Blood Oil [Nigeria]
by Sebastian Junger
Could a bunch of Nigerian militants in
speedboats bring about a U.S. recession? Blowing up facilities
and taking hostages, they are wreaking havoc on the oil production
of America's fifth-largest supplier. Deep in the Niger-delta swamps,
the author meets the nightmarish result of four decades of corruption.
On June 23, 2005, a group of high-ranking
government officials were convened in a ballroom of the Four Seasons
Hotel in Washington, D.C., to respond to a simulated crisis in
the global oil supply. The event was called "Oil ShockWave,"
and it was organized by public-interest groups concerned with
energy policy and national security. Among those seated beneath
a wall-size map of the world were two former heads of the C.I.A.,
the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and a member
of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The scenario they were handed was
Civil conflict breaks out in northern
Nigeria-an area rife with Islamic militancy and religious violence-and
the Nigerian Army is forced to intervene. The situation deteriorates,
and international oil companies decide to end operations in the
oil-rich Niger River delta, resulting in a loss of 800,000 barrels
a day on the world market. Since Nigerian oil is classified as
"light sweet crude," meaning that it requires very little
refining, this makes it a particularly painful loss to the American
market. Concurrently, in this scenario, a cold wave sweeping across
the Northern Hemisphere boosts global demand by 800,000 barrels
a day. Because global oil production is already functioning at
close to maximum capacity (around 84 million barrels a day), small
disruptions in supply shudder through the system very quickly.
A net deficit of almost two million barrels a day is a significant
shock to the market, and the price of a barrel of oil rapidly
goes to more than $80.
The United States could absorb $80 oil
almost indefinitely-people would drive less, for example, so demand
would decline-but the country would find itself in an extremely
vulnerable position. Not only does the American economy rely on
access to vast amounts of cheap oil, but the American military-heavily
mechanized and tactically dependent on air power-literally runs
on oil. Eighty-dollar oil would mean that there was virtually
no cushion in the world market and that any other disruption-a
terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia, for example-would spike prices
through the roof.
According to the Oil ShockWave panel,
near-simultaneous terrorist attacks on oil infrastructure around
the world could easily send prices to $120 a barrel, and those
prices, if sustained for more than a few weeks, would cascade
disastrously through the American economy.
Gasoline and heating oil would rise to
nearly $5 a gallon, which would force the median American family
to spend 16 percent of its income on gas and oil-more than double
the current amount. Transportation costs would rise to the point
where many freight companies would have to raise prices dramatically,
cancel services, or declare bankruptcy. Fewer goods would be transported
to fewer buyers-who would have less money anyway-so the economy
would start to slow down. A slow economy would, in turn, force
yet more industries to lay off workers or shut their doors. All
this could easily trigger a recession.
The last two major recessions in this
country were triggered by a spike in oil prices, and a crisis
in Nigeria-America's fifth-largest oil supplier-could well be
the next great triggering event. "The economic and national
security risks of our dependence on oil-and especially on foreign
oil-have reached unprecedented levels," former C.I.A. director
Robert Gates (now secretary of defense) warned in his introduction
to the Oil ShockWave-study report. "To protect ourselves,
we must transcend the narrow interests that have historically
stood in the way of a coherent oil security strategy."
In January 2006, less than seven months
after the first Oil ShockWave conference-almost as if they'd been
given walk-on parts in the simulation-several boatloads of heavily
armed Ijaw militants overran a Shell oil facility in the Niger
delta and seized four Western oil workers. The militants called
themselves the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta
and said they were protesting the environmental devastation caused
by the oil industry, as well as the appalling conditions in which
most delta inhabitants live. There are no schools, medical clinics,
or social services in most delta villages. There is no clean drinking
water in delta villages. There are almost no paying jobs in delta
villages. People eke out a living by fishing while, all around
them, oil wells owned by foreign companies pump billions of dollars'
worth of oil a year. It was time, according to MEND, for this
injustice to stop.
