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This week, four Scottish oil workers returned to Britain after being seized from an Exxon Mobil compound in the Niger Delta by gunmen seeking a £21m ransom. Earlier this year, local militants stormed a Royal Dutch Shell facility, prompting the oil giant to pull out hundreds of workers and close down wells. Ike Okonta looks at the structure and origins of one of the militias based in the area. He argues that the MEND militia is not an organisation in the formal sense of the word, but an idea, underlying the slew of youth movements that began to proliferate in the Niger Delta in the late 1980s. This article is the second part of a three-part series. The first article, entitled ‘Niger Delta, Behind The Mask’ ( was published last week.

The first thing that strikes you on meeting members of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) militia is the ease with which they move about in Warri metropolis, and also in the creek villages, indicating clearly that they are amongst people who not only identify with their cause but also go out of their way to offer them protection and safe havens during attacks by Nigerian soldiers. However, their movements are constrained by the ever-prowling soldiers.

The second thing you notice is that the militants, or the ones elected by the others to respond to your questions, are articulate, well-educated, and conversant with latest political developments in Nigeria and other parts of the world. The introductory encounter took place in a hotel room in Warri. The author had sent word in advance that he would be arriving that Thursday afternoon, and would like to interview one or two leaders of MEND. His courier, a local journalist, said he would try to arrange the interview, but that he was not giving any firm promises as getting hold of MEND leaders would be dependent on the level of Nigerian military presence in Warri that week.

MEND leaders are constantly on the move, extremely cautious, and do not take telephone calls personally, aware of the fact that the soldiers hunting for them have electronic devices capable of pinpointing mobile phone signals with accuracy. The author was in luck. He arrived in Warri when the peace process, initiated by FNDIC leaders, Oronto Douglas, the lawyer and environmental activist, and other Ijaw leaders, was still plodding on, and the Obasanjo government appeared willing to restrain the soldiers for the negotiations to be concluded. A knock sounded on the door of his hotel room and he opened the door. A young man, casually dressed in blue jeans and shirt sleeves stood there smiling.

‘Are you the MEND leader?’ the author asked, surprised. The media images beamed out to the world by the local subsidiaries of the international news wires always depicts MEND fighters as muscular masked men, clutching Kalashnikovs and adopting belligerent postures, as though ready to fire at the slightest provocation.

‘But exactly what do you understand by MEND?’ he countered. ‘There is no such thing as MEND. What I do know is that there are armed youth in the creeks who say they have had enough of the oil companies’ double standards, and are determined to put to an end the exploitation of their people by Shell, Chevron and the Federal Government.’[1]

MEND is not an ‘organisation’ in the formal sense of the word. It is an idea, a general principle underlying the slew of communal, civic and youth movements that began to proliferate in the Niger Delta, and particularly in the Ijaw-speaking areas, in the wake of General Babangida’s failed adjustment policies in the late 1980s.

The country had been run by a succession of authoritarian and corrupt governments since the end of the civil war in 1970, the tragic apogee of which was the Babangida junta. The ensuing economic hardships, the government’s apparent inability to address this crisis, and its refusal to provide a civic and political framework in which oppressed citizens could air their grievances and seek remedy began to encourage a drift towards religious, ethnic, and irredentist organisations. The Ken Saro-Wiwa inspired Movement of the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), which emerged in 1990, and the Ijaw National Congress, born in Port Harcourt a year later, have their genesis in this turbulent economic and political milieu.

These organisations pursued such civic goals as the end to military rule and the return of democratic civilian government, the creation of new states in ethnic minority areas, and an increase in their share of oil receipts. They utilised non-violent protest marches, advocacy in the mass media, petitions addressed to the government, and awareness-building seminars to press their case. However, as economic conditions worsened country-wide and election results were annulled by Babangida in mid 1993, a wave of anger and desperation began to spread among youth in such cities as Lagos, Kaduna, Kano, Enugu, Port Harcourt, Ibadan, Warri and Onitsha.

