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NIGERIA: Blood Oil and MEND


Yoshie Furuhashi <[log in to unmask]>


Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>


Mon, 30 Jul 2007 10:14:14 -0400





text/plain (788 lines)

Nigeria's political economy and the Movement for the Emancipation of
the Niger Delta (MEND gets a mention in Michael Watts, "Empire of Oil:
Capitalist Dispossession and the Scramble for Africa," Monthly Review
58.4, September 2006, <>) is
one of those topics that have not been often discussed. The most
detailed discussion that I can find is Sebastian Junger's Vanity Fair
article, "Blood Oil." The article, naturally, also has an
environmental angle. -- Yoshie

Blood Oil

Could a bunch of Nigerian militants in speedboats bring about a U.S.
recession? Blowing up facilities and taking hostages, they are
wreaking havoc on the oil production of America's fifth-largest
supplier. Deep in the Niger-delta swamps, the author meets the
nightmarish result of four decades of corruption.

by Sebastian Junger February 2007

On June 23, 2005, a group of high-ranking government officials were
convened in a ballroom of the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, D.C.,
to respond to a simulated crisis in the global oil supply. The event
was called "Oil ShockWave," and it was organized by public-interest
groups concerned with energy policy and national security. Among those
seated beneath a wall-size map of the world were two former heads of
the C.I.A., the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and a
member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The scenario they were handed was

Civil conflict breaks out in northern Nigeria—an area rife with
Islamic militancy and religious violence—and the Nigerian Army is
forced to intervene. The situation deteriorates, and international oil
companies decide to end operations in the oil-rich Niger River delta,
resulting in a loss of 800,000 barrels a day on the world market.
Since Nigerian oil is classified as "light sweet crude," meaning that
it requires very little refining, this makes it a particularly painful
loss to the American market. Concurrently, in this scenario, a cold
wave sweeping across the Northern Hemisphere boosts global demand by
800,000 barrels a day. Because global oil production is already
functioning at close to maximum capacity (around 84 million barrels a
day), small disruptions in supply shudder through the system very
quickly. A net deficit of almost two million barrels a day is a
significant shock to the market, and the price of a barrel of oil
rapidly goes to more than $80.

The United States could absorb $80 oil almost indefinitely—people
would drive less, for example, so demand would decline—but the country
would find itself in an extremely vulnerable position. Not only does
the American economy rely on access to vast amounts of cheap oil, but
the American military—heavily mechanized and tactically dependent on
air power—literally runs on oil. Eighty-dollar oil would mean that
there was virtually no cushion in the world market and that any other
disruption—a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia, for example—would spike
prices through the roof.

According to the Oil ShockWave panel, near-simultaneous terrorist
attacks on oil infrastructure around the world could easily send
prices to $120 a barrel, and those prices, if sustained for more than
a few weeks, would cascade disastrously through the American economy.

Gasoline and heating oil would rise to nearly $5 a gallon, which would
force the median American family to spend 16 percent of its income on
gas and oil—more than double the current amount. Transportation costs
would rise to the point where many freight companies would have to
raise prices dramatically, cancel services, or declare bankruptcy.
Fewer goods would be transported to fewer buyers—who would have less
money anyway—so the economy would start to slow down. A slow economy
would, in turn, force yet more industries to lay off workers or shut
their doors. All this could easily trigger a recession.

The last two major recessions in this country were triggered by a
spike in oil prices, and a crisis in Nigeria—America's fifth-largest
oil supplier—could well be the next great triggering event. "The
economic and national security risks of our dependence on oil—and
especially on foreign oil—have reached unprecedented levels," former
C.I.A. director Robert Gates (now secretary of defense) warned in his
introduction to the Oil ShockWave–study report. "To protect ourselves,
we must transcend the narrow interests that have historically stood in
the way of a coherent oil security strategy."

In January 2006, less than seven months after the first Oil ShockWave
conference—almost as if they'd been given walk-on parts in the
simulation—several boatloads of heavily armed Ijaw militants overran a
Shell oil facility in the Niger delta and seized four Western oil
workers. The militants called themselves the Movement for the
Emancipation of the Niger Delta and said they were protesting the
environmental devastation caused by the oil industry, as well as the
appalling conditions in which most delta inhabitants live. There are
no schools, medical clinics, or social services in most delta
villages. There is no clean drinking water in delta villages. There
are almost no paying jobs in delta villages. People eke out a living
by fishing while, all around them, oil wells owned by foreign
companies pump billions of dollars' worth of oil a year. It was time,
according to MEND, for this injustice to stop.