The immediate effect of the attack was
a roughly 250,000-barrel-a-day drop in Nigerian oil production
and a temporary bump in world oil prices. MEND released the hostages
a few weeks later, but the problems were far from over. MEND's
demands included the release of two Ijaw leaders who were being
held in prison, $1.5 billion in restitution for damage to the
delicate delta environment, a 50 percent claim on all oil pumped
out of the creeks, and development aid to the desperately poor
villages of the delta. MEND threatened that, if these demands
were not met-which they weren't-it would wage war on the foreign
oil companies in Nigeria.
"Leave our land while you can or
die in it," a MEND spokesman warned in an e-mail statement
after the attack. "Our aim is to totally destroy the capacity
of the Nigerian government to export oil."
Because Nigerian oil is so vital to the
American economy, President Bush's State Department declared in
2002 that-along with all other African oil imports-it was to be
considered a "strategic national interest." That essentially
meant that the president could send in the U.S. military to protect
our access to it. After the first MEND attack, events in the Niger
delta unfolded almost as if they had been scripted by alarmist
Pentagon planners. In mid-February, MEND struck again, seizing
a barge operated by the American oil-services company Willbros
and grabbing nine more hostages. Elsewhere on the same day, other
MEND fighters blew up an oil pipeline, a gas pipeline, and a tanker-loading
terminal, forcing Shell to suspend 477,000 barrels a day in exports.
The nine hostages were released after a reportedly huge ransom
was paid, but oil prices on the world market again started to
climb. MEND had shown that 20 guys in speedboats could affect
oil prices around the world.
The problem was one of scale. The Nigerian
military-as poorly equipped as it is-can protect any piece of
oil infrastructure it wants by simply putting enough men on it.
But Shell has more than 3,720 miles of oil and gas pipelines in
the creeks, as well as 90 oil fields and 73 flow stations, and
there is no way to guard them all. And moving the entire industry
offshore isn't a good option, either. Not only is deepwater drilling
very expensive, but there are still immense oil and gas reserves
under the Niger delta that have not yet been exploited. And-as
it turns out-the deepwater rigs aren't immune to attack anyway.
In early June, militants shocked industry experts by overrunning
a rig 40 miles out at sea. Offshore oil platforms generally sit
40 or 50 feet above water level, but their legs are crisscrossed
with brackets and struts that are not difficult to climb. After
firing warning shots, dozens of militants scampered up the legs
and ladders to the main platform, rounded up eight foreign oil
workers-including an American-and forced them at gunpoint into
their boats. They were back in the creeks within hours.
The militants are also capable of striking
in the cities. In January of last year, about 30 militants ran
their speedboats straight into the Port Harcourt compound of the
Italian oil company Agip, killed eight Nigerian soldiers, robbed
the bank, and made their getaway. In May, a man on a motorbike
shot an American oil executive to death while he sat in Port Harcourt
traffic in his chauffeured car. In August, members of another
militant group walked into a popular bar named Goodfellas and
abducted four Western oil workers. By the end of September, militants
had kidnapped-and released for ransom-more than 50 oil workers,
and onshore Nigerian oil production had been cut by 25 percent,
or about 600,000 barrels a day. That represented a loss of nearly
a billion dollars a month to the Nigerian government.
In early October, two separate attacks
in the creeks reportedly killed at least 27 Nigerian soldiers
and sank or captured two navy gunboats. In response, militants
claimed, Nigerian helicopters strafed and then torched an Ijaw
village named Elem Tombia. No one was killed, but it was a clear
escalation of the conflict. By mid-October, the Niger River delta
was on the brink of all-out war.
Into the Delta
The Ijaw village was just a scattering
of huts along a meager break in the mangrove, and when our boatman
spotted it he slowed and circled and ran his boat up onto the
shore. Dugouts had been pulled onto a narrow sand beach, and cook
fires smoked unenthusiastically through the thatched roofs of
the huts. Behind us, a miles-wide tributary of the Niger River
unloaded a continent's worth of freshwater into the Gulf of Guinea.
