Tiophelis spends his days running. He won't say exactly where, but, like hundreds of other boys and men in the creeks of Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta region, he is constantly on the move for fear of attacks by the Nigerian military.
The soft-spoken boy’s voice cracks over the phone - Tiophelis refuses to meet in person. He is a militant, a member of one of countless groups that claim to be fighting for freedom from poverty, underdevelopment, and political oppression for the people in the Niger Delta region.
One group, known as the Icelanders and run by renowned militant Ateke Tom, claims to be 600 to 700-strong, with recruitment fuelled by unemployment, anger and a lack of opportunities.
Tiophelis told IRIN he is ready for peace, on one condition: "You make peace by giving us jobs. Not by chasing us around."
Militant groups such as the one Tiophelis belongs to are nothing new in the Niger Delta.
Communities in the region have agitated for a greater share of the oil wealth since before independence in 1960. After Nigeria’s transition to democracy in 1999, the protests turned into attacks on oil facilities, the military, and at times, other militant groups.
Until August 2007 militia members walked the streets of Port Harcourt indistinguishable from other passers-by. Tension between rival factions drew them into gun battles in the city’s impoverished waterfront communities and on the main streets in the centre. In August, the violence escalated and 30 civilians died in the crossfire.
In response, the Nigerian military set up a Joint Task Force in Port Harcourt, forcing the boys to flee the town, and pushing them ever deeper into the region’s mangrove swamps. Between the trees and the waterways, where the oil industry makes its home, the boys make their camps.
Children joining militias
"Go into the creeks and you will find there are 14-year-old boys," Ann-Kio Briggs, a former spokesperson for the Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force, a militant group with its roots in Port Harcourt, told IRIN. "This is the [upcoming] generation we are talking about."
"They live in the forest," a former militant, Wari George, told IRIN. "They make a camp, and live there. Many also have families in town."
Photo: George Osodi
|Ijaw militants loyal to Dokubo Asari display their guns and magic charms in Okoronta village in the Niger Delta|
Despite the hardships, the groups have not struggled to find adherents.
With youth unemployment soaring in the Niger Delta and even university graduates struggling to find work, recruitment by the militias is one of the only way for young men to make their own way.
"I finished secondary school. But there was no job, not even a chance of an opportunity," George told IRIN. "If you ask me to carry arms, I will in order to survive."
George only left his job as a militant when the leader of his faction, Alhaji Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, of the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force, was arrested in September 2005.
Unlike most work in the Niger Delta, “running” with the militias is lucrative. Many of Nigeria’s oil pipelines are above ground, making them vulnerable to sabotage and bunkering.
On 29 January the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps handed over - to the country’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission - 118 suspects for having stolen an alleged 104 million naira (just over US$881,000) worth of crude oil since September 2007.
The groups are also behind the kidnap of countless expatriate oil workers over the past few years. Ransom payments, together with oil bunkering and political ties, have kept the militants flush with cash and arms.
In 2003 and again in 2007, politicians paid and armed the groups to rig elections, Human Rights Watch documented in an October 2007 report.
“The impunity enjoyed by politicians is so widespread that some residents of the state are not even aware that their sponsorship of armed gangs is in and of itself illegal,” the report reads.
“Fourteen-year-old boys are going to the camps as a summer job,” explains Ledum Mittee, the outgoing president of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, a Niger Delta ethnic group.
“They go there and earn money… you ask, what is the alternative? Say they earn N40,000 (about US$340) a month. For those young boys - for anyone else - imagine how much that is. Then they go back to class.”
In rural areas, environmental damage from oil extraction that has devastated agricultural communities provides an additional spur to join one of the groups. Briggs, former spokesperson for the Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force, says a feeling of repression, from living in polluted and impoverished communities, pushes the boys into the creeks.
|...The motive is that people want all their rights... if they are not going to have them by negotiation, then they will have them by violence...|
“There isn’t a disconnect between the motives of the Niger Delta struggle [and the militancy],” Briggs told IRIN. “The motive is that people want all of their rights… if they are not going to have them by negotiation, then they will have them by violence.”
Tired of the fight?
Clara Ngeribika, an evangelist who organised negotiations for peace between the various militant factions throughout 2007, told IRIN that many of the boys living in the bush are tired of the fight.
"If the government can be sincere with them, they are ready to disarm," she said.
But without any meaningful opportunities to offer the militia members other than carrying a gun, peace talks between the Nigerian government and militant leaders in September 2007 quickly broke down.
Militants said one of the reasons they left the negotiating table was an incident in December when troops stormed the home of militant leader Ateke Tom, who had claimed he was ready for peace.
Ngeribika said the real reason there is no peace yet is the militia members do not really believe the government will let them have a future if they surrender.
"[The boys] might be working somewhere and because of their past records [the government] might hunt them. They are afraid."
Another stumbling block is disarmament. The government insists disarmament must come before negotiation.
Militants complain that disarming would mean that even if they did find work, the wages would be twice or three times less than that of a militant. Blue collar workers in Port Harcourt earn 10,000-20,000 naira (about US$85 to US$170) a month, and it would be difficult for men used to imported cars and designer clothes to take such an income cut.
Other observers say neither the government nor the militants are sincere yet about negotiating for peace because both sides know they both profit from the situation - the militants financially, the politicians to intimidate their opponents.
"Militancy is big business for everybody," the author Victor Burubo told IRIN. "It thrives because the conditions are right."