The immediate effect of the attack was a roughly 250,000-barrel-a-day
drop in Nigerian oil production and a temporary bump in world oil
prices. MEND released the hostages a few weeks later, but the problems
were far from over. MEND's demands included the release of two Ijaw
leaders who were being held in prison, $1.5 billion in restitution for
damage to the delicate delta environment, a 50 percent claim on all
oil pumped out of the creeks, and development aid to the desperately
poor villages of the delta. MEND threatened that, if these demands
were not met—which they weren't—it would wage war on the foreign oil
companies in Nigeria.

"Leave our land while you can or die in it," a MEND spokesman warned
in an e-mail statement after the attack. "Our aim is to totally
destroy the capacity of the Nigerian government to export oil."

Because Nigerian oil is so vital to the American economy, President
Bush's State Department declared in 2002 that—along with all other
African oil imports—it was to be considered a "strategic national
interest." That essentially meant that the president could send in the
U.S. military to protect our access to it. After the first MEND
attack, events in the Niger delta unfolded almost as if they had been
scripted by alarmist Pentagon planners. In mid-February, MEND struck
again, seizing a barge operated by the American oil-services company
Willbros and grabbing nine more hostages. Elsewhere on the same day,
other MEND fighters blew up an oil pipeline, a gas pipeline, and a
tanker-loading terminal, forcing Shell to suspend 477,000 barrels a
day in exports. The nine hostages were released after a reportedly
huge ransom was paid, but oil prices on the world market again started
to climb. MEND had shown that 20 guys in speedboats could affect oil
prices around the world.

The problem was one of scale. The Nigerian military—as poorly equipped
as it is—can protect any piece of oil infrastructure it wants by
simply putting enough men on it. But Shell has more than 3,720 miles
of oil and gas pipelines in the creeks, as well as 90 oil fields and
73 flow stations, and there is no way to guard them all. And moving
the entire industry offshore isn't a good option, either. Not only is
deepwater drilling very expensive, but there are still immense oil and
gas reserves under the Niger delta that have not yet been exploited.
And—as it turns out—the deepwater rigs aren't immune to attack anyway.
In early June, militants shocked industry experts by overrunning a rig
40 miles out at sea. Offshore oil platforms generally sit 40 or 50
feet above water level, but their legs are crisscrossed with brackets
and struts that are not difficult to climb. After firing warning
shots, dozens of militants scampered up the legs and ladders to the
main platform, rounded up eight foreign oil workers—including an
American—and forced them at gunpoint into their boats. They were back
in the creeks within hours.

The militants are also capable of striking in the cities. In January
of last year, about 30 militants ran their speedboats straight into
the Port Harcourt compound of the Italian oil company Agip, killed
eight Nigerian soldiers, robbed the bank, and made their getaway. In
May, a man on a motorbike shot an American oil executive to death
while he sat in Port Harcourt traffic in his chauffeured car. In
August, members of another militant group walked into a popular bar
named Goodfellas and abducted four Western oil workers. By the end of
September, militants had kidnapped—and released for ransom—more than
50 oil workers, and onshore Nigerian oil production had been cut by 25
percent, or about 600,000 barrels a day. That represented a loss of
nearly a billion dollars a month to the Nigerian government.

In early October, two separate attacks in the creeks reportedly killed
at least 27 Nigerian soldiers and sank or captured two navy gunboats.
In response, militants claimed, Nigerian helicopters strafed and then
torched an Ijaw village named Elem Tombia. No one was killed, but it
was a clear escalation of the conflict. By mid-October, the Niger
River delta was on the brink of all-out war.
Into the Delta

The Ijaw village was just a scattering of huts along a meager break in
the mangrove, and when our boatman spotted it he slowed and circled
and ran his boat up onto the shore. Dugouts had been pulled onto a
narrow sand beach, and cook fires smoked unenthusiastically through
the thatched roofs of the huts. Behind us, a miles-wide tributary of
the Niger River unloaded a continent's worth of freshwater into the
Gulf of Guinea. Village children gathered to study our arrival, and a
local man saw us and walked away to tell someone that a boatful of
strangers had just arrived.

After a few minutes a young man came and motioned for us to follow
him, and we stepped carefully through the village and took seats on a
wooden bench outside a thatched hut. It was very hot. Somewhere a
transistor radio was playing Western music. The huts were sided with
rough-milled planks and thatched with palm fronds, and inside women
cooked on small fires. Malaria is rampant in these villages, as are
cholera, typhoid, and dysentery, and almost none of the communities
have safe drinking water. The people survive—barely—off local fish
stocks that have been decimated by pollution from oil wells. After a
while we heard gunshots, and then a group of young men came walking
out of the forest and gathered around us. "Don't be scared," one of
them said. "Feel free."

