Saturday, November 18, 2006

Niger Delta's industry of violence

Chief Onitsha Josiah Jonah, a schoolteacher in Joinkarama, is angry that people from his community only find jobs in the Niger Delta’s oil industry when another spill needs cleaning up.

Behind him there are around 15 men in boxer shorts and rubber gloves wading through the swamp the community depends on for its drinking water. The men are paid 1,500 naira (£6) a day to gather the crude oil that flowed here in July after a Shell-owned pipeline burst a little over a mile away.

“There are 46 oil wells and one giant flow station near here, and the Egdeberi clan has not benefited one naira from them,” Chief Jonah says. “We often suffer from spills, which kill our fish and make our children cough, but the amount of compensation paid by the oil company has been measly.”

Youth unemployment is a major factor behind violence estimated to claim over 1,000 lives each year among the Niger Delta’s 20 million inhabitants. Another is the environmental damage caused by gas flaring and over 300 spills each year, which make the delta one of the most polluted spots on the planet.

“Fifty years of oil production has left a damaging and almost irreversible ecological footprint on the landscape,” says Oronto Douglas, an environmentalist and human rights lawyer. “It will take a systematic, focussed and aggressive restoration programme to get the whole ecosystem back to ecological health.”

The kidnapping this year of over 60 foreign oil workers, released after payment of ransoms, makes such an effort harder. Insurgents are more familiar than Nigeria’s army with the delta’s labyrinth of creeks and rivers running through dense mangrove, and they have been able to mount operations this year that have cut oil production in the world’s eighth largest exporter by around 500,000 barrels per day (bpd). Over 30 Nigerian employees of Italian oil company Agip are still held hostage after militants seized the Tebidaba flow station on November 5.

Oil companies have realised these tensions threaten their ability to operate in the region, and have poured millions of pounds into development projects in the few last years. However, a high proportion of these projects fail due to either a lack of proper consultation with the communities involved, mismanagement or corruption, which is an endemic problem in the region.

A current government initiative to bring in a UN team to clean up the environmental damage in Ogoniland, where author Ken Saro-Wiwa and his Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (Mosop) led protests against Shell in early 1990s, is met with suspicion in the area. Many see it as a ruse for the company to be allowed to resume production there for the first time since 1993.

“The government has talked with Shell about doing this cleanup without any consultation with the community,” says Mosop president Ledum Mitee. “They have completely lost touch with the principles of engagement.”

Some of this year’s escalation in violence goes back to September 2005 and the arrest on treason charges of Alhaji Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, leader of the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force, one of the region’s myriad armed groups. According AA Peaceworks director Judith Asuni, who helped broker an amnesty for militants and a cease-fire between the delta’s warring factions in October 2004, militant leaders took Asari’s arrest as their cue to go underground. Many parked themselves in Delta state, in the western part of the region, whence they launched a wave of kidnappings and attacks on oil installations that in February led to the output cut.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), whose demands are political and include the release of Asari, claimed most of these attacks. But the use of money to secure the MEND hostages’ release led to more recent kidnappings by other groups, where securing a ransom has been the sole purpose.

“Between January and March you could argue the hostage takers had legitimate reasons,” says Asuni. “Afterwards, no.”

Another reason for the escalation in violence is the approach of elections in April. Politicians, hiring gangs of young men often referred to as “cultists” to carry out intimidation for them at election time, have contributed to the arms influx.

“Two years ago we were getting cooperation from the politicians and you could see things turning around,” says Asuni, whose organisation has helped rehabilitate over 3,000 former militants. “Now the arms are coming in and the boys are getting mobilised.”

Fighting between armed groups in the delta is nowhere near the level of 2004 prior to the cease-fire, when Asari’s men fought pitch battles in and surrounding parts of Rivers state against followers of his former lieutenant Ateke Tom, killing hundreds. But periodic skirmishes between the Degbam and the Dewell – cultist groups loyal to prominent Ogoni politicians – flared up again in October, causing residents to flee Borri, the largest Ogoni community.

In the 1999 and 2003 elections, the trend was for politicians to discard the cults once elections were over. It is then, when the armed youths have been cut loose, that inter-communal clashes have been at their worst in the Niger Delta. As well as fighting each other, cultists have also turned their arms to activities such as “protection” of oil installations, kidnapping and oil theft – a dangerous practice known as “bunkering”.

Earlier this month at least 19 people died in a fire reportedly caused when an oil thief failed to put out his cigarette before approaching a pipeline. The worst such incident occurred in 1998, when a ruptured pipeline exploded killing more than 1,200 people, and over 200 people died last May after a similar explosion outside Lagos. Bunkering is also a major cause of the oil spills.

