Ilankai Tamil Sangam

23rd Year on the Web

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Crude Awakening

by Sebastian Junger, The Guardian, April 15, 2007

As is often the case in Africa, many of Nigeria's problems come as much from wealth as from poverty. African countries that happen to have valuable resources – oil in Angola and Nigeria, diamonds in Congo and Sierra Leone – are among the poorest and most violent on the continent. Economists refer to this phenomenon as the 'resource curse'...According to the World Bank, most of Nigeria's oil wealth gets siphoned off by 1 per cent of the population, condemning more than half of the country to subsist on less than $1 a day. By that standard, Nigeria is one of the poorest countries in the world. Since independence in 1960, it is estimated that between $300-400bn of oil revenue has been stolen or misspent by corrupt government officials – an amount of money approaching all the western aid received by Africa in those years.

On 23 June 2005 a group of high-ranking US government officials convened in a ballroom of the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, DC, to respond to a simulated crisis in the global oil supply. The event was called Oil ShockWave, and among those seated beneath a wall-sized map of the world were two former heads of the CIA, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The scenario they were handed was this: civil conflict breaks out in northern Nigeria – an area rife with Islamic militancy and religious violence – and the Nigerian army is forced to intervene. The situation deteriorates, and international oil companies decide to end operations in the oil-rich Niger river delta, resulting in a loss of 800,000 barrels a day on the world market. Concurrently, in this scenario, a cold wave sweeping across the northern hemisphere boosts global demand by 800,000 barrels a day. Because global oil production is already functioning at close to maximum capacity (around 84m barrels a day), small disruptions in supply shudder through the system very quickly. A net defi cit of almost 2m barrels a day is a signifi cant shock to the market, and the price of a barrel of oil rapidly rises above $80. Any other disruption – a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia, for example – would spike prices through the roof.

In January 2006, less than seven months after the first Oil ShockWave conference, several boatloads of heavily armed Ijaw militants overran a Shell oil facility in the Niger delta and seized four western oil workers. The militants called themselves the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (or Mend) and said they were protesting at the environmental devastation caused by the oil industry, as well as the appalling conditions in which most delta inhabitants live. There are no schools, clinics or social services in most delta villages. There is no clean drinking water and virtually no paying jobs in delta villages. People eke out a living by fishing, while, all around them, oil wells owned by foreign companies pump billions of dollars' worth of oil a year. It was time, according to Mend, for this injustice to stop.

The immediate effect of the attack was a fall in Nigerian oil production of roughly 250,000 barrels a day and a temporary bump in world oil prices. Mend released the hostages a few weeks later, but the problems were far from over. Mend's demands included the release of two Ijaw leaders who were being held in prison, $1.5bn in restitution for damage to the delicate delta environment, a 50 per cent claim on all oil pumped out of the creeks, and development aid to the desperately poor villages of the delta. Mend threatened that if these demands were not met – which they weren't – it would wage war on the foreign oil companies in Nigeria.

'Leave our land while you can or die in it,' a Mend spokesman warned in an email statement after the attack. 'Our aim is to totally destroy the capacity of the Nigerian government to export oil.'

In mid-February, Mend struck again, seizing a barge operated by the American oil-services company Willbros and grabbing nine more hostages. Elsewhere on the same day its fighters blew up an oil pipeline, a gas pipeline and a tanker-loading terminal, forcing Shell to suspend 477,000 barrels a day in exports. The nine hostages were released after a reportedly huge ransom was paid, but oil prices on the world market started to climb again. Mend had shown that 20 men in speedboats could affect oil prices around the world.

The problem was one of scale. The Nigerian military – as poorly equipped as it is – can protect any piece of oil infrastructure it wants by simply putting enough men on it. But Shell has more than 3,720 miles of oil and gas pipelines in the creeks of the delta, as well as 90 oil fields and 73 flow stations, and there is no way to guard them all. And moving the entire industry offshore isn't a good option, either. Not only is deepwater drilling very expensive, there are still immense oil and gas reserves under the Niger delta that have not yet been exploited. And the deepwater rigs aren't immune to attack anyway. In early June, militants shocked oil experts by overrunning a rig 40 miles out to sea. Off shore oil platforms generally sit 40 or 50ft above water level, but their legs are crisscrossed with brackets and struts that are not diffi cult to climb. After firing warning shots, dozens of militants scampered up the legs and ladders to the main platform, rounded up eight foreign oil workers and forced them at gunpoint into their boats. They were back in the creeks within hours.