Militant youth organisations such as Odua Peoples Congress (OPC), Arewa Peoples Congress (APC) and Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) emerged in this period. These were communal organisations that drew their membership from the Yoruba, Hausa, and Igbo ethnic groups respectively. OPC and MASSOB wanted dissolution of the Federation, which they said should be replaced with new independent countries based in the various ethnic groups. APC, on the other hand, called for perpetuation of the status quo, but under Hausa political and military leadership. The youth militias began to arm themselves. Clashes with the Nigerian military, and also amongst themselves, became a staple of Nigerian public life from 1994 onwards. General Sani Abacha had toppled the interim government Babangida had installed before he quit in November 1993, thrown Moshood Abiola, winner of the June 1993 presidential elections into jail, and unleashed a wave of terror targeted at journalists, democracy activists, and the youth militias challenging his right to rule.

Political developments in the Ijaw territory followed a slightly different trajectory. The group had not benefited from the various state creation exercises embarked upon by the government in the 1980s and early 1990s. The INC was at the forefront of the agitation to correct what it perceived as a ‘gross injustice.’ It argued that the Ijaw were deliberately dispersed in several coastal states where they constituted an oppressed minority, and that it was only fair that they be brought together in two or three homogenous states. Even so, it was not making any headway.

Skirmishes between Ijaw youth and the oil companies operating in the western delta had begun in the late 1980s, the former complaining that they had not been offered employment in the very industry on their doorstep, and which, to make it worse, was destroying their rivers and farmlands. Ijaw elders and community leaders had mediated, and the process of this mediation gave birth to new youth-led civic groups. Prominent among these were Movement for the Survival of Ijaw Ethnic Nationality (MOSSIEND) and Movement for Reparations to Ogbia (MORETO). Ogbia is an Ijaw clan in the central delta, and from which Oronto Douglas hailed.

The creation of new local government councils in the Warri area by the government in 1997 provided the trigger for the militarization of youth groups in the area. Three prominent ethnic groups occupy Warri metropolis and its hinterland, extending into the creeks. The Itsekiri are perceived to be small but politically dominant. The other two are the Ijaw and Urhobo. There have been squabbles turning on ownership of land, and the rents to be derived there from, among all three groups since the 1920s. But these were usually peaceful affairs, fought out in the law courts.

But the lethal cocktail of economic deprivation, military dictatorship, and worsening environmental crisis in the western delta, which reached explosive heights in the 1990s, ensured that when the next round of land tussles arrived, the entire city would go up in flames. This was exactly what happened in 1997 when the military governor announced the creation of a new local government council with headquarters in an Ijaw village, and then rescinded the decision the following day and moved it to an Itsekiri village. Ijaw youth accused Itsekiri elites of having pressured the government to relocate the seat of the new council to their area. The latter countered that the entire Warri territory belonged to the Itsekiri but that even so they had had no hand in the governor’s decision. Youth from both groups quickly entered the fray.

There was a stampede to arm on both sides. Events quickly degenerated into ethnic massacres and counter-massacres.

The proliferation of small arms in the Warri area inevitably fed into oil bunkering, an illicit activity which had been practiced for decades in the high seas by powerful government officials in collaboration with oil workers.

Fringe elements in these militarised youth groups were to find ‘work’ here, helping the illegal oil barons to tap into pipelines to siphon crude oil and which was then taken to waiting ships. With the return of electoral politics in 1999, politicians in the Niger Delta also recruited from these armed elements to intimidate their political opponents and rig the vote. The oil companies also offered these youth ‘protection work’ in their facilities, arming them with lethal weapons in a cynical move to divide emergent and politically assertive youth organisations that were beginning to emerge. The Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), a new influential organisation founded by Oronto Douglas, Asume Osuoka and others in 1998, had united youth all over Ijaw land in a peaceful but powerful opposition to the exploitative activities of the oil companies and the Federal Government in the region. The famous Kaiama Declaration, a document adopted by youth from several Ijaw clans and spelling out their grievances and how they might be addressed, was the brainchild of the IYC leadership.

It is important to note that it was a small minority that drifted into oil bunkering and protection ‘services’ for the corrupt politicians and oil companies. The overwhelming majority of Ijaw youth remained solidly under the control of the civic and communal organisations they themselves had founded, even after they had come under brutal attack from government soldiers in such towns as Kaiama and Odi in 1998 and 1999 respectively. However, the IYC was to subsequently split into factions following a leadership crisis. Asari Dokubo, one its leaders, went on to establish the Niger Delta Peoples Volunteer Force (NDPVF), declaring that the peaceful methods of the IYC had not been effective and that what the new civilian government headed by President Obasanjo would heed was militant action. Even so, the bulk of the remaining IYC members continued on the path of non-violent political action.

