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Vol 51 No 16

Published 6th August 2010


Political spills

A new burst of militancy is haunting the Niger Delta less than a year after the amnesty deal delivered an uneasy peace

Delays over cash payments, the coming national elections and rising concern over oil pollution are behind the latest wave of protests and attacks in the Delta. Scores are being settled ahead of the elections and some political thugs launched a river-borne attack on the house of impeached Bayelsa State deputy governor Peremobowei Ebebi, on the country home of Bayelsa governor Timipre Sylva and other senior figures in the state government. There are serious grievances about the amnesty deal signed last October. Ex-militants complain about delays in payment once they have disarmed and about lack of accommodation and transport to the special amnesty camps. Commanders of the Joint Task Force (JTF) in the Niger Delta sent troops and armoured personnel cars to quell clashes between officials and more than a thousand former militants in Warri, the oil capital of Delta State. The amnesty programme budgeted US$145 million for the re-integration of ex-militants, many of whom believe they are not getting a fair share (AC Vol 50 No 22). The programme promised to pay 15,000 of the fighters from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta 60,000 naira ($450) a month. But militant leaders such as High Chief Government Ekpemupolo (Tompolo), Prince Farah Ipalibo (Dagogo Farah) and Victor Ben Ebikabowei (Boyloaf) are getting paid much more - and that stirs resentment. Some blame Timi Alaibe, the presidential advisor on Niger Delta affairs and chairman of the Amnesty Committee, whose own position may have been undercut by the government's decision to put JTF troops back on the streets of Warri and Yenagoa, the capital of Bayelsa. The plans of President Goodluck Jonathan, an indigene of Bayelsa State, to run for the presidency in January 2011 have raised expectations of substantive improvements in the Delta. The amnesty has brought a let-up in the conflict but not much improvement in living conditions. Delta people contrast President Jonathan's reaction to the persistent despoliation with United States President Barack Obama's reaction to the Deepwater Horizon crisis in the Gulf of Mexico and his government's demands for $20 billion compensation. Local commentators compare the recent announcement from Royal Dutch Shell, operating in the Gulf of Guinea, of a 34% increase in second quarter profits to $4.2 bn. Shell produces almost half of Nigeria's production of 2.5 mn. barrels per day, which represents the company's second biggest profit centre. Yet BP, responsible for the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, has just announced a $17 bn. second-quarter loss. There is no consensus on figures for the volume of oil spilt, much less the causes of it. The human rights lobby Amnesty International cites a report by the United Nations Development Programme that there had been 6,800 oil spills recorded between 1976 and 2001. Amnesty calculated that the Delta had suffered from the effects of an environmental disaster equivalent to the Exxon Valdez tanker shipwreck, which spilt about 750,000 barrels in 1989 but with little effort by either government or oil companies to clean up. After Deepwater Horizon, the oil companies face growing pressure. Activists demanded a rapid response from Mobil's Nigerian affiliate after a spill from the pipeline in the Qua Iboe oil field. Spills in June and July of more than 100,000 bpd from pipelines operated by ExxonMobil in Akwa Ibom State prompted calls for sanctions against the company. Activists and local officials blame oil companies which skimp on safety and investment in new rigs and pipelines for the spills. Shell's Chief Executive, Peter Voser, counters that 98% of the oil spilt is due to locals - either sabotaging the pipelines or trying to steal the oil. Voser is less clear about how Shell calculates that figure. With the temporary US ban on deepwater drilling, the oil majors are looking at West Africa's prospective Gulf of Guinea with renewed interest. Some activists are trying to link calls for a wide-ranging environmental clean-up with efforts to shut down the illegal oil bunkering racket. Oil companies reckon that Nigeria is losing between 100,000 and 200,000 bpd, between $6 bn. to $8 bn. per year at current oil prices. The proceeds from a successful anti-bunkering campaign could pay for a massive environmental clean-up. Although the soil at the end of the Niger River is fertile alluvial silt, no one knows how long it will take to recover from decades of oil spills. More worryingly still, no one knows how badly the spills are affecting public health. Plenty of schemes - such as bio-tagging and fuel dyes - for tracking stolen oil are on offer, but questions remain about the political will in Nigeria. The complicity of senior military figures in the theft undermines local policing and oil companies show little interest in another voluntary scheme to police their industry (like the Kimberley process for diamond producers). Yet without progress in tackling despoliation and theft, there is little chance for the economic uplift to sustain the uneasy truce in the Delta.

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