An ”all-time war” due to begin on Friday between Nigerian rebels and government troops has been averted by 11th-hour peace talks. Rebel leader Alhaji Dokubo Asari met President Olusegun Obasanjo on Wednesday after Asari threatened to attack foreign oil installations. The threat of violence contributed to last week’s record oil prices when barrels of Bonny light crude traded for more than $50.
”This represents a substantial departure from previous government policy,” said one political analyst. ”Previously, the official line has been that Asari is a criminal, and not a political force. Opening negotiations with him undermines the position of the state Governor Peter Odili, who may now have to make a show of force to reassert himself.”
Asari, who leads the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF) has always emphasised the political dimensions of the struggle. ”We are fighting to control the [oil] resources of the Ijaw people Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ Nigeria is a fraudulent creation Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ the oil companies are evil collaborators.” Pipelines carrying half of all oil produced in Nigeria, Africa’s biggest oil exporter, run through territory held by the NDPVF.
In a break from his previous policy of not targeting oil company employees, Asari, who claims to command 2 000 men, has also threatened expatriate personnel if their companies do not cease production by Friday.
Many of the rebels are former employees of oil companies themselves, and wander around the militia camp wearing Shell or Wilbros uniforms, AK-47s slung over their shoulders. A rain-speckled bathtub lies beneath a line of ragged washing. The homely details contrast strongly with the sporadic fire from the men’s machine guns.
According to Amnesty International, 500 people have died in September in Port Harcourt, the country’s oil producing capital. Asari’s camps have been targeted by helicopter gunships, firing rockets at the flimsy cinderblock structures.
Shell Nigeria confirmed that it had evacuated 235 staff ”as a precautionary measure” this week. Thirteen flow stations have been affected, cutting production by 40 000 barrels a day. Belema gas plant, which normally handles 27 million standard cubic feet of gas a day, has also been shut in.
Nigeria’s senior oil adviser, Edmund Dakoru, dismissed Asari’s warning. ”We have had these kind of threats before and nothing has happened,” Dakoru said. ”I am not concerned that Nigeria’s oil industry will suffer as a result of these threats.”
Officials are eager to play down fears of violence in case they damage the governor’s hopes of higher office in the next election. They claim ”no more than 13 people” have died in ”skirmishes between rival gangs”. A task force comprising the police, navy and army is patrolling 24 hours a day but residents say the streets still echo to the sound of gunfire.
The president of the NDPVF claims to have the support of the Ijaw people, Nigeria’s fourth largest ethnic group. ”We steal oil from the pipelines, refine it ourselves, and sell it at a discount price to the local people,” explained Asari. ”That is why we have local support.” The Nigerian diaspora has also contributed, he says, gesturing to a bag stuffed with wads of notes, totalling 30-million naira (about R1,5-million). ”That was brought to us by an American woman who read about our struggle on the internet.”
Asari has an excellent grasp of media relations. A pile of newspapers is next to him with pictures of his face on the front cover. Many suspect that the current ”struggle” is a move designed to out-manoeuvre former ally Odili.
Asari, predictably, objects. ”I have six children and two wives, whom I have not seen since the struggle began. Why would I destroy my family life if I didn’t believe? The government has forced this on usÃ¢â‚¬Â¦[they] kill and crush any opposition.” Ironically, Sara Igbe, the former special adviser on security and revenue generation in government, has confirmed he recruited Asari, providing guns and cash, in order to undermine the opposition during the last election. Asari and the governor fell out after Asari criticised the president.
Corruption has robbed Nigeria of the money to develop itself. Although oil revenues are predicted to reach $27-billion dollars this year, 70% of Africa’s most populous country lives on less than a dollar a day. In Port Harcourt, the only visible signs of wealth on the streets are the high barbed-wire fences around the oil companies’ headquarters, and shiny government Jeeps. Life expectancy barely tops 50 years. Membership of a militia provides a sense of purpose and one of the few opportunities for employment available to young men.
Despite its poverty, continuing unrest in the Middle East makes West Africa strategically important as an alternative source of oil. Nigeria is the third-largest exporter of crude to South Africa. The oil is particularly valued because it is easy and cheap to refine into gasoline, so sweet and light that speedboats can run off crude taken directly from a pipeline. But production is frequently interrupted by violence; at the height of the crisis last year, Nigeria lost 40% of its output.
”The international community must help us to get justice,” said one young rebel in flip flops. ”If they do not come, then we will fight and fight and there will be another Biafra.”
Oil price hits new high
Oil prices set another record last week, pushing into uncharted territory above $50 a barrel as tension in Nigeria threatened to push petrol prices above the levels that caused fuel protests in 2000, write Ashley Seager and Terry Macalister.
United States light crude futures rose to $50,47 a barrel last Tuesday, the highest price yet although allowing for inflation it is well below levels seen in the late 1970s after the Iranian revolution. It later traded back down at $49,90, having failed to consolidate above the $50 mark.
North Sea Brent futures also set a record of $46,80 before settling down to $46,60, up $0,67 on Tuesday.
Oil prices have risen more than 50% this year as surging demand from China, India and the US have outstripped supply, in spite of production increases from the Organisation of Petroleum Producing Countries. Demand and supply are at their highest levels for a quarter of a century and the market is vulnerable to any disruption in output.
Prices receded late last month but have jumped in the past weeks after Hurricane Ivan disrupted supplies from the Gulf of Mexico and fresh fighting broke out in Nigeria.
Nigeria pumps between 2,25-million and 2,5-million barrels per day (bpd) of world production that amounts to about 81-million bpd, so any closure in its oilfields could result in a severe shortage.
Simon Wardell of the World Markets Research Centre said: ”Once again the security situation in Nigeria is proving to be a real concern.
”The conflict will not fade and the best that can be hoped for is the effective use of federal Nigerian soldiers.
”Oil companies have already sought to shift operations from onshore to offshore in an effort to reduce risks, but there remains a real possibility of significant shut-ins if the [rebel group] lives up to its threats.”
Oil markets have been jumpy about production from the Middle East and from Russia, where the oil company Yukos is locked in a fight with the government over unpaid taxes. Wardell thinks that, while prices may not stay above $50 a barrel for long, winter demand for heating oil means they are unlikely to drop for several months. — Ã‚