A Swamp Full of Dollars
Pipelines and Paramilitaries at Nigeria's Oil Frontier
By Michael Peel
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2009 Michael Peel
All rights reserved.
STARK ILLITERATES AND JUNKIES
As I looked across the water from Abonnema jetty, at the heart of the Niger Delta, I felt like a frontiersman standing at the edge of the known world. Behind me stood the tiny town, a waterside strip of buildings dominated by a neatly compact church and mobile-phone kiosk antenna that seemed to scratch like a giant finger at the sunless sky. Across the river from me were the creeks, where white egrets and other water birds patrolled the exposed mangrove roots and mud banks. I was at the barrier between urban development and the land of nature, remote villages and big oil beyond. From here, my journey – begun nervously by car two hours ago in Port Harcourt, Nigeria's oil capital – would continue by boat, jagging through waterways where oil pipes wended like submerged snakes.
I was tense because I'd come to meet Alhaji Mujahid DokuboAsari, self-styled scourge of the oil industry and emblem of the violent resistance that was increasingly coming to define the Delta in the eyes of the world. Earlier in 2004, he and his cadre of armed fighters, known as the Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force, said they'd begun an armed struggle for control of oil stolen by the Nigerian state and handed over illegitimately to the international oil companies. Protests against big oil in the Delta had gone on for many years, but Asari had stepped up the violence and the rhetoric. From his self-promotional talk, expertly fed into the international media, you would have thought he was Nigeria's Robin Hood, the creeks and mangroves his Sherwood Forest.
I'd already almost blown the chance to see Asari, whom I'd met for the first time a few months earlier. In a snatched mobile phone conversation the previous day, he'd told me to wait for him at the Abonnema jetty at eight in the morning. Unfortunately, I'd misheard him on the crackly line and gone instead to another jetty, called Abuloma, on the outskirts of Port Harcourt. He'd exploded when I'd called and told him where I was. 'What nonsense is this?' he had yelled, so loud that I had had to take the phone away from my ear.
As I stood waiting now, watching the wind whip up a swell, I wondered whether I had unwisely piqued a warlord. Then I noticed a speedboat making its way towards me. As it came closer, I could see it was filled with fit-looking young men. They seemed unworried about attracting the attention of the local people on the jetty who were shifting fish and other produce into boats. The new arrivals appeared a known quantity, their visit met with indifference.
Once the speedboat driver had moored, he beckoned me silently aboard. He lifted one of the footboards to reveal an AK-47 rifle hidden underneath. Then he opened his coat to show me a magazine of ammunition strapped to his torso. At all times he moved freely, without fuss and with little apparent concern about whether his weapons were seen by passers-by. When I asked if he was expecting trouble, he replied matter-of-factly, 'Any moment, at any time. But in this case, no problems.'
We cast off and headed for a wide-mouthed tributary off the river's opposite shore. Bouncing across the water, I felt a freedom and freshness far removed from Port Harcourt's dankness and constant traffic congestion. As we entered the tributary, I could see a further set of smaller waterways opening out, part of a network of creeks that branched like the stem of a bunch of grapes. Suddenly, the boat's commander pumped his arm with machine-gun rapidity to direct the vessel sharp right, down a narrow mangrove-flanked corridor. Everyone crouched to avoid overhanging branches, as the rapid movements and tight turns made the air around sing with a windy hiss. As we ducked and dived, I didn't know whether to be unnerved or reassured by the sticker on the hull that claimed our vessel was – like the Titanic – unsinkable.
After a few minutes, the branches fell away like a curtain to reveal the theatre of Asari's camp. I could see smoke and hear drums and chanting. A long white drape fluttered from a stick 20 feet high, like a pennant at a medieval English jousting tournament. The flag had been raised in honour of Egbesu, a spirit revered by members of Asari's Ijaw ethnic group. Nearby, a man in a red hat was holding what looked from a distance like a black chicken. I heard a sound like a flute, as if serenading the visitors to this sacred grove.
We came to a stop on a narrow strip of beach, where some men onshore helped pull our boat as far from the water as possible. Only then would they let me hop out. I noted that these militants, for whom shootouts with rival gangs were a fact of life, were surprisingly punctilious about making sure I didn't get my feet wet.
As I walked up from the tiny sandy cove, some of the dozens of young men who lived in the camp began to greet me warmly. I passed a machine-gun nest and a half-built outhouse, where breeze blocks for the next phase of construction were lying around ready to be used. Beyond was a long, single-storey building, like an army barracks, outside which several fighters were lazing around on mattresses. To my left, the ritual I had spotted on arrival was continuing behind some foliage, half-obscured from my view.
My host was watching the ceremony from his seat on the patio of the main building. He sat gazing thoughtfully, a Muslim chief watching his animist foot soldiers honour their religion. The picture of philosophical grandeur was qualified only by his appearance, which was more pimp than pasha: he was wearing a loose black tracksuit and T-shirt, and yellow flip-flops. His round face and generous belly sported the plumpness of privilege. He welcomed me with an observation that suggested I had indeed arrived in a new world. 'All here now is river,' he said, indicating the mangroves surrounding us. 'We are getting deeper and deeper into Ijaw country.'
