African Lions: Terrorism in the Niger Delta

Posted on January 26, 2011


The following is an extended excerpt from chapter two of African Lions, ‘Nigeria, Cameroon and the Niger Delta’. African Lions will be published in mid-February 2011 and available at Amazon and other online booksellers – subscribe to the blog using the link on the right to be kept up-to-date when the book arrives.

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The 74 ExxonMobil staff working at the Ibeno oil facility offshore the Akwa Ibom state in the Niger Delta would be forgiven for feeling slightly on edge as they went about their daily business on 14 November 2010. Offshore plants and rigs are by their nature isolated, often several miles offshore and sometimes hours away from contact with the mainland. That two days earlier the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) had released the names of the seven workers they kidnapped earlier that week and explained in precise detail how they had encountered “stiff resistance from the Nigerian military” but overcome them in an “intense firefight” before attempting to set the High Island VII rig alight would be playing on the minds of those working at a separate rig. It was foreign-owned and therefore fair game to the eyes of MEND.

The sun was down at ten o’clock on a Sunday night and the Ibeno facility seemed calm on the surface. Undoubtedly some were worried, however, at recent attacks instigated by MEND – for good reason. The first sign of the attack was the crumpled booms of explosives detonating: they were rigged to the facility itself. Ibeno is one of eight platforms on the Oso field, sitting on a spoil that produces roughly 75,000 barrels of crude oil and 60,000 barrels of natural gas liquid (NGL) every day across all facilities[i]. The use of bullets, never mind heavy explosives, on an oil field is like holding a lit match to a powder keg.

Six speedboats raced alongside the facility and Ibeno was boarded by MEND fighters carrying guns. The boats flew white flags – but not to signify surrender in the western sense. MEND fly under the white flag of Egbesu, an Ijaw water spirit. They believe that they are defending the honour of Egbesu by keeping Delta waters in the control of the Ijaw people, and that by flying under his flag they will be protected from all bullets that come their way. There was a firefight to quell the military guard over the facility, and seven layworkers, all members of the Pengassan oil workers union were taken along with an eighth hostage, a member of management at ExxonMobil. They were whisked away to one of the many militant camps that MEND run on the Delta, some of which have come under protracted government rocket fire as an attempt to smoke out the fighters.

Once there, a statement was prepared and released, much as it had been done for the similar kidnapping the week before at Okoro. Then it had been seven workers on a rig run by the exploration company Afren: two American employees of Transocean, James Robertson and Jeffrey James; the Canadian Robert Croke of PPI; Patrick Weber of Transocean and Mignon Gilles of Sodexo, both French; and the Indonesians Permana Nugraha and Robert Tampubolon, who worked for Century Energy Services.

The statement was chilling for anyone working on a foreign-owned facility: “In the coming weeks we will launch a major operation that will simultaneously affect oil facilities across the Niger Delta.” The Ibeno incursion had been a response, MEND claimed, “to the indiscriminate bombing and strafing of communities in the Niger Delta and locations in the creeks and swamps suspected of accommodating militia camps by the Nigerian military. The Nigerian government to date has refused to enter into dialogue over addressing the injustice in the Niger Delta, preferring instead to deceive the world into believing that the Niger Delta issue has been resolved by the government of Goodluck Jonathan.” The government’s attempt at an amnesty had not stopped them, they said. All they had done was bribe “a few miscreants.” MEND were not going anywhere. Chillingly Jomo Gbomo (a catch-all nom de guerre used by most MEND spokespeople) said that “nothing will be spared.” If oil companies’ employees were harmed during the kidnapping of workers or the attacks on oil facilities, then so be it. To ‘Gbomo’s’ mind, and to the minds of those in MEND, the oil companies, not the militants, would “bear the guilt.”