Bunkering has been going on for a long time in the delta, but in recent years it has grown in scale, with estimates of how much oil is stolen ranging from 70,000 to 300,000 bpd. Theft on such a grand scale necessarily takes place with the collusion of police and soldiers at river checkpoints, and it is a widely held view that officials in the highest reaches of government are also involved.

“The government, police and oil companies have created and reinforce an industry of violence,” Mitee says. “In the past, people who stole were made outcasts; now they’re made chiefs because it shows they’re smart for stealing from even bigger thieves.”

All photos, Marcus Bensasson. Top: Debris from the oil spill clean-up in Joinkarama. Middle: Ledum Mitee speaking in Abuja at the launch of the "Fix Nigeria" initiative. Above: Gas being flared at an Agip flow station. You can find more photographs for this story on Flickr.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Under the politician's whimsy

Abeokuta is reached from Lagos via a new access road complete with streetlights, rare in this corner of the world. Newly built homes, terracotta like the ground beneath them, cluster between road and verdant country.

Turning onto the road from the main highway you are greeted by a giant billboard projecting the beaming smile of Ogun state Governor Gbenga Daniel, standing for reelection, next to President Olusegun Obasanjo, whose farm the road passes on its way to Abeokuta, his home town.

Daniel looks set to win a second term as governor in April's elections. He is part of the president's People's Democratic Party (PDP) and during his governorship so far Abeokuta has witnessed a construction boom, with new roads, the redevelopment of its stadium in anticipation of the National Sports Festival earlier this year and projects designed to boost tourism.

Abeokuta, 60km north of Lagos in the country's south-west, is an attractive town and the birthplace of many famous Nigerians, including Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti, Nobel prize-winning author Wole Soyinka and Obasanjo. Many buildings date back to the colonial era, though they are now in a state of disrepair. Through its obas' palace, where chiefs and elders gather to resolve arguments, it retains links with Yoruba tradition. It is a town of crowded marketplaces, heavy traffic and mountains of rubbish. But the hustle is more laid back and less menacing than it is in Lagos, while brightly decorated beaten up taxis and its people dressed in colourfully patterned clothes give the place a positively funkadelic atmosphere.

The town's name, which means “under the rock”, derives from the Olumo rock that provided a refuge for those fleeing from slave traders in the early 1800s. The granite rock is sacred in local tradition and looms large above the town surrounding it.

It used to be that people had to climb the rock to get to its top, but a giant elevator – built by Daniel’s companies – now allows easy access to the top. The clamped-on concrete structure dominates the rock, even from a distance. Critics point out that in a town lacking adequate healthcare facilities and other basic infrastructure, the N750 million (3.1 million pounds) spent on its construction could have been used address people's needs more directly.

I asked my guide's for her thoughts on this. Without any conviction, she pointed out how good it was that old people were now able to reach the top of Olumo rock without having to climb it. I pressed further, and this time elicited a resigned shrug: “He's the governor, he does what he wants.”

Photos, Marcus Bensasson. Top: one of Abeokuta's busy street markets. Above: The giant elevator at Olumo rock. You can find more photographs of Abeokuta on my Flickr photostream.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Clouds hang over Nigerian elections

Approaching Lagos Island in the pouring rain, light from the dilapidated buildings and shacks came through in pastel colours, so that by squinting you could almost imagine you were in Dublin looking across the River Liffey. Then the reality of Lagos's commotion returned as the traffic got thicker, and suddenly there were girls in orange, white and green t-shirts running alongside the cars, trying to shove flyers through car windows.

“So many politicians, running for governor and for the senate, how can they pay these people?” asked my driver Isaac. “They just want to get into office so that they can get rich.” I looked at the yellow car sticker that had just been given to me. It did not say what candidate it was for, just: “Lagos - 2007. We need a responsible female leader who is accessible to the people as a student of Bola Tinubu [Lagos's outgoing governor] democratic values.”

Nigeria enters the April 2007 elections – when the presidency as well as numerous governorships and senate seats are up for grabs – at a critical juncture in its history. President Olusegun Obasanjo previously became the first military head of state in the country's post-independence history to hand over power to a civilian administration in 1979. But the army was back after just four years, and remained until 1999 when Obasanjo, by now a civilian, returned as the elected president. He now has the chance to preside over Nigeria's first transition from one civilian government to another, all previous ones having ended with military coups.