An American photographer named Mike Kamber and I had come to this
village to meet MEND, but things had already acquired that
unmistakable feeling of not going according to plan. One of the young
men had a bottle of Chelsea gin with him, and he shook a splash onto
the ground as a blessing and then poured himself a shot. The bottle
proceeded like that around the little group. After the gin was
finished they told us to follow them, and we were led back into the
center of the village and told to sit in some white plastic chairs
that had been set out for us. A joint was passed around. More Chelsea
gin was brought out. Eventually the village chief took a seat at a
small table under a mango tree and asked what we were doing in his
village. It wasn't an unfriendly question, but neither was it an
invitation to feel right at home. Young men with guns started to drift
into the area and position themselves around the group. I stood up and
explained that Mike and I were journalists and that we wanted to
document the impact of oil drilling in the area, and that a MEND
contact had directed us to this village for a meeting.

The truth was a little more complicated. The official MEND spokesman
is a mysterious online entity known as Jomo Gbomo, who trades sharply
articulate e-mails with foreign journalists who arrive in the delta to
cover the oil wars. No one seems to know Jomo's real name or even
where he lives; according to The Wall Street Journal, his Yahoo
account carries an electronic code that may indicate his e-mails are
sent from a computer in South Africa. Jomo is the person whom visiting
journalists turn to for permission to go into the creeks, and he has
refused every single request. A few days after getting the bad news
from Jomo, though, Mike and I met with an Ijaw priest named President
Owei, who also has contacts with MEND. Owei said that he could arrange
a meeting for us if we wanted; all we had to do was hire a boat. By
noon the next day we were gripping the mahogany thwarts of a 25-foot
open speedboat, slamming southward at full throttle.

Throughout most of the delta there is a weak cell-phone signal, and
MEND has run its entire military campaign using a flicker of reception
and $3 phones. We were later told that, as word of our arrival spread,
Ijaws in South Africa began calling to warn that we might be spies,
and others, in the United States, were looking us up online to figure
out who we were. The first sign of trouble was when one of the village
boys got in our boat and drove it away into the creeks so that we
couldn't leave. Another hour went by, and dusk started to creep in
through the mangrove. Finally we heard the sound of a powerful
outboard motor, and then a boatload of gunmen roared past the village,
plowed a couple of angry circles into the narrow creek, and came into
the landing at what looked like full throttle. The women in the
village fled. MEND had arrived.

A MEND militant painted with magical symbols to protect him from bullets.

They climbed out of the boat with their weapons propped upright on
their hips and their faces immobile and expressionless. They didn't
bother to look at us and we hardly dared look at them. They carried
heavy belt-fed Czech machine guns with the ammunition draped across
their bare chests like deadly-looking snakes, and some wore plaid
skirts called "Georges," and others wore shorts or cast-off
camouflage. One was naked except for his ammunition and a pair of
dirty white briefs. They had painted their faces with white chalk to
signify purity, and they had tied amulets around their arms and necks
and foreheads for protection from bullets. Some had stuck leaves in
their clothing so the enemy would see trees rather than men. One of
them had painted the Star of David on his stomach to signify the lost
tribe of Israel. They were a collection of walking nightmares,
everything that is terrifying to the human psyche, and when confronted
with them, Nigerian soldiers have been known to just drop their
weapons and run.

Their leader was a slender boy wrapped in a red turban and white robe
who was helped out of the boat almost like a child. Leaders are often
chosen by the Ijaw god of war, Egbesu, and leadership can change
daily. Egbesu sometimes communicates his desires by appearing in the
dreams or visions of one of his followers and instructing him to be
leader for that day. If the man tells the truth about Egbesu, others
follow him without question; if he lies about it, Egbesu might kill
him. The followers of Egbesu refrain from sex during time of war, and
fast to increase their powers. Those powers, I was told, include the
ability to drink battery acid without harm. "The spirit enters them
when they go into battle," one anthropologist who had lived in Nigeria
for years told me. "They don't have the same fears as you and I."

Mike and I were told to rise and we stood there like penitent
schoolboys while the young leader approached. He handed his rifle to
one of the other militants without bothering to look at us and said,
"Which one of you is Sebastian?"

"I am," I said. The boy handed me a cell phone and walked away.

It was Jomo. "I told you that you couldn't go out into the creeks,"
Jomo said. I started to try to explain, but he cut me off. "What is
the spelling of your last name?" he asked. I told him. "Don't worry,"
he said. "Everything's going to be all right." I handed the phone to
the leader and walked back to where Mike stood. A few minutes later,
one of the militants strode up to me and pointed his finger at my
face. He was short but extremely strong and was covered in white war

"You," he said matter-of-factly. "I am going to kill you."