The militants are also capable of striking in the cities. In January 2006, about 30 militants ran their speedboats into a compound of the Italian oil company Agip, killed eight Nigerian soldiers, robbed the bank, and made their getaway. In May, a man on a motorbike shot dead an American oil executive while he sat in traffi c in Port Harcourt, the centre of Nigeria's oil industry. In August, members of another militant group walked into a popular bar named Goodfellas and abducted four western oil workers. By the end of September, militants had kidnapped (and released for ransom) more than 50 oil workers, and onshore Nigerian oil production had been cut by 25 per cent, or about 600,000 barrels a day – a loss of nearly $1bn a month to the Nigerian government.

In early October, two separate attacks in the creeks reportedly killed at least 27 Nigerian soldiers and sank or captured two navy gunboats. In response, militants claimed, Nigerian helicopters strafed and then torched an Ijaw village named Elem Tombia. No one was killed, but it was a clear escalation of the confl ict. By mid-October, the Niger river delta was on the brink of all-out war.

The Ijaw village was just a scattering of huts along a break in the mangrove, and when our boatman spotted it he slowed and circled and ran his boat up on to the shore. Dugouts had been pulled on to a narrow sand beach, and cooking fi res smoked unenthusiastically through the thatched roofs of the huts. Behind us, a miles-wide tributary of the Niger river unloaded a continent's worth of fresh water into the Gulf of Guinea. Village children gathered to study our arrival, and a local man saw us and walked away to tell someone that a boatful of strangers had just arrived.

After a few minutes a young man motioned for us to follow him, and we stepped carefully through the village to a wooden bench outside a thatched hut. It was very hot. Somewhere a transistor radio was playing western music. The huts were thatched with palm fronds, and inside women cooked on small fires. Malaria is rampant in these villages, as are cholera, typhoid and dysentery, and almost none of the communities have safe drinking water. The people survive – barely – off local fi sh stocks that have been decimated by pollution from oil wells. After a while we heard gunshots, and then a group of young men came walking out of the forest and gathered around us. 'Don't be scared,' one of them said. 'Feel free.'

Photographer Mike Kamber and I had come to this village to meet Mend, but things had already acquired that feeling of not going according to plan. One of the young men had a bottle of Chelsea gin with him, and he shook a splash on to the ground as a blessing and then poured himself a shot. The bottle proceeded like that around the little group. After the gin was fi nished they told us to follow them, and we were led back into the centre of the village and told to sit in some white plastic chairs that had been set out. A joint was passed around. More gin was brought out. Eventually the village chief took a seat at a small table under a mango tree and asked what we were doing in his village. It wasn't an unfriendly question, but neither was it an invitation to feel at home. Young men with guns started to drift into the area and position themselves around the group. I stood up and explained that Mike and I were journalists and that we wanted to document the impact of oil drilling in the area, and that a Mend contact had directed us to this village for a meeting. The truth was a little more complicated. The official Mend spokesman is a mysterious online entity known as Jomo Gbomo. No one seems to know Jomo's real name or where he lives , but he is the person to whom visiting journalists turn for permission to go into the creeks, and he has refused every single request. A few days after getting the bad news from Jomo, though, Mike and I met an Ijaw priest named President Owei, who also has contacts with Mend. Owei said he could arrange a meeting for us if we wanted; all we had to do was hire a boat. By noon the next day we were slamming southward in a 25ft open speedboat.

Throughout most of the delta there is a weak mobile phone signal, and Mend has run its entire military campaign using a fl icker of reception and $3 phones. We were later told that, as word of our arrival spread, Ijaws in South Africa began calling to warn that we might be spies, and others, in the US, were looking us up online to figure out who we were. The first sign of trouble was when one of the village boys got in our boat and drove it away into the creeks so that we couldn't leave. Another hour went by, and dusk started to creep in through the mangrove. Finally we heard the sound of a powerful outboard motor, and then a boatload of gunmen roared past the village, ploughed a couple of angry circles into the narrow creek, and came into the landing at what looked like full throttle. The women in the village fled. Mend had arrived.

