Earlier this year, in May, the Niger Delta region of Nigeria was in what amounted to a state of war, with the army bombing villages, killing many poor civilians. This article, written at the height of the events, looks into what is behind this conflict, placing it within the context of the crisis of Nigerian capitalism, the unstable nature of the present Yar’Adua government and the key product of Nigeria, crude oil.
On May 13 after a Joint Task Force patrol was reportedly attacked by armed groups in Delta State, the JTF began a major offensive. The JTF have been conducting land and air strikes on communities across the Warri-south and South-west Local Government Areas where the Nigerian government believes the camps of the armed groups are located. Hundreds of people are feared dead.
On May 15, using helicopters equipped with machine guns, the JTF attacked several communities of the Gbaramatu Kingdom, including Okerenkoko and Oporoza. In Oporoza, around 500 people had gathered for a yearly festival that was being celebrated in several communities of the Gbaramatu Kingdom. Exact casualty figures following the attacks are as yet unknown. According to reports, hundreds of bystanders, including women and children, are believed to have been killed and injured by the JTF, and by the armed groups, while shooting at each other.
Since May 13, 2009, thousands of villagers have been displaced and thousands more are trapped in the cross fire between the Joint Task Force (JTF), which is composed of troops of the Army, Navy, Air Force and the mobile police set up in 2004 to restore order in the Niger Delta and armed groups in Delta State, South West Nigeria. The JTF attacks on the communities in the area, including the Okerenkoko and Oporoza communities, are continuing on a daily basis, reportedly because they believe the armed groups are hiding in the communities.
Twelve or eighteen soldiers are missing in action and the ongoing military campaign in the delta creeks will not end until they are found, Commander of the Joint Military Task Force (JTF) code named Operation Restore Hope, Major General Bello Sarkin Yaki, at a world press conference, threatened to use all means at his disposal to get them back "dead or alive". He said Tom Polo must give up the fight and submit himself to the military authorities.
"What I want the gentlemen of the press to be aware is that this operation is still on-going. We still have our colleagues, military colleagues who have been unprovokably attacked; some of them are still missing. We owe it a duty to find out whether they are alive to at least present the true situation to their loved ones. I want to make it categorically clear that we are not targeting Ijaw people. All we are targeting are people who have been responsible for the attacks, killing and forcefully kidnapping members of the Armed Forces of Nigeria", he said.
So the onslaught will continue until the government and army feel they have achieved their objective. If the army fails in this then the entire military operation in the Delta must have been in vain. A few days ago MEND [the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta] claimed it had bombed an oil facility belonging to Chevron in spite of the JTF operation.
A very angry Bello admitted that military aircraft were used to bombard Tompolo's Camp 5 and his personal home at Oporoza, saying: "I ordered a pin point helicopter attack on Tompolo's house." The JTF claimed it had recovered and handed over to the government a list of highly placed individuals and organizations who patronize the militants, what will come of this remains to be seen. Indeed, the Vice President, Goodluck Jonathan had reportedly led several other high government functionaries on a visit to MEND Camp 5 for an encounter with now wanted Tom Polo.
The BBC quoted displaced persons fleeing from the ongoing hostilities in the Niger Delta between the JTF and militants as having said that military helicopters and fighter jets have been bombing the area and that schools and other buildings in the area are seriously threatened by the assaults. The displaced persons, mostly women and children, stated from their refugee camp in Ogbeja village near Warri that several people have been killed while many others have died of hunger.
The House of Representatives, amid rowdiness and protestations, threw its weight behind the ongoing military operation in parts of Delta State. The House also demanded that the onslaught against militant groups in the area be extended to Bayelsa and Rivers States to forestall the relocation of the militants to other parts of the Niger Delta. The lawmakers said that given the large scale criminality associated with the militant groups, it would be an aberration for the Federal Government to continue to tolerate their excesses or stop the military from crushing their apparent insurrection against the Nigerian state.
Amnesty International has called on the Joint Task Force (JTF) in the crisis-ridden Niger Delta to use force only in a way that would not result in human rights abuses. MEND, through its spokesperson Jomo Gbomo has accused Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan of masterminding the "annihilation of the Ijaw race to foster the agenda of a particular set of people on the entire state."