Half an hour later, Jomo told the MEND leader to release us, and we
were in our speedboat headed back to town.
Poverty and Corruption

As is often the case in Africa, many of Nigeria's problems come as
much from wealth as from poverty. African countries that happen to
have valuable resources—oil in Angola and Nigeria, diamonds in Congo
and Sierra Leone—are among the poorest and most violent on the
continent. Economists refer to this phenomenon as the "resource
curse." The resource curse holds that underdeveloped countries with
great natural wealth fail to diversify their industry or to invest in
education, which leads to long-term economic decline. The per capita
gross national product of OPEC countries, for example, has been in
steady decline for the past 30 years, whereas the per capita G.N.P. of
non-oil-producing countries in the developing world has steadily

According to the World Bank, most of Nigeria's oil wealth gets
siphoned off by 1 percent of the population, condemning more than half
of the country to subsist on less than a dollar a day. By that
standard, it is one of the poorest countries in the world. Since
independence in 1960, it is estimated that between $300 and $400
billion of oil revenue has been stolen or misspent by corrupt
government officials—an amount of money approaching all the Western
aid received by Africa in those years. Former president Sani Abacha
and his inner circle stole at least $2 billion. In a recent crackdown
on corruption, the president of the Nigerian senate had to resign
after accusations that he had solicited a bribe in exchange for
pushing through an inflated education budget (which presumably would
then have been plundered by others). A former inspector general of the
national police, after being accused of stealing between $52 and $140
million, was recently sentenced to six months in prison for a lesser
charge. And two Nigerian admirals were put on trial for trying to sell
stolen oil to an international crime syndicate.

The list of wrongdoing continues almost without end. With top
government officials so brazenly violating the social contract,
everyone downstream inevitably follows suit. The Nigerian constitution
stipulates that just under 50 percent of national oil revenue must be
distributed to state and local governments, and that an additional 13
percent must go to the nine oil-producing states of the Niger delta.
Last year that amounted to almost $6 billion for the nine delta
states—plenty, it would seem, to take care of basic social services.
The problem, however, is that the money goes to the governors' offices
and then simply disappears. A financial-crimes commission was recently
formed to investigate all of the country's 36 governors, and it wound
up accusing all but 5 of corruption. The most apparently egregious
case was that of Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, who was accused of
embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars while he was governor of
Bayelsa State. He fled to England, was arrested for money-laundering,
jumped bail, and slipped back into Nigeria dressed as a woman. (The
English authorities had taken his passport.) When asked how he managed
to make the trip, he said he had no idea. "All the glory goes to God,"
he explained. He is now in custody awaiting trial.

"It's going to be tough," human-rights activist Oronto Douglas said
when I asked him about reforming Nigerian politics. "Nobody who has
privilege surrenders it easily. The struggle is to get people to give
up power who got it illegally."

The problem isn't purely a Nigerian one, either. Oil companies have
long been thought to pay for the allegiance of local youth gangs, and
Jomo claims that Agip offered to pay MEND $40 million in exchange for
"repairs" to the company's pipelines. (An Agip spokesman strongly
denies any payment to or contact with MEND.) The American corporation
Halliburton has admitted that its then subsidiary KBR paid $2.4
million in bribes to the Nigerian government and is under
investigation for its role in earlier bribes totaling $180 million.
And House representative William Jefferson, of Louisiana, is being
investigated by the F.B.I. for allegedly accepting bribes from the
vice president of Nigeria, Atiku Abubakar. These were said to be in
exchange for help steering lucrative business contracts to Africa.
(Jefferson has denied any wrongdoing, despite the fact that the F.B.I.
found $90,000 in cash in his freezer.)

Because of this corruption, most of Nigerian society has been starved
of money and is effectively cannibalizing itself. Between Port
Harcourt and the delta city of Warri there are 20 or 30 police
checkpoints—some within sight of one another—where drivers simply hand
cash out the window in order to pass. I was told that when police
arrive at the scene of a bad car accident they won't call for medical
help until the injured and dying have paid them off. There are car
accidents all the time—I saw two fatal accidents on as many drives
across the delta—because the roads have not had major repairs since
the early 1980s. Even expressways have collapsed, turning a drive that
once took several hours into a terrifying ordeal that can last days.

Every sector of society has been left to fend for itself. The airline
industry, for example, is so slack in its maintenance that it has seen
three catastrophic plane crashes in the past 16 months, which together
have killed more than 300 people. The airport at Port Harcourt was
shut down in 2005 after an incoming Air France flight plowed into a
herd of cows that had wandered onto the runway; it still has not
reopened. Tens of millions of people live in urban slums without water
or sanitation, restaurants have to hire guards with AK-47s to protect
the diners, and the levels of chaos and street violence rival that of
many countries at war. A dead man lay on the street near my hotel for
two days before someone finally came to take him away. Even during
Liberia's darkest days of civil war, the dead were usually gathered up
and buried faster than that.

