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As our speedboat casts off from Yenagoa, in the heart of the Niger Delta, I feel as if I am being propelled into a more welcoming world. A bracing wind replaces the humid closeness of the town, a monument to disorder clustered around a single, thunderous main road. The foliage on either side of the water is thick and lush, with oil palms peeping over the top of the tree line. The river traffic â€šÃ„Ã¬ mainly canoes loaded with goods such as fish, wood and plantains â€šÃ„Ã¬ clings to the banks to avoid being capsized by our wake.
I am travelling with a few guides and a fellow journalist, Glenn Â¬â‰ McKenzie, in search of the Niger Deltaâ€šÃ„Ã´s main militant movement: the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or Mend. The organisation had attacked oil installations and kidnapped dozens of oil workers, prompting the big companies to send non-essential staff home and shut down hundreds of thousands of barrels a day of production.
Members of Mend
Members of Mend. The white flag signifies the Ijaw god, Egbesu
Soon we pass a village where a long white flag flutters from a post. Itâ€šÃ„Ã´s a symbol of Egbesu, a water spirit central to the culture of the Ijaw people, the largest ethnic group in the region. Simeon, one of the guides, explains that white flags represent peace; red, fighting spirit. If you are killed in battle, it means not that Egbesu has failed you, but that you have violated its laws. As Simeon puts it bluntly, â€šÃ„ÃºYou oppress, you steal, you will die.â€šÃ„Ã¹
For the western oil majors, long used to a bit of heat, the security crisis was as bad as they had known. By this summer, estimates of Nigerian Â¬â‰ production ranged from 1.6 million barrels a day to as low as 800,000 barrels a day, all far distant from the 4 million barrels-a-day target for 2010. In July, an increasingly desperate government announced a two-month amnesty in an effort to tempt the militants out of the creeks. Mend has since threatened to resume hostilities from September 15.
It all reminded me of a similar amnesty five years earlier, when Iâ€šÃ„Ã´d first started to chart the Delta militancy that now rivals scam e-mails as the phenomenon most defining Nigeria in the eyes of the world. Then, as the FTâ€šÃ„Ã´s west Africa correspondent, Iâ€šÃ„Ã´d been awoken to the dark story of Â¬â‰ Nigerian oil through a series of encounters with a flamboyant militant leader known as Alhaji Mujahid Dokubo-Asari. In 2004, heâ€šÃ„Ã´d sent tremors through world oil markets after his threat to launch an attack known as â€šÃ„ÃºOperation Locust Feastâ€šÃ„Ã¹ against industry installations in the Delta. His activities â€šÃ„Ã¬ abruptly curtailed when he was imprisoned for alleged treason â€šÃ„Ã¬ helped propel the world oil price above $50 for the first time.
The Deltaâ€šÃ„Ã´s torments â€šÃ„Ã¬ pollution, corruption and widespread poverty, despite decades of oil exports worth hundreds of billions of dollars â€šÃ„Ã¬ had continued to multiply since 1995, the year that the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa and eight other activists first brought the region to the worldâ€šÃ„Ã´s attention. The situation had grown more venal, more violent and more desperate. Foreign oil interests were now being confounded by the turmoil that their own behaviour over decades had helped create.
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Michael Peel – The Financial Times
Copyright The Financial Times