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As the crisis in the Niger Delta brews, Ike Okonta looks behind the fragile truce between the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta and Nigeria's central government.Pambazuka News publishes here the first instalment of a substantive paper prepared following a recent visit to the blood and oil-soaked region.

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 20th August. On that afternoon, soldiers of the Joint Task Force, a contingent of the Nigerian Army, Navy and Air Force deployed by the government to enforce its authority on the restive oil-bearing Niger Delta, ambushed fifteen members of the MEND militia in the creeks of western delta and murdered them. The dead men had gone to negotiate the release of a Shell Oil worker kidnapped by youth in Letugbene, a neighbouring community. The Shell staff also died in the massacre.

The incident occurred five days after Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s President, instructed armed forces commanders in the region to resort to force and quickly ‘pacify’ the region. This marked a sharp turn-around from the promise Obasanjo gave to representatives of the MEND militia in Nigeria’s capital Abuja, in early April that he would utilise dialogue and carefully targeted development projects to return peace, law and good government to the impoverished Niger Delta.

The streets of Warri, the city where Shell and ChevronTexaco’s western delta operations are based, were thick with tension on the morning of 2 September when Ijo youth converged on Warri Central Hospital in the suburbs to retrieve the corpses of their colleagues and commence the burial ceremonies. The Ijaw are the largest ethnic group in the Niger Delta. The MEND militia draws the bulk of its membership from the Ijaw.

Significantly, there were several prominent Ijaw political and civic leaders at the ceremony. Ordinary people, mainly Ijaw peasant farmers and fisher folk, had left their hoes and fishing nets and travelled from their hamlets in the creeks to pay their last respects to the slain. Spokesmen of the Nigerian government had sought to represent the fifteen militias as ‘irresponsible hostage-takers’ in the wake of the slaughter. But those massed at the hospital that morning spoke only of heroes who had fallen in the battle for ‘Ijaw liberation.’ MEND, it was clear to observers, was firmly embedded in the Ijaw communities from which it emerged in February 2006. MEND continues to enjoy the support of youth and impoverished peasants whose farm lands and fishing creeks – their sole source of livelihood - have been destroyed by half a century of uncontrolled oil production and whose cause they took up arms to champion.

Even so, members of the MEND militia have never seen armed force as a suitable and effective weapon, but only as a tactical tool. They were forced to wield this tool as a last resort after three decades of peaceful entreaty was replied with cynical indifference, from the central government and the oil companies. Leaders of the Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities (FNDIC), a civic group with headquarters in Gbaramatu, an Ijaw clan in which MEND’s activities are very pronounced, have served as informal representatives of the MEND militia in negotiations with President Obasanjo and Nigeria’s central government following the abduction of nine foreign oil workers in the creeks of the delta in February. When the author interviewed Oboko Bello, President of FNDIC in Warri in early August, two weeks before the Letugbene massacre, he spoke warmly about the peace meeting he and other Ijaw leaders had had in Abuja with Obasanjo and other government officials on April 5 and 18 2006. He even assured that MEND militants would put their weapons permanently beyond use if the government went some way to address the long-standing grievances of his people. [1]

But it was a sorrowful and stone-faced Bello who addressed his fellow Ijaw during the burial ceremony that afternoon in Warri. He said: “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.” [2]

Oboko Bello ended his one-hour speech on a note of conciliation, arguing that the peace process between the MEND militia and the government begun on 12 March following a meeting between President Obasanjo and prominent Ijaw leaders must not be derailed. But angry voices are rising all over the creeks vowing revenge. These are young men - the volatile, striking arm of the Ijaw political and civic resurgence. Whether moderate voices will be able to rein them in remain to be seen.

For its apart, the central government has adopted a new defiant, militaristic posture, publicly announcing in late August that it was now collaborating closely with the US and British governments to deploy more naval personnel and new hardware to “root out oil rustlers, kidnappers and other undesirable elements from the Niger Delta and the wider Gulf of Guinea.” [3] The MEND militants hunkered down in their heavily fortified redoubts in the creeks, this sounded ominously like an open declaration of war.