Village children gathered to study our arrival, and a local man
saw us and walked away to tell someone that a boatful of strangers
had just arrived.
After a few minutes a young man came and
motioned for us to follow him, and we stepped carefully through
the village and took seats on a wooden bench outside a thatched
hut. It was very hot. Somewhere a transistor radio was playing
Western music. The huts were sided with rough-milled planks and
thatched with palm fronds, and inside women cooked on small fires.
Malaria is rampant in these villages, as are cholera, typhoid,
and dysentery, and almost none of the communities have safe drinking
water. The people survive-barely-off local fish stocks that have
been decimated by pollution from oil wells. After a while we heard
gunshots, and then a group of young men came walking out of the
forest and gathered around us. "Don't be scared," one
of them said. "Feel free."
An American photographer named Mike Kamber
and I had come to this village to meet MEND, but things had already
acquired that unmistakable feeling of not going according to plan.
One of the young men had a bottle of Chelsea gin with him, and
he shook a splash onto the ground as a blessing and then poured
himself a shot. The bottle proceeded like that around the little
group. After the gin was finished they told us to follow them,
and we were led back into the center of the village and told to
sit in some white plastic chairs that had been set out for us.
A joint was passed around. More Chelsea gin was brought out. Eventually
the village chief took a seat at a small table under a mango tree
and asked what we were doing in his village. It wasn't an unfriendly
question, but neither was it an invitation to feel right at home.
Young men with guns started to drift into the area and position
themselves around the group. I stood up and explained that Mike
and I were journalists and that we wanted to document the impact
of oil drilling in the area, and that a MEND contact had directed
us to this village for a meeting.
The truth was a little more complicated.
The official MEND spokesman is a mysterious online entity known
as Jomo Gbomo, who trades sharply articulate e-mails with foreign
journalists who arrive in the delta to cover the oil wars. No
one seems to know Jomo's real name or even where he lives; according
to The Wall Street Journal, his Yahoo account carries an
electronic code that may indicate his e-mails are sent from a
computer in South Africa. Jomo is the person whom visiting journalists
turn to for permission to go into the creeks, and he has refused
every single request. A few days after getting the bad news from
Jomo, though, Mike and I met with an Ijaw priest named President
Owei, who also has contacts with MEND. Owei said that he could
arrange a meeting for us if we wanted; all we had to do was hire
a boat. By noon the next day we were gripping the mahogany thwarts
of a 25-foot open speedboat, slamming southward at full throttle.
Throughout most of the delta there is
a weak cell-phone signal, and MEND has run its entire military
campaign using a flicker of reception and $3 phones. We were later
told that, as word of our arrival spread, Ijaws in South Africa
began calling to warn that we might be spies, and others, in the
United States, were looking us up online to figure out who we
were. The first sign of trouble was when one of the village boys
got in our boat and drove it away into the creeks so that we couldn't
leave. Another hour went by, and dusk started to creep in through
the mangrove. Finally we heard the sound of a powerful outboard
motor, and then a boatload of gunmen roared past the village,
plowed a couple of angry circles into the narrow creek, and came
into the landing at what looked like full throttle. The women
in the village fled. MEND had arrived.
