Eschewing assumptions and redefining resistance

5-foot-3-inch band leader is atypical force behind movement in Niger Delta

December 18, 2006|By Article by Scott Calvert | Article by Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

YENAGOA, Nigeria — YENAGOA, Nigeria-- --To most people, the term "militant" probably calls to mind a tough-looking warrior, not a mild-mannered dance-band singer with a reedy voice. But in the Niger Delta, militants are a mercurial lot, hard to pigeonhole and harder still to identify with any certainty.

This year's surge of militancy has been led by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, which bills itself as an umbrella group representing an alphabet soup of organizations.

Within that umbrella is the Movement for the Survival of the Ethnic Ijaw Nationality. Its leader is Owei Bousindei, the 46-year-old lead singer of a musical act called the Rainbow Dance Band. He stands about 5 foot 3 and speaks in distinctive alto.

One sultry morning, Bousindei, wearing baggy pants and a bulky Phat Farm quilted vest, led two Sun journalists on a boat ride through the delta's creeks, the labyrinthine base for militant groups that have abducted oil workers, sabotaged pipelines, fought soldiers and generally wreaked havoc.

Experts on the Niger Delta have described Bousindei as a sometime militant with links to prominent people like Alhaji Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, the jailed militant whose release MEND has made a top demand of the government.

Bousindei coyly parried basic questions, such as one on the label he adopts. "If one is annoyed at that moment, you are militant - you want to fight," he said as the 12-foot outboard motored down Yenagoa Creek, past wooden shacks built on stilts at water's edge and hillsides of garbage and naked children bathing.

But unlike MEND, "we don't go with violence, we go with talking," he said on the boat, the smell of the crew's marijuana heavy in the air. "We have resolved, no hostage taking. We are saying, `Calm down, maturely present to the world.' If the whole world sees, they will help us. We try to make them understand - the government and oil companies are deaf to the people. They don't care about us."

He wants the oil companies to stay in Nigeria, he said, but to dole out more high-paying jobs to local youths. "We want to work in the oil industry," he said. "I don't say leave. Come. Let them stay."

Bousindei's group has the trappings of a militia, including a "chief of defense" and several "captains" who were in the boat that morning. One member described a secret weapons cache that they have hidden in the creeks and that they call their "armory."

Yet they were surprisingly chummy with government security forces. At one dockside checkpoint in Ogboinbiri, a police officer emerged from his guard hut with a bottle of Chelsea Dry Gin that he gave Bousindei as a gift. Smiling, the officer added a personal salute by squeezing off a round from his AK-47.

Asked how many members his group has, Bousindei would say only that "everybody's a member." Asked who exactly is behind the secretive MEND, he said its constituents "are Ijaw people, that is all."

As the boat moved deeper into creeks, Bousindei proved he has a devoted following when a throng of young men began wildly cheering him from the riverbank. Bousindei, raising the bottle of gin aloft and passing it around, led the fist-pumping men in patriotic Ijaw chants that only made the crowd wilder.

By day's end, Bousindei's rhetoric had moved from conciliatory to fiery. His peaceful approach was replaced by a sort of call for armed resistance against the federal government and foreign oil companies.

"If we don't take arms, who is going to rescue us? Who? We are tired. We tell expats, go first and leave this place. Allow Nigerians to solve their problems."

Otherwise, he said vaguely, "we'll call for a holy war."

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