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Nigeria: Pollution and poverty stain a land divided by oil

The Independent

Brown’s African misadventure

PM’s offer of military aid to Nigeria provokes collapse of ceasefire amid angry claims that UK has ‘declared war’ on rebel army

By Daniel Howden, Kim Sengupta, Colin Brown and Claire Soares
Friday, 11 July 2008



Militant groups in the Niger Delta have targeted multinational oil firms

Gordon Brown is being accused of preparing for a military adventure in Africa after he pledged to provide backing to the Nigerian security forces. His announcement prompted the collapse of a ceasefire in the oil-rich Niger Delta and helped to drive up crude oil prices on world markets.

The Prime Minister’s offer to help “tackle lawlessness” in the world’s eighth largest oil producer was immediately condemned by the main militant group in the Delta, which abandoned a two-week-old ceasefire and accused Britain of backing what it calls Nigeria’s “illegal government”. The group issued a “stern warning” to Mr Brown in an emailed statement: “Should Gordon Brown make good his threat to support this criminality for the sake of oil, UK citizens and interests in Nigeria will suffer the consequences.”

Speaking at the close on Wednesday of the meeting in Japan of the Group of Eight leading industrial nations, Mr Brown said that the UK was ready to offer the Nigerian military direct assistance to help return law and order to the southern region and to restore oil output.

The Prime Minister said: “We stand ready to give help to the Nigerians to deal with lawlessness that exists in this area and to achieve the levels of production that Nigeria is capable of, but because of the law and order problems has not been able to achieve.” His comments came ahead of a visit to London by the Nigerian President, Umaru Yar’Adua, next week in which he is expected to appeal for military aid to put down militant groups who have attacked oil pipelines and platforms.

The Nigerian press received the British offer as a declaration of war against rebel groups. The Daily Champion newspaper ran the headline “Battle Line! UK to Declare War on Delta Militants”.

Mr Brown is under immense pressure on the domestic front to ease the soaring fuel costs, driven by the global spike in oil prices. Major unrest in the impoverished Niger Delta region has cut the country’s capacity to pump oil by one-quarter in recent months, helping to drive oil prices to the record high of $145 per barrel.

However, Mr Brown’s initiative appeared to catch the Foreign Office unawares. A spokesman insisted yesterday that there had been “no change in policy” but that “options” were being considered. Senior military sources also said they had been caught by surprise by the decision to offer military aid. There are no contingency plans for intervention in Nigeria that can be activated, they said, and any operation would have to be organised from scratch.

President Yar’Adua came to power a year ago after a controversial election win that was challenged in Nigeria’s High Court and contested by independent observers. Despite campaign pledges to tackle endemic corruption, which has raised the country to the top of the global graft index and enriched an elite with illegal oil revenues, the President has made little progress. He has also failed in his pledge to address local grievances in the Delta and restore peace to the region.

A series of attacks on installations and the kidnapping of oil workers by the main militant group, Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend), has cut Nigerian oil production by one-quarter. The group is demanding a greater share of oil revenues be given to local people as the Niger Delta is among the poorest regions in Africa, despite the immense oil wealth it produces. A spokesman for Mend, Jomo Gbomo, told The Independent that the UK offer was tantamount to a return to colonial policies of divide and rule: “They ought to know better than any other country [not] to involve themselves in any other area aside from development. They [the British] are getting frustrated and we will continue frustrating the oil-dependent markets until justice is offered.” Asked if he feared that Nigeria would become the next Iraq or Afghanistan, he replied: “It will not get to that point except if there is foreign interference.”

Mend offered to enter peace talks last year but withdrew after the government launched a secret trial against one of its leaders. Attempts to convene a summit have been complicated by the withdrawal of the United Nations envoy who was asked to oversee it, as well as the refusal of Mend to take part.

Any action in Nigeria would further stretch British forces. Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, the Chief of Defence Staff, warned the Government last month: “We are not structured or resourced to do two of these things [Iraq and Afghanistan] on this scale on an enduring basis, but we have been doing it on an enduring basis for years. Until we get to the stage when one of them comes down to small-scale, we will be stretched beyond the capability we have.”

