South Africa: 
A day in the life of Athlone magistrates court

Athlone Magistrates Court in Cape Town/Photo/STEVE KRETZMANN/WCNThe Africa Report spent a morning at a Cape Town district court 
to observe the criminal justice system in action.

Read more... 

Nigeria: e-surveillance bill underway to up security watch


In the wake of heightened insecurity in Nigeria, the federal government has begun deliberating new legislation that will monitor telephone calls.

Read more... 

Nigeria's kidnappers thrive on government failure

altThe failure of Nigeria's government to meet its obligations to its people explains the growth and diversity of criminal enterprises in the country, argues Akinola Akintayo. 

Read more... 

Niger Delta: A dangerous masquerade


The declining price of oil changes the balance of power in the Niger Delta, while central government casts around for a way of managing the situation


With oil accounting for 95% of its economy, the shrinking price of crude oil has begun to spell trouble for Nigeria, the fifth largest producer in OPEC. The drop in price of more than $100 per barrel since July has already reduced the flows of foreign exchange into the government’s coffers by billions of dollars. The fall in foreign currency reserves and the weakening of the naira have begun to put harsh pressure on President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, who came to office in 2007 with ambitious plans to diversify the economy away from oil.?


Seen from the Niger Delta, the source of most of Nigeria’s oil and gas, the idea of breaking the country’s long-running dependence on oil appears unimaginable, and yet some experts believe that the decline in oil prices could present an opportunity for a break with oil dependence and the combustible politics that go with it. But others are not so confident, largely because the sheer complexity of Delta militancy carries the risk of getting out of hand. With its recent history of protests, kidnappings, bombings and attacks on infrastructure, the insecurity in the Delta has begun to pose a threat to the stability of the whole of Nigeria.?

Interview: Don 'Smokey' Gold
Former Niger Delta militant


The Delta’s unrest grew out of a background of disputes between oil companies and communities – which in many areas like Ogoniland have dragged on for decades – but it is now led not only by militants with clear political motivations, but also by criminal gangs. The militant movements have their roots in fraternal orders, cults and youth groups, from which militant leaders and criminal gangsters find it easy to recruit new members.?


When oil fetched more than $100 a barrel, the instability and losses were accepted by the industry as part of the price of doing business. Although, for now, there is the appearance of calm – or at least a fairly predictable level of disruption, mayhem and occasional murder – industry analysts are already predicting that if the global oil price drops below $30, then the oil business in Nigeria could become untenable for most operators. This could have unforeseen consequences.?


Over the past four years, the main onshore producer, Shell Petroleum Development Company, has been repeatedly forced to suspend production from various onshore facilities, reducing output at times by as much as 250,000 barrels a day. Shell and the other major companies, including Chevron and Exxon, have frequently called on the federal government for additional troops to protect their facilities, and it is no secret that Shell has even begun to consider the possibility of a complete withdrawal from its onshore operations in the Delta.


?Behind the current appearance of relative calm lies a complex mix of deals between the Delta’s politicians and militants. Delta State governor Emmanuel Uduaghan champions a policy of accommodating armed groups rather than carrying out military operations to disarm and disrupt them. In January 2008, a key militant leader, Tom ‘Government’ Pollo, was awarded a N6.7bn (approximately $50m) oil pipeline contract.?


Typifying the confusion in policy is the record of bodies like the Delta Waterways Security Committee (DWSC). Created to mediate disputes between communities and oil companies, and to keep the creeks safe for shipping, the DWSC is now suspected of involvement in both violence and oil theft in order to justify its own budget, which runs into millions of naira every month. Even the military Joint Task Force (JTF), charged with tackling the militants in the region, has expressed concerns about the DWSC.


A situation ‘under control’


?In one recent incident on 2 January this year, the JTF commander, Brigadier General Wuyep Rimtip, blamed local youths rather than militants for blowing up a pipeline operated by Italy’s Agip near Burutu, Delta State. For its part, the DWSC sent a delegation that it said would “investigate and bring the situation under control”.?


The theft and ‘bunkering’ (loading) of oil involves both militants and government officials. For his part, one former militant, Don ‘Smokey’ Gold, says: “Government and company officials are the biggest bunkerers of oil... Government and company vehicles and other equipment are involved, not only in bunkering but also in other crimes.”?