They climbed out of the boat with their weapons propped upright on their hips and their faces expressionless. They didn't bother to look at us and we hardly dared look at them. They carried heavy, belt-fed Czech machine guns with the ammunition draped across their bare chests like deadly-looking snakes. Some wore plaid skirts, others shorts or castoff camoufl age. One was naked except for his ammunition and a pair of dirty white briefs. They had painted their faces with white chalk to signify purity and tied amulets around their arms, necks and foreheads for protection from bullets. Some had stuck leaves in their clothing so the enemy would see trees rather than men. They were a collection of walking nightmares, everything that is terrifying to the human psyche, and when confronted with them, Nigerian soldiers have been known to drop their weapons and run.

Their leader was a slender boy wrapped in a red turban and white robe who was helped out of the boat almost like a child. Leaders are often chosen by the Ijaw god of war, Egbesu, and leadership can change daily. Egbesu sometimes communicates his desires by appearing in the dreams or visions of one of his followers and instructing him to be leader for that day. If the man tells the truth about Egbesu, others follow him without question; if he lies about it, Egbesu might kill him. The followers of Egbesu refrain from sex during time of war, and fast to increase their powers. Those powers, I was told, include the ability to drink battery acid without harm. 'The spirit enters them when they go into battle,' one anthropologist who had lived in Nigeria for years told me. 'They don't have the same fears as you and I.'

Mike and I were told to rise and we stood there like penitent schoolboys while the young leader approached. He handed his rifl e to one of the militants without bothering to look at us and said, 'Which one of you is Sebastian?'

'I am,' I said. The boy handed me a mobile phone and walked away.

It was Jomo. 'I told you that you couldn't go out into the creeks,' Jomo said. I started to try to explain, but he cut me off . 'What is the spelling of your last name?' he asked. I told him. 'Don't worry,' Jomo said. 'Everything's going to be all right.' I handed the phone to the leader and walked back to where Mike stood. A few minutes later, one of the militants strode up and pointed his fi nger at my face. He was short, strong and covered in white war paint.

'You,' he said matter-of-factly. 'I am going to kill you.'

Half an hour later, Jomo told the Mend leader to release us, and we were in our speedboat heading back to town.

As is often the case in Africa, many of Nigeria's problems come as much from wealth as from poverty. African countries that happen to have valuable resources – oil in Angola and Nigeria, diamonds in Congo and Sierra Leone – are among the poorest and most violent on the continent. Economists refer to this phenomenon as the 'resource curse'. The resource curse holds that underdeveloped countries with great natural wealth fail to diversify their industry or to invest in education, which leads to long-term economic decline. The per capita gross domestic product of Opec countries, for example, has been in steady decline for the past 30 years, whereas that of non-oil-producing countries in the developing world has risen steadily.

According to the World Bank, most of Nigeria's oil wealth gets siphoned off by 1 per cent of the population, condemning more than half of the country to subsist on less than $1 a day. By that standard, Nigeria is one of the poorest countries in the world. Since independence in 1960, it is estimated that between $300-400bn of oil revenue has been stolen or misspent by corrupt government offi cials – an amount of money approaching all the western aid received by Africa in those years. Former president Sani Abacha and his inner circle stole at least $2bn. A former inspector general of the national police, after being accused of stealing between $52m and $140m, was recently sentenced to six months in prison for a lesser charge. And two Nigerian admirals were put on trial for trying to sell stolen oil to an international crime syndicate.

And with top government officials so brazenly violating the social contract, everyone downstream inevitably follows suit. The Nigerian constitution stipulates that just under 50 per cent of national oil revenue must be distributed to state and local governments, and that an additional 13 per cent must go to the nine oil-producing states of the Niger delta. Last year that amounted to almost $6bn for the nine states – plenty, it would seem, to take care of basic social services. The problem, however, is that the money goes to the governors' offi ces and then simply disappears. A fi nancial crimes commission was recently formed to investigate all of the country's 36 governors, and it wound up accusing all but five of corruption. The most apparently egregious case was that of Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, who was accused of embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars while he was governor of Bayelsa state. He fled to England, was arrested for moneylaundering, jumped bail, and slipped back into Nigeria dressed as a woman. When asked how he managed to make the trip, he said he had no idea. 'All the glory goes to God,' he explained. He is now in custody awaiting trial.

