Africa: Politics and Societies South of the Sahara

Niger Delta: Bomb Attacks and an Amnesty

Posted in African Politics, Global Africa, Nigeria by ruben eberlein on September 24, 2009

After a massive military intervention, the Nigerian central government wants to pacify the oil-producing Niger Delta with an amnesty. This strategy will most likely fail, but nevertheless prepare the ground for the 2011 elections. Read an updated English version of my text published by Konkret 9/09 here or download the original article as pdf.

Six years ago, a group of Nigerian and international experts, in their internal report for the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), came to this conclusion: ‘If current conflict trends continue uninterrupted, it would be surprising if Shell Companies in Nigeria [are] able to continue on-shore resource extraction in the Niger Delta beyond 2008, whilst complying with Shell Business Principles.’ Practices of the company – such as the collaboration with rebels and criminal groups as well as uncoordinated and socially destructive ‘development initiatives’ – were said to be responsible, in interplay with other factors, for the ongoing criminalisation of the conflicts in the Niger Delta, triggered by the oil production in course of the last decades.


Some predictions of the expert group became reality. In March 2009, official oil exports from Nigeria added up to 1.6 million Barrel per day. This is a decline by one million Barrel in comparison to 2006. At the end of June, SPDC temporarily stopped its production in the Western Niger Delta completely. The attacks on the oil infrastructure by insurgent groups, sabotage by criminal syndicates and a flourishing kidnapping industry during the past years transformed the Niger Delta from a region of permanent political and social instability into a war zone. The boundaries between state institutions, private enterprises, so called rebels and criminals are extremely fluent (see my article in Konkret 8/08).

After the drop of global oil prices, the boost of production is a top priority for the central state that is on the drip of the oil rents. Mid-May 2009, Nigeria’s government, via its Joint Task Force (JTF), started the biggest military intervention into the Niger Delta since the reintroduction of civil rule in 1999. Helicopters, ground troops and warships attacked camps and villages in Delta State that are considered to be areas of retreat for insurgents. There are said to be more than four dozen camps in the Niger Delta; some observers estimate the number of trained fighters to be as high as 25,000. According to the reports of local human rights groups, hundreds of civilians lost their live during the most recent attack of the JTF; thousands were forced to flee their homes. This war is also waged in the internet. A video, for example, is said to document the murder of arrested rebels by the JTF, but its authenticity is questionable.

The attacks of the JTF were directed foremost against the so called Camp 5, controlled by High Chief Government ‘Tompolo’ Ekpemupolo, a rebel leader in the Western Niger Delta who is associated with the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). Documents that were found by the army after the taking of the camp, Africa Confidential and others report, detail the close connections between Tompolo and the governments of Rivers, Bayelsa and Delta state. The governors, however, strongly rebuffed these claims. They said that they did not pay Tompolo, who went into hiding, millions of US-Dollar from public funds.

According to Udengs Eradiri – Secretary General of the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), one of the most active socio-ethnic organisations of the Ijaw people in the Niger Delta – the recent intervention of the JTF followed an established design. Local military officers and politicians are often deeply involved in the high-profile oil theft in the Niger Delta, he told Konkret. ‘If everything goes smooth, the military sits in their army camps and, together with the rebel groups, profits from the illegal extraction and export of oil. Though if it comes to an argument about these businesses, then the national army is called in to go against the communities.’ The undocumented tapping of pipelines and the export of oil, in which associates of oil companies obviously take part as well, is the biggest illegitimate business in West Africa (narrowly ahead of cocaine transit trade) and constitutes an important material base for local systems of domination.

The collaboration between officials of the state, military personnel and insurgent or criminal organisations respectively and the shadow network of power produced by this melange is a deciding reason for the consolidation of violent conflicts in the Niger Delta. On the other side, there are a number of actors on all levels which are, for different reasons, interested in a lasting solution. This results in a confusing and often contradictory politics in and vis-à-vis the Niger Delta. The profiteers of this war economy are highly sophisticated in manipulating the different interventions and can realise an extra-rent that accrues from these contradictions. The instrumentalisation of social disorder with the aim of personal enrichment, already described in 1999 by Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz in their book Africa Works, finds its paradigmatic expression in the Niger Delta.

The private appropriation of public funds is for instance realised via the budgets for security of the national government, the states and the local administrations. The spending of these finances has not to be accounted for, and this means that there is no public control about its usage. It is thus as simple as it is luring to arrange the destruction of a flow station or an oil pipeline in order to instruct the own or another connected company to repair the damage done. Moreover, kidnappings – where huge sums are paid – constitute a rewarding business model in light of these circumstances.

At the end of June, the JTF reduced its military activities for the time being, and the government of President Umaru Yar’Adua started the second phase of its ongoing strategy for the pacification of the Niger Delta. It offered an amnesty to insurgents, including disarming, demobilisation and reintegration. But one informed observer from the Niger Delta showed himself sceptical vis-à-vis Konkret. The amnesty, he said, is foremost directed to the top level of the criminal syndicates – such as active or retired politicians and military officers – in order to save them from juridical prosecution. Moreover, the experiences with former amnesties are not encouraging. Re-education, disarmament and the payment of a small start-up aid did not stop many former militants to join the war business again after a certain time in light of high unemployment and general lack of prospects.

