So Goes Port Harcourt… Political Violence and the Future of the Niger Delta
September 27, 2007
Some years ago The Economist (December 22, 2001) published a witty piece recommending to its readers “unusual excursions.” Pyongyang topped the list, but Port Harcourt, a sprawling city of almost three million in the heart of Nigeria’s oil-rich Delta region, was listed among the prime destinations. “(H)ot, humid, malarial, polluted and prone to sporadic bursts of violence” was how The Economist summed it up. Local color included “potholes up to half a mile long” and cars that are driven “at incredible speeds on the wrong side of the road to avoid the potholes.”
Port Harcourt, still fondly called the Garden City by some, has descended into another of its sporadic periods of bloodletting, but this time the crisis is more serious and troubling than much of what has come before. Beginning in early August, on the back of a rash of hostage taking – including the seizure of young children and aging mothers along the Port Harcourt-Yenagoa axis – the city has witnessed an explosion of gang violence. Amnesty International noted that beginning on August 6, there was an 11 day period of total mayhem in which gangs fought one another openly in the streets and randomly shot ordinary civilians. The Nigerian newspaper Newswatch (August 12, 2007) referred – with no exaggeration – to the “killing fields of Port Harcourt.” Economic and social life in the city has been paralyzed. According to the Port Harcourt Chamber of Commerce, almost $1 billion in revenues were lost in the violence that accompanied the April 2007 Nigerian elections.
Lawlessness and politics
The grim reality is that since the elections, and particularly since early August 2007, Port Harcourt has become to all intents and purposes ungovernable: it is disorderly and lawless, and this lawlessness now extends from the waterside slums to the middle class Government Residential Area (GRA). In particular, organized robbery by well-organized gangs of alienated and angry youth has exploded since April. I myself was a casualty of this explosion in July of this year when a group of close to a dozen heavily armed thugs followed me from a commercial bank to the offices of the National Point newspaper -- edited by the brilliant young journalists Ibiba Don Pedro and Asume Isaac Osuoka. The thugs shot their way into the building, and amid much mayhem and gunfire made off with money and laptops after threatening the staff and ransacking many of the offices. Brazen criminality of this sort might not seem surprising in an oil city with a rough and tumble character, but it can’t be fully understood unless it is placed on the larger canvas of the wider collapse of security in the city of Port Harcourt. That is to say, this crisis is not solely or even largely about crime narrowly construed, but about politics, or more properly about the legitimacy of government, the rule of law, and the unraveling of a political order (however corrupt and beholden to local political godfathers).
Endemic robbery across the city is a reflection of the fact that criminals know full well that they will not be apprehended because the operations of so much of government are a fraud and a racket: the conduct of those in public office seems nothing more than organized crime itself. How else would any sensible person interpret the images in the mainstream press of high-ranking politicians cavorting with political thugs, warlords, and gang leaders? To put the matter differently, the proliferation of armed robbery is inseparable from the wider struggle for power in Rivers State in the wake of the massively corrupt elections and now the legal tussle between Chief Rotimi Amaechi (former Speaker of the Rivers State House of Assembly) and incumbent Governor Celestine Omehia (former Special Advisor to Governor Odili) over the governorship.
Amaechi was elected in the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) primaries by an overwhelming majority to run for the Rivers governorship, but following accusations of corruption by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), and much internal struggle within the party, he was deemed ineligible to run for office – and was arrested in December 2006. The PDP then substituted Omehia as its candidate in the April voting. Amaechi sued, claiming that he was in fact the party’s candidate when the April voting took place, but the Federal Court of Appeals ruled against him on July 20, 2007. The case currently resides with the Supreme Court, which is expected to rule over the next few months. Whatever the ruling, the expectation is that it will precipitate more political violence.
Amaechi and Omehia are part and parcel of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) political machine that emerged under the previous governor, Peter Odili, an almost archetypical example of the new breed of “Godfathers” who wield enormous power within a decentralized federal system. Vast quantities of oil money (the Rivers local governments alone collectively receive over $200 million per year) now course through the Godfather-network because of elevated oil prices and the expansion of the so-called derivation principle by which states of origin receive 13% of the revenues of oil located within their territorial jurisdiction.