Almost all Nigeria's crude oil comes from the swamps of the Niger Delta and the coast beyond, where the Ijaw live alongside the peoples of many other ethnic groups. The region is a landscape of the imagination that shifts from sandbars to mangroves to forest to field. Almost due south of the junction betweeen the Niger and the Benue, the two rivers that roughly define the country's northern, eastern and western regions, the Delta is an entrepôt of extraordinary biological and cultural diversity. Altogether, the watery fingers that branch off Nigeria's great waterways spread into a Delta region that is estimated to contain more than 10 million people. They speak many languages and are spread over an area that – by one commonly used measure – is about the size of Scotland.
During times of full production, Nigeria is the largest oil exporter in Africa and one of the top ten in the world. According to the US Government's Energy Information Administration, in 2006 it was one of half a dozen countries that had net average exports of between 2m and 2.6m barrels a day, compared with the mega-exporters of Saudi Arabia, which exported 8.53m barrels a day, and Russia, which exported 6.87m. Nigeria's peers at that time included Iran, Kuwait and Venezuela, all centres of great geopolitical interest.
The Delta's oilfields are explored and drilled by a group of foreign multinationals from the Western world and – increasingly – elsewhere. The largest operators are Shell, Exxon and Chevron of the USA, France's Total and Eni of Italy. Much of the crude is drilled and processed through unguarded wells and pipelines in the creeks, passing onwards through junctions known as flow stations to export terminals on the coast. The inherent vulnerability of these production and distribution networks is part of the reason the companies have begun to develop operations offshore, hoping that attackers won't fancy an assault on deep ocean fields of oil and natural gas.
Nigeria has a big strategic importance for the multinationals – and their home countries – because of the size and quality of its energy reserves, its geographic position and its government. Its crude is much prized because of the ease with which it can be refined into petrol, while its huge and still expanding proven gas reserves are already playing a big part in the worldwide shift towards the fuel. Nigeria is physically closer than the Middle East to the USA, reducing shipping costs. It is also more of a political friend. In 2007, Washington launched a special military command, known as Africom, partly to improve the security of oil reserves in Nigeria and elsewhere on the African continent.
Yet, for all the possibilities, Nigeria has lately become emblematic of the fragility of a world oil economy that depends on the movement of many millions of barrels of crude across oceans every day. Planned production increases in and around the Delta – which were supposed to take its output above 4m barrels a day by 2010 – have been hobbled in part by lack of government investment. Community protests and militants have also undermined the industry's existing activities, cutting production by almost a quarter by early 2008. Those kinds of figures are more than enough to alarm rich countries' governments and oil markets about the lawless 'state within a state' that the Niger Delta has become.
The modern, near-permanent state of Delta disruption, as exemplified by Asari, dates back to unrest during the early 1990s. Then, the people of a small region known as Ogoni had grown angry over pollution problems and other side-effects of oil. Protests prompted a shutdown of Shell's operations there, and a military crackdown. Scores of people died, according to human-rights activitists. The trouble continued and, in 1994, amid factional disputes within Ogoni, a writer and activist named Ken Saro-Wiwa and some of his colleagues were arrested for allegedly murdering four local chiefs. Despite a lack of credible evidence or judicial process, Saro-Wiwa and eight others were convicted and sentenced to be hanged by a special tribunal set up by the country's military dictatorship. The executions, carried out for maximum shock during a summit of Commonwealth leaders in New Zealand, led to Nigeria's suspension from that organization amid near-universal international condemnation of the killings.
The Saro-Wiwa executions marked the start of an era of deepening problems for the oil industry in the Delta, during which its legitimacy has come more and more under attack. Other larger ethnic groups – able to mobilize far more people than Saro-Wiwa – saw how effective the Ogoni protest had been in grabbing world attention. In 1998, Asari's Ijaw people put into words their anger with oil companies and the government. They gave the multinationals until 30 December of that year to pull out, 'pending the resolution of the issue of resource ownership and control in the Ijaw area of the Niger Delta'. 'We are tired of gas flaring, oil spillages, blowouts and being labelled saboteurs and terrorists,' read their statement, adding, in a meaningful nod towards Saro-Wiwa's fate, 'It is a case of preparing the noose for our hanging.'
On the day of the Ijaw deadline, thousands of security force members were deployed to the Delta as protestors began to gather, some of them bearing candles. Dozens of Ijaw people were reported killed in the military crackdown that followed, with many more tortured or detained arbitrarily. Since then, violence in the Delta has ebbed and flowed, with the security forces carrying out notorious massacres such as the murder of hundreds of people in 1999 in the town of Odi, Bayelsa State, apparently in reprisal for the killing of a dozen police officers. Olusegun Obasanjo, president between 1999 and 2007, showed no signs of outrage at the action and others like it. He once told a journalist that another security force revenge massacre of hundreds of people, after some troops had been captured and killed in the central state of Benue, was an example of how 'cause and effect' worked in life. 'In human nature,' he said, 'reaction is always more than action.'
