Paying the price for resistance

SERIES

Effects of Nigerian militants' attacks on oil firms are felt at home, abroad

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

OKERENKOKO, Nigeria -- This riverside village along remote creeks of the Niger Delta is a base for a violent insurgency that has forced a 20 percent to 25 percent cut in Nigeria's oil output - the fifth-biggest source of petroleum imports for the United States - and helped fuel this year's higher gas prices.

The winding path through the creeks is so dangerous that scores of oil workers have been evacuated to guarded compounds in Warri, a rundown city 90 minutes away by speedboat. Those brave or naive enough to travel the creeks risk being detained by the Nigerian navy and strongly urged to turn back.

The village itself is near the spot where militants held nine foreign oil workers hostage this year, a brazen move praised by villagers like Mosco Johnny, a scowling 37-year-old. "I don't like Shell," he said. "They cause so much problems. We have youths who don't have work to do. Sometimes they get up and say, `Look at these people taking oil; let's go and meet them.' "

This has been a violent year across the delta. Militants have killed 37 Nigerian soldiers in attacks; seized, and later released, more than 70 hostages in almost weekly incidents; blown up a pipeline to an export terminal; and detonated a car bomb near tanker trucks.

The agitation began in this western region of Delta state, where some 500,000 barrels per day that could be pumped remain "shut in," costing oil companies and the government some $30 million a day. It has spread east to Port Harcourt, Africa's bustling, dysfunctional oil capital. Numerous attacks have been credibly claimed by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, which claims to be an umbrella group of militants.

In the latest incident, militants linked to MEND seized four oil workers Dec. 7 after raiding an export terminal operated by the Italian company Agip. MEND said the men, three Italians and one Lebanese, would be released only in exchange for unspecified delta natives held by the Nigerian government. It also threatened "more ruthless" attacks.

"We say to all oil companies in the delta, your nightmare has not even begun," a MEND spokesman using the pseudonym Jomo Gbomo said via e-mail.

Since emerging in January, MEND has repeatedly warned Western oil workers to leave or risk attack. Its demands include a vastly increased share of Nigeria's oil revenues and a $1.5 billion payment by Royal Dutch Shell for past exploitation. The group also insists on the release of Alhaji Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, a militant leader jailed last year on treason charges for espousing violence.

"We have, in effect, given a voice to the people of the Niger Delta," Gbomo said via e-mail. "There is a wind of change blowing in the Niger Delta. Without doubt, we have been greatly responsible for this."

The logic behind the attacks seems clear: The government, which has received nearly all its income from oil for decades, has done little for the 20 million people of the delta. To force officials to help the people, they try to hit where it hurts most - by slashing oil production and government revenues.

Gbomo, who communicates with reporters only through e-mail and does not give his real name, has said MEND is planning "more spectacular" attacks "to press home our point." Analysts worry that the bloodshed will worsen as April's high-stakes national elections draw near, because politicians have previously used armed thugs to intimidate opposition supporters at voting time.

"There's always been this background threat that things will get a lot worse," said Julian Lee of the Center for Global Energy Studies in London. "If these guys really wanted to close down Nigerian oil production, they have the capability to do it." That is a big if, however.

One diplomat based in the capital, Abuja, argues that the militants do not care about raising the abysmal living standards in the impoverished delta. Mostly, he says, they want to be paid ransom by oil companies or the government, and they are flexing muscle to persuade authorities to let them continue stealing oil, a racket known as "bunkering" for the way oil is siphoned onto barges.

"MEND, in our view, is oil-bunkering thugs," said the diplomat, speaking on the condition he not be named. "We believe the bottom line is they want money, they want power."

Dokubo-Asari, the militant leader, has admitted taking oil and selling it. But, he told an interviewer last year before his arrest that "the oil belongs to our people, and we have every right to take it."

History of unrest

Since oil production began in the late 1950s, the Niger Delta has been the site of frequent unrest. In 1966, Isaac Boro, a former police officer angry at how oil companies were operating, staged a short-lived attempt to create a separate republic.

Perhaps the most famous opponent of Big Oil has been Ken Saro-Wiwa. He gained a worldwide following for leading peaceful protests against Shell's financial and environmental practices in Ogoniland, a small region in the delta.

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