Even by the usual violent standards of Nigeria’s conflict-ridden, oil-rich southern Niger Delta region, it has been a bloody seven days, with dozens of civilian casualties and many more wounded or displaced, according to local observers, in clashes in Rivers state between the military and rebel fighters.
The clashes – reportedly the heaviest in two years in the region – were sparked on 13 September when government security forces allegedly razed the villages of Soku, Kula, and Tombia, in Rivers state while looking for Farah Dagogo, a member of rebel group Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND).
Civilians caught in crossfire
“I got distress calls from the affected areas saying two of the villages had been razed to the ground, and there was an urgent need for medical teams to go there, but it was not possible for us to go.” said Chika Onah with the Nigerian Red Cross (NRC) in Port Harcourt.
Ongoing insecurity has cut off access to parts of Rivers state, making it hard for disaster workers to count how many of the estimated 20,000 inhabitants in the three towns have fled, according to NRC.
Nevertheless, Onah told IRIN civilian casualties are high. “There is no way the civilian population will not suffer in this kind of attack.”
Local human rights workers told IRIN they were caught in helicopter and boat gunfire. Sofiri Joad Peterside, a human rights campaigner in the Delta told IRIN, “These were aerial strikes without clear targets. What we are calling for right now is an independent assessor to determine the extent of civilian vulnerability to all these strikes.”
He said the violence hit civilians directly. “The centre of the violence was full of civilians. We live in riverine areas and in every riverine area, you have a forest where people go to pick seafood, and you have a community.”
But Nigerian army spokesman, Emeka Onwuamaegbu, said the military did not carry out a full-scale offensive. “We are applying minimum force in tackling the situation…we cannot go all out to kill our own people. Can we?”
Surge in violence
On 14 September, MEND declared war against foreign-owned oil companies working in the Delta, pledging to destroy oil pipelines and flow stations, and warning companies to evacuate their staff and stop pumping. MEND claims five attacks since its oil war threat.
Rebels have escalated attacks in recent months against oil production spots, according to locals who do not want to reveal their identities because of the region’s volatility.
A government effort to reign in oil smuggling by shutting down 200 illegal oil refineries in the past two months has sparked more fighting, according to the governmental Joint Military Task Force.
The Niger Delta, 70,000 kilometres of mostly wetlands, is home to some 20 million people who sit atop more than 30 billion barrels of top grade crude oil, according to the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation.
The region’s oil production has slumped after periodic attacks by local rebels who say criminal gangs and government military forces are siphoning and smuggling oil wealth, leaving behind polluted, malaria-infested, lawless marshlands that have seen little return from oil revenues.
‘If you drink our water, you’ll get sick’
Oil revenue from the Delta will amount to US$66 billion in 2008, according to an August 2008 report by the UK-based Centre for Global Energy Studies, but Delta residents say they see little of this money invested in the delta communities surrounding the oil fields.
Rebel leader Tom Polo in Wari, in western Delta, told IRIN, “We are suffering in the Niger Delta. If you drink our water, you’ll get sick. They [the government] are not doing anything for us. Every day they say oil prices have gone up, but we don’t see any tangible benefits from it.”
He said the government has not given back to local communities. “If you go to other countries that are rich in oil, they build first-class universities in oil-producing communities, but here there is nothing like that.”
Government spokesman Olusegun Adeniyi pledges more development, but says security must come first. “The government takes the Niger Delta very seriously. It is one of the seven key priorities of this administration…we are doing everything possible to improve living conditions in the Delta, but the security forces will continue to check the excesses of all those seeking to exploit the situation to make money through criminal tendencies.”
Red Cross worker Onah says spiralling criminality is hampering efforts to protect civilians. “The issue in the Niger Delta has now gone beyond the struggle for a greater share of the region’s resources. If they [criminal gangs masquerading as militants] can kidnap a one-year old baby or a sixty-year old grandmother, organisations like ours that want to help have to be very, very careful.”
Government tries to quell violence
On 10 September 2008, the Nigerian cabinet appointed a new ministry for the region.
Presidential spokesman, Olusegun Adeniyi, announced the ministry’s plans to “tackle the challenges of infrastructural development, environmental protection and youth empowerment in the region. We believe this is an important step in building confidence about this government’s plans for the Niger Delta.”
In 2000, the government set up a similar Niger Delta Development Commission to relieve poverty in the region, hoping this would end unrest. But the commission lacked funding and astute management, according to most analysts.
Tony Uranta, executive secretary of the non-governmental United Niger Delta Energy Development and Security Strategy, says the government needs to honour its promises if fighting is going to end- definitively.
Coming out of a meeting with President Umaru Yar’Adua on 19 September, he told IRIN, “It is a mistake to approach the Delta problem as a security problem rather than a development or justice problem. There is a bit of sincerity [from the government] beginning to show but it is still early. Once we see this sincerity in action…there will be changes for the better in the region.”
As the two sides wrangle over oil wealth distribution, Samuel Atori, a Delta native and founder of the Abuja-based Izon Prayer Network, concluded, “When two elephants wrestle, the grass suffers.”