The most prominent armed militant group from Nigeria’s oil region issues a fresh threat in an email interview with Critical Resource.
Resource extraction is often controversial with local communities. But oil production in Nigeria serves as a worst-case example of how local tensions can fuel violence and destruction if discontent is left to fester for too long. Sabotage, kidnappings and attacks by militant groups in the Niger Delta, the country’s oil producing region, have caused Nigeria’s oil output to fall by a quarter, an important factor behind the spike in the world oil price earlier this year.
The most prominent armed militant group in the region is the “Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta”. MEND says it is fighting on behalf of impoverished local communities, seeking to rectify the poverty and environmental damage they suffer while vast oil wealth is extracted from under their land. The government, by contrast, says groups such as MEND are criminal organisations, motivated by profits such as the ransoms received from oil firms (allegations which are in turn denied by MEND). Many others – including Critical Resource – condemn their use of violent tactics.
Either way, MEND’s capabilities appear significant: in June it claimed responsibility for an attack led by gunmen in speedboats which shut down a major Shell-run oil platform, called Bonga, some 120km off the coast of the Niger Delta. Offshore oil facilities had previously been thought safe from militant violence. Critical Resource recently posed the following questions to MEND spokesman Jomo Gbomo.
Q: Does MEND intend to keep up its attacks on oil facilities, including off-shore operations? What can be expected to happen to Nigerian oil output as a result of future MEND activities?
A: MEND is not yet done with the oil majors as long as our political demands have not been met and the injustice in that region continues unabated. In fact what has been witnessed so far is an appetizer. The real destruction is coming soon which will make Bonga a child’s play. Our goal is a 100% shut-in of Nigeria’s oil export.
Q: Attacks on oil facilities in Nigeria by groups such as MEND helped force up the world oil price at various points over the last year. Does the international attention such oil price spikes attract help MEND’s cause?
A: It definitely creates awareness which is critical. Recently it has forced the Americans to begin considering drilling in Alaska and other areas they wanted to preserve to the detriment of our environment.
Q: What about moves towards peace? MEND is invited to participate in a multi-party peace summit for the Delta region, originally planned for this year though now postponed. Will you participate if the summit is rescheduled and, if not, why not?
A: Before we talk of peace, we must talk of justice. We are open to peace that deals with root issues and the involvement of international mediators to ensure it is enduring.
Q: It is reported that between 200,000 and 500,000 barrels of oil are stolen every day in Nigeria (up to 25% of the country’s oil exports). Many people are clearly profiting from the current conflict. Is this the real reason that prevents a peaceful solution being reached?
A: The oil being stolen is perpetrated by the military top brass, politicians and collaborators in the oil industry [Critical Resource note: these claims are denied by those concerned]. Our concern is justice. A visit to one of the impoverished oil bearing communities will make anyone understand why we took this path and declared that enough is enough!
Q: MEND uses violent tactics, including kidnappings of oil workers and attacks on oil facilities. How do you justify this use of violence – including against companies which, after all, are operating legally in Nigeria?
A: If MEND were a labour union affiliated to the oil companies, yes we will down tools, sit at home and get instant results from the shut-in. Since this is not the case, the only other way is violence. With African leaders or greedy capitalists, that is the only language they will understand in the circumstance. The oil workers are part of the problem. They are working in an unjust illegal system; getting away with fraud and spillages that they can not get away in the developed countries. This makes them legitimate targets. When we kidnap, we release the hostages unharmed. They have played a part in publicising the problem. Kidnapping was actually introduced in that region by the Europeans who encouraged the tribes to fight, kidnap and exchange prisoners for guns and alcohol who were in turn shipped off as slaves. Fortunately the oil workers do not face that type of grim fate today.
Q: In 2006 MEND is reported to have said that: Our aim is to totally destroy the capacity of the Nigerian government to export oil, and also that it wants total local control over oil wealth. Could MEND accept the presence of foreign oil companies if more benefits were felt at the regional and local level?
A: Under a just and conducive environment, the people we are fighting for will be happy to welcome the oil workers.
Q: Companies are increasingly engaged in initiatives aimed at improving social and economic outcomes in the Niger Delta – so-called CSR or community programmes. Aren’t these efforts helping solve problems in the region?
A: Like I mentioned earlier, the cart is being put before the horse. This will make even the most noble intentions look like a failure. Justice should be put first, let the people control their God-given natural resources, let the country practice true fiscal federalism and every good intentions will begin to make sense.
Q: Why does MEND attack international oil companies when surely the root of the problem is the policies of the Nigerian government and situation created by the Nigerian state? Why not focus on the government rather than companies?
A: The international oil companies produce the expertise that generates petro dollars. With money coming into the coffers of the central government why should they bother about the poor fisherman whose source of livelihood has been destroyed by irresponsible oil exploration? This is why we have to cripple the economy and bring everyone to their senses.