Guns and gangs in Nigeria's oil capital

When the leader of a powerful gang in the oil-rich Niger Delta, Alhaji Dokubo Asari, threatened to declare “all-out war” last September, global oil prices, already unstable from the escalating conflict in Iraq and tensions in Venezuela, hit historic highs at more than $50 a barrel.

The threat and its immediate consequences underscored how a purely local conflict over control of relatively small amounts of oil can have immediate global consequences.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), which released a 22-page report on the conflict between rival gangs in the Delta on Friday, the incident also underlined the importance of addressing the root causes of the violence that has taken dozens of innocent lives over the past year alone.

The report, Rivers and Blood: Guns, Oil and Power in Nigeria’s Rivers State, concludes that ensuring long-term stability in the region will require the government to bring to justice those responsible for the violence, including officials in the state government who supported the gangs.

It also calls for the government, the oil industry and aid donors to address urgently the absence of educational and job opportunities for youth in the Niger Delta, who are easily recruited into gangs and armed with increasingly sophisticated weapons due to a thriving small-arms trade.

“The Nigerian authorities must end the culture of impunity fuelling this deadly cycle of violence in the oil-rich Delta,” according to Peter Takirambudde, HRW’s Africa director. “And the oil industry needs to ensure the funding that it earmarks for local communities does not end up in the hands of those fuelling this violence.”

In particular, oil companies, which have only recently started taking some responsibility for the welfare of neighbouring communities, must ensure that its support is used for the purposes it is intended.

“Shell has in fact done some things to try to address this,” HRW’s Mike Clough said.
“One of the things they tell us is that there’s only so much they can do.

“It’s really up to the central government to step in. The question is whether it can step in address the underlying issues as opposed to just [trying] to negotiate a short-term deal to keep these guys quiet for a while.”

Wealth flows in one direction

As in many oil-producing regions in poor countries, the wealth pumped from beneath the Delta’s land and water has generally flowed far more to the oil companies and the central government than to the minority groups who live there, resulting in their impoverishment, alienation and, from time to time, violence.

This phenomenon came to the world’s attention in 1995 when the military regime of General Sani Abacha hanged well-known author Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni militants who had led a celebrated decade-long campaign against Shell Oil and the government on trumped-up murder charges.

The negative publicity and international reaction provoked by the executions helped move the industry toward recognising the importance of fostering good relations with local communities by, among other things, providing direct support for infrastructure or development.

In an internal 2003 report, Shell itself acknowledged a serious problem, noting that the “manner in which [Shell] operates and its staff behaves creates, feeds into, or exacerbates conflict in the Delta”.

The focus of the new HRW report is in neighbouring Rivers state, homeland to a much larger minority, the Ijaws, and whose major city, Port Harcourt, is known as the oil capital of Nigeria.

As in the rest of the Delta, oil is the major source of wealth in the state. While violence over control of oil—especially illegally diverted, or “bunkered”, oil that accounts for about 10% of Nigeria’s total oil production—has been relatively commonplace over the past decade, it has become increasingly deadly.

Gang violence

Since late 2003, two gangs—the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF), led by Asari, and the Niger Delta Vigilante (NDV), led by Ateke Tom—have fought openly for control of key villages south-east and south-west of Port Harcourt.

The violence has taken hundreds of lives of young male fighters, as well as dozens of innocent people, usually bystanders. Schools and businesses have closed, and homes and property worth millions of dollars have been destroyed. Tens of thousands of people terrorised by the violence have left their homes.

“This problem is not just isolated to this region,” Clough said. “It’s a much more general problem in Nigeria. Much comes back to transparency and distribution of oil revenues. As long as there are issues surrounding where this money goes, there will be people fighting over it and fuelling the violence.”

HRW points to several factors driving the conflict.

Unemployed and frustrated youth (who, in the Nigerian lexicon includes all men who have not reached the status of “elders”) are easily recruited by leaders of armed groups, as well as by political leaders, traditional elites and organised crime syndicates, simply because they lack legitimate money-earning alternatives.

HRW, which based its report on a fact-finding mission to Rivers state in November, said it found strong evidence to suggest that senior members of the state government at one time gave financial and logistical support to leaders of both gangs to ensure their victory through violence and intimidation.

Indeed, it was Asari’s loss of political patronage in mid-2003 that led him into open conflict with Tom over control of territory and access to lucrative pipeline routes.

Because oil companies generally channel their payments to local communities through traditional leaders, gangs are also recruited by contenders for highly sought-after traditional titles, according to the report.

Asari’s original threat was triggered by the federal government’s decision to deploy troops to the state to stop the fighting between the two gangs. Nigerian President Olesegun Obasanjo invited both Asari and Tom to negotiate a peace. On October 1, they agreed to an immediate ceasefire and to dissolve and disarm their gangs.

While fighting has sharply declined since then, HRW says the accord remains insufficient, particularly because it grants an effective amnesty to those responsible for the violence, and disarmament to date has been too far too slow to give confidence to the local population.

It also called for the government to provide aid urgently to tens of thousands of people who have been displaced, deploy adequate numbers of police to protect the population from future violence, and crack down on the small-arms trade.

At a more fundamental level, however, all key actors—the government, the oil industry, and donor agencies—must address how to create educational and employment alternatives for the region’s young males and ensure that aid for local communities is provided to groups that can ensure their use for development.—IPS

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