Into the heart of the Niger Delta oil war

Michael Peel – The Financial Times

Copyright The Financial Times
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 – mainly canoes loaded with goods such as fish, wood and plantains – clings to the banks to avoid being capsized by our wake.
I am travelling with a few guides and a fellow journalist, Glenn ­McKenzie, in search of the Niger Delta’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. It’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, “You oppress, you steal, you will die.”
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 ­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 I’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 FT’s west Africa correspondent, I’d been awoken to the dark story of ­Nigerian oil through a series of encounters with a flamboyant militant leader known as Alhaji Mujahid Dokubo-Asari. In 2004, he’d sent tremors through world oil markets after his threat to launch an attack known as “Operation Locust Feast” against industry installations in the Delta. His activities – abruptly curtailed when he was imprisoned for alleged treason – helped propel the world oil price above $50 for the first time.
The Delta’s torments – pollution, corruption and widespread poverty, despite decades of oil exports worth hundreds of billions of dollars – 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 world’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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