While the Omehia government is right to say that the violence “is not an isolated scenario but part of the Niger Delta crisis,” it is mildly astonishing to read that it also believes the “sporadic gunfire…was the handiwork of people who plan to discredit the Government for their own selfish gains” (www.sahararreporters.com/www/interview/detail/?id=56). At least a part of the violence was related to what MEND (the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) cleverly called “government workers” – that is to say gangs demanding that they be paid for political operations they undertook during the April polls. Odili allegedly approved some 400 million Naira (US$3 million) for gangs to prevent disruption of Omehia’s inauguration. The rumors were that that “boys” from the area of Tombia, a town that was the site of much violence during 2003-2004, were primed to cause a commotion (see Akanimo Sampson www.scoop.co.nz/stories/, August 29, 2007). Tombia was a center of militia activity in the struggles between Ateke Tom’s Niger Delta Vigilante and Asari Dokubo’s Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force, rival Ijaw militias.
Gang warfare in Port Harcourt represents nothing more than desperate attempts by politicians, in an environment of great political instability and indeterminacy, to gain the upper hand by making use of political thugs. In turns the thugs – the Soboma Georges and Ateke Toms of the world – are attempting to reassert their power after being marginalized and in some cases hounded by the security forces as they fell out of favor during the last years of the Odili administration. All of this has introduced Port Harcourt to a level of violence and conflict that it has probably not witnessed since the Nigerian civil war of 1967-1970. Paradoxically, the Warri area in Delta State to the west of Rivers, now seems calm in comparison to the fighting and chaos that reigns in Port Harcourt. Warri was devastated from 1997 by brutal inter-ethnic violence within the city itself and by blockades, protests, and hostage-taking along the oil-producing creeks linking Warri city and the Escravos-Forcados oil installations on the coast.
Insurgency and its roots
The problems of political disorder and insecurity in Rivers extend far beyond the fraudulent elections of 2007. The fact is that since the late 1990s, the Niger Delta generally has been more or less ungovernable. The roots of this instability extend back to Ken Saro-Wiwa’s leadership of the Ogoni struggle in the 1990s, to Isaac Boro’s declaration of a Niger Delta Republic in 1966, and even to the politics of ethnic ‘minority fears of the late colonial period noted in the oft cited 1958 Willink Commission report addressing the plight of ethnic minorities (now ‘oil minorities’) across the Niger Delta. With the advantage of hindsight, one can now see how the minorities question of the 1950s led to the first tentative dissent in the 1970s (let us recall how Saro-Wiwa captured the dilemma of oil and poverty in 1968!), to the women’s mobilizations during the 1980s around the impact of the oil industry on rural livelihoods, and then to the increasingly organized youth mobilizations of the 1990s. The hanging of the Saro-Wiwa and the other Ogoni nine in 1995 was followed by the 1998 Kaiama Declaration, bringing together youth movements under the umbrella of Ijaw leadership against what they saw as state and corporate violence. Community conflicts were fomented by Nigerian military and security forces, forcing a peaceful non-violent community mobilization down the path of militancy and armed struggle. The dramatic and devastating appearance of MEND in December 2005 marked the end point in a long and gradual descent into insurrection.
The Niger Delta has, in effect, become home to a full blown insurgency. According to a World Bank report, more than 600 people have been killed since 2000. (This is a considerable underestimation of all those fatalities associated with what a UNDP report calls 120-150 active and high risk violent conflicts across Bayelsa, Delta, and Rivers States. Deaths have recently surged in any event.) Remotely detonated car bombs and highly sophisticated arms and equipment are the tools of the trade. Over 250 foreign hostages have been abducted in the last fifteen months and close to 1,000 Nigerian workers have been detained or held hostage on facilities. Major and often spectacular attacks on both offshore and onshore facilities are endemic and can be perpetrated at will. Militants are now willing and able to directly confront federal and state security forces, which was not the case in the 1980s and early 1990s. A vast cache of sophisticated arms is skillfully deployed in an environment – the mangrove creeks running for hundreds of miles along the Bight of Benin – in which, to quote the new Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan, Nigerian security forces “cannot cope with the situation” (Daily Trust, February 27, 2007). Pipeline breaks due to vandalism and sabotage have almost doubled, from 497 to 895, between 1999 and 2004 (cost estimated currently at $6.8 billion). Product loss due to pipeline ruptures has grown steadily from 179,000 to 396,000 metric tons over the same period – a figure roughly equal to four supertankers. In the last three years costs of the insurgency have increased dramatically to $60 million per day, or roughly $4.4 billion per annum. In May 2007, Nigeria drew upon $2.7 billion from its ‘domestic excess crude’ (a windfall profits account) to plug revenues shortfalls from oil deferment. President Obasanjo ordered the military in mid-2006 to adopt a ‘force for force’ policy in the Delta in a vain effort to gain control of the creeks. In early 2007 the Nigerian navy embarked upon its biggest sea maneuver in two decades, deploying 13 warships, four helicopters, and four boats to the Bight of Bonny to test ‘operational capability.’ Yet the month of May 2007, according to a Norwegian consulting company BergenRiskSolutions , witnessed the largest monthly tally of attacks since the appearance MEND. On September 22, 2007 MEND issued a new pronouncement, in the wake of the arrest of one of its operative Henry Okah in Angola, saying it would resume attacks.
