October 6, 2010

Getting to the Bottom of Nigeria’s Oil Well

Getting to the Bottom of Nigeria’s Oil Well

What at first appeared to be a routine terrorist bombing in Nigeria has descended into a bottomless pit. Soon after an explosion rocked Golden Jubilee celebrations in the central city of Abuja, killing at least 12 people, MEND spokesman Jomo Gbomo criticized the government not just for ignoring the Niger Delta’s plight, but five days of MEND warnings to stay away from parked cars.

“In evacuating the area, keep a safe distance from vehicles and trash bins,” read a message from Gbomo sent to media outlets one hour before the explosion. “There is nothing worth celebrating after 50 years of failure. For 50 years, the people of the Niger Delta have had their land and resources stolen from them. The constitution before independence which offered resource control was mutilated by illegal military governments and this injustice is yet to be addressed.”

Less than two days later Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathon declared that MEND had no knowledge of the attack.

"It is a small terrorist group that resides outside Nigeria that was paid by some people within to perpetrate the dastardly act," he said in a statement released by his press office. "We are on their trail and I promise Nigerians that the matter will be investigated to the last, and until everybody that is connected is brought to book, we will not rest.”

Jonathon, as if sympathizing with the group, accused unspecified terrorist elements of hiding beneath MEND’s umbrella, whose various factions are known to work as individuals instead of a collective. The group has further splintered under a government amnesty program in summer 2009.

“Government will no longer condone this culture of impunity,” Jonathon said. “There was a statement purported to have been written by MEND, but investigations show that members of MEND have said they don’t know about it. Anybody who thinks that he can come under the cover of Niger Delta struggle to perpetrate violence and criminality, your time is over. We will no longer tolerate it, we will not accept it, the security agents are on their trail, and Nigerians will soon know the actors behind this evil."

Without any means of verifying Jonathon’s claims, part of his story checks out. MEND’s operating methods aim for oil pipelines and platforms along with Nigerian military and police; Nigerian civilians are usually off-limits. Gbomo's own statements expressed regret for the loss of life. The idea of a ceasefire, signed in October 2009 only to be broken by MEND in January 2010, is harder to digest. MEND has carried out several attacks since then.

But the plot thickened once Henry Okah, an ex-MEND leader recently arrested in South Africa, told Al Jazeera that Jonathon ordered him to retract MEND’s statement and blame “northerners.” The implication is that Jonathan, a southerner, would campaign on the incident during Nigeria’s upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in January 2011. As a native of the Niger Delta, Jonathon has political interests in the amnesty program and suppressing MEND’s demands and threats.

"On Saturday morning,” Okah recalled, “just a day after the attack, a very close associate of President Jonathan called me and explained to me that there had been a bombing in Nigeria and that President Jonathan wanted me to reach out to the group, Mend, and get them to retract the earlier statement they had issued claiming the attacks. They wanted to blame the attacks on northerners who are trying to fight against him [Jonathan] to come back as president and if this was done, I was not going to have any problems with the South African government.”

"I declined to do this and a few hours later I was arrested,” says Okah, who was released several days later. “It was based on their belief that I was going to do that that Jonathan issued a statement saying that Mend did not carry out the attack."

So without Okah, Jonathon pulled together other MEND’s ex-leaders, including Government Tompolo, to accomplish his objective.

"I am the leader of MEND,” Tompolo, who received amnesty in 2009, declared during a summit with Jonathon several days ago. “We are not part of the incident of October 1. MEND is not involved. I am the owner of MEND. We are going to work with you to save this country Nigeria for everyone."

Tompolo added
, “MEND is not responsible. We have disarmed. We say to the world, these people claiming they are MEND are impersonating. It is a terrorist act.”

As for Jonathon, his office only today released a press briefing clarifying his statements on MEND, which have been criticized for “rushing to judgment.” Apparently the president was eliminating prejudices and not immediately blaming MEND for the attack, even though MEND had claimed responsibility. Jonathon’s prior statements make very clear that he believes a “terrorist group” committed the act, which could be an act but is also a rush to judgment.

The president’s campaign organization then criticized Okah over his allegation that Jonathon asked him to implicate the north, and state security services continue to describe Okah as a primary suspect. These events have grown progressively suspicious.

Unfortunately the truth is covered in layers of deception. Much of the controversy revolves around MEND’s initial claims, which Tompolo addressed: "Jomo Gbomo does not exist. If the person handling the media sector has a problem and another person takes over so far he has the password of the email he can use the name of Jomo Gbomo and cover up as Jomo Gbomo. So there is nothing as Jomo Gbomo, he does not exist."

Tompolo’s argument could be valid - maybe “Jomo Gbomo” doesn’t exist. But someone is speaking regardless of the name and Gbomo isn’t new. Besides claiming responsibility for various acts before 2009, Gbomo declared the ceasefire broken in January 2010, confirmed a March bombing, and badmouthed Diezani Alison-Madueke, Nigeria’s new oil minister, in early September. Perhaps a “terrorist” group hacked the account or created a false one, maybe a faction of MEND has gone rogue, or maybe the group actually lives on as it claims.

In a new interview
with Nigeria’s Daily Champion, MEND insisted that former military president, General Ibrahim Babangida, his campaign director, Chief Raymond Dokpesi and Henry Okah played no part in the bombing.

"The amnesty is a scam,” read MEND’s statement, consistent with statements made throughout the amnesty period. “Those you said embraced it are not genuine fighters but hired miscreants... We can not offer such a promise but such attacks will be directed at the military when we resume hostilities in the Niger Delta.”

Nigeria by itself offers a complex insurgency to study, but this is no fringe conflict. Already a Goldman Sachs “Next Eleven” economy, Nigeria just moved into third place on US oil imports at 1.143 million barrels per day, only behind Canada and Mexico and topping Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Iraq. It's also logical that Nigeria will move up from 48th on the EU's imports. As Africa’s largest oil exporter, Nigeria’s fate will inevitably impact the West on an economic scale as oil reserves deplete, affecting US and international interests as the 21st century progresses.

Nigeria’s corruption, disproportionate wealth, poverty, and environmental hazards also make it potentially attractive to al-Qaeda. Nigerians would likely scoff at the notion, and indeed the country is nowhere near al-Qaeda’s temperature. The country's makeup works against the group in many ways, including one of the world's highest US-approval ratings and a large Christian population, similar to the Philippines. Nor is MEND’s conflict ideological, especially Islamic radicalism, but an egalitarian, eco-insurgency.

Yet give al-Qaeda another ten years and there’s no telling where it will infiltrate. Its future strategy appears heavily geared towards Africa to create distance between the Middle East, and more than oil flows beneath the Delta’s mangroves. Where there’s money, weapons, and drugs, al-Qaeda agents in West Africa are usually lurking somewhere in the background. A pipeline all the way to the Sahara desert could be a potential long-term goal.

Nigeria’s surface prosperity cannot disguise its continual vulnerability - and neither can a conspiracy. But judging by how much happened in five days, Nigeria’s latest plot still has a ways to go before reaching the bottom.

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