July 17, 2009

The Niger Delta: The next Somalia?

Abuja, July 11: A few days ago, the Nigerian Joint Military Force (JTF) recovered the Chemical Tanker ‘Siehem Peace’ that was seized by armed militants belonging to the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND). However, the crew remain hostage with the guerrillas: amongst them, Cadet Banjit Singh Dhindsa of India. The Nigerian armed forces have launched an extensive manhunt; a spokesperson for the military said at the weekend, "We're hunting for the hostages but we have to be careful. Meanwhile, we have arrested 3 suspected militants.” Meanwhile, a MEND representative said that the seizure of the ship was a warning to oil, gas and chemical tankers to keep away from the Niger Delta waters. The militant group wants its leader Henry Okah, on trial for treason in Nigeria, released.

More than 200 foreigners have been taken hostage in this region since 2006; most are oil company employees and are usually released unharmed after a ransom is paid. In the past, MEND has also claimed sabotage of oil facilities belonging to foreign oil companies extracting oil in the unsettled Niger Delta region. The big ones: Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell and Italian energy company Agip.

The latest hijack occurred 20 nautical miles from Escravos. At least four attacks have targeted oil industry interests in Nigeria in the last two weeks, despite a two month amnesty offer by the Government of President Umaru Yar'Adua. Meanwhile, Nigeria has lost billions of dollars in oil revenue in the last three years since it can pump oil up to only around two thirds of its installed capacity, thanks to the militancy.

Focused on Somali piracy, the international shipping community has so far ignored the steady increase of militancy in the Niger Delta. Somali piracy started after the government collapse in 1991 and drew the world’s attention only a couple of years ago when it escalated alarmingly; history may well repeat itself in the Niger Delta. There are other similarities between the two regions as well: Depending on one’s point of view, hijackings in this delta, like off Somalia, are the work of criminals in it for the ransom or cornered citizens protesting against the exploitation and degradation of their resources and environment by foreign interests.

The region where oil exploration takes place in Nigeria has been marked with unrest in recent times. MEND is a loosely knit movement that says it is dedicated to armed struggle against the exploitation and oppression of the people of the Niger Delta and the degradation of the natural environment by foreign multinational corporations that it claims are supported by the Federal Government of Nigeria. Its goals are to seek local control of the Delta’s resources and to seek compensation for the degradation of the environment by foreign MNCs. One of the leaders told the BBC last year that MEND wanted ‘total control’ of Nigeria’s oil wealth. The Economist has described the organisation as one that "portrays itself as political organisation that wants a greater share of Nigeria’s oil revenues to go to the impoverished region that sits atop the oil. In fact, it is more of an umbrella organisation for several armed groups, which it sometimes pays in cash or guns to launch attacks."

MEND has warned foreign companies in the past to “leave our land while you can or you can die in it.” Industry watchers say, off the record, that postcolonial murky deals in Nigeria have resulted in the country’s dictators de facto handing over of oil resources to multinational oil companies, most notoriously Royal Dutch Shell. The result, as elsewhere in that resource rich continent, is continuing economic colonisation, scant regard for the local population or the environment and consequent social unrest. People living in the Niger Delta say that they see none of the oil revenues that are milked from their land. Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, condemns the oil companies’ and government’s ‘crude attempts to suppress dissent’. MEND enjoys widespread support among the 20 million Nigerians indigenous to the region. On the other hand, critics of MEND allege that it outsources terror, hiring mercenaries for operations against oil companies.

They, in turn, use Western trained security operators. Notwithstanding government and private firepower, however, oil company operations have been obviously hit in the escalating violence. Bombed pipelines have spooked traders and hiked international oil prices. The kidnapping of foreign workers and the targeting of ships carrying oil forced Chevron to shut down a facility soon after a Nigerian seaman was killed in 2007 on an offloading vessel. A year earlier, a US oil company executive was shot dead in Port Harcourt and a Norwegian rig attacked and crew taken hostage, although MEND denied involvement. Foreign workers have been kidnapped from bars and offshore vessels. And, just last year, MEND ‘naval forces’ attacked and shut down the flagship Shell operated oil platform ‘Bonga’, shutting down a tenth of Nigeria’s oil production. This platform alone extracting a huge 200,000 barrels of oil every day.

Many claim that the Shipping industry can do little to influence the Nigerian government. The oil industry, which wields considerable influence in Nigeria, needs to push the government harder to come to a settlement with the militants. It is felt that unless a political solution is found reasonably quickly, the industry will continue to witness many more ‘Siehem Peace’ like incidents.