When Nigerians are asked about these problems, few can offer more than
anger and despair—or the promise of violence. A typical Nigerian
reaction came from President Owei, the Ijaw priest who tried to help
with our first trip into the creeks. Owei is the head of an
organization that promotes Ijaw rights and protects their communities
in the delta. At first, my questions just provoked a torrent of
indignation. "The people of the Niger delta don't need theory—they
need practical things," he declared. "We need to be made to feel like
human beings. There is an economic blockade of the Niger delta—they
don't want money to flow here. With the wealth that Nigeria has, the
whole nation should have roads and free education."

Owei lives in the great, seething slum of Bundu-Waterside, on the
outskirts of Port Harcourt. Bundu-Waterside is a community built
literally atop garbage and mud. High tide and raw sewage continually
threaten to rise up over the thresholds of its thousands of
plank-and-corrugated-iron shacks. People are packed into
Bundu-Waterside with such desperate ingenuity that almost every human
activity—cooking, fighting, eating, sleeping, defecating—seems to be
observable from almost anywhere at any given moment. When I met with
Owei, he and several of his assistants were seated on a wooden bench
beneath a canopy of corrugated iron that serves as an open-air
community center. Young boys swam in the tidal muck while, a few feet
away, other young boys squatted to relieve themselves. Every 20
minutes or so, an oil-company helicopter thumped past on its way to
one of the offshore rigs.

"The Niger-delta people are the new world power," Owei informed me
solemnly. "I don't have a bulletproof vest, but I can drink acid. Can
you drink acid? I can drink acid. We are a world power. We are
waiting. We want to live in peace because God is peaceful, but the
rest of the world is building armaments while they wait for Jesus. I
don't know."
A History of Violence

On November 10, 1995, an Ogoni author named Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight
other anti-Shell activists were hanged by the Abacha government on
trumped-up charges of incitement to murder. Saro-Wiwa had been a
driving force in the formation of a group called the Movement for the
Survival of the Ogoni People—MOSOP—which had taken a stand against
environmental damage caused by the oil industry and the uncompensated
appropriation of Ogoni land for oil drilling. Ignored by the Nigerian
government, MOSOP petitioned Shell and the other oil companies
directly. They wanted $10 billion in accumulated royalties and
environmental-damage compensation, and a greater say in future oil
exploration. Again ignored, Saro-Wiwa organized mass protests that
managed to shut down virtually all oil production in Ogoniland. It was
a severe blow not only to the oil industry but also to the system of
corruption and patronage it had spawned, and the Nigerian military
reacted with predictable brutality.

"Shell operations still impossible unless ruthless military operations
are undertaken," the commander of the Rivers State Internal Security
Task Force wrote to his superior on May 12, 1994. The memo went on to
suggest "wasting operations during MOSOP and other gatherings, making
constant military presence justifiable." (The memorandum was leaked to
the press, though its authenticity was questioned by Shell.) Nine days
later, the military moved into Ogoniland in force. They razed 30
villages, arrested hundreds of protesters, and killed an estimated
2,000 people. Four Ogoni chiefs were murdered during the
chaos—possibly by government sympathizers—and the military used their
deaths as a pretext to arrest the top MOSOP leaders. Saro-Wiwa was
subjected to a sham trial and condemned to death. Before he was
hanged, Saro-Wiwa's last words were "Lord take my soul, but the
struggle continues."

Indeed it did.

The next major outbreak of violence occurred in 1998, when several
Ijaw groups tried to duplicate MOSOP's strategies by declaring Ijaw
territory off limits to the Nigerian military and demanding a stop to
all oil extraction. Their rebellion was called Operation Climate
Change. Within days, the Nigerian military saturated the delta and
Bayelsa State with up to 15,000 soldiers and commenced a series of
attacks that resulted in dozens—if not hundreds—of civilian deaths.
Ijaw militants retaliated by shutting off and destroying oil wellheads
in their area, and over the next several years an armed militancy
evolved that the government was unable to contain. Fighting also broke
out between different armed factions—many of which were hired by
politicians to intimidate local rivals—and in 2004 an Ijaw leader
named Mujahid Dokubu-Asari retreated into the creeks to wage "all-out
war" against the government and the oil companies. His statement
helped drive New York oil-futures prices above $50 for the first time

Asari was a convert to Islam and had briefly worried U.S. authorities
by expressing his admiration for Osama bin Laden. His overriding
concern, however, was control of the oil resources of the Niger delta.
One form of control, according to Asari, was simply stealing back the
oil that he believes has been stolen from the Ijaw. In Nigeria,
stealing oil is called "bunkering," and it is huge business; by some
estimates, 10 percent of the oil exported from Nigeria every
year—several billion dollars' worth—is actually bunkered.