Militancy in the Delta involves two distinct interest groups. The hard core is made up of well-trained and well-armed forces with an ideological mission. Militant leaders like ‘Government’ Pollo can call on several thousand heavily armed irregular fighters, billeted in at least six permanent training camps and capable of carrying out rapid attacks on oil infrastructure, then disappearing into the creeks.?


The other interest group is the criminal gangs – such as those led by Ateke Tom and Soboma George – who like to claim affinity to the militant ideology of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), but whose most profitable activity has been the bunkering of stolen oil in the innumerable creeks of the Delta.?


Symbols of resistance?


Through press statements and emails, MEND has become a rallying point for armed resistance to the status quo, but it recruits its members from criminal gangs, youth groups, cults and even some NGOs. Figures identified with MEND such as Dokubo Asari and Henry Okah remain important to the movement as symbols of resistance more than as day-to-day leaders and ideologues, but the leadership remains deliberately obscure, even to its own rank-and-file adherents.


?Community rights campaigners on the ground say there are tens of thousands of potential recruits, attracted by the promise of ready money, who would join in any renewed crime wave that may accompany any further meltdown in the Delta.?


As world oil prices soared, the combination of armed insurrection and criminal violence was highly profitable for those with links in both camps but, with oil prices sliding, this may no longer be sustainable. The days when a single militant’s phone call to a news agency led to an oil price spike are over.?Damka Pueba, a community rights activist from the Delta-based Stakeholder Democracy Network, describes the atmosphere in early 2009 thus: “It’s not peace, it’s just quiet. At the end of the day, things are going to spill over.”?


The recent ‘business as usual’ that keeps the crisis in the Delta on hold fails to address the urgent need for roads, schools, jobs and the diversification that could break the dependence on oil, community advocates like Pueba say. ?


Nigerian journalist and Delta native Ibiba Don Pedro believes that while there is a new set of political players in Delta politics, they are busy creating new business opportunities for themselves. “On the surface it looks like we are moving away from the [former President Olusegun] Obasanjo years of corruption. But in Rivers State, civil servants are still not being paid. The looting is still going on. Officials are still using banks for money laundering.” She adds: “Public/private partnerships have been announced but there is nothing yet on ground.” ?


The Niger Delta has waited for decades for investment in public services and infrastructure like electricity and transport that could help bring about the region’s renaissance, and it is still waiting. There was a major setback for development projects when Nigeria’s best-known construction firm, Julius Berger, pulled out of the Delta in mid-2008 after concerted attacks on its personnel. The current decline in federal and state oil income means that even less new investment is likely to happen in 2009.?


As formal and illicit revenue streams start to dry up, affecting the security in the Delta and the stability of the oil sector, life in the region could become even more risky. If the corrupt revenue flowing into the militant networks starts to run out at the same time as their hundreds of thousands of potential new recruits see their firebrand leaders growing rich, this could feed a very dangerous cycle.?Ibiba Don Pedro says the military JTF has been chasing the smaller militant groups but leaving the bigger oil thieves alone, and she notes: “People are not speaking out. People are not asking questions.”?


The JTF has to appear to be doing something in order to justify its existence, as, like many of the other political actors in the Delta, it is accused of having a vested interest in maintaining a stalemate. But its leaders know that if they attack the main MEND leadership, the latter could shut down all production within days and spark a conflict that could last for years.?


Unlike kidnapping and other criminal rackets, militant violence in the Delta is for the most part a form of non-lethal political theatre. None of the players seriously wants a war. Yet if the cycle of poverty, desperation and envy fills the militant training camps, the final act could yet end in a tragedy without a script.?


The familiar village-level masquerade – the role-play of the social and cosmic order – is in many ways being replicated on a larger scale in the political games being enacted across the Delta. The risk is that the masks that key actors wore when oil was at record highs may not suit a hastily-revised script. It is this sense of uncertainty and danger – as the symbols of power in Nigeria change once again and the actors are forced to improvise – that may spark a shooting war by accident rather than by design.


Niger Delta militant attacks 2008

Subscriptions Digital EditionSubscriptions PrintEdition









Music & Film



Keep up to date with the latest from our network :


Connect with us