In the morning of 15 February 2006, government helicopter gun ships attacked the Ijaw village of Okerenkoko in the western delta. Okerenkoko is a part of Gbaramatu, an Ijaw clan in the western delta. Government officials alleged that Okerenkoko and neighbouring villages were the epicentre of the illegal oil bunkering activities President Obasanjo had resolved to stamp out, and that Federal troops had been instructed to ‘deal with’ the Ijaw youth participating in the activity. The gun ships returned again on 17th and 18th February, flattening houses and huts and killing several innocent people. [2]

Enraged youth all over Ijawland vowed revenge. It was this bloody incident that triggered the birth of the MEND militia.

MEND and its methods

Although the Okerenkoko attack provided the immediate impetus for the coalescing of several militant strains in the decades-old Ijaw struggle for self-determination into MEND, the movement can be said to have taken several years, dating from Isaac Boro’s short-lived ‘revolution’ in February 1966, to finally come into its own.

The founding core of MEND’s membership is derived from the Gbaramatu clan which was in the eye of the storm in the 1997 local government crisis, and then subsequently bore the brunt of the helicopter gun ship attack of February 2006. Even so, this thesis holds true only to the extent that MEND is viewed as a formal organisation with a clearly delineated membership structure and chain of command. But as already stated, MEND is not so much an ‘organisation’ but an idea which many civic, communal, and political groups, each with its own local specificity and grievances, have bought into.

Resentment at the activities of the government and the oil companies run deep in all Ijaw clans in the eastern, central and western parts of the delta. An intricate maze of creeks links these clans all the way from Port Harcourt in the east to Warri in the west. The explosion of mobile telephony and internet services in Nigeria since 1999 has ensured that communication and coordination between armed units can be effected within minutes. These features are at the heart of the coalescing of disparate but united social concerns to birth MEND.

MEND’s strength and military successes so far lie in four key factors:

First, it has successfully tapped into the fifty-year old Ijaw quest for social and environmental justice in the Niger Delta. There is no village in the Niger Delta where MEND sympathisers do not exist. Consequently, the movement operates in extremely friendly and cooperative terrain, able to mount lightning attacks and then melt into the hamlets undetected.

Second, MEND is a loose coalition of armed militants, guided by a collegiate leadership. This leadership does not in any way constrain the ability of the various units to take their own decisions and mount military attacks independent of the others. The units plan their attacks separately, but are able to coordinate with other units in joint expeditions when necessary. Consequently they are active in all parts of the delta, adopting hit and run tactics and making it difficult for Federal troops to box them into a particular area and launch a massive attack.

Third, MEND militants fight in familiar territory, having fished and farmed in the maze of creeks, marshes, and mangrove swamps that constitutes the Niger Delta since childhood. The Nigerian army and Navy have superior hardware, but they often lose their way in the creeks when they mount attacks or give chase to the militants, rendering them impotent or worse, vulnerable to counter-attack. Several soldiers and naval ratings have lost their lives in this manner.

Fourth, MEND is an astute manipulator of the mass media, and has ensured that its case against the government and the oil companies has been clearly and eloquently made in newspapers and television networks in Nigeria and world-wide. Its case has been helped by the tragic events of 1990-1995 in the Ogoni area, during which period Shell officials worked actively with the Abacha junta to unleash mayhem and mass murder on the people, culminating in the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni eight on 10 November 1995. Journalists and environmental activists in Nigeria, Western Europe and North America who participated in the Ogoni struggle have enthusiastically taken up MEND’s case, even as they urge the militants to put down their guns and return to the path of peaceful dialogue pioneered by the IYC in 1998.