MEND, which acts more as a kind of brand for a variety of armed groups than as a cohesive force, greeted the announcement of the amnesty with mockery and sarcasm: ‘ … we call on political thugs, armed robbers, kidnappers, pirates etc. from other states in Nigeria to take advantage of the government’s offer by travelling to one of the centres in the Niger Delta and trade their weapons for amnesty. Come with the whole gang and get rehabilitated with gains of free education, money to start legitimate businesses etc. This is a unique opportunity in a country where so many graduates can not find jobs and girls no longer marry for love.’ The applicants, MEND further advised, should ‘… use a name that strikes terror, like Osama bin Laden, 9/11, Taliban, Mujaheddin etc.’. Some rebel commanders, however, accepted the government’s offer while others hold talks with intermediators where they demand the complete withdrawal of the army before joining the amnesty programme. MEND extended its ceasefire for 30 days mid-September.


For other MEND leaders, the amnesty offer is obviously nothing more than another attempt to buy out the struggle for ‘resource control’ and ‘true federalism’ in the Niger Delta. One of the central preconditions by the franchise rebels for any talks with the central government – the release of Henry Okah from prison – was met mid-June just hours after a spectacular bomb attack on an oil port in Lagos for which MEND declared to be responsible. Okah, an arms dealer and suspected leader of MEND, was arrested in September 2007 in Angola because of alleged weapons deals. He stood trial for charges of treason and other offences. The case was closed to the public, because – as many observers claim – the connections between Okah and his group on the one side and Nigerian politicians in high offices should be shut away.

Once again, the central government tries to buy time with the amnesty that runs out on 4 October and wants to prepare the field for the 2011 elections. In course of doing so, the limits of its influence in the Niger Delta are revealed in view of the incapacity or rather reluctance to implement the recommendations of a number of expert panels on the conflicts in the Niger Delta. One year ago, President Yar’Ardua even encouraged the militias to register as official security outfits for the oil companies. On the one hand, this would only be consistent, because a number of militant groups started their careers as informal security and service providers for oil multinationals. On the other hand, it shows certain desperation about how to deal with the social, political and ecological disaster in the Niger Delta.

The initially cited statement of the expert group hired by SPDC does not only apply to this company. Analysts of the Nigerian oil industry even state that Shell acts relatively reflected and responsible when compared to Chevron, Total, Agip or ExxonMobil. A simple calculation can make one sense how huge the resistance against a profound change of the catastrophic situation in the Niger Delta is: If the super-rich in Nigeria are conservatively estimated to constitute one per cent of the population, this is after all a group of about 1.4 million people (with a total population of 140 million). This powerful constituency, which spends a good part of the year in Europe or the US, in the past did not show any interest in a radical shift of the permanent state of emergency in the Niger Delta.

A highly influential representative of this group is James Ibori. The wealthy former governor of Delta State (1999–2007) who was investigated in the UK, the US and in Nigeria because of money laundering or corruption acts today as a kind of unofficial advisor to President Yar’Ardua. Ibori procured immunity for himself from investigations about the alleged massive theft of public funds and the involvement in the criminal dealings in the Niger Delta by generously supporting the governing party PDP in course of the elections of 2007. Today, Delta State is governed by Emmanuel Uduaghan, a cousin of Ibori. He himself is jollied along with public contracts.

The Nigerian state cashes in hundreds of millions of US-Dollars every week on oil exports. This rent and the struggle over it produced an extremely polarised society and destroyed other parts of the economy, most importantly agriculture. Violence and aggression also mould daily life. In light of an often non-existing or ineffective bureaucracy and a corrupt judicature, the rule of gangs and vigilante justice are the order of the day. In the North of Nigeria, where in the end of July an uprising of militant Islamists and a subsequent remorseless counter-attack by security forces left hundreds of people dead, conflicts intensify as well. ‘The pipe-smoking writer equipped with the power of the pen’, writes Niger Delta expert Michael Watts in the illustrated book The Curse of the Black Gold in allusion to Mosop leader Ken Saro-Wiwa who was executed in 1995, ‘has now been replaced by the figure of the masked militant armed with the ubiquitous Kaloshnikov, the typewriter of the illiterate.’

The armed struggle in the Niger Delta can count on widespread and thinly concealed support among the embittered population of the Niger Delta. It seems as if only a complete stop of the oil and gas production can establish the foundation for a new Nigerian social contract. But before the stakeholders of the ‘oil complex’ (Watts) – military apparatus, state and oil multinationals – will consider this possibility, MEND and others might have reached their aim of an entire stop of oil extraction by their own means.

Postscript: Latest news from the Niger Delta revolve around the frustration among followers of those militia leaders which joined the amnesty as these are suspected not delivering the finances they receive in exchange for their cooperation. Other reports say that a new attack by the JTF is imminent.


Photos: Ed Kashi, taken from Curse of the Black Gold. 50 Years of Oil in the Niger Delta. (Ed Kashi/Michael Watts 2008, 8 MB). Thanks for the permission to publish these photos here. Photo 1: A woman peeks out of her doorway in the remote town of Sangana. Graffiti on the corrugated metal wall reads ‘Trust Nobody’. Photo 2: In Nembe town, Bayelsa State gubernatorial candidate Chief Timipre Sylva (today’s governor) holds a campaign event. Local chiefs, supporters, and townsfolk come out for this rare political occasion. Members of the Joint Military Task Force, named Operation Restore Hope, watch over the rally.

One Response

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  1. tfagbule said, on October 1, 2009 at 9:35 am

    Quite insightful. The links to Kashi and Watts book is a first for me (they put faces behind all those stories I read in the papers and nonfiction novels about the Delta). Kudos!

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