Defence sources say the only realistic option would be to send special forces along with specialised hi-tech equipment to combat the guerrilla campaign. However, two squadrons out of the four in the SAS are currently deployed abroad, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and one is said to be on exercise. Units of the Special Boat Squadron are also busy in those countries with one contingent working alongside US forces in yet another hunt for Osama bin Laden.

The UK does, however, have special forces in Djibouti alongside other Nato countries in the American-run Horn of Africa task force involved in missions against Islamist militants; some of them can be switched from east to west Africa. It may also be possible to station a Royal Navy warship offshore.

Major General Julian Thompson, a former commander of the Royal Marines, said: “It would be utterly extraordinary to propose anything like a sizeable deployment of forces to Nigeria. Where are they going to come from? The MoD has not exactly got a box marked ‘new troops’ they can open up for something like this.

“It would be possible to send special forces in limited numbers to help the Nigerian military, but, with the current situation in Afghanistan they cannot be kept there for anything like a prolonged period.”

Britain is one of the largest investors in Nigeria. About 4,000 Britons live in the west African country, many working for large companies, including the oil and gas companies Royal Dutch Shell and BG Group.


Pollution and poverty stain a land divided by oil

By Claire Soares
Friday, 11 July 2008

Amid the serpentine creeks and rivers; in the ramshackle wooden huts perched on stilts above the oozing mud; among the muddy puddles where children gather to collect drinking water, there is little hint of the vast oil wealth on which the entire Niger Delta is sitting.

Nigeria might be the world’s eighth-biggest oil exporter, but these villagers remain mired in poverty. Getting to the nearest clinic means a day navigating the waterways; in the absence of proper schools, children idle their days away among the swamps.

The people of the Delta do not get to see even the most meagre crumbs from a table that is ever more bountiful as oil prices reach record highs. What they get instead is the pollution.

The big oil companies, such as Shell and Chevron, burn off around 2.5 billion cubic feet of gas that comes out of the ground with the oil they pump. The practice is known as flaring. Round the clock, flames shoot from the ground, turning the sky black with acrid smoke, and coating everything with a fine, soot. At night, as one analyst put it, the area resembles a scene from Tolkien’s Middle Earth – a Nigerian Mordor. Residents blame these gas flares for polluting the fields and waterways, making it impossible to fish or grow food.

The Nigerian government was supposed to start fining companies that had not shut down their flares at the beginning of this year, but rolled back the deadline after pressure from oil multinationals who said they would not be able to comply without shutting off production.

President Umaru Yar’Adua – dubbed “Baba go-slow” for the lack of progress in his first year at the helm – could ill afford further cuts to Nigeria’s oil output. A campaign begun two years ago by Mend (the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) has already slashed production by a quarter. This April, Nigeria suffered the indignity of losing its place at the head of the African oil pecking order, with Angola outpumping it for the first time.

Mend is the largest of the militant groups in the Niger Delta. Its double-pronged attack has been to kidnap foreign oil workers – creating a climate of fear in the Rivers state capital Port Harcourt where many of the multinationals are based – and attacking oil installations.

Once dismissed as a group of amateur bandits, Mend has become increasingly sophisticated despite its arsenal of rusty Kalashnikovs. Proof of this came three weeks ago with their audacious night-time raid on the Bonga offshore field, forcing Shell to shut down the 200,000-barrel-a-day operation, and serving notice that deep-water facilities, once seen as safe, were no longer out of bounds.

The group communicates with the outside world through a mysterious spokesman who goes by the name of Jomo Gbomo and is only contactable via email. He issues statements of responsibility for attacks and in recent months has also tried to lure big-name celebrities over to the Mend cause, including an appeal to George Clooney to lobby for them at the UN. Their commando-style approach is a far cry from the days of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the writer who led peaceful protests against the polluting oil companies before being hanged in 1995 by Nigeria’s military junta. But the anger at the pollution by the oil companies and the siphoning off of crude profits by political grandees at the expense of local people remain the same.

Now they are ending their ceasefire and a recent email, saying that “when our patience finally runs out the real picture of a cyclone on the Nigerian oil industry will be revealed”, may no longer be an empty threat.

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