Hostages as weapon

MEND’s weapon of choice is the kidnapping of foreign oil workers. The calculation here is simple. The Nigerian government is notorious for its cavalier attitude when the lives of its citizens are at stake. But other countries, particularly the United States, France, United Kingdom and Italy which have massive oil installations in the Niger Delta in which their citizens operate, usually cry out in loud protest when the latter are taken hostage. Foreign workers are thus the militants’ favourite targets. MEND’s most spectacular hostage taking was carried out at Shell’s Forcados oil terminal in February 2006. Militants grabbed nine expatriate workers employed by Willbros, an engineering firm in contract to Shell, and spirited them away in a speedboat. Following several weeks of complex negotiations between the militants, Ijaw leaders, the Obasanjo government, the oil companies and the American and British governments, the last three of the hostages (several had been released previously) were set free on 27 March. [3]

It is significant that since MEND began to take hostages early in the year, none have been harmed. Government officials have sought to represent this aspect of MEND’s activities as racketeering, claiming that the militants usually extort ransom from the hostages and the government before the former are released. While it is true that there are fringe elements in the Niger Delta who have embraced hostage-taking as a lucrative commercial venture, they are not to be confused with MEND militants. The objective of the latter is fundamentally political: to focus the attention of Western governments and the world media on the Niger Delta when they grab these hostages, and to exploit the blaze of publicity thus generated to announce their grievances and demands of the Nigerian government.

It is, however, in attacks on Shell facilities that MEND militants have displayed absolutely no restraint, an indication of their deep anger at the company’s callous treatment of the Ijaw and the other ethnic groups in the Niger Delta since it began to produce oil in the region in 1956. Shell officials participated in military attacks on delta communities all through the 1980s and 1990s. In my interviews with several of the militants last August, they reeled off the names of the towns and villages that had tasted Shell’s guns: Iko, Umuechem, Ogoni, Nembe, Kaima, Odi…It was a very long list.[4]

MEND’s attack on the Forcados oil-loading platform was as audacious as it was crippling. The oil company was forced to suspend production of 19 per cent of its daily production. The company’s Cawthorne Channel flow station and Odidi II flow station were also destroyed. Pipelines all over the delta were blown apart, and Shell workers threatened with slow and painful death.

ChevronTexaco, Elf and ENI did not escape MEND’s attention. Their facilities also came under attack, and their staff routinely abducted. At the height of MEND’s military assaults in April, a quarter of Nigeria’s oil production had been shut down, and Shell’s giant off shore Bonga oil field, although protected by naval ships and gun boats, was also considered a potential MEND target. Dr Edmund Daukoru, a former Shell employee and since 2003 President Obasanjo’s Minister in charge of petroleum, was so worried that he hurried to Washington D.C. to confer with Sam Bordman, the US energy secretary, on ways and means of taking the MEND ‘problem’ on hand.

In response to what they deemed to be an imminent invasion by special forces from the United States, MEND, Asari Dokubo’s NDPVF and Martyrs Brigade and Coalition for Militant Action in the Niger Delta (CMND), two new groups that subsequently emerged to complement the formers’ militant activities, announced the formation of a ‘Joint Revolutionary Council’ and pledged that they would deploy newly acquired heat-seeking rockets to attack and disable Shell’s offshore Bonga Oil Field. Given that they had successfully attacked several offshore oil facilities in the past, this announcement triggered panic in the international market. Combined with already tight supplies elsewhere, particularly in the Middle East where oil production has significantly reduced in the volatile Iraq-Iran corridor, spot prices surged towards the roof, hitting $72 per barrel.

MEND’s press statements are not only calculated to create maximum panic in the international oil markets. They are also designed to leverage the concerns of the giant US and European financial companies that have invested heavily in Gulf of Guinea’s burgeoning oil and gas industry, with the Niger Delta as its epicentre, to pile pressure on the Nigerian government. Leading the pack are Merrill Lynch, Societe Generale, Bank of America Securities, Credit Suissie First Boston, Morgan Stanley, UBS Investments, Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, and Lehman Brothers. It is significant that these financial behemoths, who together have invested an estimated $15 billion in the Nigerian oil and gas industry (this does not include direct investments by oil companies and related industries) held meetings with Nigerian government officials in November 2005 when confidential reports by American embassy officials in Abuja indicated that the Obasanjo government was speedily losing control of the delta to emergent youth militias.