So, is this genocide, or ‘just another fight between two thieves’ that the working class should not concern itself with? We must boldly consider this question, especially in the face of so much emotionalism and shouts of “genocide.” Typically, the bourgeois press has fallen over itself trying to lionize Tom Polo. In their haste they have forgotten that they had done the same thing for Asari Dokubo, Ateke Tom and Soboma George. This is in keeping with the method of superficial historians who view history solely as an interplay of great individuals – Oduduwa, Bayajidda… Tom Polo. The latter, whom Dokubo referred to as “the illiterate leader of MEND”, is being presented as a hater of injustice and a benevolent uncle on whose knees children love to play.
But we insist that the accidental must be separated from the essential. The ongoing military action in the Niger Delta goes beyond Tom Polo and the killing of some soldiers. Necessity expresses itself through accident. If those soldiers had not been killed, the Nigerian ruling class, faced with dwindling oil revenues in a time of global economic crisis, would have found another military political pretext to launch this offensive. In other words, this action was inevitable.
Nigeria has been losing over 800,000 bbl daily owing to a combination of militant activities and OPEC oil quotas. Add to this the fall in world oil prices and the stage was set. In the earlier part of its rule, not only was the current regime hampered by the way it came to power, it also had extra cash at its disposal owing to the rising cost of oil internationally. Thus it was able to pour in cash into the stock market. That is not the case this time. The regime cannot afford to lose anything now.
In the 1950s Nigeria began pumping its first barrels of crude oil. By 1999, at the dawn of the country’s return to civilian rule, it was pumping around 1.8 million bbl. a day and daily capacity expanded to 2.5 million bbl.
Nigerian capitalism took shape under the powerful pressure of imperialism – which bled the ex-colonies dry. Because of its late arrival on the world scene, Nigerian industry, born so late, could not effectively compete with the cheap products of the advanced capitalist countries. And so the country became an exporter of raw materials; groundnut, cocoa, oil palm, etc. To this was added the powerful arrival of oil. The greater the revenue accrued by the Nigerian Ruling Class from this new industry, the less their incentive to pursue the development of agriculture and other branches of the economy.
By means of petro-dollars, the Nigerian ruling class consolidated its rule. According to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC,) an estimated $400 billion in oil revenues – an amount equal to all the foreign aid to Africa during the same period ‑ was stolen by the country’s rulers between independence in 1960 and the return to civilian rule in 1999. (TIME June 11, 2007.)
Africa is estimated to hold 10% of the world’s oil reserves. But this figure does not give an accurate picture of the situation. In his book on African oil, Poisoned Wells, Nicholas Shaxson of the International Affairs Institute Chatham House, London, the US imported more oil from Africa than from the Middle East in 2005. Nigeria supplies 10-12% of US oil imports. Rising demand from India and China and fears over instability in the Middle East had fuelled higher oil prices as well as the renewed scramble for energy.
Analysts from the Center for International Policy, a US think tank, calculate that the Gulf of Guinea will earn $1 trillion from oil by 2020 if the price stays above $50 a barrel. This is roughly double the entire post-colonial aid to Africa since independence in the 1950s and 1960s. Of course, the chances that oil prices will remain above $50 a barrel is a long shot.
The Niger Delta is reputed to lie over one of the biggest reserves of oil on the planet: an estimated 34 billion bbl. of black gold. Humanity has sought gold down through the ages. But however assiduously it has sought it, humanity has always believed it carried a curse. But the oil executives searching for ‘gold’ in the Niger Delta are worlds apart, in their walled and guarded estates, from the ignorant slaves who mined gold in the Caribbean. And they are worlds apart from majority of the inhabitants of the Niger Delta, a watery maze flung across some 50,000 sq Km in southern Nigeria.
The Niger Delta is home to some of Africa’s poorest people – and home to one of Africa’s worst environmental disasters. There are villages without basic amenities, power, water, health clinics, schools, roads. There are no local jobs. But there are the pipelines that scar the earth, that carries billions of barrels of ‘gold,’ something men have fought for, have died for…
This, of course, forms a historical basis of the struggles of the people of the Niger Delta. Paradoxically, it forms, also, a historical basis of the hijacking, the criminalization of the struggle. On a more fundamental level, however, this basis is also provided by the failure of the labour bureaucracy. It forms, also, an objective basis for the ongoing military onslaught in the delta. We will deal with these presently.
While the Nigerian ruling class had got rich from the curse of oil, while its members fought each other for the spoils, over two-thirds of the country’s approximately 140 million people have remained poor, about a third are illiterate and millions lack access to potable water and healthcare. Social infrastructure has also collapsed.
