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Guerilla Groups Attack Nigerian Oil Resources, Affecting World Market

January 26, 2007 at 1:09 PM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: The ever volatile price of oil was especially so last year, skyrocketing at one point to almost $80 a barrel. One key reason was a little noticed spate of guerrilla attacks in Nigeria, the fifth biggest supplier of oil to the United States.

Several major foreign oil companies, the biggest being Shell, operate in the southern Niger Delta region, extracting oil to sell on the global market. In the past year, their operations have taken a beating from armed militants, who have staged violent attacks on company facilities, killing workers, security guards, and soldiers — another favorite M.O., kidnapping for ransom. More than 100 foreign oil workers have been taken hostage in just the past year. In one attack last August, gunmen stormed this bar in Port Harcourt and abducted four Western oil workers.

Nigeria’s oil output is down 25 percent as a result, and the attacks continue. Members of a group calling itself the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, claim to be behind many of the attacks.

Journalist and author Sebastian Junger, who wrote the bestseller “The Perfect Storm,” went to Nigeria recently and gained access to the camps of this shadowy group. His article about it appeared in the February issue of Vanity Fair magazine, where he is a contributing editor.

And Sebastian Junger joins me now.

And welcome.

SEBASTIAN JUNGER, Vanity Fair: Thank you.

Investigating the Niger Delta

MARGARET WARNER: Now, of all the great stories in the world, what attracted you to this one?

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: I was just intrigued by these guys who were grabbing foreign oil workers off of oil rigs. They were overrunning oil rigs 50 miles offshore, grabbing Westerners, taking them into the mangrove slumps, and then releasing them unharmed.

And, in this day and age of killing hostages and all that, I just thought, this is -- this is different. This is interesting. And what -- what is it that they want? Why are they doing this?

MARGARET WARNER: So, you went to investigate.

Now, first set the scene for us, this Niger Delta region, where the oil facilities are.

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Well, it is the very southern point of Nigeria, along the Atlantic coast. Nigeria is an incredibly poor and corrupt country.

And the Niger Delta is this huge area of mangrove swamps and tributaries and creeks, absolutely impenetrable, I mean, a real maze of waterways. And there are little villages, Ijaw and other tribe -- tribal groups, villages, in the creeks, where they subsist on fishing. And interspersed in those villages are oil wells and pipelines and -- and all kinds of infrastructure for the oil industry.

MARGARET WARNER: And these guerrillas claim they are protesting the living conditions of the ordinary villagers who live there.

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Yes. I mean, they are protesting a whole cluster of -- of ills, really.

The -- the -- the living conditions are appalling. I mean, there is no -- in these villages, there is no clean drinking water. There is no edu -- there's no schools. There's no medical facilities. There is no sanitation -- rampant disease, very, very, very poor people.

Of course, a lot of places in Africa are poor, but, in this area, I think it's particularly painful, because, right next to these villages are these oil wells that are pumping billions of dollars worth of oil a week. And, essentially, these groups are saying, until we in the Niger Delta benefit from the immense wealth of this area, we will shut down the industry.

Meeting with MEND

MARGARET WARNER: So, how did you go about trying to actually meet with these militants? And what did you find?

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Well, every foreign reporter who has gone down to the Niger Delta to write the story e-mails someone named Jomo, who is the spokesman and leader of MEND. He has an e-mail address. And no one knows who he is or what his name is or where he is. He's not -- I think he is maybe not even in Nigeria.

You e-mail Jomo. Jomo says, no thank you, but thanks for your interest, but you cannot meet MEND. And, thus far, in the past year or so of their existence, he has refused any kind of contact with journalists.

We did the same thing. Photographer Mike Kamber and I did the same thing. Jomo said no. And we went into the creeks anyway. We thought we had safe passage from someone else. And we didn't.

And we got into one of the villages that we were told to go to. And MEND descended on us with their guns. And they thought we were spies. And it turned very scary very, very quickly.

We did two trips into the Delta to meet MEND. The first time, because we were under such suspicion, we couldn't take any photographs. So, the photographs you will see are from the second trip, which came two weeks later.

These guys come out of their speedboats with these huge machine guns, half-naked and painted with war paint, and absolutely terrifying. And they accused me of being a spy, American military intelligence, God knows what.

And one guy came up and said, "I'm going to kill you." And it was a very, very bad situation.