The safest way to bunker oil is essentially to bribe people into
letting you steal it. Vastly more dangerous, and common, is tapping
crude directly out of the pipelines themselves. Light sweet crude is
extremely volatile, so metal-on-metal contact can touch off a massive
explosion. Bunkerers start by building a temporary enclosure around a
small section of underwater pipe, pumping the water out and then
drilling a hole into the steel casing that contains the crude. They
then fit the hole with a short pipe and valve and let the creek water
back in so that the apparatus is underwater, and therefore hidden from
oil-company inspectors. Crude moves through the pipeline under a
pressure of 600 pounds per square inch, and with such pressure it
takes only a few hours to fill up a 1,000-metric-ton barge. The barge
is then moved offshore to a transport ship—an operation that is vastly
simplified by renting the Nigerian military.

"Most of the soldiers are paid 15,000 naira [around $100] a month, so
you go to the military man and say, 'I want to make you richer,'" a
bunkerer in Warri told me. He had just worked all night moving
bunkered oil; the work had probably netted his boss upwards of a
hundred thousand dollars. "You say, 'This pipe will bring money; every
night you will work here.' Then they will guard you. We give them five
months' salary in a single night. Every time they bring in new people,
we make new friends."

This man claimed that the federal government could easily stop
bunkering if it wanted to, but local officials are making so much
money off it that they would revolt. Ideally, he'd like to get out of
the business. "There's so much risk in bunkering—fire risk, water
risk, ambush risk. What I want to do is work for the oil companies as
a production supervisor," he said. "I'm just bunkering until I get a
job. There are plenty of people here with degrees in petroleum
engineering who can't get jobs. They're offered positions by the
bunkerers, so of course they take them."

Bunkering would not be possible without guns—militant groups are
constantly fighting one another over access—and of course those guns
are bought with oil money. The most impressive weapons I saw were
Czech-made Rachot UK-68s that were new and well oiled and looked like
they had just been unpacked from their crates. Rachots are highly
portable general-purpose machine guns that can also be mounted on
tripods for use against aircraft; they are not the sort of secondhand
weapons commonly found floating around West African war zones. Someone
brought those in with a special purpose in mind. "Their supplies seem
to be unending," an arms expert named Dr. Sofiri Joab-Peterside told
me in his office, in Port Harcourt. "The police have to count the
rounds that they use—they don't have more than 10 or 15 each. The
militants have belt-fed guns that can sustain action for 20 minutes.
That, too, is a problem."

According to another contact of mine—a man who freely associates with
the militants—the most recent arms shipment was 300 Russian-made
AK-47s, built in 1969 but never used, that came from Moscow via
London. He also said that in early October a South African businessman
unloaded a ship full of weapons in the creeks in exchange for bunkered
oil, which he then sold on the international market. Nigerian soldiers
who have recently returned from peacekeeping missions in Liberia and
Sierra Leone are known to sell their guns, he told me, as are soldiers
currently stationed in the delta. There are even rumors of floating
weapons bazaars—freighters filled with guns—anchored off the Nigerian
coast. All you have to do is pull up in your boat with cash.

However violent and dysfunctional it may seem, the convergence of
bunkered oil, smuggled weapons, and illegal payoffs has worked fairly
well within the broader violence and dysfunction of Nigeria. The
original concerns of activists such as Saro-Wiwa were environmental
degradation of the delta from oil spills, and the extreme poverty and
backwardness of the villages. Two and a half million barrels of crude
spilled or leaked into the delicate riverine environment between 1986
and 1996, resulting in wholesale devastation of the fish stocks that
most villagers rely on. Flaring of excess natural gas has produced a
blighting acid rain in the mangrove swamps, and freshwater even around
wells that have been capped for years is still so polluted with
hydrocarbons that it cannot be drunk safely. But people still do.

The costs of fully protecting the delicate delta ecology are almost
incalculable. Once the militants participate in illegalities, however,
the Nigerian government can dismiss the entire movement. "I recently
directed the Nigerian security services to arrest and prosecute
persons responsible for kidnapping … under whatever guise the
criminals and terrorists carry out these dangerous acts," President
Olusegun Obasanjo declared in August 2006. Further complicating the
issue is that much of the oil pollution in the creeks is from sloppy
bunkering operations—which villagers then use as a basis for further
claims of environmental damage to the delta. Shell recently appealed a
decision by the Nigerian courts that ordered it to pay $1.5 billion to
the Ijaw people in compensation for environmental damage to the delta.
Under the current system, everyone involved in the oil business—from
corrupt government officials to military commanders to the militants
themselves—makes vastly more money than he would in a transparent
economy. And the bunkered oil isn't lost to the market; it simply
becomes an additional tax borne by the oil companies for doing
business in Nigeria.

