The clashes between the Ijaw and the Itsekiri, two of the main ethnic groups in the oil-rich Niger Delta region, apparently stem from disputes over the distribution of the region’s oil wealth and political influence.
“We have reason to believe there were very nearly 100 (deaths),” Nigerian Red Cross President Emmanuel Ijewere told Reuters. “We believe there were over 1,000 injured.”
Nigerian troops were sent into Warri on Wednesday to quell the violence. Soon after the military was ordered into the city, leaders of the two groups declared a cease-fire ending five days of fighting.
The truce, combined with the heavily armed presence of soldiers, has reportedly returned an uneasy calm to the city although a Reuters correspondent on the scene reported that corpses riddled with bullets could still be seen on the streets.
The military presence, officially dubbed the Joint Security Task Force, includes portions of the army, navy and air force as well as Nigeria’s elite police force.
The fighting was some of the worst the Niger Delta has seen since March when similar clashes led to dozens of deaths and forced some multinational oil companies to halt output by 40 percent.
The current clashes forced thousands to flee their homes and shut down many local businesses. Major international oil companies shut down their administrative offices although oil output has reportedly not been disrupted, according to media reports.
Nearly all of Nigeria’s oil production and related projects are owned by joint venture operations between the government-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) and multinational corporations.
Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation and its top oil producer, has been subject to numerous protests from the local population due to the country’s widespread poverty in the face of lucrative oil resources.
In July 2002, some 150 women in southern Nigeria occupied a Chevron oil terminal, trapping some 800 workers, to demand better employment for their families and investment in the local community. The eight-day siege ended after the Chevron Nigeria firm agreed to the women’s demands to hire more than two dozen villagers and to build schools, water systems and other amenities.
The specific trigger for this week’s fighting appears unclear although some media reports indicate the battle centers around control of the illegal oil trade in the region in addition to disputes over land and political power.
It is estimated that some 100,000 barrels of oil are stolen from oil pipelines in the Niger Delta, funneling into a large underground market.
“Oil theft is accounting for around 70,000 to 100,000 barrels per day in the western region,” Frank Efeduma, Shell’s external relations manager in the western Niger Delta, told reporters Wednesday, according to the Lagos newspaper the Vanguard.
Ijaws also claim Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo’s government tends to unfairly favor their Itsekiri rivals in the distribution of political support and other benefits that result from the oil operations in the region.
After a security meeting in Warri, the governor of the Delta region, James Ibori, said the security task force was enacted, “not specifically for the Warri crisis. I must say, we have major problems in our riverine areas and our states where the nation’s economy is being bled to death through illegal trading in petroleum products,” the Vanguard reported.
A dusk-to-dawn curfew remains in effect in Warri despite the military presence, local Nigerian media reported.