Thursday, June 21, 2007

Nigeria on the MEND?

A top southern militant in Nigeria has declared this week they will halt attacks on the country’s oil installations to give the new government a chance to deal with the region's problems. Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, leader of the Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force (NDPVF) was freed last week after 18 months in prison on treason-related charges after telling a reporter he would work for the break up of Nigeria. The NDPVF are the second largest rebel group in the area but they are in coalition with the largest, MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) so Dokubo-Asari’s words are likely to have force.

MEND and NDPVF operate in the oil rich Niger Delta. Nigeria has relied on oil exports since independence in 1960. Since then, the Delta terrain has been destroyed by deliberate over-exploitation with no concern for sustainable environmental management. Corrupt governments have allowed oil companies drill 4,000 oil wells so far in the Delta and offshore since 1957. These are complete with drilling wastes, drill cuttings, oil sludge and various toxic hazardous chemicals.

Local opposition was led by activists such as Ken Saro-Wiwa. Saro-Wiwa led a non-violent movement for social and ecological justice in the Ogoni region against the government and oil companies. He and eight other activists were executed by the brutal Sani Abacha regime in 1995 after a rigged show trial. Since civilian government was restored in the late 1990s, MEND and the other groups have increased their activities to end the pollution and return some of the oil wealth to the delta.

While little is known about MEND, they have shown an ability to destabilise Nigeria’s oil industry. They are well supported in the local area. In 2006 they managed to reduce Nigeria’s oil output by 25 per cent through a wave of attacks on oil installations and kidnapping of foreign oil workers as well as car bombs in the regional capital Port Harcourt. That bomb represented a change of strategy as most previous operations occurred in the rivers and creeks of the Niger Delta.

The ultimate goal of MEND is to expel foreign oil and non-indigenous people from the region. They support the rights of the local ethnic Ijaw people. While Nigeria and foreign companies has reaped great profits from the oil industry, most people in the region live in poverty, neglected by the government. There are few major roads in the area and fewer hospitals. As a result over 120 different groups, of which MEND are the largest, have risen up claiming to represent the people. MEND has joined forces with Dokubo-Asari’s NDPVF, the Coalition for Militant Action in the Niger Delta, and the Martyrs Brigade to form the strongest anti-foreign oil alliance in the region.

MEND have evolved from their original crude tactics of kidnappings to targeted attacks allied with a carefully co-ordinated public relations campaign. They have invited foreign media into their operations to tell their side of the story. Their military leader Major-General Godswill Tamuno told the BBC in 2006 his group had declared "total war" on all foreign oil interests. They launched a campaign called “"dark February" which involved blowing up two oil pipelines, holding foreign oil workers hostage and sabotaging two major oilfields.

MEND’s apparent invulnerability severely embarrassed Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and the groups also rejected his "Marshall Plan" aid proposal in 2006. But things may be changing in the wake of Obasanjo’s departure from office. Obasanjo’s handpicked successor Umaru Yar'Adua was controversially elected President in April 2007 and took office on 29 May.

Three days later MEND announced a ceasefire for the month of the June and released six foreign oil workers held captive for four weeks. MEND said the move signified its "preparedness to dialogue with a willing government." Yar'adua has also been praised for the release of Dokubo-Asari which was one of the pre-conditions for dialogue. MEND said it hoped the new administration would "ruminate on positive and realistic measures towards a just peace in the Delta”.

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