The armed robbery, gang turf wars, and political thuggery that make up the crisis of urban disorder in Port Harcourt in 2007 are nothing more than the chickens of the 2003 election coming home to roost. The arming of the militias by ambitious and venal politicians in that year radically empowered Ateke Tom and Asari Dokubo, among others. In the wake of the elections , they used their newfound strategic and military power to expand into new economic and political arenas, dealing in drugs and other forms of illicit trade. The attempts at disarmament that have been sponsored by state government have been pathetic and ineffective, and in some cases made matters worse. The combination of low level oil “bunkering,” that is to say organized oil theft that currently is running at about 100,000 barrels per day, and more recently hostage-taking – with the with small and not-so-small arms that can now be so readily acquired – has produced an extraordinary ‘democratization’ of the means of violence. According to some estimates there are at least 10,000 militants and 25,000 weapons in the Delta.
Port Harcourt is now in lockdown. A curfew declared by President Musa Yar’Adua in conjunction with the Chief of Defense Staff and Acting Inspector General of Police on August 11, is in place. There has been a call by Chief Edwin Clark, a prominent Ijaw leader and high ranking government civil servant, for the imposition of a state of emergency; but for obvious reasons the ruling political classes at the local level do not want to cede control to the federal center. Nonetheless, the city is in an effective state of emergency as federal troops occupy key points in the metropolis and security forces patrol the streets and the peri-urban communities. Amid this turbulence, there is the great danger that the legitimate political struggle for democracy and justice in the Delta will be tarred with the brush of criminality or terror. According to the Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law in Port Harcourt, 400-500 people have died over the last month. Medicins Sans Frontieres, in its small clinic, treated over 100 gunshot wounds, as well as wounds from stabbings and beatings in the first two weeks of August.
There are those in and outside of government who are only too happy to characterize those who promote the goals of ‘resource control’, ‘true federalism’, and state and corporate accountability, as little more than “organized crime” or predatory politics dressed up as legitimate grievance. Paul Collier’s influential new book, The Bottom Billion, (Oxford University Press, 2007), takes this view. Yet resource control, true federalism, and accountability are the centerpiece ideals of the long struggle for social justice, democracy, and self-determination across the Niger Delta over that last three or four decades. The Port Harcourt crisis should be seen as the inexorable spread of the violence that has devastated communities like Warri, Nembe, Peremabiri and Okrika into the Garden City. Federal troops may stay for another six months, and this will perhaps keep the lid on the sort of open warfare seen recently in such neighborhoods as Diobu, D-Line, Old Port Harcourt Town, Mile 1, and Mile 3 in August. But in the long run, the iron fist of the military provides no solution to the turmoil and turbulence along the reckless frontier oil politics of Rivers State.
And what of the future? The April 2007 elections were widely held to involve massive electoral fraud and ballot rigging – almost certainly worse than in the notorious 2003 electoral process. As a friend in Port Harcourt put it recently, 2003 was “child’s play” compared to 2007. Nowhere were the fraud and intimidation more pronounced than in the Delta. Nonetheless, the elections have produced an Ijaw Vice President, Goodluck Jonathan, from Bayelsa State, with strong connections to a younger generation of activists and civic groups. This is a step forward.
