TOPICS > Politics

Militant Group Poses Threat to Nigerian Oil Industry

BY Anna Shoup  March 10, 2006 at 2:00 PM EST

MEND also held four oil workers hostage for 19 days to protest the Nigerian government and foreign oil companies.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, first emerged as an armed militia group in January 2006 when it launched coordinated attacks on oil installations and held four oil workers hostage for 19 days to protest the Nigerian government and foreign oil companies.

At the center of its demands, MEND is fighting for more local control of oil resources, better distribution of the profits from crude exports and a withdrawal of the Nigerian military and oil companies from the region.

In February 2006, MEND kidnapped 11 employees of Willbros Group Inc. of Houston and vowed to continue disruptions in Nigeria’s oil production if foreign companies and the Nigerian military do not leave the delta. It also called for the release of two imprisoned Ijaw tribal leaders, compensation from oil companies for environmental damage and a greater share of oil revenue.

Although an elusive and little-known group, MEND has already made itself felt on the world stage. Its string of attacks has caused a spike in oil prices and sent tremors through a petroleum market already fearful of rising prices from increasing demand, Middle East tensions and hurricanes in the United States.

Nigeria is the eighth largest exporter of crude in the world and most of the oil lies beneath the swampy, volatile Niger delta region where heavily armed militia have become increasingly active over the past years. The central government in Abuja has appeared unable or unwilling to improve security or aid in the area’s development.

Niger delta region

Little of the oil profits return to the region’s communities and poor villagers feel increasingly marginalized both by the government and foreign producers, said Peter Lewis, director of the Council for African Studies at American University.

Oil spills and gas flarings — when natural gas is burned and released into the atmosphere during the production of oil and gas — and have caused severe environmental damage in an area where villagers depend on farming and fishing for their livelihood. Unemployment remains high in the area and oil producers employ expatriate workers instead of local Nigerians.

Though the size and makeup of MEND is uncertain, Lewis assumes that MEND’s members are poor and unemployed young men in the Ijaw tribe who formed from branches of other militia groups.

An e-mail statement from a MEND spokesman named Jomo Gbomo said the militia includes “dismissed, retired, and serving military personnel.”

Experts predict that MEND bought its weapons using profits from stealing oil — called bunkering — and can easily match the Nigerian military in terms of fire power. The Christian Science Monitor reported that MEND has M-16 guns and 400-horse power boats that can navigate delta’s rivers faster than the Nigerian navy.

Demands for the future

MEND has warned that it will continue attacks and kidnappings to stall Nigeria’s crude exports if their conditions are not met. After the February kidnappings, Nigeria’s production of oil, normally around 2.4 million barrels a day, dropped by 458,000 barrels per day.

In an e-mail sent to media outlets, MEND demanded the release of two Ijaw leaders: Alhaji Mujahid Asari-Dokubo, a leader of the militant group Niger Delta Peoples Volunteer Force who faces charges of treason, and Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, the former governor of Bayelsa State who is being held by the government on corruption and money laundering charges.

MEND also called for the Shell Petroleum Development Company to pay the Ijaws $1.5 billion to compensate for environmental damage and for the Nigerian government to increase the oil derivation principle, or the amount of total oil revenue awarded to developing oil-producing communities, from the current 13 percent to 50 percent, according to the Daily Champion newspaper in Lagos.

Federal government response

In the past, the Nigerian government used the military to restrain similar militias but MEND appears to be better organized and better equipped than previous groups. And unlike other militias who use attacks to collect ransom money, MEND demands political reform at the national level.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria Walter Carrington said Nigeria’s future depends on whether the government adequately addresses grievances held by militia groups.

“What I am hoping is that there will be more attention paid to the demands of the people in the Niger delta region, otherwise I’m afraid that what we are going to see is problems that we’re seeing elsewhere, that we see in places like Chechnya and Colombia and other places where militant groups are able to get hold of arms and are able to radicalize the situation in an area where you do not have the kind of military possibilities for the government to be able to put this down,” said Carrington.

The Nigerian government, led by President Olusegun Obasanjo, has failed to improve security in the region or yield to demands of further economic development and social benefits. Obasanjo dispatched the military to restrain militia groups but relies on local governments renowned for their corruption to negotiate for the release of the hostages.

In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, Demieari Von Kemedi, a human rights campaigner in Port Harcourt, said Obasanjo is “giving the issue a local appearance rather than an issue of national importance … and by doing so not creating any forum at all for many fundamental questions.”

In 2007 Nigeria will hold national elections which Lewis says are “unquestionably a backdrop behind this.” While MEND has not explicitly announced any political alliances, Lewis predicts that they will become embroiled in politics just as militias in the past have aligned with candidates.

Also in consideration in next year’s elections are changes to the constitution that would give higher percentage of oil revenues to states that produce oil, one of MEND’s stated demands.