Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

"Nigerian oil dispute flares into full-scale revolt," The International News, June 29, 2006.

KEGBARA-DERE, Nigeria: Crude oil seeping from a gnarled steel wellhead forms a lake the size of a soccer pitch near the Nigerian village of Kegbara-Dere, but these oilfields have not exported a drop in 13 years. The Ogoni tribe kicked Royal Dutch Shell out of this part of the Niger Delta in 1993 protesting that they had received nothing in return for four decades of oil production. Today, the same grievances are fuelling a revolt across the entire oil heartland of Africa’s largest producer.

“If Shell never comes back, we would have lost nothing,” says Young Kigbara, a member of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, surveying the pungent pool of oil and an abandoned pumping station nearby.

“We are better off without oil production.” Oil is the mainstay of the Nigerian economy, but has brought little benefit to the rural communities of Nigeria’s far south where it is extracted.

Cut off from the national road and power networks, and deprived of basic schools and health care, delta inhabitants have responded by denying companies access to progressively larger tracts of land, containing billions of barrels of oil.

Nigeria has forfeited about 700,000 barrels of oil daily, equivalent to the total consumption of Turkey and worth $17 billion a year, because of this grassroots action, industry officials estimate. And the situation is deteriorating rapidly.

Protests that began with peaceful Ogoni rallies have evolved into military-style raids, car bombings and kidnappings that forced Shell to shut down oilfields responsible for a quarter of the country’s output in February.

As their methods have become deadlier, the militants’ demands have become greater. They no longer just complain about neglect; they demand control of their resources. “Resource control is not just about cash. It is participation in the decision-making process,” says Kigbara. The latest group to emerge at the vanguard of this struggle is the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), which has staged a series of deadly attacks on the industry since the end of last year.

It says it aims to bring all of Nigeria’s output of 2.4 million barrels a day to a halt unless its demands are met. “Each step in the history of the Niger Delta struggle has always assumed more sophistication than the previous one,” said Oronto Douglas, a human rights lawyer nominated by MEND to mediate with the federal government.

“A total shutdown is a high possibility,” he said, adding that triggers could include military reprisals against the militants or electoral fraud in next April’s general elections. Underpaid and ill-equipped, the Nigerian troops deployed to protect oil installations since 2003 cannot match the speed and agility of the militants.

MEND’s highly coordinated attacks, using hundreds of fighters on speedboats armed with assault rifles, dynamite and rocket-propelled grenades, send troops running for cover.

Militias have existed for centuries in this maze of mangrove-lined creeks, and gained notoriety during colonial times for attacking European ships carrying slaves and palm oil. Today, armed groups in league with international syndicates take advantage of the region’s inaccessibility to siphon huge volumes of crude oil from pipelines, often with the connivance of military, government and oil company officials.

The government routinely dismisses militant leaders as oil thieves, although it has begun to make concessions to the region in response to the latest wave of violence. “Everyone accepts there is a criminal element to the struggle, but criminality was not the origin of the struggle. People have always agitated for fairness,” said Chris Alagoa, coordinator of the Niger Delta Peace and Security Secretariat, a combined civil society and government initiative.

MEND has so far rejected the government’s overtures, sticking to its demands of resource control, $1.5 billion oil spill compensation for delta villages, and the release of two jailed leaders from the region.

While Shell executives are optimistic that they will be able to return to their oilfields soon, they first want a deal with the people who drove them away. The Ogoni dispute, unresolved after 13 years, serves as an ominous precedent.

“The Ogonis succeeded in grounding Shell activity for close to 15 years. Now MEND has started. Little by little they will close down all the oil production in the Niger Delta,” said Sampson Agba, a community worker in Iko village.
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