Analysis: Militant uprising not yet likely in Nigeria's oil delta

Reuters News

4/15/2013 12:27:12 PM - Reuters News

By Joe Brock

YENAGOA, Nigeria (Reuters) - Despite a deadly attack on police and emailed threats from a militant group, Niger Delta militants are unlikely to resurrect the campaign of violence that once hobbled Africa's biggest energy industry.

Many former militant leaders are now accepting money from President Goodluck Jonathan's government, and are unlikely to relaunch the campaign of kidnappings and attacks on pipelines that helped spike world crude prices from 2006-2009.

Militants claiming to be from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), whose leader Henry Okah is doing time in a South African jail for setting bombs off in Nigeria's capital, claimed responsibility for an April 5 attack that killed 12 policemen. They warned oil companies against a "false sense of security".

MEND also claimed on Sunday it had destroyed an oil well owned by Shell that has been spilling crude into the creeks of the delta, stirring memories of a time such attacks nearly halved Nigeria's oil output.

But authorities in the delta suggest the attack on the police boat was driven by a local dispute between disgruntled ex-militants and their commander over money - not politics.

And in the second incident, an oil spill appears to have been caused by a rupture on a Shell pipeline - probably hacked into by oil thieves - rather than militants blowing up a well.

The emailed statements arrived from Jomo Gbomo, a pseudonym and email account MEND has used. But nevertheless, security officials do not believe they represent a serious threat.

MEND halted its offensive after the government agreed to pay former militants under an amnesty deal, and organized militancy seems unlikely to resurface while those payments continue - even if it is anyone's guess what will happen when they stop.

NO MORE MEND?

Today, many ex-militant commanders enjoy valuable government contracts to help guard the pipelines they used to blow up.

Senior commanders who directed MEND's operations in the last decade insist the latest emailed statements are not from them.

"There is no MEND anymore. We were MEND and there can be no return to militancy while we remain peaceful," former MEND commander Reuben Wilson told Reuters at his home in Yenagoa, a riverside city in one of Nigeria's major oil producing states.

"There will be pockets of violence but it took many years to build up before the surge in attacks," said Wilson, taking a call on one of his two smart phones while his men lay on leather seats watching football on a flat screen television.

Outside Wilson's large house, policemen hired to protect him cleaned their AK47 rifles, dressed in football shirts and shorts. The relative luxury former militant leaders enjoy is an incentive for them to keep violence to a minimum.

In one bar in Yenagoa, secret police and ex-militants, once sworn enemies, drink, laugh and play pool together.

Some top MEND commanders, like Ebikabowei "Boyloaf" Victor Ben - Reuben's former boss - have moved away from the sweaty swamps of Nigeria's delta region to its less humid, altogether more functional capital Abuja. Boyloaf lives in a mansion there.

Others, like Ateke Tom and Farah Dagogo, moved west along the coast to Nigeria's main commercial hub of Lagos, a lagoon side city not lacking in entertainments for those with the cash.

"A WARNING FROM US"

But even if payments from the government are likely to keep most militant leaders in line, they also create an atmosphere of intrigue that can cause violence.

The boat that was attacked on April 5 was carrying policeman to a funeral for the mother of former militant commander Kile Selky Torughedie, better known as "General Young Shall Grow".

Police who investigated the attack believe it was carried out by a faction of ex-militants who were trying to kill their former boss because Torughedie was pocketing the $410 a month they were due from the amnesty deal.

Torughedie was not available for comment. However, Jaspa Adaka, one of the militants from the faction that launched the attack, told Reuters his former boss was indeed the intended target and that they shot at the boat because the heavy police presence mistakenly lead them to believe Torughedie was on it.

"This is a warning from us to Mr Young," he said.

The attack was certainly fierce: the boat's driver told Reuters he had survived by hiding beneath the oily water as masked men fired their final bullets into the floating corpses. He then piled the bodies of the 12 slain policemen onto his boat and sped away.

"I heard the noise of the gunshots, then it was panic. I was so scared I jumped out of the boat," the man, who gave only his first name Jonathan out of fear of reprisals, told Reuters.

"I hid behind the mangroves and under the water. I saw the men climb on the boat shooting into the policemen lying the water. They were screaming: 'Kill them! Kill them!'"

Clearly, the emailed statements show that somebody wants Nigerians to think MEND has been resurrected. Officials say the emails may come from a small faction of Okah's supporters who are disconnected from most ex-militants.

"I have no doubt it is Okah's people behind this," said Jonjon Oyeinfe, an activist and negotiator in the 2009 amnesty.

"But his lack of access to money, arms and boys means his ability to bite has been reduced to toothlessness."

Sunday's email in which MEND claimed to have attacked the Shell facility, and also threatened to bomb mosques in retaliation for attacks on Christians by Islamists in the north, has been largely dismissed by the authorities.

Local residents say there was indeed a large oil spill along Shell's Nembe Creek pipeline over the weekend, but they did not hear any blast. The military also says there was no explosion.

Authorities have been quick to stamp out genuine attempts to revive militancy. Soldiers killed former MEND member John Togo, who turned down the amnesty, in 2011 after he started a new group. A gang leader known as Obese was arrested in 2010.

Yet the boat incident still highlights the fragile nature of the amnesty process. While a number militant commanders live in luxury, many of their foot soldiers remain unemployed and get meager pay offs, if they get them at all. Tensions run high.

Unless government solves the root causes of unrest in the oil region by creating jobs and raising living standards, there will always be a risk of ex-militants returning to the creeks at some point.

(Additional reporting by Tife Owolabi; Writing by Joe Brock; Editing by Tim Cocks and Peter Graff)