HOUSTON CHRONICLE: HIGH COST OF ENERGY: NIGERIA: Politics of oil inflame age-old delta hatreds: Government and militias skirmish over control of vital oil fields: lately, oil has infused nearly every fight in the delta, a region that has made Nigeria the fifth-most important source of U.S. petroleum imports. (ShellNews.net) 6 Dec 04
By DUDLEY ALTHAUS
(2nd in a four-part series)
Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle
TOMBIA, Nigeria For months now, this riverside community's weed-choked streets and bullet-pocked houses have borne silent witness to the unrest rocking Nigeria's oil patch, a region on which the country's fortunes hinge.
Once home to about 5,000 people, Tombia has stood all but abandoned since factional fighting and government attacks sent residents packing.
Many people left amid bitter feuding in recent years between rival gangs for control of the town. Most of the rest departed in the spring and summer when government helicopters and ground troops came gunning for a rebellious militia holed up here.
"The same government that is stealing our oil came and bombed us," said Opus Opuene, as a half-dozen other young men standing guard at Tombia's nearly deserted boat dock grunted agreement.
People in the Niger Delta mostly ethnic Ijaw but also members of the Ogoni, Itsekeri, Urhobo and other tribes have feuded for centuries over fishing rights, trade deals, territorial boundaries and political dominance.
But lately, oil has infused nearly every fight in the delta, a region that has made Nigeria the fifth-most important source of U.S. petroleum imports.
In recent years, the delta's oil conflicts have taken on an ethnic, and sometimes separatist, tint. Few expect it to be otherwise anytime soon.
"Oil has come, and it has brought a different dynamic to the conflicts," said Edmund Daukoru, a delta native who serves as the Nigerian president's senior adviser on petroleum.
Energy planners in the United States and elsewhere are placing huge bets on Nigeria, predicting that the West African nation and its neighbors will supply up to one quarter of the United States' oil imports within a decade. But instability in the delta makes many question whether those expectations can be met.
"We have the delta the key strategic area of the country practically ungovernable," said Michael Watts, a geography professor at the University of California-Berkeley who studies Niger Delta politics and social movements.
"The larger politics of oil now have center stage."
History of fighting
In key ways, the troubles in Tombia and the rest of the delta mirror those of Nigeria itself. Since winning independence from Britain 44 years ago, the country has been roiled with clashes between its tribes and clans, its Muslims and Christians, its privileged and forgotten.
As in Tombia, government security forces at times have waded into the conflicts, sometimes with deadly results.
A U.S. State Department report said last year that the Nigerian government's "human rights record remained poor and government security forces continued to commit serious abuses."
Marina Ottaway, an expert on Nigeria at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told a U.S. congressional panel late last year that "political problems have proven, and continue to prove, extremely disruptive to oil production in Nigeria."
"With or without oil," Ottaway said, "Nigeria would be a very troubled, difficult-to-govern country. At the root of all the problems is the extreme ethnic diversity of the country."
Last year, fighting between Ijaw, Itsekeri and Urhobo militias over political control of oil-field communities near the delta city of Warri forced ChevronTexaco and Royal Dutch/Shell to shutter operations.
The shutdown took nearly a third of Nigeria's 2.5 million barrels of daily production off world markets for months.
Battles in the spring and summer among rival militias and Nigerian government troops claimed hundreds of lives, according to some reports, in the marshland communities around Tombia and in the slums of Port Harcourt, Nigeria's oil capital of 3 million people.
Calls for local control
Alhaji Mujahid Asari Dokubo, the Ijaw militia boss whose followers were attacked by the government in Tombia, has joined other militants in pushing for local control of the delta's petroleum resources. But Asari, who formerly headed an Ijaw rights group, has defined his ultimate goal as the region's independence.
Echoing calls from across Nigeria's human kaleidoscope of more than 250 ethnic groups, Asari and other activists have called for a national conference to discuss rewriting Nigeria's constitution to address territorial demands and other complaints.
Past efforts at such accommodation included dividing Nigeria's original three provinces roughly along ethnic lines into 36 states and hundreds of "local government areas."
What is now the Nigerian nation was forged by the British empire in 1960 from a combustible blend of tribal groups and religious faithful.
Ethnic Hausa and Fulani in the north were coerced into sharing power with the Yoruba of the west and the Igbo of the east.
Hundreds of smaller ethnic groups were thrown into the mix. Most came with their own agendas or scores to settle.
Northerners are mostly Muslim, southern people largely Christian. Beliefs in local gods remain common.
Up to 1 million people died in the late 1960s in the Biafra civil war, which ended efforts by the Igbo to break away, a move that would have taken much of the delta's oil with them. In the years since, tribal violence and clashes between Muslims and Christians have killed many thousands more.
The government's victory in the Biafra war led to years of military regimes controlled mostly by northern Muslim generals.
The soldiers lost power with the return of democracy under President Olusegun Obasanjo, a Yoruba Christian, who had headed a military regime in the 1970s.
Since returning to power in 1999, Obasanjo has contended with coup attempts, sectarian riots, and tribal and clan struggles over land or political power.
