed to keep a tighter rein on the problem."

Anderson has grown bored watching TV all day and spending evenings with friends at the bar. But he has no regrets about his current assignment.

"I actually like Nigeria," he said. "The locals are nice. Oh, we've got militants. They're a bit of a loose cannon. But you can understand their plight, with all the poverty."

More options needed

Many Nigerians seem more focused on feeding their families than supporting an insurgency. But the frustration has reached the point that even a school principal feels comfortable expressing support for sabotage.

Alex Aphia, principal of the all-boys Urhobo Model College, a public junior high school in Warri, drew the line at hostage-taking. But he had a different view of acts of sabotage that stop the flow of oil and, therefore, the flow of money into federal government coffers in the gleaming, modern capital of Abuja.

"That's an action I support," Aphia said. "Sometimes you can sabotage the federal government and let them know people are suffering."

The principal worries about the future of his students, who range in age from 11 to 14. "In the delta region, the rate of crime is so much because you have so many unemployed youths. Most come out of school with no job. The oil resource we see here is not reflected in our lives."

His school has just four computers, none linked to the Internet. Scarce diesel fuel for the school generator is reserved for evenings, so the boys can have light to do their homework.

"Everybody now wants to be a Shell worker, and how many graduates can they take? Let us generate employment so these youths can be employed. Nobody is doing that - just a lot of noise, just political talk. The future, if nothing is done, is very bleak and can bring a revolution to this community."