A turning point for Nigeria’s insurgency?

by | Jul 14, 2009

The last two weeks have seen a storm of insurgent activity in Nigeria: Shell’s onshore output has been halved to around 140,000 barrels a day, Chevron has lost about the same again (taking the aggregate output lost to over to a fifth of Nigeria’s total) – and for the first time Lagos has been attacked.  According to Africasia.com,

Fighters from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) attacked the facility, the first strike in Nigeria’s economic nerve centre since the oil insurgency was launched in 2006. Rescuers said five people were burnt beyond recognition in the blast.

“The militants went into open shooting with the naval officers guarding the facility but they were overpowered. They used dynamite to destroy the manifold,” said Geofrey Boukoru, a member of the emergency rescue team.

The militants arrived in four speed boats, exchanging fire sporadically with the navy for about three hours before hurling dynamite into the facility, said a senior official from the Pipelines and Products Marketing Company, an affiliate of the state-run petroleum corporation.

The Lagos attack took place just before the federal government’s planned amnesty release of Henry Okah, the head of MEND – a release that, in the event, still went ahead despite the attack.  MEND has since said in a statement that it “considers this release as a step towards genuine peace and prosperity if Nigeria is open to frank talks and deals sincerely with the root issues once and for all” – although as Abubakar Momoh of Lagos State University observes to AlJazeera, “What the government has done in the case of Okah is like treating the symptom and not curing the disease … there are issues that drove the militants to the trenches. Until those issues are resolved in a fair and just manner, there will never be peace in the Niger Delta.”

As David noted back in November last year, counter-insurgency expert John Robb has called Henry Okah “one of the most important people alive today, a brilliant innovator in warfare”. Here’s Robb’s account of how Okah did it.

Mercenary talent. The evolution of local Delta politics took a turn for the worse at the turn of the century. In order to stay in office, politicians began to employ young cult (gang) members as mercenary thugs to intimidate voters and opposition politicians. However, when the politicians regained office, they threw the gang members back onto the street, forming a large pool of young mercenaries hungry for more easy income from violence. The market that developed was fluid — young violent men routinely hired themselves out to a cult on Saturday, to another gang on Monday and to a politician or wealthy individual on Thursday. It was a mess, but Henry saw this pool of mercenary talent as an opportunity. He hired them too, on an individual or group basis often through cell phone calls (there is a weak cell phone signal across the entire Delta swamp), to assemble ad hoc guerrilla forces that could do his work in the Delta. Since these gang members were only hired on an ad hoc basis, there wasn’t any organization for the government’s military and police forces to target.

An Economic Engine. To fund his guerrilla forces, Henry connected the Delta to a global marketplace. To accomplish this, he set up a ecosystem of private entrepreneurs, many of whom were local politicians, to steal oil (aka “bunker”) from the pipelines of the major oil companies operating in the Delta. Groups would siphon off barge loads of oil and ferry them out to Henry’s leased freighters waiting offshore (which leveraged his experience with Nigeria’s merchant marine). In return, the groups were given cash, top of the line western consumer products, and a huge number of weapons (which leveraged Henry’s experience as an arms salesman) from the best global manufacturers. Billions of dollars in merchandise were exchanged through this simple system over the last few years. The Delta is now awash in high end weaponry.

A Popular Front. With both the manpower and the economics in place, Henry was now able to fight a war. However, to accomplish this he needed a front, an organizational facade for his virtual organization. The result was the establishment of the MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta). Henry was able to establish this organizational front through e-mails, from the safety of his home in South Africa and under the pseudonym of Jomo Gbomo, to global news organizations that set claims against the government and its corporate allies (global oil companies, particularly Shell, which had been accused of massive pollution) and actions (through the public announcement of attacks minutes after they occurred). QUICK NOTE: it’s likely that he saved the life of the journalist Sebastian Junger through timely cell phone call to the violent group that was holding him, during Sebastian’s ill advised field trip to the Delta. His main method of attack was pure systems disruption. Oil pipelines were sabotaged on a routine basis, through attacks on pumping stations and oil platforms. Western expat oil workers were taken hostage to drive the global oil companies permanently out of contested areas. The result was an average of 400,000 to 600,000 barrels a day of lost production for the Nigerian government (primarily Shell) — nearly a quarter of all Nigerian production. The intent of this activity was to hollow out the Nigerian state by depriving it of income, driving away its corporate allies, and creating a temporary autonomous zone (aka chaos) in the Delta (due to a proliferation of violence and copycat attacks by other groups).


  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, which explores how we can use psychology to reduce political tribalism and polarisation, a senior fellow at New York University, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and was Research Director for the Business Commission on Sustainable Development. He was part of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris climate summit and has consulted for Oxfam, WWF UK, the UK Cabinet Office and US State Department. Alex lives with his wife and two children in Yorkshire.

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