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.