Nigeria Oil Pirates

Photographs by Veronique de Viguerie

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This feature was shot in February and July 2009. A full edit of 107 images available on request. The following text was written by independent journalist Manon Querouil, and is for reference only. Anyone wishing to publish the text must obtain rights from the author, whose contact details we can provide.

Located in the middle of the mangroves, approximately 20 minutes by boat from Port Harcourt, camp number 9 of the MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) militants nearly could be mistaken for a tranquil fishermen’s village, were it not for the machine guns, and the giant of a man who confiscates all cell phones upon our arrival. Behind him, dozens of men move about in well-worn camouflage fatigues, with Kalashnikovs or RPGs (Rocket Propelled Grenades) slung over their shoulders. Others relax in front of an old television. During this period of official ceasefire, time seems to drag on so the ‘boys’, visibly at a loose end, avoid boredom by organising boxing matches between themselves, or with a few beers, drunk swiftly while they keep an eye out for their chief who has withdrawn to rest within his air-conditioned quarters. Once finished his siesta, Atake Tom, who likes his men and his guests to call him ‘daddy’, receives us with a bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne, and outlines his cause like a light-hearted, modern day version of David and Goliath, with forgotten people fighting against the giant oil industry machine. His principal demand is for the right of the people of the Niger Delta to “take what is theirs”. Essentially, the ground is full of petrol and gas, from which the country generates 90% of its wealth, so MEND are demanding between 25%-50% of that, depending on which of their leaders you speak to. He is like a sort of Robin Hood of the mangroves, leading 1000 heavily armed men, plundering the wealthy oil companies to give back to the poor. He does however seem to have his own personal concept of how this redistribution should take place…

In Okugaju, a village located about 10 minutes by canoe from Port Harcourt, the local village chief doesn’t mince his words, “MEND is just a group of thieves who hide behind a noble cause, but are just in it to fill their pockets!” The same bitter resentment is present amongst the other villagers, who suffer the consequences of the insecurity in the region that is generated by the militant activity, but see no positive changes, “Look at our homes, our roads and our schools, do you think we have received a single cent from the militants?” says a frustrated elderly man, a veteran of the war for independence. It is only amongst the political elite of Port Harcourt, fed up of seeing the profits from the oil trade being channelled to the capital Abuja, that MEND still enjoys a certain degree of sympathy, in their role of troublemakers. In the chic polo club in town, the name ‘daddy’ is mentioned a lot, and his supporters are quick to denounce the government’s moves to link MEND to criminal activities, “Atake and his men have become the designated party fighting all the troubles which affect this region, simply because they are the only ones who are in a position to make things happen!” says Annkio, an Anglo-Nigerian who heads up a local NGO (non-governmental organization).

Since 2006, MEND’s guerrilla movement, which has involved kidnapping foreign oil workers during surprise attacks on oil installations, has caused an un-doubtable nuisance, forcing Nigeria’s annual crude oil output to decline by a third, but MEND has yet to offer up a proper political solution to the problems it is fighting against. This is despite the release in July 2009 of one of MEND’s leaders, Henry Okah, and the offer of an unconditional amnesty for any militants willing to repent, an offer which Atake Tom and his men have viewed with suspicion, instead seeking international mediation to enter negotiations. “If this crisis has been going on for so long, it is simply because no one has a vested interest in finding a solution!” says an independent observer who denounces corruption within MEND, the soldiers of the Joint Task Force (JTF), and within certain members of the government. This opinion is shared by many Nigerians, for whom this conflict has turned into a vast swindle, in which the financial interests have long since taken precedence over any political ones. It is a relatively ‘civilized war’ in which the number of victims since 2006 pales into insignificance compared to the murderous offensive which the army undertook against Islamist rebels in the North of Nigeria in July 2009, killing more than 700 people in just 5 days. The oil companies have however reduced to a bare minimum the number of expatriate personnel, and have sought a more peaceful means of extraction offshore.