FNDIC leaders who spoke to the author shortly after the burial ceremony expressed the concern that the government’s belligerent posture could be an attempt to generate political turbulence in the Niger delta during the general elections, due in April 2007. This turbulence would provide an opportunity for Obasanjo to impose an interim government and extend his tenure beyond the constitutionally stipulated two terms. The elections had been massively rigged in the region (and even more so in the Ijaw areas) by the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in 1999 and again in 2003. But FNDIC officials continue to hold out hope that fair elections in which the Ijaw would be fairly represented will provide the solution to the political and economic crisis in which they are trapped. They insist they will continue to work zealously to thwart any attempt to prevent free elections from taking place in Ijaw communities next April.

However, elections in Nigeria and the Niger Delta in particular, are usually turbulent affairs, sometimes descending into the bloody and violent. As was the case in the past, politicians are replenishing their arms caches and resuscitating the network of thugs they rely on to intimidate their rivals, coerce voters to do their bidding, or stuff the ballot boxes outright. The region is awash with small arms and hard cash yet again, and the already volatile cocktail of local resentment of the oppressive activities of the government and the oil companies looks set to blend with guns for hire prowling the creeks and sire another bloody inferno.


The MEND militia and its political sponsors set out in the early months of the year to draw the attention of the world to the parlous condition of the Ijaw people, deploying spectacle as a powerful weapon. Images of armed youth in masks wielding sub-machine guns in the creeks and helpless oil workers at their mercy, squatting in the bowels of speedboats, were beamed to the media all over the world through a skilful use of the internet.

These graphic images generated intense emotions in government circles as well as in the environmental and human rights community in the West. Global oil prices surged and fell with the tone of MEND’s press statements and the physical condition of the captives, whose photographs they put out on the net. But the drama invariably ended on a peaceful note, with MEND setting the oil workers free unharmed. After a spate of armed attacks on the facilities of Shell and two other oil companies in the western delta followed MEND’s emergence in February, the militants and the government seemed to have reached an unspoken agreement that this drama could go on. The actors would be permitted to air their grievances on the world stage, as long as the oil workers periodically taken hostage were not harmed.

The outrage with which the Letugbene murders were greeted by Ijaw youth in the creeks, and rising political tensions all over the country, means there is no knowing whose voice will command allegiance in the coming months: the moderates counselling patience and political participation, or the young hotheads eager to return to the creeks and take on the government and the oil companies they are allied with.

Prelude to an uprising

Before the emergence of MEND, the last time the Ijaw took up arms against the Nigerian government in an organised effort to assert their political rights was forty years ago. In February 1966, Isaac Adaka Boro, a graduate of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, formed the Niger Delta Volunteer Service (NDVS), a militia comprising of several young and educated Ijaw men, and declared the Ijaw-speaking areas of Nigeria’s then ‘Eastern Region’ an independent ‘Niger Delta Republic.’ In an eleven-point declaration of independence, Boro stated that “all former agreements as regards the crude oil of the people undertaken by the now defunct ‘Nigerian’ government in the territory have been declared invalid,” and that “ll oil companies are commanded …to stop exploration and renew agreements with the new Republic. Defiance of this order will result in dislocation of the company’s exploration and forfeiture of their rights of renewal of such agreements.” [4]

Although Federal troops, directed from the regional capital Enugu soon quashed Isaac Boro’s uprising, the twelve-day revolt jolted the nation. It focussed attention on the travails of the riverbank communities of the Eastern Region, and re-opened debate about their demand (since the Willincks hearing in 1958) to be separated from the Eastern Region in an independent state of their own. At the time the Eastern Region was dominated by the more populous Igbo ethnic group, obliging the Ijaw, Ibibio, Ogoni and other smaller groups to band together and ask for a new ‘Rivers State.’

Boro and his two associates, Sam Owonaro and Notthingham Dick, were arrested and imprisoned. Developments elsewhere in the country were soon to alter the fortunes of the three militants in a dramatic manner. Nigeria had been convulsed in political crisis following independence from Britain in October 1960. At the heart of the dispute was the unwieldy three-region structure that the departing colonialists bequeathed to the country, ensuring that the Northern region, led by Muslim feudal lords who had cooperated with British administrators in governing the country, were given the largest slice, bigger than the Western and Eastern Region combined.

