At night the skies over the Niger-Delta are lit up - giant tongues of flame shooting their poisonous flares into the night skies, into the creeks and farmlands. At night, in a Port Harcourt prison yard, writer and activist, Saro Wiwa and eight others are executed , amid international condemnation, by the military junta of General Sani Abacha, for having "counselled and procured" the killing of four elders of the Niger-Delta village of Ogoni.
It is night, also, when, from the belly of the night emerge three speed boats packed with armed youths - the children of the slain and brutalized of the Niger Delta. It is a new kind of army, a shadowy militant group out for war. It attacks a Nigerian Navy boat and a vessel leased by Shell. There are no casualties. But the militants, who call themselves Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), kidnap four foreign contractors.
Since then attacks - kidnappings, killings, and even bombings have become the order of the day in the ‘struggle for the emancipation' of the region.
Why did the youths take to arms? What really happened? What went wrong? And what has been solved by these acts of individual terrorism?
Burning and Looting
The creeks and swamps of the Niger Delta lie over one of the world's largest reserves of oil: 34 billion bbl. of black gold, approx.
For an outsider - even one used to the ravages of war and poverty ‑ the villages and creeks of the Niger-Delta, a watery maze of some 50,000 sq km, comes as a shock. Whole villages are without power, health clinics, school or water. A water tanker installed about a decade ago does not work, forcing people to scoop water from a muddy hole; pipelines that scar the earth; oil slicks that shimmer on rivers; flares that blaze bright and loud...
Since the 1950s, when oil was first found, the oil-producing region of the Delta and waters off Nigeria's coast in the Gulf of Guinea have earned the country and major oil companies like Shell, Chevron, Agip, ExxonMobil hundreds of billions of dollars. But, defying the laws of gravity, these billions have not trickled down to the poor peasants of the Delta region - nor, for that matter, the working masses of Nigeria.
According to Odiki Miebi, a local chief of Oporoza in Gbaramatu in whose creeks MEND is said to have its bases, "Poverty is the major problem we are facing here." There are no local jobs, and the only school in the village is empty of furniture. The village, like most of the villages here, is in the grip of poverty.
Yet Nigeria currently earns approximately $3 billion monthly from oil - which roughly accounts for 95% of its export earnings and about 40% of GDP.
It was the military dictatorship of Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo that set the pattern in 1979, transferring ownership of all subsoil resources to the federal government. The revenues accruing were to be ‘fairly' distributed among the federal, state, and local governments.
But there is a problem with what the federal, state, and local governments do with this money. Thanks to high oil prices the oil-producing states of the Niger Delta have seen an increase in federal allocation. So, too, the Federal Government.
The country, therefore, has been perfectly placed to benefit. But, rather than this, a private fiefdom emerged as the various arms of government simply used their revenue to underpin their regimes, enriching family, friends and supporters - and girlfriends, like the President did with a gift of car to his "girlfriend", according to the Vice President. Unfortunately, this benevolence does not extend to the vast majority who continue to wallow in poverty. This has been the trend for decades.
Today Nigeria is the world's sixth largest producer of oil and reserves are said to be in excess of 40 billion barrels, along with trillions of cubic feet of gas. But unlike Venezuela, which is the fifth largest producer of oil in the world, the Nigerian government merely presents the working masses with grandiloquent plans of future benefits and ‘Commissions'.
None of these Commissions have made any meaningful impact. They have simply come and gone. Meanwhile the problem persists. The latest, the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), was set up in 2000 as a means of coordinating development in the Niger Delta. How well has it done this?
The answer came loud and clear in March 2006 with a bomb thrown into the car park of the Commission's Port Harcourt office. Afterwards plastic explosives were smuggled into one of its offices in an apparent attempt to blow up the building.
Jointly funded by the oil companies, which are supposed to give 3% of their local budgets, and the federal government, the Commission has approximately $235 spending money yearly.
But, in the words of Anietie Usen, head of NDDC's corporate affairs, "that is peanuts compared to the problems of the area." (Time, May 22, 2006). Besides, says Anietie, the federal government is usually slow to cough up its share, "...it makes things difficult."
Last year the federal government unfolded yet one more white elephant project: plans to construct a $1.8 billion dollar highway through the region and create 20,000 new jobs in the military, police and state oil companies to further address the neglect.
Hand-in-hand with these bogus promises is the issue of corruption. This absence of revenue transparency and accountability keeps Nigeria on the bottom rungs in Transparency International's annual World Corruption Index.
In proportion, as the country's oil-based GDP increases, economic underdevelopment and institutionalised corruption increases. Last year an audit of the oil industry revealed discrepancies, running into millions of dollars, between what the oil companies claimed it paid the government and what government said it received.