But Jomo found out, and -- they called him. There's some telephone -- there's cell phone reception in the creeks. Jomo found out. And they Googled our names. Ijaw tribesmen in U.S. -- and in South -- South Africa Googled our names, confirmed we were journalists. And Jomo told these guys to release us.

And, gradually, over the next couple of weeks, I convinced Jomo that it was -- it would be a good thing for him to let us back. And we went back.

MARGARET WARNER: A lot of these fighters look very young, and, as you said, fairly bizarrely dressed, also expensively armed.

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Yes.

They -- they belong to -- they follow a cult called Egbesu. Egbesu is the -- the Ijaw god of war. And, if you do certain things, if you purify yourself, you fast -- these guys do not have sex with women while they're fighting. They live together in these militant camps in the mangrove swamps. They paint themselves with these -- with this white chalk paint.

They tie amulets to themselves. It makes them bulletproof. In their -- in their belief, it makes them bulletproof. So, they -- they are very, very brave fighters, which, of course, is intimidating to anyone they are fighting. And the effect of being bulletproof is actually almost achieved.

And they are -- and they are well-armed. Often, in West Africa, you see old AK-47s floating around. These are very, very expensive, high-performance belt-fed machine guns made in Czech Republic. And it's not the kind of weapon you often see in these war zones.

Fighting for oil revenue

MARGARET WARNER: Do they pay for these weapons be -- from the money they get, say, from the kidnappings?

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Well, the -- the finances of MEND I think are -- you know, I would hate to -- I would hate to guess, you know, exactly what they are.

But the militancy in general -- MEND is one part of the militancy in the Delta. There are many groups that do this kind of thing. MEND is, I think, probably the most organized and political. But they -- they steal oil. It is called bunkering oil.

That provides an enormous amount of revenue. And they demand billions of naira, the -- the currency in Nigeria, in exchange for the release of these hostages. So, they have plenty of money to buy weapons with.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the second time you went in, with their permission, did you find them still hostile, or did they want to explain what they are doing and why they are doing it?

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Jomo called them, and said: These guys are coming in. They are a good idea. Treat them well. Have them -- they can do anything that they want.

And, so, when we got back there, we were -- I mean, I was absolutely terrified, but for no reason. I mean, they were absolutely perfect gentlemen, in a sense. And I don't know if I would call them friendly, but -- but they were polite and respectful, and, you know, a couple of times said: Don't -- Don't be scared. You're -- you are fine with us.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, what did they say? Did they make their case?

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Brutus, a guy -- a guy who calls himself Brutus, their leader in the field, made their case.

He said: We want control of our resources, meaning the oil. We're terrible -- of the terrible living conditions in the -- in the creeks. The Nigerian government has been stealing everything. The oil companies take our oil. And it's time for justice.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the oil companies say they're paying hefty royalties to the Nigerian government and to the local governors, and that money is supposed to go to these villages.

What happens to that money?

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Yes, well, that -- exactly.

I mean, the -- the oil companies really are sort of acquitting themselves well, in terms of their contracts with Nigeria. They pay 60, 70, even up to 90 percent of revenues to the Nigerian government. Most of it goes to the Nigerian government.

But it is such an incredibly, indescribably corrupt country, that none of the money that should go back into the creeks, into the -- into the states where it's -- the oil is drilled, none -- very little of the money gets there. It all gets soaked up by corruption, billions of dollars.

A corrupt country

MARGARET WARNER: So, what is the Nigerian government doing to try to protect these facilities?

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: It is impossible. You can't protect these facilities.

I mean, there's 6,000 kilometers of pipeline in the Niger Delta owned by Shell alone, just one oil company, hundreds of wellheads. You -- you can't do it.

And the Nigerian military is as corrupt as everything else. So, what the militants do is, they -- they will pay the Nigerian military to help them steal oil, to safeguard oil -- barges full of stolen oil offshore to be sold. There -- there really -- there's -- I'm not sure what the solution is.

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: It's very complicated.

MARGARET WARNER: And, finally, from your conversations with these MEND characters, Brutus and so forth, do you think they are determined to continue?

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: I think they're absolutely determined, yes.

I -- I mean, some of the militant groups can be sort of bought off -- have been bought off with enough money. MEND, I think, is principled enough, I don't think that will work. They are now refusing money for hostages. They will not take money to release hostages. They want political concessions. In my mind, that is a very serious organization.

MARGARET WARNER: Sebastian Junger, thank you.

SEBASTIAN JUNGER: Thank you.