Not known for a timid governing style, he has often turned to the military or the national police when negotiations have failed to calm a situation.
Obasanjo sent army troops into the delta town of Odi in 1999 to avenge the slaying of 12 federal policemen by militants. Soldiers shelled the town, destroying scores of houses and killing several hundred people, according to Nigerian and foreign human rights monitors.
By one count, more than 10,000 people have been killed in various kinds of violence since Obasanjo was elected. A recent government report claimed that 50,000 people died in Muslim-Christian fighting in the center of the country in the past three years alone.
Automatic weapons have become widely available. Ethnic and political militias composed of jobless young men have flowered, spoiling for trouble.
'An extremely vicious state'
The Niger Delta's bloodshed has been less severe than elsewhere in the country. But the area provides 80 percent of government revenues and nearly all of the country's export earnings. Government forces often have reacted accordingly.
"The Nigerian state is an extremely vicious state, especially when it comes to oil," said Kayode Fayemi, director of the Lagos-based Center for Democracy and Development.
"And that's regardless of who is in power."
In a 1990 incident that brought delta violence to the world's attention, police responding to a protest at a Shell facility rampaged through the town of Umuechem, killing 80 people and burning or razing hundreds of houses, according to Human Rights Watch.
The town, home to 56 oil wells and two pumping stations, has never recovered, many say. Unemployment among its 2,000 residents remains severe. Gangs and clans battle for Shell contracts.
"As a result of the killings, they gave us our electricity. They rebuilt our burned market," said Nelson Amadi, Umuechem's 66-year-old senior chief.
''But nothing is functioning here.
"We've tried as much as possible to control this crime wave among the youth," Amadi said a day after new feuding left one villager dead and several houses burned. "But since 1990, Umuechem has not lived in peace."
International oil companies have tried to appease poor Nigerians by providing services that the government has not, spending hundreds of millions of dollars on such projects as paving roads, providing electricity and digging water wells.
But the goodwill generated by the spending has been slight at best.
Kidnappings of oil workers and brief takeovers of facilities by militants have become commonplace. Five Chevron employees two Americans and three Nigerians were killed this spring in an assault near Warri.
A study commissioned by Shell, the biggest oil producer in Nigeria, warned earlier this year that the company might be forced to quit its onshore operations within four years if conditions did not improve.
The study blamed increased lawlessness and political agitation in the delta for much of the unrest. But it also suggested that company practices such as paying youth gangs "to protect" oil facilities from their own members and favoring one faction over another when hiring laborers had increased tensions.
Some delta activists see such policies as efforts to keep communities splintered and weak.
"What has been bequeathed by the multinational corporations has been to divide and rule, to divide and destroy," said Oronto Douglas, an Ijaw attorney and environmental activist in Port Harcourt.
Shell executives insist they have not intentionally promoted conflict. And, despite the turmoil and discovery of huge new oil reserves offshore, Shell officials say they are in the Niger Delta to stay.
"It would be stupid for us to want to foment trouble," said Precious Omuku, Shell's Nigerian spokesman. "We operate best where there is peace."
But peace is likely to remain elusive in the delta.
New conflict struck near Warri two weeks ago when army troops shot and wounded 21 Ijaw militants attempting to take over an oil-pumping station.
Asari broke off peace talks with the Nigerian government in mid-November, claiming he was not being taken seriously.
"It's very important for people not to get too optimistic," delta political activist Dimieari Von Kemedi said of the chances of stanching the bloodshed. "This is something that has continued for as long as Nigeria has existed, for as long as oil has existed."
Founded by people fleeing a civil conflict 120 years ago, the delta community of Tombia grew relatively prosperous by exporting to Europe the palm oil used to make soap and margarine. In recent times, people have lived by fishing and by whatever income could be had from the oil fields that surround the town.
But trouble began simmering several years ago with a feud over who would become chief of the community of tin-roofed houses anchored by Lutheran, Anglican and other churches. Because the chief negotiates labor contracts with the oil companies, the position was considered powerful and potentially lucrative.
Sabotage worsens problem
Then, rival gangs with names such as the Bush Boys and the Islanders began besieging Tombia and dozens of other delta communities, fighting for territory where they could steal oil by tapping into pipelines, a process called illegal bunkering.
The town's problems worsened in February when gunmen of Ateke Tom, an Ijaw militia leader loyal to Nigeria's ruling party and a rival of warlord Asari, attacked, killing 10 people, according to news reports.
Equipped with speedboats, AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, Asari's followers set up a base in Tombia. Government forces swooped in several times in the spring and summer.
In early September, the military attacked with rocket-equipped helicopter gunships, setting several houses ablaze and killing four people, those still in Tombia said.
Most of the residents who had fled, they added, remained in Port Harcourt or elsewhere, afraid to return.
Many of Asari's men still in Tombia seemed spoiling for a fight.
"A human being that God has created should not live in abject poverty," said Opuene, the leader of the young men on Tombia's docks. "We will revolt. And when we revolt, we will die.
"Let them destroy all of the Niger Delta."