They climbed out of the boat with their
weapons propped upright on their hips and their faces immobile
and expressionless. They didn't bother to look at us and we hardly
dared look at them. They carried heavy belt-fed Czech machine
guns with the ammunition draped across their bare chests like
deadly-looking snakes, and some wore plaid skirts called "Georges,"
and others wore shorts or cast-off camouflage. One was naked except
for his ammunition and a pair of dirty white briefs. They had
painted their faces with white chalk to signify purity, and they
had tied amulets around their arms and necks and foreheads for
protection from bullets. Some had stuck leaves in their clothing
so the enemy would see trees rather than men. One of them had
painted the Star of David on his stomach to signify the lost tribe
of Israel. They were a collection of walking nightmares, everything
that is terrifying to the human psyche, and when confronted with
them, Nigerian soldiers have been known to just drop their weapons
Their leader was a slender boy wrapped
in a red turban and white robe who was helped out of the boat
almost like a child. Leaders are often chosen by the Ijaw god
of war, Egbesu, and leadership can change daily. Egbesu sometimes
communicates his desires by appearing in the dreams or visions
of one of his followers and instructing him to be leader for that
day. If the man tells the truth about Egbesu, others follow him
without question; if he lies about it, Egbesu might kill him.
The followers of Egbesu refrain from sex during time of war, and
fast to increase their powers. Those powers, I was told, include
the ability to drink battery acid without harm. "The spirit
enters them when they go into battle," one anthropologist
who had lived in Nigeria for years told me. "They don't have
the same fears as you and I."
Mike and I were told to rise and we stood
there like penitent schoolboys while the young leader approached.
He handed his rifle to one of the other militants without bothering
to look at us and said, "Which one of you is Sebastian?"
"I am," I said. The boy handed
me a cell phone and walked away.
It was Jomo. "I told you that you
couldn't go out into the creeks," Jomo said. I started to
try to explain, but he cut me off. "What is the spelling
of your last name?" he asked. I told him. "Don't worry,"
he said. "Everything's going to be all right." I handed
the phone to the leader and walked back to where Mike stood. A
few minutes later, one of the militants strode up to me and pointed
his finger at my face. He was short but extremely strong and was
covered in white war paint.
"You," he said matter-of-factly.
"I am going to kill you."
Half an hour later, Jomo told the MEND
leader to release us, and we were in our speedboat headed back
Poverty and Corruption
As is often the case in Africa, many of
Nigeria's problems come as much from wealth as from poverty. African
countries that happen to have valuable resources-oil in Angola
and Nigeria, diamonds in Congo and Sierra Leone-are among the
poorest and most violent on the continent. Economists refer to
this phenomenon as the "resource curse." The resource
curse holds that underdeveloped countries with great natural wealth
fail to diversify their industry or to invest in education, which
leads to long-term economic decline. The per capita gross national
product of OPEC countries, for example, has been in steady decline
for the past 30 years, whereas the per capita G.N.P. of non-oil-producing
countries in the developing world has steadily risen.
According to the World Bank, most of Nigeria's
oil wealth gets siphoned off by 1 percent of the population, condemning
more than half of the country to subsist on less than a dollar
a day. By that standard, it is one of the poorest countries in
the world. Since independence in 1960, it is estimated that between
$300 and $400 billion of oil revenue has been stolen or misspent
by corrupt government officials-an amount of money approaching
all the Western aid received by Africa in those years. Former
president Sani Abacha and his inner circle stole at least $2 billion.
In a recent crackdown on corruption, the president of the Nigerian
senate had to resign after accusations that he had solicited a
bribe in exchange for pushing through an inflated education budget
(which presumably would then have been plundered by others). A
former inspector general of the national police, after being accused
of stealing between $52 and $140 million, was recently sentenced
to six months in prison for a lesser charge. And two Nigerian
admirals were put on trial for trying to sell stolen oil to an
international crime syndicate.
The list of wrongdoing continues almost
without end. With top government officials so brazenly violating
the social contract, everyone downstream inevitably follows suit.
The Nigerian constitution stipulates that just under 50 percent
of national oil revenue must be distributed to state and local
governments, and that an additional 13 percent must go to the
nine oil-producing states of the Niger delta. Last year that amounted
to almost $6 billion for the nine delta states-plenty, it would
seem, to take care of basic social services. The problem, however,
is that the money goes to the governors' offices and then simply
disappears. A financial-crimes commission was recently formed
to investigate all of the country's 36 governors, and it wound
up accusing all but 5 of corruption. The most apparently egregious
case was that of Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, who was accused of embezzling
hundreds of millions of dollars while he was governor of Bayelsa
State. He fled to England, was arrested for money-laundering,
jumped bail, and slipped back into Nigeria dressed as a woman.
