At the center of its demands, the armed milita group 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.
“We will continue to nibble at the Nigerian oil export industry until we think it is necessary to deal it a final crippling blow,” wrote Jomo Gbomo in an e-mail statement published in media reports. Gbomo claims to be the group’s spokesman though his true identity remains unknown.
Since its first string of attacks in 2006, MEND quickly made itself felt on the world stage by disrupting oil production in Nigeria, the world’s eighth largest exporter of crude and a source of light sweet crude, or oil that requires little refining.
The group’s emergence caused a spike in oil prices and sent tremors through a petroleum market already dealing with rising prices from increased demand, Middle East tensions and hurricanes in the United States. Royal Dutch Shell — the biggest operator in Nigeria — closed down most of its facilities in response to the attacks and kidnappings.
In early March 2007, Shell said it reached an agreement with the local communities — but not a security guarantee with MEND — to resume oil production in the region after losses of 500,000 barrels of oil a day due to violence, according to the New York Times.
Most of the oil lies beneath the swampy, volatile Niger delta region where heavily armed militias have become increasingly active over the past years. MEND has surfaced as better organized and more effective than groups in the past and claims to be an umbrella group for other militias.
The International Crisis Group reported that more than 70 foreigners were seized in 2006 with most of them released quickly. But a Council on Foreign Relations report by Robert Rotberg put the 2006 hostage count at over 100 and said that a number of them were killed. In addition to kidnappings and attacks on oil installations, the group has planted car bombs in Port Harcourt.
With the approach of Nigeria’s elections in April 2007, MEND’s attacks increased and the group took at least 50 people hostage in January, according to the United Nations’ news organization IRIN. But observers are hesitant to link the increase to the elections, and Gbomo said that while MEND has no specific plans to disrupt balloting in the region, it will not suspend activities.
From the time of its first attacks, MEND has vowed to continue disruptions in Nigeria’s oil production if foreign companies and the Nigerian military do not leave the delta. It also demanded the release of two imprisoned Ijaw tribal leaders, compensation from oil companies for environmental damage and a greater share of oil revenue.
MEND unsuccessfully called for the Shell Petroleum Development Co. 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.
Even as the oil industry accounts for most of Nigeria’s wealth, little of these profits return to the region’s communities and poor villagers feel increasingly marginalized both by the government and foreign producers, said Peter Lewis, the director of the African Studies Program at the Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies.
Oil spills and gas flarings — when natural gas is burned during oil production — have caused severe environmental damage in an area where villagers depend on farming and fishing for their livelihood. Unemployment remains high yet oil producers employ expatriate workers instead of local Nigerians.
Though the size and makeup of MEND is uncertain, Lewis said MEND’s members are probably poor and unemployed young men in the Ijaw tribe. In an e-mail statement, Gbomo said the militia includes “dismissed, retired, and serving military personnel.” The group’s leadership structure is unclear.
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 March 2007, Obasanjo blamed the group for the delta’s continuing violence, instability and underdevelopment and said that he expected the region’s leaders — not the central government — to curb militant attacks.
In the past, the Nigerian government used the military to restrain similar militias but MEND has proved better organized and better equipped than previous groups.
Observers predict that MEND bought its weapons through ransom demands but mostly using profits from stealing oil — called bunkering — and can easily match the Nigerian military in terms of fire power. In a rare visit with MEND, journalist Sebastian Junger gained access to the group for a Vanity Fair profile and reported that instead of the old AK-47s commonly used in Africa, MEND was equipped with expensive machine guns from the Czech Republic.
As followers of Egbesu, the Ijaw god of war, MEND fighters paint their bodies with symbols, wear amulets to protect them from bullets and believe they can drink battery acid without harm.
“They were a collection of walking nightmares, everything that is terrifying to the human psych, and when confronted with them, Nigerian soldiers have been known to just drop their weapons and run,” wrote Junger in Vanity Fair.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria Walter Carrington said Nigeria’s future depends on whether the government adequately addresses the grievances held by militia groups like MEND.
“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,” Carrington said in a Feb. 24, 2006, NewsHour report.