The streets of Isawo are eerily quiet. Around one in every three shops is closed. Many people have fled to nearby Lagos to escape a wave of violence that has engulfed several communities in Ikorodu, a poor district to the north-east of the Lagos lagoon. The violence was ignited by the emergence of rival groups fighting to control the lucrative trade in oil tapped illegally from pipelines laid beneath the swamps. (See page 62.)
The different armed groups can be roughly distinguished along ethnic lines. During the tenure of former president Goodluck Jonathan, his Ijaw tribesmen began laying claim to resources in this swampy part of Yorubaland. Ajani Owoseni, Lagos State police commissioner, explains: “They are taking advantage of the swampy nature of forests to vandalise pipelines there. And later, when they were not able to do that, they began engaging in other illegal activities.”
Conflicts reached a fevered pitch from May to August. Landlords whose properties were said to be used to refine or store oil for one group were kidnapped by rival gangs. Two were assassinated, and those who lived to tell the tale are reported to have paid six-figure dollar sums for their freedom. A hotelier who is suspected of having built his establishments from the ill-gotten gains of stealing oil was shot dead in broad daylight. Houses of supposed informers were burned down. And several teenage girls were raped during the ensuing mayhem.
Nobody knows how many people died in the clashes. Some reports suggest hundreds, while others make no mention of a death toll. It is clear from several death notices in the form of colourful posters with slogans such as “slain for his gallantry” hung around town that at least a dozen young men met an early death in mid-August. What is certain is that the scale of the unrest prompted security forces to take swift action. Within four weeks, Operation Awathe (‘wipe them out’ in Hausa) was meted out in the affected communities.
During a trip to China in April, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari vowed to crack down on oil theft: “We will deal with them the way we dealt with Boko Haram,” he declared. And so for the first time in history, Nigerian Air Force jets dropped bombs in Lagos and Osun States. The July and August sorties had the desired effect of sending out the message that under Buhari it is no longer business as usual for people who steal national assets. But some diehards who were unscathed by the aerial bombardments remained in their camps deep within the bush.
“There is still a militant camp over there. See that blue roof through the trees,” says Jobe Babatunde, a pastor whose house backs on to the mangrove swamp in Isawo. A week later, bulldozers moved in to clear hundreds of makeshift structures built in the creeks by suspected oil thieves.
Another group has joined the rapidly shifting dynamic. Members of the Yoruba nationalist group, the Oodua People’s Congress (OPC), are playing an active role in the creeks. “We are not vigilantes, but we are doing what the security forces dare not,” says the OPC’s president, Gani Adams.
In the Niger Delta, oil companies, including the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, pay local militias to protect oil infrastructure. No one is prepared to admit to a similar arrangement in Lagos or Ogun States, but OPC members are openly patrolling streets and creeks in the wake of Operation Awathe.
All this destruction occurred just as the indigenous oil company Yinka Folawiyo struck oil off the coast of Lagos, about 40km east of Ikorodu. Lagos is now the tenth oil-producing state in Nigeria. And Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote, is currently building what will become Nigeria’s biggest oil refinery in Lekki, around 20km to the north of Ikorodu. With the renewed insurgency over oil in the Niger Delta reducing Nigeria’s output by more than one third, Buhari and the Lagos State government appear determined to send out a strong message to would-be militants and anyone tempted to help themselves to crude being transported inland from oil fields in Lagos waters. ●
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