Northern politicians were quick to turn this numerical advantage into political and economic rewards, introducing a corrupt and authoritarian mode of rule in the country that enabled them to transfer wealth derived from the south to their own region. In January 1966 five young army majors, the bulk of Igbo extraction, staged a military coup in an attempt to overthrow the civilian government and put an end to the drift towards misgovernment. Several leading politicians and senior Army officers, including the Prime Minister and the Premier of the Northern Region, were killed. The bulk of those that lost their lives were northerners. Casualty figures in the East were light, leading to accusation by northern officers that the January coup was a plot by Igbo officers and politicians to take over the government of the country by force.

Six months later, in July 1966, northern officers staged a counter-coup, attempted to pull the North out of the Federation, but then changed their mind at the last minute (under pressure from the British High Commissioner and the American Ambassador). Leaders of the coup had killed the military Head of State, General Ironsi, an Igbo who had taken over the reins of government after the January coup had collapsed as the most senior officer in the Army. Over three hundred other officers, the bulk of them from the Eastern Region, were also murdered. The coup leaders appointed Yakubu Gowon, a lieutenant colonel and fellow northerner, Head of State and declared that the Ironsi government had been overthrown.

The military administrator of the Eastern Region, Col. Emeka Ojukwu, refused to recognise Gowon as Head of State, and insisted that the late Ironsi’s second in command, Brigadier Ogundipe take over. Relations between the two sides deteriorated swiftly. Fearing that the East was about to secede, the Gowon regime hunkered down in the federal capital Lagos, and split the country into twelve new states in May 1967, two for the ethnic minority groups of the Eastern Region. The Ijaw formed the bulk of the new Rivers State. Ojukwu responded a few days later by declaring the East as the Republic of Biafra, a new state independent of Nigeria. Federal troops invaded Biafra and civil war broke out. Isaac Boro and his compatriots were released from prison by Federal troops when they overran the riverside parts of Biafra. He subsequently joined the Federal side as a major and commanded his own unit under the Third (Marine Commando) Division. Boro was to die in battle a few weeks before the war ended.

The bloody civil war that raged for thirty months and in which an estimated three million people died, was to profoundly alter Nigeria’s political landscape. The war ended in January 1970 with a Federal victory. Although the Ijaw had reason to be content, having secured the new state they had been asking for since the 1950s, the euphoria was to prove short-lived. The central government had passed on to a victorious federal army the bulk of whose commanders were from the now defunct Northern Region. These officers quickly turned their attention to the oil wells of the Niger Delta. In cooperation with civil servants, they pushed through a number of military edicts nationalising the delta oil fields, and altering the formula for sharing revenue. Whereas previously fifty percent of revenue went to the region or state from which it was derived, all the states now had an equal share, with the central government in Lagos keeping the lion’s share for itself.

The new fiscal regime, which now left the Ijaw and the other oil-bearing communities of the Niger Delta at a distinct disadvantage, took nearly ten years to achieve. The process began in the heat of the civil war, when the Gowon government enacted Decree 15 of 1969, removing the control of the oil fields from their states of origin and putting this in its own control. By the time the soldiers handed over to a new civilian government in October 1979, a rash of decrees and edicts had transformed the Niger Delta into a colony whose inhabitants bore the brunt of the oil production on which the national economy relied heavily but enjoyed none of the benefits. These edicts included the 1978 Land Use Act that confiscated the oil-bearing land of the delta communities and put this under the ‘protection’ of the central government.

The new civilian government, under President Shehu Shagari, a northerner, was effete, purposeless and corrupt. This ill-fated Second Republic was overthrown in December 1983 by General M. Buhari. On Buhari’s watch, the portion of oil revenue that went to the Ijaw and the other oil-bearing communities of the Niger Delta plunged to a derisory 1.5 per cent, down from 20 two years previously. Meanwhile Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), the local subsidiary of the Anglo-Dutch oil giant, and other Western oil companies operating in the Niger Delta continued to benefit from the legislations that had successfully reduced the delta communities to squatters on their own land. Shell had begun to produce oil in 1956, and now accounted for half of the country’s total oil production of two million barrels per day.

