The struggle behind Nigeria’s oil production

Crude from a recent spill slicks the creeks beside the settlements of the Edagberi clan in the Niger Delta. Villagers say their livelihood - long based on fishing - has been eroded by oil extraction. 

Crude from a recent spill slicks the creeks beside the settlements of the Edagberi clan in the Niger Delta. Villagers say their livelihood - long based on fishing - has been eroded by oil extraction. (Photo: Tom Burgis)

The main militant umbrella group in the Niger Delta has declared an indefinite ceasefire. Amid proposals of shifting a share of oil profits to the regiona and pledges to retain surrendered combatants, the rebels who have suppressed Nigerian oil production for years are waiting for the government to make good on its promise, writes Tom Burgis from the Niger Delta

On October 7, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, an umbrella organisation of the militant groups that have waged an insurgency against Nigeria’s oil industry for most of this decade, issued a statement denouncing a government amnesty that had convinced several top commanders and thousands of footsoldiers to surrender their arms.

“We will fight for our land with the last drop of our blood regardless of how many people the government of Nigeria and the oil companies are successful in bribing,” said the group, giving voice to a hardline faction that demanded full talks on how oil revenues are divided, above and beyond the amnesty.

Ten days ago came another statement declaring a resumption of hostilities against “the Nigerian oil industry, the Nigerian armed forces and its collaborators” following the end of Mend’s ceasefire.

Then, on Sunday, there was a dramatic change of tone. Declaring an “indefinite ceasefire” to allow for talks with the government, Mend, always fond of a biblical citation, wrote: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven … a time to tear and a time to mend.” (Ecclesiastes).

The announcement is a fillip to a government that is losing billions of dollars of revenue after years of attacks that have reduced the output of sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest energy sector by as much as 40 per cent.

But the fragility of any optimism is evident in a discreet location last Thursday on the outskirts of Yenagoa, capital of Bayelsa, one of the delta states in whose swamps many thousands of militants made their bases and whose past state governments have become synonymous with corruption.

From right, General Clement, 41, and Commander Ebi, 42, two former Niger Delta militants, in Yenagoa, with two of their comrades, Simeon, 28, and Sylvester, 21. All accepted the Nigerian government's amnesty but say they could return to armed resistance if their demands are not met.

From right, General Clement, 41, and Commander Ebi, 42, two former Niger Delta militants, in Yenagoa, with two of their comrades, Simeon, 28, and Sylvester, 21. All accepted the Nigerian government

Nervous despite accepting an amnesty that in theory guarantees their liberty, eight former militants (some pictured) explain to the Financial Times what they have been fighting for and what needs to happen to stop them returning to the creeks.

A 41-year-old with a stare that brooks no argument gives his name as General Clement and declares: “We are looking for resource. Give us resource control.”

This argument – that the proceeds from the delta’s crude should flow to deltans themselves rather than to the seat of the federal government in Abuja – dates back to before Nigerian independence in 1960. The eight oil-producing states already receive additional revenues, but these have a way of going astray. The resource control cry has come to encapsulate the calls for jobs, services and a greater share of the petroleum pie that dominated debate on the delta.

The delta’s militants are not a unified band of disciplined zealots. Many have been linked to crime – both petty intimidation and the grand-scale theft of oil that is smuggled to refineries overseas. Indeed, one Nigerian with a foreign mission says: “The government has found itself negotiating with people who are not fighting for the Niger Delta.”

Gas burning from an oil flow-station outside the settlement of Akalaolu in Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta. The flame has burned for 36 years.

But the grievances of the delta’s 28m people are real. A mixture of anger and futility contorts the faces of villagers of Akalaolu, an outpost in the tropical forest. For 36 years they have lived beside the flaming pillar of waste gas (pictured, right). The villagers blame the inferno for everything from their wasted crops to the blood in their urine.

Further into the delta’s creeks, elders of the Edagberi clan say that, not only has oil failed to bring development to their six poor settlements, spills (pictured above) they attribute to Royal Dutch Shell’s nearby operations have despoiled the waters whose fish have sustained them for generations.

“We are predominantly fishermen,” says Commander Ebi, another of the militants gathered at dusk in Yenagoa. “But for the past two decades of years, our fishing activities have been bastardised… because of the massive oil spillages. There are no fishes at all.”

Aside from economic woes, there is another element to the delta’s upheaval that is often neglected by analysts trying to gauge whether there will be a fresh outbreak of the violence that helped push crude prices to last year’s record highs. This is the tribal dimension. The bruised pride of the Ijaw – the delta’s largest ethnic group – is palpable in General Clement’s vehement exposition of the region’s struggle.

“Because of the minority we are [in Nigeria], we don’t have anything, and nobody is looking [out] for Ijaw man,” he says. “We say ‘give us this resource’. This is why we were forced to carry guns – before even unemployment and all these things.”

The latest round of the tussle for the delta’s future appears to be entering a phase of negotiation. The presidency is working on a plan to divert 10 per cent of the joint ventures that pump the oil to delta communities. General Clement, Commander Ebi and their cohorts are waiting for the retainer they have been promised.

The government’s next moves will give an indication of whether this is indeed a time to mend, or whether the delta will be torn again.

Related links:

Nigeria’s oil production rates: Unpicking the threads (FT Energy Source, 06/08/09)
China’s oil talks with Nigeria: The unanswered questions (FT Energy Source, 28/09/09)

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