Behind the Mask: Militia Gains Support in the Oil-Rich Niger Delta

By Okonta, Ike | Earth Island Journal, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Behind the Mask: Militia Gains Support in the Oil-Rich Niger Delta


Okonta, Ike, Earth Island Journal


The fragile truce brokered between Nigeria's central government and the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) in April 2006 jerked to a bloody halt on August 20 when soldiers of the Joint Task Force, a contingent of the Nigerian Army, Navy, and Air Force, ambushed 15 members of the MEND militia and murdered them. The men had gone to negotiate the release of a Shell Oil worker kidnapped by youth in Letugbene, a neighboring community. That worker also died in the massacre.

The incident occurred five days after Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo instructed armed forces commanders in the region to "pacify" the region. Obasanjo had promised MEND in early April that he would use dialogue and carefully targeted development to return peace, law, and accountable government to the impoverished Niger Delta.

The Ijaw, the largest ethnic group in the Niger Delta, was represented by prominent Ijaw political and civic leaders at the burial ceremonies. Ijaw farmers and fishers had also travelled from their hamlets to pay their last respects to the slain. Spokesmen of the Nigerian government had sought to represent the 15 militias as "irresponsible hostage-takers" in the wake of the slaughter. But those Ijaw who had gathered that morning spoke only of heroes who had fallen in the battle for Ijaw liberation.

MEND members say they have never seen armed force as anything but a last resort after three decades of peaceful entreaty met with cynical indifference from the central government and the oil companies. Leaders of the Gbaramatu-based Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities (FNDIC) served as informal representatives of the MEND militia in negotiations with Obasanjo and Nigeria's central government following the abduction of nine foreign off workers in February. When I interviewed FNDIC President Oboko Bello in Warri two weeks before the Letugbene massacre, he spoke warmly about the meetings he and other Ijaw leaders had had in Abuja with Obasanjo and other government officials in April, and assured me MEND would put its weapons down if the government addressed the long-standing grievances of his people.

It was a sombre Bello who addressed his fellow Ijaw during the burial ceremony. "Shell officials were privy to the arrangements Ijaw patriots had made as part of the Joint Investigation and Verification exercise to free the captured company worker and also facilitate the re-opening of the company's facilities in the creeks. Shell was in direct communication with the commanders of the Joint Task Force, even up to the time our young men set out in their boats to rescue the Shell worker in Letugbene. These young men were not hostage-takers. They were Ijaw patriots, selflessly working to repair the damaged peace between the oil company and our people. For this, they were ambushed and murdered by soldiers in the service of Shell."

Though Bello ended his speech on a note of conciliation, angry voices are rising throughout the delta vowing revenge. Whether moderate voices will be able to rein in the volatile, striking arm of the Ijaw political and Civic resurgence remains to be seen.

Bullets or ballots?

The central government announced in late August that it was working with the US and British governments to deploy more naval personnel and hardware to "root out oil rustlers, kidnappers, and other undesirable elements from the Niger Delta and the wider Gulf of Guinea." To MEND militants, this sounded ominously like an open declaration of war.

Shortly after the burial ceremony, FNDIC leaders voiced their concern that the government's belligerent posture could be an attempt to generate turbulence in the Niger Delta during the April 2007 general elections, and thus provide an opportunity for Obasanjo to extend his tenure beyond the constitutionally stipulated two terms. Although past elections have been massively rigged, FNDIC officials hope that elections in which the Ijaw would be fairly represented will provide the solution to the ongoing political and economic crisis. …

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