But many of Nigeria's problems have festered over the past seven years. Tension is still high in the oil producing Niger Delta, while periodic flashes of inter-communal violence in the country's centre has been a characteristic of Obasanjo’s time in office. These clashes, usually between Muslims from the north and Christians from the south-west or the south-east, have caused thousands of deaths.

As the supporters of various politicians, holding parallel rallies that day, swamped the car taking me from Murtala Mohammed Airport to my hotel, Nuhu Ribadu, chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), was simultaneously being admitted to senate chamber in Abuja. There he presented a report in which he said he was investigating 31 of the country's 36 state governors, including Tinubu, over alleged corruption.

Tinubu claims the EFCC is being used as an instrument to target Obasanjo's enemies, and believes he is being persecuted for supporting the successful campaign to stop an ammendment to the constitution that would have allowed Obasanjo to stand for a third term. The issue led to a major spat between Obasanjo and his vice president, Atiku Abubakar, a prominent opponent of the ammendment who has presidential aspirations of his own, with each accusing the other of corruption.

Obasanjo, a Yoruba Christian, derives the core of his support from his fellow Yorubas in the south-west, where Lagos is situated. This is a reversal of the situation when he was first elected in 1999 on the back of support from the predominantly Muslim north with the south-western states mostly voting against him.

I got a foretaste of the distrust with which his northern opponents now hold Obasanjo in August, when in England I met Mohammed Mahdi Shehu, a Muslim cleric from the city of Kaduna. At the time the date of the elections had yet to be announced, and Mahdi Shehu, who said he supported Obasanjo in 1999, was convinced the president would use the troubles in the delta as a pretext to declare a state of emergency and call them off.

“Obasanjo can’t afford to let go of power because then the scale of his corruption would come out,” he said. “Sani Abacha [Nigeria’s notoriously corrupt former military dictator] is like Mother Teresa compared to Obasanjo.”

But this is a view disagreed with by many others, including my driver Isaac, who say the situation has steadily improved under Obasanjo, albeit from a low base.

The situation certainly seemed better at the Murtala Mohammed Airport where I got through customs quickly enough, despite a feeling of dread borne from hearing horror stories of first timers' experiences entering the country.

Meanwhile on Lagos Island the streets were filling with supporters of various aspirants to political office. From the following day's press reports, it seems the main event was the launch of the Lagos chapter of the Action Congress, a new political party formed by the merger of several smaller parties, including Tinubu's, joined by disaffected former members of Obasanjo's People's Democratic Party (PDP).

My luck from getting through the airport so quickly was unfortunately short-lived. The rain combined with the disruption caused by the rallies created a traffic jam so severe that the journey from airport to hotel took five hours.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Corruption, intrigue . . . and wanderlust

One of Ghana's biggest selling newspapers, the state-owned Daily Graphic, yesterday led with a story about a cocaine shipment that was intercepted in April as it was being offloaded in a fishing bay.

The story contains police corruption and intrigue, with part of the 2,340kg haul disappearing soon after it was found on the MV Benjamin, which explains why it is still running five months on.

It also highlights the extent to which people will travel in the pursuit of commerce, licit or otherwise. Of the five chief suspects - who are still at large - three are South Koreans, while some of those arrested on the ship were Chinese. The judicial committee investigating the loss of part of the haul is also looking into a separate case surrounding bribery allegations, in which one of the protagonists is a Venezuelan drug baron.

I encountered the legitimate face of this globalisation today when I met Samir, a restauranteur of Lebanese origin. Born in Ghana and now sporting a wispy white beard, Samir told me his ties with Lebanon are no longer strong. Moreover, as a Lebanese Christian he finds himself growing distant from Ghana's predominant Shia Lebanese community, which he says is becoming radicalised by events in the Middle East.

The Lebanese reputation for mercantilism goes back to the time of the Phoenicians, and I even encountered descendents of the Lebanese diaspora during a three-year stint in Mexico. Their presence is particularly strong in west Africa.

When Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings led his second successful military coup in 1981 wielding a leftwing agenda for Ghana, there must have been some fears in the western diplomatic community that he would lead the country into the Soviet sphere of influence. Samir, who at the time owned a mill processing US aid in the form of wheat imports, said that soon after the coup he received an invitation to the US embassy.

“The ambassador wanted to know what I thought about Rawlings,” he said. “I told her that Jerry was okay. I said to her, ‘You Americans and Europeans flee at the first sign of any trouble in a country, but when you see the Lebanese staying, you know that country will be fine.’ ”