The brutal functionality of this system started to break down in
January 2006, when MEND arrived on the scene. MEND was not simply
another bunkering cartel; it renewed the grievances first voiced by
Saro-Wiwa and began to seriously disrupt the flow of oil from the
creeks. "We are not communists or even revolutionaries," Jomo
commented by e-mail to a journalist. "We're just extremely bitter

The formation of MEND seems to have been triggered by Asari's arrest
in September 2005. Asari had threatened to "dismember" Nigeria, which
smelled enough like treason for the Obasanjo government to finally go
after him. The first MEND attack came four months later and was soon
followed by e-mails from Jomo demanding the release of both Asari and
Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, the Bayelsa state governor charged with
corruption. (Alamieyeseigha is Ijaw and was closely connected to
Asari.) The first four oil workers kidnapped by MEND were lectured for
19 days on the poverty and environmental degradation of the delta.
More than ransom money, the militants said they wanted all foreigners
to leave their territory. In other words, they wanted control of their

A former hostage whom I talked to (who did not want to be identified
by name) reported essentially the same experience. He was a contract
pilot for Shell who was taken from a landing platform in 2000 and held
for two weeks. He was never physically abused or threatened, though he
did worry that he might eventually get malaria and die. "Their
grievances are legitimate," this man told me. "It's just that those
who do the kidnapping don't necessarily do it for the community.
There's no water in these communities, no education, no medical
facilities whatsoever. To be out in the swamp without any electricity
or drinking water—of course they're upset."

We were sitting at an open-air bar inside the Shell compound near
Warri. It was early evening, and bats flitted through floodlights that
illuminated a tennis court. On the other side of the compound's
chain-link fence was a local village that had been plunged into
darkness. "The host community here," the man went on, waving at the
ramshackle houses, "they are without electricity for days sometimes.
This is obscene. They are looking through the fence at golf courses
and tennis courts where the floodlights are on at midnight. Why not
throw them an electric line? I mentioned it to someone at Shell. I
said, 'Why not? You've got the turbines! Let there be light!' He said,
'If we do that, they'll all want that.'"

After his release, this man was repatriated to his home country and
immediately came down with malaria. While he was recovering, he
received a letter from the lead militant of the group that had
kidnapped him. It was directed to his wife and children, and it even
had a return address. "I apologize for kidnapping your husband and
father," the letter read. "I did it because of Shell. I am born again
and I will not do it again. I should be forgiven."

"They used light plastic speedboats with 75-horsepower engines," the
man said. "They take the top off the engine to get more cooling. They
know exactly what they're doing. The army will never have a chance."
Combustion Chamber

This is why oil is so valuable: one tank of gas from a typical S.U.V.
has the energy equivalent of more than 60,000 man-hours of
work—roughly 100 men working around the clock for nearly a month. That
is the power that the American consumer can access for about $60 at
the gasoline pump. If gasoline were a person, we would be paying 10
cents an hour for his labor. Easily accessible reserves are running
dry, though, which means that the industry must develop increasingly
ingenious—and costly—techniques for getting at the oil. Deepwater
drilling, for example, now happens so far offshore that rigs can no
longer be anchored to the seabed; they must be held in place by an
array of propellers, each the size of a two-car garage. The cost of
deepwater drilling is close to twice that in shallow water.

As a result, oil is one of the few commodities with virtually no
surplus production; just about every drop of oil that gets pumped gets
used. The world currently goes through 84 million barrels a day, a
figure that is expected to rise to almost 120 million barrels in the
next 25 years. As that happens, oil will become more and more
expensive to extract. When oil was first exploited, in 1859, the
energy equivalent of one barrel of oil was required to pump 50 barrels
of oil out of the ground. Now that ratio is one-to-five. Thus far,
nearly half of the proven, exploitable oil reserves in the world have
been used up. Barring the discovery of new reserves or new drilling
technology, some experts predict the world will run out of oil by

Added to these technological problems is the fact that—as if by some
divine prank—most of the world's oil reserves happen to be in
politically unstable parts of the world. (The alternative theory is
that oil exploitation tends to de-stabilize underdeveloped countries.)
Because of the financial risks involved, oil reserves in politically
stable countries have more value, per barrel, than oil in politically
unstable countries. As we speak, the value of Nigerian oil—as a
function of the capital investment that must be risked to produce
it—is in steady decline.

That is MEND's trump card. It has several times threatened to shut
down all Nigerian oil production, but it's possible MEND doesn't quite
dare, because of the chance it will provoke a military retaliation it
wouldn't survive. By the same token, the Nigerian military has
threatened to sweep the delta with overwhelming force, but it doesn't
know whether that might force MEND to carry out one devastating
counterstrike—taking out the Bonny Island Liquefied Natural Gas
facility with a shoulder-fired rocket, for example. An act of sabotage
on this scale could drive Shell and the other oil companies from
Nigeria for good, completely wiping out the national economy. One
major company, Willbros, has already discontinued operations in
Nigeria because of the security threat.