And what do governments, both at the federal and state levels do with these funds? Take Rivers State. Thanks to high oil prices internationally, the government of this oil-producing state, has seen increased revenues. So much that the government of Peter Odili bought two corporate jets, a move the state Information Commissioner, Magnus Abe defended; "I don't think," he says, "that we can fight poverty by going back to live in caves. We need aircraft for a variety of reasons." (Time, May 22, 2006)
There! Mr. Information Commissioner probably didn't know that most schools in Rivers State are without furniture and in a state of collapse. The roads, too, are crumbling. Indeed, between 2005 and 2006 Rivers State Government House overheads increased from $38.6 million to $81.1 million. By comparison, increases on spending on salaries for state employees barely exceeded the rate of inflation.
Oil has brought neither prosperity nor tranquillity to Nigeria. In spite of its vast oil resources, Nigeria represents one of the most sordid, corrupt and socially unjust political economies. Enormous wealth is concentrated in very few hands, a tiny oligarchy that indulges in reckless and wanton orgies of consumption. The country is marked by poor economic performance and growing inequality.
The current rise in oil prices has concentrated vast resources in the hands of a tiny political elite. In proportion, as the country's oil wealth increases, the poverty of the teeming mass increases, alongside economic underdevelopment; corruption and political violence have increased in equal measure.
Although Nigeria has earned at least over $400 billion in oil revenues in the last 35 years, a significant proportion of this oil-based revenue has simply ‘disappeared' through massive, institutionalised fraud and corruption.
According to Nuhu Ribadu, the ‘anti-corruption' tsar, 70 percent of the country's oil wealth was stolen or wasted, in 2003; by 2005 it was ‘only' 40 percent. This state of affairs really highlights the extreme rapacity and parasitic nature of the Nigerian ruling class.
While the vast majority wallow in poverty and growing misery, the government, since the 1960s, has developed mechanisms for allocating oil blocs and rents to its cronies. We will deal with this presently.
The Nigerian oil industry is thus no more than a bloated cash cow for a small privileged elite, no more than a private fiefdom of the President.
According to World Bank sources, some 80 percent of Nigeria's oil money is accrued by 1 percent of the population with 70 percent of private wealth held abroad, in foreign banks, while an estimated 70 percent of the country's inhabitants live on roughly $1 per day, or less.
National annual per capita income had remained static between 1960 and 2004, while income distribution had suffered marked deterioration.
The Petroleum Act of 1969 provides ‘the entire ownership and control of all petroleum in, under or upon any land to which this section applies (i.e., land in Nigeria, under the territorial waters of Nigeria or forming part of the continental shelf) shall be vested in the state.'
This was further consolidated in 1978 when the government of then Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo enacted the Land Use Decree, divesting land from the control of local communities and investing ownership in the central government to be held in trust by state governments.
This Act was further extended in 2003 by the inclusion of deepwater offshore oil reserves, with control vested largely through the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC).
Nowhere are the paradoxes of poverty and squalor in the midst of great wealth, occasioned by increase in oil price, so pervasive as in the Niger Delta, home to the world's third largest mangrove forest and the most extensive freshwater swamp forests in west and central Africa, an area of intense global bio-diversity.
Thus the Delta does not exhaust itself as a source of oil wealth for the Nigerian ruling class; it is also a vital and fragile natural environment being destroyed by capitalism in its period of senile decay.
Despite its economic and ecological importance, the Delta states fall below national average on virtually every measure of social and economic development. The Niger Delta remains poor. Its inhabitants continue to eke out a precarious existence on its ever-diminishing fishing grounds and farmlands.
For the last three decades, farmers and fishermen have had to compete with oil multi-nationals for the limited space available. The human and environmental cost of over four decades of oil exploration in the Niger Delta has been devastating.
The UNDP Niger Delta Development Report released in August 2006 states that ‘vast revenues' have ‘barely touched the Niger Delta's own pervasive poverty'. In oil-rich Bayelsa and Delta states, for instance, there is one doctor for every 150, 000 inhabitants.
About four decades ago, the first insurgency sparked off. In February 1966, Isaac Adaka Boro, a graduate of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, formed the Niger Delta Volunteer Service (NDVS), a militia comprising several young and educated Ijaw men, and declared the Ijaw-speaking areas of Nigeria's then ‘Eastern Region' an independent ‘Niger Delta Republic.'
In an eleven-point declaration of independence, Boro stated that "all former agreements as regards the crude oil of the people undertaken by the now defunct ‘Nigerian' government in the territory have been declared invalid," and that "all oil companies are commanded... to stop exploration and renew agreements with the new Republic. Defiance of this order will result in dislocation of the company's exploration and forfeiture of their rights of renewal of such agreements."
The revolt was crushed within a couple of weeks and ‘militants' supported the federal effort in the civil war with the then Eastern Region. Forty-three years since, conditions in the Delta remain, as the UNDP report say, ‘dismal'.
