The latest government offensive in the Niger Delta is the heaviest for several years, with 3,000 troops, two warships, 14 boats and at least four helicopter gunships moving into Gbaramatu Kingdom, an Ijaw region in the Western Delta near Chevron’s Escravos oil facility. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta responded by destroying five of Chevron’s nearby pipelines. MEND has a diffuse but well-armed network of fighters, with up to five training bases hidden in the creeks and a well-run system of weapon caches. Gang leaders who sign up to MEND keep their own camps and bases.
Human rights groups claim, with varying degrees of credibility, that between fifty and several thousand civilians have been killed in the operation so far. Media-savvy militant groups hope for a big propaganda advantage. The military Joint Task Force (JTF) said it could no longer ‘fold its hands’ after weeks of attacks on soldiers, hijacking of oil vessels and kidnapping of workers around Gbaramatu. Oil production has fallen to under 1.6 million barrels per day from a peak of 2.4 mn. bpd three years ago.
Troops are hunting down militants believed to follow High Chief Government Ekpemupolo, alias Tompolo, a MEND commander with links to Delta politicians and whose involvement in the conflict goes back to the Ijaw-Itsekiri communal violence in 1997. There are rumours that the army plans to establish a permanent barracks in the area, in Tompolo’s father’s house.
Amnesty International and others report that 20-30,000 non-combatants, caught in the crossfire, are fleeing the area for safety near the oil centre of Warri. There has been little reaction from foreign governments although, after visiting a Total oil platform, French Prime Minister FranÃ§ois Fillon signed pacts with the federal government on legal cooperation and security in the Delta. There is plenty of oil on offer internationally and no immediate risk of a sudden price rise.
Security has been getting worse for months, investment has been declining and the currency, the naira, has grown weaker as oil prices falter. On 23 May, a week after the fighting began, state governors from the Delta met with foreign diplomats and the media. They blamed the crisis largely on other governments’ failure to address bunkering (the theft of oil from pipelines) and small-arms trafficking. Hitherto, they had mostly blamed the petroleum industry.
In February, three governors – Emmanuel Uduaghan of Delta State, Rotimi Amaechi of Rivers and Timipreye Sylva of Bayelsa – attended a Chatham House roundtable in London. Sylva named six militants who had been brought into the government fold as proof that conditions for business were improving. Yet by March, companies from South Africa, France, the Netherlands and the United States had joined Willbros and Kellogg Brown & Root in an exodus from the Delta, all citing security concerns. Sylva denounced militancy and declared that ‘allocations’ to militants on Bayelsa State’s payroll would be cut.
Sylva and Uduaghan have close links to militant groups. Uduaghan set up the Delta Waterways Security Committee, which many – including, it seems, the JTF commander, Brigadier General Nanven Wuyep Rimtip – call the nationalisation of bunkering. Locals say Uduaghan has often visited a known training camp; George Timinimi, who runs the Delta State Ministry of Water Resources, was Tompolo’s friend but is now his rival. Tompolo, who is close to many Ijaw politicians, has security contracts with the State government and perhaps with oil companies. In January 2008, he was given his own oil pipeline.
Until recently, Tompolo received N100 million a month from Governor Uduaghan. Local sources say he has not been paid for four months. Nobody knows why the payments stopped but local ethnic rivalries are involved. Gbaramatu people in the refugee camps say that festivities on 15 May would have revealed a new paramount chief in Gbaramatu Kingdom, a political power-base for the Ijaw, one of Delta State’s eight ethnic groups. Tompolo and Timinimi had nominated rival candidates. JTF helicopters attacked the festival.
Some claim that the army’s real target is the weak President in Abuja. They say the army took action in the Delta in order to precipitate a national crisis, provoke a national state of emergency, stage a coup and replace President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua with a military figure. Military conspiracies are not unusual in Nigeria but no conspiracy is required to explain recent events. They repeat a pattern established when the gang leaders Mujahid Dokubo-Asari and Ateke Tom were fighting it out across the Delta, in 2003-05 (AC Vol 48 No 23).
Violence and mayhem are linked to criminality and election-rigging. Alarmed foreign investors leave the Delta in droves. State governors then try to pay off and accommodate militants and gang leaders, the most intransigent of whom are detained (as was Asari in 2005; he was released in June 2007). The removal of the most aggressive militants calms investors and oil companies, and persuades other gang leaders to limit their aggression to an acceptable level – while remaining on hand for election-fixing and, probably, sharing illicit revenue with Delta politicians.
Each time, the ‘acceptable’ level of violence rises and overall security moves nearer to breakdown. Paying off and rewarding bunkering and armed violence attracts yet more politico-criminal gangsters to the business. This time, the attempt to co-opt Tompolo failed and his revenue from oil bunkering is squeezed by low prices. His base in Gbaramatu is to be destroyed, and he is to be hung out to dry by his former allies.
On 11 April, the daily Vanguard published a leaked list of militant leaders believed to be on a federal government amnesty list. Tompolo was not on it. The attacks seem designed to humiliate him and make it impossible for him to regain his earlier position, thanks to coordination between state and federal governments, and the JTF. A similar manoeuvre failed with Asari and led to the formation of MEND. If Tompolo is removed, who will take his place? Will his MEND brethren stay loyal, now his friends in politics have abandoned him?
Much depends on whether the JTF pursues other militant leaders as vigorously and on the reaction of the loose-knit MEND leadership. It is possible that those on the leaked amnesty list will accept that MEND is formally disbanded, with control of Escravos handed to state politicians and a permanent military presence (including control of illicit revenue). Continued criminal operations would be tolerated, if better security allowed the oil industry contractors back.
The two most active gang leaders linked to MEND in the Eastern Delta are Ateke Tom and Soboma George. They present the army with fluid targets and complex relationships between communities, militants and criminals. Wholesale attacks on regions where militants are thought to train could cause huge displaced populations and other humanitarian issues. Delta-watchers fear that the hardcore MEND commanders would see this as the real showdown and counterattack the federal authorities.
This would precipitate, over months, the scenario foreseen in the 2003 report for Shell by British financial and information company WAC Services Limited: that the oil company would be driven offshore entirely in 2009. In such a conflict, hundreds of complex local disputes (like the succession of chiefs in Gbaramatu) would become enmeshed in fighting between disparate gangs and the army, involving ever greater numbers of federal forces.
The conflict in the Niger Delta could become a struggle for the unity of Nigeria. MEND is not yet calling for that. Its spokesman, Jomo Gbomo has been characteristically vague. ‘Our message to the Northern Sultans and Emirs is this. The period of exploiting the Niger Delta is coming to an end. It is not the birthright of your people to rule the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The war is just beginning and by the time it ends Nigeria will practice true federalism such as fiscal federalism,’ he told journalists by e-mail in May