In such violent circumstances, it is hardly surprising that armed militant leaders like Asari have flourished. In his meeting with me, he proved a charismatic and fluent speaker, when he was not being interrupted by the two mobile phones that lay on a crate in front of his chair. Most of the time he talked calmly, occasionally wearing a comically exaggerated frown that complemented his dry and cynical sense of humour. When he was exasperated – as when he scolded me for going to the wrong jetty – his voice rose in pitch and rasped with the brittleness of dry leaves. As we chatted, I noticed his lips were strangely mottled with white: the effect, he said, of an allergy to the sulphur in drugs he was taking for malaria. The disease was one of the hazards of a life in the bush spent avoiding the Nigerian army. 'Most of us don't sleep at night,' he said. 'We have to keep watch. The soldiers always come at night.'
Living in hiding was part of a struggle that Asari claimed was aimed at ending the suffering of the people in the Delta, particularly the Ijaw, the region's largest ethnic group. The governance of the region was 'abnormal' and 'fraudulent', he told me, spitting out the derogatory adjectives like rounds from a rifle. The oil companies were 'evil collaborators' with the oppressive Nigerian authorities. Under a much-criticized land law passed in the late 1970s, all the revenues from crude production go to a central government account, with none passing directly to local people who live among the oilfields.
Asari said he wanted a sovereign national conference to be held to consider whether the Delta should be part of Nigeria or not. His logic would chill any oil executive or Western policy-maker who sees Nigeria's high-quality, plentiful crude as stable insurance against meltdown in the Middle East. 'For us, for me,' Asari said, searching for the right wording, 'the companies have no business being here.' It was 'for the people to decide' whether they wanted to work with the oil industry, he continued. The alternative for the multinationals was stark: 'They should go when a new nation emerges.'
By Asari's own account, he had made a strange journey to this covert life in the mangroves spent fighting the Nigerian state and the oil industry. He came from a privileged Delta family. His father was a high court judge; his grandfather, he claimed, a slave trader. He had a brother who was an academic in the USA, while one of his sisters worked for an oil company. In short, his personal connections seemed typical of the complex web of Delta relationships that link apparently antagonistic forces – like the multinationals, the government and militants – far more closely than outsiders might guess.
Asari said a key turning point in his life was when he dropped out of university and travelled the world. He found himself attracted by the revolutionary spirit of Islam, to which he converted in 1988. He spoke of a 'wonderful year' in Libya, where he said he met Charles Taylor, Liberia's warlord former president (later put on trial for war crimes). Asari said Osama bin Laden was one of his heroes, although he denied links with al-Qaeda and said he disagreed with bin Laden's methods. Asari saw his struggle as about oil, rather than as a proxy for a worldwide conflict between Islam and Western power.
Asari's religious ambivalence was clear when I asked him about the ceremony his men were performing. He said they were making a sacrifice to help protect them from dying in combat. As a Muslim, he didn't officially believe this worked, although he didn't dismiss the idea either. He said he had seen cases where bullets aimed at fighters had not entered their bodies. 'Even me,' he added. 'I have been shot before. I didn't die.'
Fighting involving Asari's militia and other gangs has plagued the Delta for years. The gangs wax and wane, carrying surreal names such as KKK, Icelanders and Germans, with new groups constantly springing from the ashes of the old. When I asked Asari why the militias chose names that were so strange and – given the racial implications of KKK – even nonsensical, he shrugged. 'Maybe because they admire imperialism,' he replied. 'It has to do with intellectual bankruptcy. I don't know. Most of them are stark illiterates and junkies.'
The other militias used drugs 'very well', he continued. They took cocaine, heroin, 'all sorts'. I asked him whether his men did the same. 'Maybe outside the camp,' he replied. 'But when they are inside, it's forbidden.'
I was sceptical of Asari's assertion that his gang was an ultra-disciplined fighting force compared with the rabble it was struggling against. He claimed his force was a mass movement with, at a conservative estimate, 2,000 people under arms. He had sent out 100,000 application forms to prospective members, he said – although he didn't have a sample paper to show me. The force had heavier weapons than I'd seen, including rocket-propelled grenades – although these were all 'at other camps'. The mountain of unverifiable claims reminded me of a remark a US journalist once made to me, in frustration at the difficulty of pinning down facts in a remote region of poor communications where rumours multiplied like tropical fungi. 'The sheer quantity and variety of untruths,' she told me in wonderment, 'are incredible.' (Continues...)
Excerpted from A Swamp Full of Dollars by Michael Peel. Copyright © 2009 Michael Peel. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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