Kidnapping oil workers and blowing up pipelines may have focused attention on Nigeria's oil delta, but three years of militant attacks have locked the region into a spiral of crime which is hindering much-needed development. Fragile communities already surrounded by oil pollution and desperately short of roads, clean water and electricity have been turned into military zones. Foreign firms have pulled out expatriates who had been helping build new infrastructure.
When the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) burst onto the scene in early 2006, knocking out close to a quarter of Nigeria's oil output in a matter of weeks, it said it was fighting for greater local control of oil resources. It was a spectacular debut for a nebulous organisation whose leaders and structures were largely unknown. Nigeria's crude oil output, then around 2.4 million barrels per day (bpd), has still not recovered, languishing below 2 million bpd. More than 200 foreigners have been kidnapped since its first attacks, most of them later released unharmed. "Since the establishment of MEND in 2006, the government and oil companies have had sleepless nights," the group said in an e-mail to Reuters, when asked what it saw as its achievements. "We have been able to maintain the focus of the problems in the region to a world that would prefer to sweep those issues under the carpet," it said.
While oil prices were rising into uncharted territory, an e-mail from MEND's Yahoo account was enough to send nervous international markets ticking higher. The kidnapping of Americans, Britons and other foreigners made headlines. But it no longer commands world attention as it once did. Its political struggle spawned a wave of copy-cat attacks from which it has been unable to dissociate itself, leaving all but its boldest strikes virtually indistinguishable from the common criminality of oil thieves, pirates and ransom-seekers.
The delta's vast network of mangrove swamps, one of the largest wetlands in the world, has been producing oil for half a century, yielding billions of dollars in profit for the government and foreign oil firms but leaving locals in squalor. Roads are few and far between, and there is no clean water or mains electricity in many communities. Activists have long campaigned against the pollution caused by oil spills and gas flaring, forcing oil companies and the government to step up efforts to limit environmental degradation. But the militant tactics have won less sympathy.
"The introduction of MEND took the struggle to a more international dimension," said Jonjon Oyeinfie, former leader of ethnic rights group the Ijaw Youth Council, who sits on a negotiating team representing delta activists and militants. "But at the same time, because of their actions taking hostages as human shields, it took another negative aspect to the struggle ... and to an extent has discredited it," he said. MEND is still holding two Britons kidnapped more than four months ago, making them among the longest-held hostages since it began its campaign, and has repeatedly threatened to end a ceasefire it declared in September.
Its attack last June on Royal Dutch Shell's (RDSa.L) Bonga oilfield, more than 60 miles offshore, showed that deepwater facilities long considered safe were also at risk. Yet all but the most crippling unrest is now factored in to global oil prices, and news of another kidnapping has negotiators thinking more about "settling the boys" -- local parlance for ransom payments -- than political demands. "The political issues have been calmed, but what you see more of is people taking advantage to commit criminal activities which focus around the kidnapping of expatriate staff for ransom," said Wale Tinubu, head of Nigerian energy firm Oando. "It has become a criminal activity, a business, and not one with an ideology," he said.
Successive Nigerian governments -- military and civilian -- have failed to subdue the delta. Sceptics say some in the political elite see it as in their interests to keep the region poor and insecure so they can better control the oil. President Umaru Yar'Adua promised a two-pronged approach after taking office in May 2007, pledging development for the region but also promising to stamp out criminals involved in "bunkering" -- the local term for oil theft -- and kidnapping.
He created a post of Niger Delta Minister and named Ufot Ekaette, who is from the delta state of Akwa Ibom, to head it. "We do not want to stay in Abuja to formulate policies that would not be acceptable to the majority of the people," Ekaette told reporters during his first trip as minister to the region. But the militants say they want action not words after endless committees and promises have come to nothing.
Jonjon Oyeinfie said a first step would be the release of MEND leader Henry Okah, on trial for treason and gun-running, and a guarantee of amnesty for other prominent militants. Until concrete moves are made, the delta is likely to remain prey to piracy and kidnappings, often targeting the very people -- like construction workers and engineers -- who are actively developing the region. "The fact nothing has changed shows we have reason to remain on the scene until our goals are achieved," MEND's e-mail said.
Nick Tattersall, ANALYSIS-Crime not politics drives Nigeria oil delta unrest, Reuters, Jan. 21, 2008