On the world stage, as well, MEND's political power depends on its
ability to cause economic pain in other countries. Some industry
experts contend that new market mechanisms and the availability of
U.S. petroleum reserves would mitigate the effects of even a complete
shut-in of Nigerian oil. "Look at Katrina," one oil analyst at the
Department of Energy told me. "There was a spike in oil prices for a
couple of weeks, but then demand shifts and there is a little bit of
conservation. Two years ago we were at $28 a barrel and now we are in
the mid-50s. Short-term market predictions are a fool's game."

The Oil ShockWave panel wasn't so sure. It found that a complete
shut-in that coincided with another event—a terrorist attack in the
Persian Gulf or even an exceptionally harsh winter, for example—could
trigger a major recession. Furthermore, there seemed to be no good
options for dealing with it. Opening up the U.S. Strategic Petroleum
Reserve—some 700 million barrels of oil in underground salt caverns
along the Gulf Coast—would lower oil prices for the whole world
without providing a long-term solution. Begging Saudi Arabia for more
oil could compromise the United States politically and damage our
long-term interests in the region. And sending the U.S. military into
the Niger delta would be politically risky and possibly unfeasible,
given American commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq.

That did not stop the U.S. government from authorizing a joint
training exercise with the Nigerian military in 2004. It was reported
to have been focused on "water combat."

Two weeks after our first trip to the creeks, Jomo told me by e-mail
that he would arrange for MEND to take us into its camp. It was deep
in the mangrove swamps, and he said that no journalist had ever been
there. Allegedly, the only foreigners who have ever seen the MEND
camps were hostages.

We hired a boat at the Port Harcourt waterfront and headed south into
the creeks, hoping not to run into any Nigerian gunboats. We had the
feeling that the authorities knew what we were up to, and it seemed
like an encounter that would end badly. We passed a few fishing
villages and a flow station and two gas flares, and then we swung into
the broad expanse of Cawthorne Channel. Twenty miles to the east,
wobbling in the heat shimmer, was the Bonny Island L.N.G. facility.
The rumor in Port Harcourt was that MEND was planning to blow it up. A
wind had come up, and we banged our way southward into a hard chop and
finally swerved into one of the nameless creeks and ran our boat into
the village where we'd been two weeks earlier.

Calls went out, and half an hour later a boatful of militants dressed
raggedly in old Western clothes pulled into the landing, and we
climbed on board. We continued south for a while, almost to open
ocean, then plunged back into the mangrove up a creek that got
narrower and narrower until we had to duck to avoid getting hit by
branches. We passed under a talisman strung between two trees, and
minutes later we were at the camp. Every tree, it seemed, had a man
behind it with a gun pointed at our heads.

Mike and I stepped out onto land and were immediately blessed by a man
who dipped a handful of leaves into what might have been palm wine and
splashed us twice. No one blesses someone before killing him, I
thought. The camp was a rough wood barracks hidden in the trees with a
few nylon tents scattered around. There was a small generator and a
satellite hookup for television. There were two Egbesu shrines,
unremarkable little thatched enclosures with inexplicable things tied
to them. The men had stocking masks on their faces with leaves
sticking out of the eye slits, and they watched our every move through
the slits, though they had stopped pointing their guns at us. Some of
the militants couldn't have been 15 years old. They carried old
British guns from the colonial days and ugly little submachine guns
with the clips sticking out to the side—and the big belt-fed Rachot
machine guns that Nigerian soldiers were so scared of. We walked
through the camp rubber-kneed and weak, or at least I did. Their
leader was named Brutus and he sat on a wooden bench in a clearing. He
motioned me to take a seat next to him, and I opened my notebook and
sat down. His men surrounded us in a semicircle with guns cocked at
all angles.

"I have been instructed by Jomo to answer any question you have," he
said. "And to let you take any pictures you want. The Nigerian
government has been marginalizing the people who have the resources of
this country. We are deprived of our rights. This time around we don't
even want to wait for them to attack. When the order is given we can
go ahead and crumble whoever we can crumble, because we don't die; we
live by the grace of God. If one man remains, that man can win the
cause—that is my own belief."

I had heard this before—that the delta was bracing for a wave of
attacks. The attacks were rumored to include coordinated car bombings,
assassinations, and hostage-taking. I asked Brutus what was going to
happen next. "The first phase was just a test run for the equipment,"
he assured me. "Soon the real violence will come up and will be let
loose. We are waiting for the orders from above and we won't waste an
hour.… This is modern-day slavery. They have killed so many people in
the struggle. The government will attack us, but we are very ready for
them. We are just waiting for orders from above. Then we will move."
(On December 18, two explosions were reported at Shell and Agip
facilities in the delta. MEND claimed responsibility for the attacks.)

Brutus looked at me through the eyeholes of his mask. "When the
Nigerian man moves," he said, "nothing can stop him."

Also on A web-only slide show of Michael Kamber photographs
from Nigeria.

Sebastian Junger is a Vanity Fair contributing editor.


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