The curse of oil still stalks Nigeria delta

Plans to share petroleum wealth were meant to bring peace to Nigeria's troubled oil province. But Daniel Howden finds that an arms amnesty is failing and the Delta remains a powder keg

Monday 29 March 2010 00:00 BST

It is a little after dark in Port Harcourt and the electricity comes on long enough to illuminate a football match on the forecourt of a petrol station. For spectators, the young players have a line of parked cars waiting for a rumoured delivery of fuel the next morning. The dim light shows the exhaust fumes of passing traffic and a game that's as enthusiastic as it is shortlived. After five minutes, the lights go out.

Within a 200-mile radius of the capital of Rivers State there is a higher concentration and larger reserves of sweet, easily refined crude oil than anywhere else in the world. And yet the forecourt friendly gives a glimpse of much of what has gone wrong in the Niger Delta: a toxic cocktail of unemployment, fuel shortages, pollution, poverty and power cuts.

These are what people mean when they talk about the "underlying causes" of an armed uprising that halved production in Africa's oil giant and eventually prompted a much-vaunted and now failing amnesty.

According to its own statistics the Nigerian government has spent 8.6trn naira (£37bn) to disarm and rehabilitate Delta militants whose attacks on oil installations, kidnappings and bombings hobbled the energy sector and moved world oil markets. The amnesty, which has cost 2.7m naira per militant, according to upper estimates of the number of fighters, is now due to enter a second phase costing the same amount again.

A series of recent attacks, culminating in a multiple car bombing at the site of peace talks in the Delta's Bayelsa State last week claimed by the powerful Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend), have left many here asking where the money went.

Part of the answer is supposed to lie about 30 miles outside Port Harcourt at Aluu, one of the half dozen amnesty camps where the young fighters who emerged from the creeks to lay down their weapons are supposed to be starting their new lives. A rundown series of outbuildings with a rusted sign advertising its former existence as an agricultural college, Aluu is home to 300 surrendered militants. It's guarded by a handful of bored soldiers tasked with keeping journalists out and militants in. But in the stifling heat they manage neither.

The camp's de facto leader is a tall and powerfully built man who calls himself Prince Wisdom. Formerly second in command to Dokubo Asari, he was among the most senior militants to take part in the amnesty. And he's not happy with the results. "Nothing is being done up to this day," he says, sitting in the back of a car parked at a safe distance from the camp. "The boys are not being rehabilitated. There is no water and no lights in the camp."

His "boys" receive a monthly stipend of 10,500 naira but nothing else. Many of them have tired of the charade and left. Promises made to him personally have been broken, he says angrily, including a deal to relocate his family.

Before the 29 year old became a prince he was Jihad Amacribe a junior officer in the army who deserted after the execution of Delta activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. The militants are not criminals as the government calls them, he insists. They fought because of the "deprivation" and "because nothing is done for the Niger Delta" which produces more than 95 percent of the country's export earnings.

Only 120 of his boys have remained at the camp, the others have drifted home or back to the creeks where many of their weapons were hidden rather than handed in. "You can't take someone who was licking sugar and give him salt to lick and expect him to be happy," he warns.

While complaining of asthma and death threats from his erstwhile boss, Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, Prince Wisdom is running out of patience: "If they don't settle me I will use my last blood to fight them. I will destroy a lot of things."

Among the key architects of the amnesty was then-spokeswoman for Mend, Annkio Briggs. She shuttled back and forth between the capital Abuja and the militant camps for months. Sitting in her house in the back streets of Port Harcourt she's unequivocal in saying that the amnesty has failed: "The issue of the Delta and the financial crisis when oil production went under 1 million barrels a day made the government offer the amnesty."

Looking less like a militant and more like a veteran flamenco dancer with blood red nails, shoes, belt and hair scraped back, she shouts above the din of a tropical rainstorm drumming the roof. "There wasn't insecurity because the people of the Niger Delta wanted insecurity, it's because of neglect, abuse and looting of the people's resources."

She says she believes the government intended to use a rejection of the amnesty as a pretext to unleash the army and "declare war" on the people of the Niger Delta. The ceasefire has "called their bluff" and exposed false promises about infrastructure, jobs and training. Once the groups had lain down their arms and a few commanders, like Mend's "Boyloaf", had moved to Abuja, nothing more was done, she says.

"We're back where we started.

"There are more than 1,000 Boyloafs out there," she yells. "Do you think he's the only man in his community who can carry a gun?"

In her description, Africa's most populous nation is a place "where your vote can cost you your life"; a place of epic corruption where" 97 per cent of the wealth is taken by a handful of people"; where "police will kill you" for the equivalent of 50p.

"Violence is not the core of the issue, it's a symptom. It's the only way to get attention. We've warned the government and the international community that this won't go away. The Niger Delta is a powder keg of nuclear proportions."

Across town in his crumbling office overlooking the rusted rolling stock of the defunct colonial railway, Ledum Mitee offers a living link with the peaceful protests of the past.

Ken Saro-Wiwa and the activists who were hung under the dictator General Sani Abacha in 1995 were friends of the veteran lawyer who now heads the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (Mosop). The amnesty, he says, is just "patronage and corruption".

