January 10, 2011

Underestimating MEND is Dangerous Gamble

A prevailing belief had begun to rise above Nigeria’s fog of war. Not long ago the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) was considered little more than a loose assortment of rebels and bandits, neither ideologically driven nor strategically and technically competent. The government’s amnesty program had depleted MEND's forces and fractured its leadership, so Lagos hoped.

Given the amnesty’s partial success in disarming MEND fighters, it’s possible that the group poses a lesser threat than before. The amnesty was intended not only to disarm low-level recruits and sow division in the leadership, but also to employ those who believe the Delta’s cause has been perverted by warlords and criminals. And Nigeria’s new president, Goodluck Jonathan, also plays a significant role through his heritage.

A credible leader from the Delta to clean up the Delta, through dialogue or force.

Except MEND, always a network of parts rather than a singular entity, continues to drive itself in one general direction as it wages insurgency against oil production in the Delta. The elements that refused amnesty viewed the offer with contempt, disavowing those who gave up and declaring that “real” soldiers will continue their struggle. With the government and Nigerian media belittling MEND holdouts for losing their cause, and MEND releasing statements through multiple email accounts, the Delta is flooded with disinformation. But how many events must past before forming a chain?

In the time that MEND was supposed to be dying, the group has carried out a series of attacks on oil pipelines, shutting down rigs and limiting deliveries. Rather than dissolve, part of MEND is believed to have consolidated into the Niger Delta Liberation Front (NDLF), composed of die-hard MEND soldiers under rebel general John Togo. Togo’s kidnapping of 19 Exxon workers, supposedly masterminded by the captured Tamunotonye "Commander Obese" Kuna, prompted a JTF crackdown that Togo managed to escape.

Other factions continue to operate as well, including one under the jailed Henry Okah.

General Charles Omoregie, the Commander of the Joint Task Force in the Niger Delta (JTF), has brushed aside criticism that the amnesty is degenerating, considering those defecting fighters as petty criminals tricked by rich warlords. Though partially true, the government appears to have created a newer, harder version of MEND by removing its less-committed fighters. Nigerian troops payed for their underestimation when they raided Togo's camps, and the price extrapolates over the entire Delta.

Omoregie continued to disparage
MEND as bandits: “I want to say that they are operating on individual orientation. I think they want the government to believe that they have big network but they are criminals with evil intent. They want to lay credence to their activities to say they are big and well-organized organization. But, I do not think so, they are just pocket of criminals operating.”

However, when his troops moved on MEND’s camps, "We were taken aback by the volume of fire that was brought to bear on the troops when we approached Ayakoromor on the way to John Togo's camp. Soldiers had to fight their way into the camp."

The attack on Ayakoromor couldn’t have gone worse. Beyond the unspecified number of government casualties (between 13 and 25) inflicted by Togo’s ambushes, MEND and local leaders accused "Operation Restore Hope" of killing around 150 people, claims Nigerian officials vehemently deny as MEND propaganda. But the government’s actions are working against its narrative. Lagos spent the last three months discrediting MEND’s hardened core as bandits without their former cause, when they remain active, organized, and baiting the government into new atrocities.

Ayakormor residents even condemned the government's prior amnesty of Togo, who was "ostracized in 2003 as a result of his nefarious activities." Now the government has generated new hostility, playing into MEND’s ideology of government discrimination, exploitation, and oppression.

Nigerian officials, including army chief of staff Onyeabo Ihejirika, are spending an inordinate amount of time convincing locals that the army "isn't here to kill you."

The reality is that Nigeria’s amnesty served as a short-term fix to a long-term injury, and it’s falling apart in the absence of political and economic reform in the Delta. The Delta itself remains awash with arms, which the government has no present solution for. It simply tried to buy MEND’s fighters off with a monthly stipend of $500, instead of integrating them into society or redressing the grievances they claim to fight for. Though many would content themselves with education and sustainable employment, some Nigerians do fight for the Delta’s sanctity and against government corruption - problems that have intensified in recent months.

A variety of reasons kept MEND on the downturn through 2010. Already under ceasefire with the government when Lagos introduced its amnesty program in July, MEND also had to sweat Nigeria’s political crisis over former president Umaru Musa Yar'Adua like everyone else. As a Delta native, MEND wanted to hear out Jonathan, Yar'Adua's replacement, if only to protect its political legitimacy. Although sporadically breaking its ceasefire, the group initially responded positively to Jonathan before relapsing.

