Niger Delta oil war back on

Villagers seized three Shell Oil platforms in the Niger Delta region Oct. 25, forcing a halt of production at each. A nearby Chevron platform was also closed. Members of the Kula community invaded the facilities, accusing the company of not following through on promises to provide aid. While the delta region is a key source of Nigeria’s national wealth, it remains one of the country’s poorest. Negotiations are underway, but the platforms remain under occupation. (AP, Oct. 26)

As this Oct. 26 report from the UK’s Fahamu (online at AllAfrica) the situation in the Delta appears to be re-escalating towards a generalized insurgency:

The fragile truce brokered between Nigeria’s central government and the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) in April 2006, jerked to a bloody halt on 20th August. On that afternoon, soldiers of the Joint Task Force, a contingent of the Nigerian Army, Navy and Air Force deployed by the government to enforce its authority on the restive oil-bearing Niger Delta, ambushed fifteen members of the MEND militia in the creeks of western delta and murdered them. The dead men had gone to negotiate the release of a Shell Oil worker kidnapped by youth in Letugbene, a neighbouring community. The Shell staff also died in the massacre.

The incident occurred five days after Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s President, instructed armed forces commanders in the region to resort to force and quickly ‘pacify’ the region. This marked a sharp turn-around from the promise Obasanjo gave to representatives of the MEND militia in Nigeria’s capital Abuja, in early April that he would utilise dialogue and carefully targeted development projects to return peace, law and good government to the impoverished Niger Delta.

The streets of Warri, the city where Shell and ChevronTexaco’s western delta operations are based, were thick with tension on the morning of 2 September when Ijo youth converged on Warri Central Hospital in the suburbs to retrieve the corpses of their colleagues and commence the burial ceremonies. The Ijaw are the largest ethnic group in the Niger Delta. The MEND militia draws the bulk of its membership from the Ijaw.

Significantly, there were several prominent Ijaw political and civic leaders at the ceremony. Ordinary people, mainly Ijaw peasant farmers and fisher folk, had left their hoes and fishing nets and travelled from their hamlets in the creeks to pay their last respects to the slain. Spokesmen of the Nigerian government had sought to represent the fifteen militias as ‘irresponsible hostage-takers’ in the wake of the slaughter. But those massed at the hospital that morning spoke only of heroes who had fallen in the battle for ‘Ijaw liberation.’ MEND, it was clear to observers, was firmly embedded in the Ijaw communities from which it emerged in February 2006. MEND continues to enjoy the support of youth and impoverished peasants whose farm lands and fishing creeks – their sole source of livelihood – have been destroyed by half a century of uncontrolled oil production and whose cause they took up arms to champion.

Even so, members of the MEND militia have never seen armed force as a suitable and effective weapon, but only as a tactical tool. They were forced to wield this tool as a last resort after three decades of peaceful entreaty was replied with cynical indifference, from the central government and the oil companies. Leaders of the Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities (FNDIC), a civic group with headquarters in Gbaramatu, an Ijaw clan in which MEND’s activities are very pronounced, have served as informal representatives of the MEND militia in negotiations with President Obasanjo and Nigeria’s central government following the abduction of nine foreign oil workers in the creeks of the delta in February. When the author interviewed Oboko Bello, President of FNDIC in Warri in early August, two weeks before the Letugbene massacre, he spoke warmly about the peace meeting he and other Ijaw leaders had had in Abuja with Obasanjo and other government officials on April 5 and 18 2006. He even assured that MEND militants would put their weapons permanently beyond use if the government went some way to address the long-standing grievances of his people.

But it was a sorrowful and stone-faced Bello who addressed his fellow Ijaw during the burial ceremony that afternoon in Warri. He said: “Shell officials were privy to the arrangements Ijaw patriots had made as part of the Joint Investigation and Verification exercise to free the captured company worker and also facilitate the re-opening of the company’s facilities in the creeks. Shell was in direct communication with the commanders of the Joint Task Force, even up to the time our young men set out in their boats to rescue the Shell worker in Letugbene. These young men were not hostage takers. They were Ijaw patriots, selflessly working to repair the damaged peace between the oil company and our people. For this they were ambushed and murdered by soldiers in the service of Shell.”

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