Militants, criminals and freedom fighters
A bombing campaign of oil facilities has been instituted in the Niger Delta. Not a day passes without reports of an explosion or kidnapping of expatriates. The extension of the kidnapping to include three year-old children is an eloquent testament of the blind alley of individual terrorism. Indeed terrorism has become big business.
In its most elementary form the germs for the current militancy is located in the period after the Second Republic, in the time under the army, the ban on the Nigeria Labour Movement and subsequent imposition of a Sole Administrator. The inability of the labour movement to offer a way out led to a burgeoning of ethnic associations and a heightening of inter-ethnic clashes. At the height of the crisis the leadership of the oil workers assured defeat by subordinating the struggle of the oil workers to a section of the Nigerian bourgeois.
In the Niger Delta the general discontent found expression in the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni Peoples. A systematic campaign of terror was instituted by the military regime of General Abacha. The Internal Security Task Force cut a murderous swath leaving behind a trail of death and destruction. The leaders of the movement were arrested and executed amid international condemnation.
In the context of this wider political crisis and the burgeoning movement of oppressed Niger Delta villagers, the military government feared that the Ogoni protests against environmental degradation would have a snowballing effect and that other ethnic groups in the region would begin to move. The protest reached a peak in January 1993 when 300,000 Ogoni people protested against Shell Oil. This organized protest was followed by repeated harassment, arrests, and killing of Ogonis by Federal government troops.
The Delta has historically been politically extremely fragmented, and subject to frequent and at times violent disputes over land and fishing rights, as well as over traditional leaders’ political jurisdictions. These all lead to cycles of “revenge violence.” As more powerful weapons became available in the Delta in the mid- and late-1990s, disputes became more violent. Youth gangs who were willing and able to protect their villages and elders became more powerful. As parliamentary “democracy” returned in 1998–1999, some of these same youths took up a new line of activity, such as paid disruption of campaign events, and/or provided protection for candidates.
A whole generation of Niger Delta youths has been corrupted by payments from the military regime and the oil companies. In the wake of the Ogoni protests, alongside of the military option, the military regime and the oil companies decided to play the ethnic card. Kaa was the first village attacked in the Andoni-Ogoni conflict, resulting in 33 deaths and 8,000 refugees. Over the coming months, similar incidents would occur in 20 other villages. MOSOP accused Shell of being behind the Andoni-Ogoni violence.
Soon after, violent clashes erupted between the Ogoni and Okirika over crowded land at waterfronts in Port Harcourt. Over 90 people were reported dead, many more wounded. On January 24, 1994 the three major oil companies in Port Harcourt estimated that they had lost over $200 million during 1993, due to “unfavorable conditions” in their areas of operation, and called for urgent measures to combat the situation. In April of 1994, a small conflict between Ogoni and Okoloam led to serious clashes.
Following these bloody clashes among competing groups, a number of organizations arose mouthing hazy political goals, among them the FNDIC, NDPVF, MEND, etc., substituting for the revolutionary force of the masses, RPGs, AK47s, and explosives. The hazy political articulations of the Militants are intended as a mask for a thinly-veiled criminality. They are not powered by any ideology. There is no revolutionary class behind them. Rather, the militancy in the Niger Delta is powered by an absence of confidence in the revolutionary masses.
An example is Asari Dokubo, leader of the Niger Delta Peoples’ Volunteer Force (NDPVF,) who is quoted as saying “… I asked Henry (Okah) to open credit line for me. He supplied me arms worth #2.5 million [Naira] on the 7th of August 2003 because of the threat from Ateke Tom’s Icelandic cult to overrun Buguma, my hometown. When the crisis became full blown… I made several appeals to Henry Okah to assist me with more credit facilities which he delayed. Firstly, he asked Tom Polo to facilitate the recovery of my arms which I had sent to Warri which they had used but refused to return back to me.” (National Standard, November 15, 2007)
“What I cannot forgive (Henry,)” said Dokubo in the same newspaper interview, “is his compromising the Ijaw struggle, the introduction of criminality and the dilution of the myth of the freedom fighter as a common criminal.” These are the Niger Delta “freedom fighters.” This criminality has a historical basis. Pirates, bunkerers have long vandalized Nigerian pipelines, and their operations are organized and professional. Gangs of them prowled the creeks and backwaters of the Delta for years, stealing oil, harassing oil workers, making millions of dollars, and fighting each other for the spoils and territory.