'It's going to be tough,' human rights activist Oronto Douglas said when I asked him about reforming Nigerian politics. 'Nobody who has privilege surrenders it easily. The struggle is to get people to give up power who got it illegally.'

The problem isn't purely a Nigerian one, either. Oil companies have long been thought to pay for the allegiance of local youth gangs, and Jomo claims that Agip, the Italian oil company, offered to pay Mend $40m in exchange for 'repairs' to the company's pipelines. (An Agip spokesman strongly denies any payment to or contact with Mend.) The American corporation Halliburton has admitted that its former subsidiary KBR paid $2.4m in bribes to the Nigerian government and is under investigation for its role in earlier bribes totalling $180m. And House representative William Jeff erson, of Louisiana, is being investigated by the FBI for allegedly accepting bribes from the vice president of Nigeria, Atiku Abubakar. These were said to be in exchange for help steering lucrative business contracts to Africa. (Jefferson has denied any wrongdoing, despite the fact that the FBI found $90,000 in cash in his freezer.)

Because of this corruption, most of Nigerian society has been starved of money and is effectively cannibalising itself. Between Port Harcourt and the delta city of Warri there are 20 or 30 police checkpoints – some within sight of one another – where drivers simply hand cash out of the window in order to pass. I was told that when police arrive at the scene of a bad car accident they won't call for medical help until the injured and dying have paid them off . There are car accidents all the time – I saw two fatal accidents on as many drives across the delta – because the roads have not had major repairs since the early Eighties. Every sector of society has been left to fend for itself. The airline industry, for example, is so slack in its maintenance that it has seen three plane crashes in the past 16 months, which together have killed more than 300 people. The airport at Port Harcourt was shut down in 2005 after an incoming Air France fl ight ploughed into a herd of cows that had wandered on to the runway; it still has not reopened. Tens of millions of people live in urban slums without water or sanitation, restaurants have to hire guards with AK-47s to protect the diners, and the levels of chaos and street violence rival those of many countries at war. A dead man lay on the street near my hotel for two days before someone fi nally came to take him away. Even during Liberia's darkest days of civil war, the dead were usually gathered up and buried faster than that.

When Nigerians are asked about these problems, few can off er more than anger and despair – or the promise of violence. A typical Nigerian reaction came from President Owei, the Ijaw priest who tried to help with our fi rst trip into the creeks. Owei is the head of an organisation that promotes Ijaw rights and protects their communities in the delta. 'The people of the Niger delta don't need theory – they need practical things,' he declared. 'We need to be made to feel like human beings. There is an economic blockade of the Niger delta – they don't want money to flow here. With the wealth that Nigeria has, the whole nation should have roads and free education.'

Owei lives on the outskirts of Port Harcourt in the seething slum of Bundu-Waterside,a community built literally on top of rubbish and mud. High tide and raw sewage continually threaten to rise up over the thresholds of its thousands of plank-and-corrugated-iron shacks. People are packed into Bundu- Waterside with such desperate ingenuity that almost every human activity – cooking, fighting, eating, sleeping, defecating – seems to be observable from almost anywhere at any given moment. When I met up with Owei, he and several of his assistants were seated on a wooden bench beneath a canopy of corrugated iron that serves as an open-air community centre. Young boys swam in the tidal muck while, a few feet away, other young boys squatted to relieve themselves. Every 20 minutes or so, an oil-company helicopter thumped past on its way to an off shore rig.

'The Niger delta people are the new world power,' Owei informed me solemnly. 'I don't have a bulletproof vest, but I can drink acid. Can you drink acid? I can drink acid. We are a world power. We are waiting. We want to live in peace because God is peaceful, but the rest of the world is building armaments while they wait for Jesus. I don't know'

Continues here.