MEND’s shock tactics yielded dividends initially. Chevron and Shell officials had backed military attacks on local communities all through the 1990s, insisting that their business interests obliged them to offer logistical and financial support to Nigerian troops in their ‘legitimate’ effort to protect the delta oil fields from ‘miscreants.’ But as attacks on its facilities in the western delta accelerated in 2003-2004, resulting in the killing of company workers (three Nigerians, two Americans and their guards), shutting down 140,000 barrels of daily production, and hitting a peak in April 2006, Chevron executives in California began to rethink their martial policy, and subsequently made the unprecedented statement that the company was not in support of military solutions in efforts to restore peace in the Niger Delta.

They also quickly unfurled a ‘new’ Global Memorandum of Understanding, which they promised would tackle development problems in the impoverished communities with renewed vigour. Fred Nelson, head of Chevron’s West Africa operations, told journalists in early June that ‘brute force does not work in the long term. Our strategy is dialogue with the communities to solve their problems. If we can solve their problems the security issue will go away.’[5] MEND’S spokes persons claimed this new pacific posture as a victory.

The militia has also carefully positioned itself to derive maximum mileage from the activities of other militant groups that although not as well-organised and politically coherent, nevertheless share similar grievances and regularly mount their own military attacks on oil company facilities and government troops. These fringe groups have a bewildering array of names, and forge alliances and coalitions as quickly as they dissolve them. Prominent are South-South Liberation Movement (SSLM), Movement for the Sovereign State of the Niger Delta (MSSND), DE Gbam, Niger Delta Vigilante, and Meninbutus, among others. Some of these groups stem from student cults that came into their own with the return of electoral politics in the late 1990s. Politicians in Rivers, Delta and Bayelsa state were quick to press them into service to leverage votes at gunpoint, a trend which subsequently spiralled into oil-bunkering ‘services,’ intimidation of fellow students in universities and other higher institutions all over the Niger Delta, and local community clashes in such areas as Ogoni, Okrika, and Kalabari.

MEND spokespersons regularly deplore the activities of these cults when they veer away from the explicitly political objective of advancing the cause of self-determination and equitable sharing of oil receipts, but are also quick to spring to their defence when soldiers and riot police attack them unjustly.

On July 1, the MEND-led Joint Revolutionary Council issued an ultimatum to President Obasanjo to hand over to it the Rivers State Commissioner of Police for ‘fair trial.’ The police had attacked and killed three Ijaw youth in Abonema town in the eastern delta who they subsequently claimed were cult members involved in raiding of commercial banks in Port Harcourt. MEND rejected this claim, insisting that the slain youth were Ijaw patriots who had ‘fallen in the field of battle.’ Four days after the expiration of the ultimatum, militants struck in the remote oil facility area of Sangana, and in a display of professionalism and bravado, abducted four naval ratings.

MEND’s military exploits have not dented the offensive capabilities of Nigeria’s armed forces. But they have demoralised the troops, and also forced local journalists and other public commentators to begin to ask questions regarding the combat-readiness and overall effectiveness of the Army and Navy.

Most importantly, MEND has transformed the image of the Ijaw, and indeed the entire local communities of the Niger Delta, from the hapless and quiescent victims popularised in the press, ever on the receiving end of atrocities deployed by the government and the oil companies, to an increasingly organised and assertive political bloc, able to hit back at their molesters.

• Dr Ike Okonta is a research fellow in contemporary African politics at the University of Oxford. He is co-author of Where Vultures Feast: Shell, Human Rights and Oil, Verso, New York, 2003.

• Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at


[1] Ike Okonta, Interview with Mr X (not real name), one of the leaders of MEND, Warri, 17th August 2006
[2] See FNDIC, Pathway to the Council, handbook published by the FNDIC, July 2006. See also Constitutionality of the Ijaw Struggle, handbook published by the FNDIC, Warri, December 2005 for Oboko Bello’s version of events leading to the emergence of the Warri local government crisis of 1997. It is to be noted that Itsekiri leaders also have their own version of these events, diametrically opposed to Bello’s.
[3] Associated Press, ‘Nigerian Militants Release Last Hostages,’ 27 March, 2006.
[4] Ike Okonta, interview with Mr X and two other MEND militants, August 2006.
[5] Nigeria Today, ‘Chevron Against Use of force in the Niger Delta,’ 12 May, 2006.