Decades earlier, ‘terrorism’ had began with Isaac Boro, a sometime policeman and instructor at the Man O’ War Bay Character and Leadership Center in Victoria, Western Cameroun. Under the Niger Delta Volunteer Force (NDVF), a rag tag army of about 150 men, first set up camp at Taylor Creek. On February 23, 1966 they moved from their Touton Ban camp and attacked a police station at Yenagoa, raided the armoury and kidnapped the senior police officer in command of the station.
After 12 days the revolt was suppressed and Boro and his men were put on trial on a 9 count charge of treason at Port Harcourt assizes and found guilty. Boro was sentenced to death by hanging. And then he was pardoned by then Head of State, General Gowon. However, in 1967 when war broke out, Boro, not surprisingly, enlisted and fought on the Nigerian side.
Before setting out, Boro reportedly rallied his men to, “…Remember your 70 year old grandmother who still farms to eat, remember also your poverty stricken people and then, remember too, your petroleum which is being pumped out daily from your vein, and then fight for your freedom.” The passing of time has not bettered this situation. If anything it has worsened.
Today the area known as the Niger Delta is in an even worse condition than then and a significant proportion of its people lives in terrible poverty. Neither the terrorism of Boro, nor its progeny, the Niger Delta Militants of today can solve the problems of the Niger Delta. All the militants’ campaign has achieved is the militarization of the Delta. Neither, have the various Commissions set up to look into and proffer a solution to the crisis of the Niger Delta had any result. And they cannot.
On the 11th December 1998 activists from the Ijaw ethnic group met at a traditional Ijaw town to issue what later came to be known as the Kaiama Declaration. The declaration was issued by the newly formed Ijaw Youth Council (IYC) and signed on behalf of all the participants by Felix Tuodolo Ogoriba, Timi Kaiser-Wilhelm.
Article 1 of the Kaiama Declaration asserts that ownership of "all land and natural resources within the Ijaw territory as belonging to the Ijaw communities" because they are "the basis of our survival". Article 2 insist on the "people’s and communities’ right to ownership and control of our lives and resources" while article 10, the last article of the declaration, mentioned the issue of "resource control."
We do not support the killing, by armed youths, of policemen and soldiers. So also are we opposed to the ongoing military action in the Niger Delta. But our opposition is not based on any so-called moral principles. Although we fully support the rights of the Niger Delta people and their struggle against the oil companies and the regime that backs them, we do not in any way support their self-styled ‘leaders.’ A clear distinction must be made between the masses and the leadership that purports to lead their struggle.
Neither the Ogoni Bill of Rights, nor the Kaiama Declaration can solve the fundamental problems of the Niger Delta. The struggle of the poor peoples of the Niger Delta is not a struggle for resource control. The slogan of “resource control” is the slogan of the leadership that profits from the genuine struggle of the people. It is their bargaining chip. The struggle in the Niger Delta is more a struggle against unemployment and thus can be directly linked with the general struggle of the Nigerian workers.
The Kaiama Declaration had the same shortcomings as the Ogoni Bill of Rights and all other Bills issued in the struggle. They cannot liberate the Niger Delta masses.
Why the ongoing military onslaught?
In the middle of May, this year the regime of Yar’ Adua – with the recent military action in the Niger Delta – began fighting for its life. The past regime of Obasanjo had also carried out the bombing of the Niger Delta town of Odi. The sacking of the town was purportedly instigated by the killing of some policemen by militant youths of the community.
Are there no differences, then, between the actions of both regimes, between Obasanjo and Yar’Adua? Of course, the need to defend and promote the continuing existence of the profit system determined the actions of both men. In this regard whatever differences exist are merely superficial. But there are real important differences, differences that stem not just from a difference in personality but also from a difference in the political period.
The regime of Obasanjo represented a most aggressive wing of the Nigerian ruling class. For him force is the first option. Oftentimes this crude method worked, particularly in the earlier part of his regime. But in the latter part this method constituted a danger for the ruling class. It was this fear that produced a regime that was the opposite of Obasanjo’s, at least in its quick resort to force. But it was obvious that the continuing existence of the Yar’Adua regime was going to depend on its use of force in the Niger Delta. We must not stretch the facts to fit the theory by insisting that because the Yar’Adua regime was characterized as a “lame duck” regime, the ongoing military action in the Delta was not its resort but that of the military alone. This is dangerous and disarms us politically.