Before the eight kidnapped from Ibeno, before the seven kidnapped from High Island VIII on Okoro, MEND had taken three French citizens and a Thai national from the Bourbon Alexandre, busy working at a field operated by Addax, on 21 September. They were released at the same time as MEND named those taken at Okoro, and just a few days before Ibeno. It appeared to the world that as long as foreign investment was coming into Nigeria, plundering its resources and going out again without leaving investment for the natives, the round of kidnapping would continue as if powered by conveyer. A violent firefight would be followed by a hostage situation, requiring either the beneficence of MEND or the belligerence of Nigerian military might to free them.

The spate of Nigerian kidnappings in the last few months of 2010 are said to have been the work of one man: Obese Kuna, a rising general within MEND who has a tighter link towards organised crime than the environmental wings of the group. Obese – real name Tamunotonye Kuna, a 25-year old from the Niger Delta – is one of the new commanders in the field of an organisation known to be a hodge-podge of different tribal groups fighting for different aims (and with differing levels of morality on how to do so). He was believed to have personally overseen the holding of many of the hostages[ii] taken in late 2010 prior to his arrest after being lured into a meeting to negotiate a surrender and despite his criminal links, has treated them well in captivity. With good reason too: in April 2009 Police Inspector General Mike Okiro revealed that between 2006 and 2008 more than $100 million of ransoms were paid to groups like MEND across the whole of Nigeria. Kidnapping not only raises awareness of the plight of those living in the Delta – it bankrolls the fight, too.

MEND have managed to capitalise on the biggest swayer of public opinion across the world. Without exception, irrespective of cultural differences or geographical boundaries, people are affected by fear. If the families of workers on offshore oil rigs believe their loved ones are likely to be kidnapped while they work, they will tell that person their fear. A seed of doubt will be planted in that workers’ mind, and soon he will be wary of going to work in Nigeria. The occasional outbursts of violence that come from piracy in the seas around Nigeria (one attack on 30 October 2009 on a ship sailing under Swiss colours saw nine hijackers injure nine crewmembers – three seriously – and the breaking of the Master’s fingers when he refused to cooperate[iii]) will dissuade workers even more. Without the assurance that their employees can work without being held hostage by heavily armed militants, oil companies begin pulling out of the country. MEND have hit on a tactic which sees their aims likely to succeed. It may not happen today or tomorrow, but sooner rather than later the grinding effect of fear, and the sheer volume of these attacks (80 occurred in 2008 alone[iv]), will take hold and MEND will succeed in their aims.

Does that make Nigeria a no-go area for large internationals? The Economist’s Operational risk rankings declared Nigeria the 15th most risky of 180 rated countries in its 2010 edition, a worse place to do business than Iran and Pakistan. On the surface, it seems that it would be easier for companies to wash their hands of the area and move to somewhere less fractious, but Africa is one of the few places remaining that has plentiful reserves of conventional oil and gas. Total SA CEO Christophe de Margerie is loath to think about abandoning the country, but is unsure.[v] “The easiest solution is to say,” he told investors, “that each time we are confronted with a security problem we should leave, but then there won’t be any more oil. If it gets worse, we may have to leave.” In order that the world – and Europe especially, who are building ties with North Africa as an alternative to the increasing market domination the Russians are holding over European supplies – are not held in a stranglehold by the whim of some less-than-dependent oil states such as Russia and the Middle East, they must use Africa’s plentiful resources. However even MEND admit that Nigeria is “gradually heading towards an abyss of civil war” like that which it has experienced in the past. Sully Abu, who was directing Goodluck Jonathan’s campaign to be returned President, has said in the past that “Nigeria is like being on an airplane that has just been taken over by hijackers. You do not want to compromise with the gunmen, but the prime concern is to land the plane, so there’s no choice but to give in.”

[i] Al-Jazeera, Nigeria military frees oil hostages (18 November 2010)

[ii] Reuters, Nigeria militants deny army raid in oil delta (22 November 2010)

[iii] International Maritime Bureau, Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships (January 2010)

[iv] WikiLeaks, Nigeria: Shell briefs ambassador on oil gas issues, comments on President’s health and high-level corruption (February 2009)

[v] Bloomberg, Nigeria Oil Clashes Threaten Production in Challenge to Jonathan (28 November 2010)

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