Togo continues to offer terms in exchange for his support.

And MEND needed time to reconstitute itself after the amnesty program. The frequency of pipeline attacks, heavy arms captured in its camps, and the group’s mobility indicate that it’s transforming rather than dissipating. Okah warned from his cell in South Africa, where he's been denied bail, "There's a rearming of most groups in the delta now,” claiming the situation "is going to get much worse... There are thousands of people who are willing to fight and they'll continue to fight."

As further proof of MEND’s potential, the government recently unlocked amnesty funds for another 6,000 fighters estimated to inhabit the Delta’s myriad creeks. Naturally MEND responded by accusing the government of robbing the state’s finances.

"This desperate action shows a confused individual, bent on looting the nation's treasury."

MEND has now reemerged in front of three main drivers. Very simply, MEND must prove its strength amid the doubts spread by the Nigerian government and its sympathizers. Fierce, organized resistance dispels the image of “bandits” and “criminals” without a military structure or purpose.

Second, Nigeria’s narrative began to crest in MEND’s direction and it jumped on for the ride; November and December spawned an ideal environment to do battle. Although systematic attacks commenced in early November, before news broke of investigations into Royal Dutch Shell and Halliburton, MEND is peaking during Nigeria’s yearly oil scandal. Less than two weeks after the government’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission opened investigations into Shell and Halliburton for “massive corruption,” a U.S. cable from WikiLeaks quoted Shell executive Ann Pickard as saying the company had “access to everything” in “all relevant ministries.”

Then Nigerian prosecutors filed charges against former U.S. president and Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney. Christmas had come early for MEND.

The ensuing drama played right into MEND’s narrative of resource exploitation and political corruption. The buildup itself stemmed from Nigeria’s reluctance to prosecute Shell, Halliburton, and its spin-off KBR; requests to speak with their officials followed two cases brought forward in America under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Among the charges against KBR and Halliburton: bribing Nigerian customs officials to shortcut bureaucracies and secure a $6 billion liquefied natural gas plant contract.

KBR and Halliburton had already agreed to a $579 million bribery settlement with U.S. authorities in February 2009. Though eager to pay exorbitant sums, they also denied any wrongdoing.

Thus few were surprised - and many nevertheless outraged - when Halliburton and Cheney quickly reached another $250 million settlement with the Nigerian government - and denied any wrongdoing. The scope of financial extortion inspires awe. A multiple offender and high-profile target, Cheney’s criminal case was settled out of court as a civil matter, which Nigerian legal advocates argue is illegal.

Large pay-outs are also bound to aggravate Nigeria's corruption rather than resolve it. Clearly one massive fine from KBR and Halliburton wasn’t enough to satisfy voracious government and corporate officials. Like MEND’s incessant pricks on Nigeria’s oil pipelines, corruption and greed have drained tens, possibly hundreds of billions from Nigeria’s economy, which relies predominantly on oil exports (to America, of course).

Few Nigerians expect any fines to benefit them, the majority of which earn less than $2 a day. Thus Halliburton is paying dividends to both the government and MEND. By reinforcing its platform of government corruption and foreign interference, Cheney just provided new legitimacy for MEND attacks on oil infrastructure.

Nigeria’s headlines ring Soft on Corruption: “This is not justice. This is a business deal. The big boys get caught; they negotiate a price and walk away to continue their activities elsewhere... Everyone is smiling. The poor man in Nigeria has no means to negotiate and simply goes to jail for a very long time often for a petty crime.”

MEND is undoubtedly riding this momentum into April’s presidential and parliamentary elections. Jonathan has made restoring stability to the Delta a key area of his campaign, if not the central pillar, leaving MEND no choice except to prove its own strength and devotion to the cause. The JTF’s ongoing operation will evolve MEND’s tactics and possibly restructure its command into a more defined hierarchy. Jonathan must realize that MEND cannot be deceived through hollow amnesty programs, that a cosmetic approach will only inflame the Delta and interfere with Nigeria’s elections.

A firm response to Shell and Halliburton would have dealt far more damage to MEND than the JTF can. Okah confidently declared as he awaits trial, "The Nigerian Army should be prepared to fight forever unless the real issues in the delta are addressed."

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