If the regime failed to act as it did, it would have put a seal on its fate. With Obasanjo the bombing of Odi was in character: speak loudly and hit everyone in sight with a big stick. It was the same method we saw, too, in Zaki-Biam. Yar’Adua’s incursion in the Delta was a more direct economic imperative.
According to Thisday of Wednesday, June 17, 2009, “Nigeria’s precarious revenue profile has suffered yet another setback as Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) yesterday declared a force majeure on Forcados crude oil exports for the remaining part of June and July, owing to the damage to its Trans-Forcados Trunkline.”
The article goes on to say that US oil major Chevron said it would press ahead with the implementation of key oil and gas projects in Nigeria valued at $6.8 billion in spite of recent attacks on its facilities. The projects “include the 34,000 barrel per day gas-to-liquids project, valued at $2.8 billion, which is designed to process 320 million cubic feet per day of natural gas… Others are the Escravos Gas Plant (EGP) Phase 3A and 3B expansion project, with a total cost of $4 billion, which the company had projected to go on stream 2010, and the drilling of 10 additional wells in the huge Agbami deepwater oil field that would ensure that the field hit its peak output of 250,000bpd.”
So, is this more money for the regime? We will see. According to the Thisday report, in the last three weeks, attacks had affected Chevron’s Utunana Pumping station, Makaraba-Utunana-Abiteye pipeline as well as the Makaraba Jacket 5 facility in the Niger Delta and the Abiteye flow station which feeds oil to the Escravos export terminal in Delta State.
In the month of May, Nigeria, a leading member of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, reportedly lost the number one African oil producer status in the ranking of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to Angola as its production level dropped from 2.6 million barrels per day to an estimated 1.740 million barrels per day, due to unrest in the volatile Niger Delta in the past three years.
Nigeria's foreign currency reserves dropped to 45 billion dollars this week from 48 billion dollars a month earlier due to falling oil prices, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) said Wednesday. Nigeria's foreign exchange reserves stood at 67 billion dollars at the height of the oil boom in July 2008 when crude prices peaked above 147 dollars (105 euros) per barrel on concerns over the faltering global economy.
These are the real reasons for the attack. The soldiers’ death simply furnished the pretext. The regime of Yar’Adua desperately needs to ‘deregulate’ the downstream sector, that is further dump the burden of the crisis of their system onto the working class, but finds itself confronted by the power of an undefeated labour movement. So it took the line of ‘least resistance’ – the discredited Niger Delta militants whose method offered the regime a fig leaf for its true needs.
What will be the end result of this onslaught? The villages of the Niger Delta will be further devastated. The human and social cost will be great. But, in the short term, the contract between the militant leaders and the regime will be renewed for 2011. Clearly, this action will not stop criminality and violence in the Delta. The long term political effect, however, will be unfavorable for the regime. By its indiscriminate bombing the regime will soon build up hatred against itself. It will reap the whirl-wind.
The prestige of the militants, to a large extent, has been shattered. So much so that in Odi the villagers handed over a militant leader, Ken Neweigha - the alleged mastermind of the killing of the policemen that led to the bombing of Odi under Obasanjo – to save their village. The Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities (FNDIC) has appealed to the military authorities to "ceasefire and discontinue its war on the defenceless Gbaramatu Ijaw people as Gbaramatu is not a part and parcel of the declaration of war with the Nigerian nation/Army by (the MEND) which we asked to steer clear of Gbaramatu.”
But what’s in a name? Even if one were to concede to the militants the title of genuine “freedom fighters”, their method would still be condemnable. It would still lead to failure. So, too, would the method of the NGO and human right activists that litter the Delta.
Only the revolutionary strength of organized labour can show a way out of this mess. If, however, the leadership of labour fails to show a way out, the Niger Delta masses will continue to turn this way and that way. A question that concerns the regime is “what will happen from now till 2011?” The deeper political question is one of the continuing survival of the Yar’Adua regime. But the real battle is still coming. The Nigerian working class is undefeated. The solution to the Niger Delta, to the still unfolding crisis of global capitalism, lies in labour taking power. We must realize this and work towards this and not give way to sentiment and emotion.
Only the revolutionary struggle of the working class under the banner of Socialism is capable of assuring a “New World Order” which will abolish poverty, backwardness, and starvation and provide a better life for the “70 year old grandmother who still farms to eat.”
We provide here some videos which give a taste of what has been happening in the Niger Delta.