On a night, in a Port Harcourt prison yard, writer and activist, Saro Wiwa and eight others were executed, amid international condemnation, by the military junta of Gen. Sani Abacha, for having "counselled and procured" the killing of four elders of the Niger-Delta village of Ogoni.
The Task Force - drawn from the army, police, navy, and air force - cut a murderous swath, carrying out executions and razing villages, instituting a reign of terror. The frightened villagers fled into the creeks, leaving behind their life's possessions, a ravaged community of torched houses and bloodied corpses of relatives and friends. Fleeing villagers talk of rape, massacres and torched villages.
Sometime in 2002, a large body of Ijaw women occupied Chevron oil refineries near Warri, demanding jobs for local inhabitants, marking a deepening crisis over ‘resource control'. In March 2003, seven oil workers were kidnapped, prompting major shut down of oil facilities and withdrawal of staff, reducing output by more than 750,000 barrels per day (40 percent of national output).
Since late 2005, the situation in the Niger Delta has worsened. Two self-styled ‘freedom fighters', Ateke Tom (Niger Delta Vigilante) and Alhaji Asari Dokubo (Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force), both driven and partially funded by oil monies accrued mostly from bunkering and actively deployed and maintained by top politicians, as political thugs, has further transformed the political landscape of the Delta.
The current campaign of violence in the Delta kicked off on January 11 with an attack on a Naval boat and a vessel leased by Shell by gun-toting men packed in three speedboats. There were no casualties, but the attackers, who called themselves the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), took hostage four foreign contractors.
In late December 2006, the MEND started calling for the international community to evacuate from the Niger Delta by February 12 or ‘face violent attacks'.
Since then there have been a series of attacks on all installations and military personnel guarding them, as well as hostage-taking. Between then and now, oil-related deaths in the Delta region have risen significantly and oil production output has been cut significantly.
In a reprisal move, the outgoing President Obasanjo sent in additional troops to strengthen the Joint Military Task Force in the Delta and, in a recent conflagration, no less than 60 militants were reported killed and another 100 arrested in two days of fighting in Bayelsa State in August 2006.
Trotsky once wrote that: "By its very essence terroristic work demands such concentrated energy for the ‘great moment', such an overestimation of the significance of individual terrorism, and finally, such a ‘hermetic' conspiracy, that-if not logically, then psychologically, it totally excludes agitational and organizational work among the masses."
The shooting and bombing campaign embarked upon by MEND and other similar militant group in the Delta will not achieve the ‘emancipation of the Niger Delta'. It will simply give the regime an excuse to bolster the forces of repression which will be used, not just against the Niger Delta workers, but inevitably against the workers of Nigeria
Indeed, in one instance, the oil workers union, NUPENG and PENGASSAN held a meeting with the regime and threatened they would not go to work until their safety was assured. So, rather than win the workers and people of the Delta to its side, the campaign of bombing and shooting risks lining up the workers behind the regime, in the face of the failure of the NLC leadership to offer a clear and effective lead in the fight against not just sectarianism, but also against the root cause of the pervasive poverty not just in the Niger Delta, but in Nigeria as a whole.
At some stage it is not ruled out that the ruling class, troubled by the cut in production brought about by the militants' campaign, will re-introduce military rule. The bombing and shooting campaign in the Delta, rather than stave this off is actually precipitating it. For now, however, due to high oil prices internationally the ruling class will reserve this as a last resort. But this threat is dangling over the head of the Nigerian workers.
The neglect and destruction of the Delta, the grinding poverty, in spite of years of massive profit from oil, is striking confirmation that neither a so-called ‘democratic' government of outgoing President Obasanjo or Umaru Yar' Adua, the new president, nor a military dictatorship can solve the problem of Nigeria, under a regime of capital.
At no other time, has the country made so much money from oil. But at no other time has there been so much poverty, so much lack of faith in government.
The campaign of violence in the Delta will solve nothing. What the situation reveals is nothing but the blind alley of individual terrorism and the dead-end of capitalism. It is striking confirmation of the theory of Permanent Revolution. For backward countries like Nigeria, the road to development does not pass through capitalism, but through Socialist Revolution and a radical reconstitution of social relations.
Redistribute the Wealth
Only a Socialist Revolution can solve the problem in the Delta. Only this can bring about development and lasting peace and guarantee ‘resource control' and the right to self-determination for the people. This is not mere theorizing. It represents unassailable deductions from the entire experience of our recent, and not too recent history.
Years of privatisation have not solved the problem of the working masses. They have not solved the economic problems of Nigeria. The commanding heights of the economy, especially the oil sector, must be nationalized and used as a basis to provide quality healthcare and education for the working masses. Only a working class government can do this - through a party of the working class. Now is the time.