One point which all the protagonists of this never-ending war for oil can agree on is that it is endemic corruption which is rotting the country, which is something that everyone denounces, but few are prepared to tackle. From his ostentatiously decorated palace, and while sitting comfortably on his throne decorated with leopard skin, the Oba (king) of Ogba Land, in Rivers State, is quick to accuse the banana republic which is bleeding his subjects dry, but sweeps aside any accusations of collusion with the government with a rather brief retort, “If I were being paid royalties on oil revenues in exchange for peace in my kingdom, do you think I would really live in this misery?” There appears to be a system of corruption on a massive scale, which even involves, according to various sources close to MEND, certain oil company employees who were taken hostage, and supposedly agreed to prolong their captivity in exchange for some barrels of oil! Even if this information must be taken with a pinch of salt, it is nevertheless an insight into the scale of the prosperous kidnapping market in Nigeria, with over 200 having taken place between 2006 and 2008. Often kept secret, the ransom sums demanded vary according to where the victim is from, between USD $200,000 for an American, USD $100,000 for a European, and USD $20,000 for an Asian person. This is a fruitful business, which in turn feeds the other national sport: the contraband oil industry, which amounts to about 5% of Nigeria’s national production.

‘Bunkering’ is a well-rehearsed technique in the region, which involves siphoning off oil from oil ducts or wells using small boats with flat hulls, ‘Cotonou boats’ as they are known locally, based on the design of boats from nearby Benin. These activities are strictly controlled by powerful armed groups, who pay off both the MEND militants, and the soldiers from the Joint Task Force, to guarantee their protection. An example is in Opokmalela, a little village located about 50km from Port Harcourt, where about 30 men have taken possession of an old Shell oil installation in the heart of the mangroves. From morning to night, they splash about in black mud, semi-naked, pumping hundreds of litres of oil every day, which they sell to foreign buyers via intermediaries, often Lebanese or Nigerian, and at an unbeatable price of €3 Euros per barrel. Although the ‘bunkering boys’ are not very talkative, local villagers assure us that this activity earns them about €1500 Euros per day, which is a small fortune in a country where 70% of the population lives under the poverty line. A man called Sohi is less wary about revealing his role as a ‘facilitator’ in the process, which involves him putting small local producers in contact with potential buyers that he meets over the internet, or in the bars in Port Harcourt, and which earns him “a few thousand dollars each month” through him levying a surcharge of €2 Euros per barrel that is sold. “The hardest part is getting started in this business, because you have to buy a barge to take the oil out to the ocean, and to pay the military for them to turn a blind eye, but overall the operation is more than profitable,” explains this ex-engineer from Port Harcourt, who has switched to the contraband trade, and has come along today to take a sample and check the quality of the merchandise. Other villagers from Opokmalela have gone into the production of cheap diesel, made from crude oil bought from the ‘bunkering boys’, and refined by craftsmen in one of 50 ‘cooking spots’ hidden in the meanders of the river through the mangroves. This is a high risk activity, considering the frequent number of explosions, but many chose this over a life of poverty.

The villages on the banks of the Niger Delta are now stinking dumps that lie in ruins, where the inhabitants survive in terrible conditions, often with no access to electricity or running water. The intense oil exploitation and resulting pipeline have caused veritable black tides of pollution, which have turned the region into an environmental nightmare, where agriculture and fishing have died out quite some time ago. “Now you have to go 25 miles off the coast to find fish, and even then…” explains a fisherman from Okujagu village, where the villagers are growing ever angrier as they wait for the completion of a project to bring them drinking water, which began 2 years ago. In Oloibiri, where the first oil wells of the delta region were dug in 1956, the elderly chief is full of rage, saying “Since the devil’s shit sprung up for the first time on our lands, no one has ever bothered to take the time to offer us any form of compensation for the destruction of our environment. And in this time they have been building four star hotels and motorways in Abudja!” which is the federal capital, and has become a symbol of a predatory state system for many. As for the development projects paid for by the oil companies to build schools or clinics, these are increasingly being perceived by the local population as meagre handouts compared to the rewards that the oil companies’ beneficiaries enjoy… and the resentment is mounting amongst these forgotten people in the war for ‘black gold’, who are caught between the government’s primary focus on what is happening in the North of the country rather than here, and a local liberation movement which long ago traded its ideals for petrodollars.