According to the provisions of the legal regime guiding oil production, oil companies were not required to obtain the permission of the local communities on whose land and creeks they explored for, and mined oil. They were only answerable to government officials far away in the capital. All that the oil companies were asked to do was pay ‘compensation’ to local people for crops and other valuables destroyed in the course of oil production. Estimation was largely left to the discretion of Shell officials, and they were quick to take advantage of this and undercut the local people. Environmental protection laws were also flagrantly breached by all the companies, resulting in the devastation of the farm lands and fishing creeks on which the Ijaw and the other communities had relied for livelihood for millennia. [5] Previous decades of government neglect had reduced the delta communities to excruciating poverty, but now their very existence was threatened.

General Ibrahim Babangida overthrew General Buhari in a palace coup in August 1985, and introduced a Structural Adjustment Programme, supervised by the IMF. Ostensibly designed to ameliorate the financial crisis into which decades of corrupt and inefficient government had plunged the country, Babangida’s new economic policies only succeeded in plunging the people into worse poverty. The currency was devalued, hiking up the price of imported necessities. Social services were cut. Millions were retrenched from jobs in government and the private sector.

The already impoverished Delta communities felt the new harsh economic climate particularly keenly. There were neither factories nor government jobs in the region. The enclave oil economy employed a handful of local people even as it left environmental destruction in its wake. Hospitals, roads, piped water, schools, paved roads and electric power were non-existent, and where they were supplied, grossly inadequate. As thousands of Ijaw, retrenched from their jobs in the cities and towns began to stream home in late 1980s, the Niger Delta region began to heave. It was clear to the discerning that a political storm was about to break.

The first storm came in the shape of an attempted military putsch, led by Ijaw and other Delta elements in the Army. In April 1990 these young military officers stormed Dodan Barracks, seat of the central government, and reduced its perimeter walls to rubble with mortars and AK47s. But General Babangida managed to escape, rallied senior commanders to his side and mounted a counter-attack. Outflanked and outgunned the coup plotters surrendered. After a hasty trial, closed to the public, they were executed.

The defiant utterances of the young officers as they faced the firing squad, declaring that they had ‘struck a blow for the oppressed people of the Niger Delta in the spirit of Isaac Boro’, and the economic upheavals in the delta and the wider country that led to this bloody episode, were to prepare the ground for the emergence of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) sixteen years later. [6]

• 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.
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[1] Ike Okonta, interview with Oboko Bello, President of Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities (FNDIC), Warri, 14th August 2006. In summary, Ijaw representatives asked for the creation of two states, in addition to Bayelsa state, for their people to be carved out of the existing states of Edo, Ondo, Cross Rivers, Rivers, and Akwa Ibom. They also asked that fifty per cent of oil revenue derived from the Niger Delta be given to the communities, that Ijaw businessmen be given a greater pie in the oil industry, and that the central government withdraw armed troops from the region and compel Shell and the other oil companies to put an end to incessant oil spills and gas flaring.
[2] Oboko Bello, ‘FNDIC Presentation During Burial Ceremony of Nine out of Fifteen Illustrious Sons Killed While Serving the Purpose of SPDC in Letugbene Community,’ Presented in Warri, Delta State, 2 September, 2006.
[3] Onyebuchi Ezigbo, ‘Niger Delta: Britain, US Offer Assistance to Nigeria,’ ThisDay, Lagos, 31 August, 2006.
[4] See Tony Tebekaemi, The Twelve Day Revolution, Ethiope Publishing Company, Benin City, 1982, p. 12. See also Kathryn N. Nwajiaku, ‘Oil Politics and Identity Transformation in Nigeria: The Case of the Ijaw in the Niger Delta,’ Unpublished DPhil thesis, Department of Politics, University of Oxford, 2005, for an excellent scholarly study of the political context of Isaac Boro’s revolt in 1966.
[5] For a comprehensive treatment of the social and environmental consequences of oil production in the Niger Delta, see Ike Okonta and Oronto Douglas, Where Vultures Feast: Shell, Human Rights and Oil, Sierra Club, San Francisco, 2001.
[6] Ihuoma Iwegbu, ‘Why they Struck,’ National Concord, Lagos, 24 April, 1990.