The Niger Delta - a crisis unlikely to go away

After a relative lull of nearly two years, Nigeria’s restive Niger Delta, like a dormant volcano, erupted in violence in February, when people from its Urhobo and Itsekiri communities fought each other with guns and matchetes on the streets of the southern oil town of Warri, burning rivals' houses and killing them. More serious violence broke out between Ijaws and Itsekiris on 12 March, exactly one month before Nigerians were due to begin voting in crucial general elections. Both Ijaws and Urhobos alleged that the distribution of electoral wards in the districts around Warri was skewered in favour of the Itsekiris and wanted them reversed. Militants from each side were armed with automatic rifles. The conflict intensified after a shootout between Ijaw militants and troops deployed to quell the disturbances resulted in the death of two soldiers and five militants. More battles followed during which several more troops and many more militants were killed. Villages belonging to both Ijaws and Itsekiris were burned and when it all calmed down nearly two weeks later more than 100 people had died in the violence. Perhaps more ominous for the government was the suspension of over 800,000 barrels a day of crude oil production, representing 40 percent of Nigeria’s daily output of over two million barrels. That happened when the violence forced oil transnationals Royal/Dutch Shell, ChevronTexaco and TotalFinaElf to shut down their operations and evacuate their staff from most of the facilities they operate in the western Niger Delta. Coming at a time when Nigeria was hoping to cash in on rising global oil prices as a result of war in Iraq, it was a telling blow for President Olusegun Obasanjo’s government. The president reflected this when he ordered a clampdown on the Ijaw militants blamed for fighting the security forces. But in a defiant response the militants have threatened to blow up evacuated oil facilities in their area if the military put them under further pressure. While the immediate cause of the latest showdown are demands for a re-drawing of electoral boundaries, the underlying causes remain perceptions by the impoverished communities of the Niger Delta they are being cheated out of the oil wealth produced on their land. Nearly 50 years of oil exploration have brought little or no benefits to the region. Instead there has been widespread environmental degradation, including the pollution of its myriads of rivers and creeks, leading to the loss of livelihoods among the mainly fishing and farming communities. The Ijaws, who by far are the largest ethnic group in the region, feel they have borne the brunt of the damaging effects of oil production and are increasingly militant in their demands. Their anger has been made worse by the awareness among their leadership - often university-educated but unemployed youths - that the oil wealth of the region has in the past three decades funded the profligacy of a succession of Nigerian regimes dominated by the elite of bigger ethnic groups whose communities are far removed from the degradation caused by oil production. “Our oil wealth has also been the one factor fuelling the desperate competition for power among politicians of the military and civilian hue over the years,” activist Fubara Opuke told IRIN. “And they all want to get their hands on the money not to bring us development but to get enough to put away for their families in foreign banks. We want to put a stop to all of that.” For Niger Delta people the wake-up call was the campaign in the early 1990s, led by late writer and environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa, for a greater share of the region’s wealth for its people. Though Saro-Wiwa spoke primarily for his 500,000-strong Ogoni ethnic minority through his Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), other ethnic minorities in the region paid heed. The military rulers then in power were quick to perceive the “dangerous portents” of his activism. He was initially subjected to spells of arrest and detention on various pretexts. Then in 1994 he and eight fellow MOSOP members were condemned for the murder of four rivals in a trial widely denounced as flawed. On the orders of then military ruler Gen Sani Abacha, they were executed in 1995 amid international outrage. If the execution was meant to nip restiveness in the oil region in the bud, it failed woefully. Instead there was an upsurge in protests and the disruption of oil operations by angry militants and communities across the region on a scale that sometimes cut oil output by as much as a third. Following his election victory in 1999, Obasanjo promised the Niger Delta people a new deal. The new constitution, in the same spirit, had provided for the payment of 13 percent of oil revenue to states in the oil region. The new government sought to complement this by creating a special development agency for the region known as the Niger Delta Development Commission. But it did not take long for raised hopes to be replaced by disappointment among people in the region. When some militants killed 12 policemen in the town of Odi barely six months after the new government took office, Obasanjo’s response was harsh. He despatched troops who killed hundreds of people and razed every building in the town except two - a bank and a church. Apparently seeking a military solution to the restiveness in the region, Obasanjo began massive troop deployments. Soldiers were now stationed at key oil facilities and on some occasions when militants took their protests to oil facilities, troops reportedly opened fire, causing several casualties. Obasanjo has further offended feelings in the region by making a distinction between oil produced onshore and offshore. He has used this as a basis to pay states in the region only half of the 13 percent envisaged by the constitution. After this step was met with protests, he filed a suit at the Supreme Court and obtained a ruling that the federal government had exclusive control over all revenue from offshore oil production. When his legal victory appeared to be translating into a political loss, Obasanjo forwarded a bill to the legislature to end the distinction between onshore and offshore oil. The legislature passed the bill but substituted “contiguous zone” with “continental shelf”, thereby extending the operational offshore area from the 200 metres envisaged by the president to 200 nautical miles. Piqued by this action, Obasanjo has refused to sign the bill, further alienating many of his supporters in the region. “There is a resurgence of anger in the Niger Delta and the latest violence and its unprecedented impact on oil output attests to its ferocity,” an oil industry source told IRIN. Many in the oil industry fear insurgency is incipient in the region. Apparently aware of this situation, the government recently increased troop deployments to the Delta. Among the latest reinforcements are several United States coastguard ships from the World War II era donated by the US government and fitted with machine guns and canons. These were recently sent to the waters of the Delta. For their part, militants in the region, especially those of Ijaw extraction, have been hardening their positions. The Ijaw Youths Council, representing all activist groups of the ethnic group, last week issued a statement stating conditions for a return of normalcy in the areas where oil operations were forced to shut down. Their conditions include that Obasanjo sign the controversial oil bill and oil companies sign memoranda of understanding with Ijaw communities where they operate, pledging to provide amenities and jobs. If this was not done, the youths said, they would resist the return of the oil transnationals and if the government tried to force its way, they would blow up oil facilities in the region. On Saturday, 5 March, exactly one week to the start of the general elections, the main pipeline transporting crude oil from ChevronTexaco's Escravos oil terminal was ruptured by a blast. Officials of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation said explosives had been used. No one claimed responsibility.