"Just drop your guns and we'll give you some cash can't be a substitute for a peace process."

Slumped over a fraying couch, he sounds tired. "You always ring the bells, say this will have consequences and no one listens." The oil companies claim there is now peace and cite increased oil production as evidence, he says. "They've just bought some time. People's lives have not improved and they are saying 'we have dropped our guns and you are getting more revenue and we are getting more misery'."

Solutions are not necessarily as elusive as they seem, he argues. "There are simple things that you can do to tie production to community benefits." He reels of a list: use electricity at oil company flow stations to give power and pump water to local communities; put royalties per barrel into a community trust fund making people allies in production.

These are not revolutionary ideas they have been written in numerous international and local reports. But this does not mean the government is stupid either. "We're not right to assume that oil companies or the government are serious when they say they want the conflict resolved.

"Once the lives of these people improves even marginally they will not buy loyalty so easily. Remember you have to break the legs of the people to sell them crutches."

Rumuekpe is one of these broken places. An hour outside Port Harcourt a once thriving community of 5,000 people is now a collection of ruins being slowly reclaimed by the dense jungle.

Only a handful of people remain, several of them camped out in the stripped down shell of what was once the town hall, the only two-storey structure still standing. In the distance a rushing sound like a waterfall can be heard where a gas flare sends a black and stinking cloud into the sky. Burning since 1967 it is surrounded by sands the colour of tar.

Walking through chest high grass towards his old house, Emeka Eke explains what happened here.

The discovery of oil in the 1960s – huge deposits of it – originally inspired great hopes that this modest farming community would develop rapidly. However, a policy of "divide and rule" by the companies that came to Rumuekpe, he says, eventually led to a nightmarish cycle of violence that pitched neighbour against neighbour in competition for money.

"This is where my sister was killed," says Emeka pointing to some bullet holes in the broken masonry. "She was about to have a child, her husband died too, here, in my garden."

Rival factions sprang up with the backing of oil money, locals allege, and a vicious civil war was fought. Evidence of the battle lies strewn about the place among burnt out houses. "The companies would give money and food to whichever group was winning," he says.

Throughout this period, four oil majors Agip, Shell, Total and Niger Delta Petroleum Resources have pumped hundreds of millions of dollars out of the shattered community.

Emeka is part of a residents' association that has tried to document what happened and begin the process of reconciliation and return. They estimate that as many as 200 people died in the area before the community was abandoned in 2005. An independent report carried out by the local rights NGO Social Action was unequivocal in blaming big oil for its divisive actions.

Local leaders are determined to keep their protests peaceful but admit some of their youth have left in the past to the creeks to join militant groups. Efforts to revive Rumuekpe have been complicated by repeated large scale oil leaks that have further degraded the local environment.

The fate of Rumuekpe, while bleak, is not exceptional. Hundreds of communities nestled among the rivers, creeks and swamps of the Delta have received a similarly bitter dividend from the oil wealth being pumped out.

In many senses, the exception lies further out in Ogoniland, one of the few communities to turn its back decisively on oil. The approach to K-Dere could not be more different to the wreckage of Rumuekpre. It offers a glimpse of a different region that has been lost in the past half century of drilling. Behind his tin-roofed house, Amstel Gbarakpor feels compelled to start unloading yams on the floor to illustrate the huge changes that have taken place in the once polluted soil around the village where the pumping stopped in 1993.

"Before we couldn't grow anything without large amounts of fertiliser. Now we need no fertiliser at all," he says dusting the dirt off huge yams. A community leader who grew up during the worst of the oil abuses and mass protests against Shell he remembers the dark days surrounding Saro-Wiwa's execution.

"Because of Shell, we couldn't get crops like this" he says. "Shell was here from 1958 to 1993 and we got nothing. The only tarred road led to the oil wells."

Those wells are staying sealed for now but talks are under way to relaunch operations with another company as local feelings still run high at the mention of Shell. Despite the fertile fields of Ogoniland there is widespread support for another experiment with oil but on wholly different terms. "We know what happened before but the new leadership won't take the shit that we took," says the 48 year old.

Some remain sceptical that if Ogoniland agrees to let the oil companies back in that they will escape the conflicts that continue all around them.

Back towards the main road an ominous reminder of past atrocities rumbles in, in the form of a Shell convoy on its way to cap some of the rusting wells that are scattered through the fields of K-Dere. The truck is escorted into this enemy territory by black jeeps known as "scorpions" from the Joint Task Force – the Nigerian security forces deployed so often as the oil industry's enforcers in the Delta. For all the talk of revenue sharing and peaceful partnerships for development the lead scorpion carries a different message. Above the heads of the heavily armed black-clad soldiers the legend "Warlord" has been painted by hand in white letters.

Natural wealth: Nigerian energy

*Nigeria is the eighth largest exporter of oil in the world as well as being the fifth biggest source of US imports, and contends with Angola to be the largest producer in Africa.

*At full capacity the industry can produce three million barrels a day but militant attacks in the Niger Delta have cut production by an estimated 40 per cent.

*In the last three decades oil has earned Nigeria $300bn (£200bn) but the average Nigerian has grown poorer over the same time span.

*Nigeria has the seventh largest proven gas reserves in the world.

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