Yar’Adua, the new Nigerian president, is a machine politician from an influential Katsina political family in northern Nigeria; but he has clearly put some stock in his Delta running mate’s capacity to address the insurgency. Whether the President can sell the northern powerbrokers on increased “derivation,” that is, allocating additional oil revenues to states of origin in order to appease the angry citizens of the Delta, is another matter. There are some positive signs: talk of a Niger Delta summit, the release from detention on June 14 of Asari Dokubo, and the July 27 freeing of Chief Alamieyeseigha met key demands of many of the militants. Alamieyeseigha is the former Governor of Bayelsa State, who was apprehended in London for money laundering. Despite his record of massive corruption while in office, he is held in esteem in some quarters of the Ijaw community as a freedom fighter. The possibility of a Marshall Plan for the Delta, first voiced in March 2007 by President Olusegun Obasanjo, Yar Adua’s predecessor, as the “Niger Delta Master Plan” can also be read as a measure of the centrality of the Niger delta in current Nigerian politics. However, the sordid history of large state interventions in the Delta, with their heavy focus on force and repression, would hardly lead one to be optimistic about the consequences of pouring vast petro-dollars into special development agencies. A one-month truce was declared by MEND and the Joint Revolutionary Council, a group that purportedly speaks for all militant groups, on June 15. Within days, however, there were a number of occupations of flow stations and a spike in hostage taking. In the last two months, the Soku-Buguma pipeline alone has been attacked on sixteen occasions.
That said, the presence of Goodluck at the center of power in Abuja, together with the depth of the crisis, have pushed the new government into negotiations with the insurgents – that is to say groups who have a political project, often embracing a panoply of local, regional and national grievances. These in turn have persuaded a number of key actors to come together under the umbrella of MEND. The Grand Commander of MEND, Tompolo, garners enormous respect and authority across the creeks and across virtually all of the militant organizations and networks. Several all night meetings were held in July and August 2007 in the creeks. Senator David Brigidi and other representatives of the oil states’ Peace and Rehabilitation Committees were present; the Vice President himself met with a number of key actors in the Warri creeks in June. While the government has in principle agreed to the insurgents’ preconditions for negotiations – including not only the release of Alamieyeseigha, but also the rebuilding of Odi and Odiama, two towns destroyed by federal forces, as well as the demilitarization of the Delta on the part of federal forces – one has to say that the prospects for some sort of resolution remain unclear at best. In the last few weeks, we have witnessed the spectacle of the Rivers State Peace and Rehabilitation Committee doling out one million Naira to anyone who professes to be a “cultist,” a term which covers a multitude of sins but implies gang membership, and rejects the life of the “cultism.” Gang leaders and thugs were subsequently reported in the local press as parading in the Government House chapel clutching bibles and preaching redemption. The gravity and depth of their new-found religiosity is a rather large question.
The descent of the region into its current state of violence, and pent up political rage in the region, mean that radical changes will be required if there is to be lasting peace. Some of these, such as large-scale training programs and mass employment schemes, major infrastructure projects, and environmental rehabilitation, will take many years, perhaps even generations. To confront resource control – not as a matter of money or percentage of revenues but as a legal and political project - will require a radical rethinking, and perhaps a restructuring, of both the constitution and institutions of governance. This effort will of course need to address questions like corruption, the reform of the electoral commission, and transparency within a notoriously ineffective and pathologically unaccountable system of local government, which in the oil producing states is awash with federally allocated monies.
But reform of governance, if it is to move beyond glib hand-waving toward transparency and accountability, will also have to address the future role and character of prevailing forms of what Columbia political scientist Mahmood Mandani has called ‘decentralized despotism.’ These include the continued powers of chiefs and systems of customary rule, as well as the deeply ethnicized forms of political-claims making and community mobilization. In short, if MEND and insurgent politics are to be dealt with seriously then the democratic question and the nature of citizenship must be directly confronted. Oxford scholar Ike Okonta put it well: ”MEND, properly understood, is the violent child of the deliberate and long-running constriction of the public space in the Niger Delta in which ordinary citizens, now reduced to penurious subjects, can exercise their civil and political rights in the legitimate pursuit of material and social wellbeing. Behind the mask of the MEND militant is a political subject forced to pick up an AK47 to restore his rights as a citizen.”
The long march to peace in the Niger Delta will require not more oil money, but a political project of enormous vision, courage, and will.
Michael Watts is Class of 63 Professor and Director of African Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He can be contacted at email@example.com
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