(The English authorities had taken his passport.) When asked how
he managed to make the trip, he said he had no idea. "All
the glory goes to God," he explained. He is now in custody
"It's going to be tough," human-rights
activist Oronto Douglas said when I asked him about reforming
Nigerian politics. "Nobody who has privilege surrenders it
easily. The struggle is to get people to give up power who got
The problem isn't purely a Nigerian one,
either. Oil companies have long been thought to pay for the allegiance
of local youth gangs, and Jomo claims that Agip offered to pay
MEND $40 million in exchange for "repairs" to the company's
pipelines. (An Agip spokesman strongly denies any payment to or
contact with MEND.) The American corporation Halliburton has admitted
that its then subsidiary KBR paid $2.4 million in bribes to the
Nigerian government and is under investigation for its role in
earlier bribes totaling $180 million. And House representative
William Jefferson, of Louisiana, is being investigated by the
F.B.I. for allegedly accepting bribes from the vice president
of Nigeria, Atiku Abubakar. These were said to be in exchange
for help steering lucrative business contracts to Africa. (Jefferson
has denied any wrongdoing, despite the fact that the F.B.I. found
$90,000 in cash in his freezer.)
Because of this corruption, most of Nigerian
society has been starved of money and is effectively cannibalizing
itself. Between Port Harcourt and the delta city of Warri there
are 20 or 30 police checkpoints-some within sight of one another-where
drivers simply hand cash out the window in order to pass. I was
told that when police arrive at the scene of a bad car accident
they won't call for medical help until the injured and dying have
paid them off. There are car accidents all the time-I saw two
fatal accidents on as many drives across the delta-because the
roads have not had major repairs since the early 1980s. Even expressways
have collapsed, turning a drive that once took several hours into
a terrifying ordeal that can last days.
Every sector of society has been left
to fend for itself. The airline industry, for example, is so slack
in its maintenance that it has seen three catastrophic plane crashes
in the past 16 months, which together have killed more than 300
people. The airport at Port Harcourt was shut down in 2005 after
an incoming Air France flight plowed into a herd of cows that
had wandered onto the runway; it still has not reopened. Tens
of millions of people live in urban slums without water or sanitation,
restaurants have to hire guards with AK-47s to protect the diners,
and the levels of chaos and street violence rival that of many
countries at war. A dead man lay on the street near my hotel for
two days before someone finally came to take him away. Even during
Liberia's darkest days of civil war, the dead were usually gathered
up and buried faster than that.
When Nigerians are asked about these problems,
few can offer more than anger and despair-or the promise of violence.
A typical Nigerian reaction came from President Owei, the Ijaw
priest who tried to help with our first trip into the creeks.
Owei is the head of an organization that promotes Ijaw rights
and protects their communities in the delta. At first, my questions
just provoked a torrent of indignation. "The people of the
Niger delta don't need theory-they need practical things,"
he declared. "We need to be made to feel like human beings.
There is an economic blockade of the Niger delta-they don't want
money to flow here. With the wealth that Nigeria has, the whole
nation should have roads and free education."
Owei lives in the great, seething slum
of Bundu-Waterside, on the outskirts of Port Harcourt. Bundu-Waterside
is a community built literally atop garbage and mud. High tide
and raw sewage continually threaten to rise up over the thresholds
of its thousands of plank-and-corrugated-iron shacks. People are
packed into Bundu-Waterside with such desperate ingenuity that
almost every human activity-cooking, fighting, eating, sleeping,
defecating-seems to be observable from almost anywhere at any
given moment. When I met with Owei, he and several of his assistants
were seated on a wooden bench beneath a canopy of corrugated iron
that serves as an open-air community center. Young boys swam in
the tidal muck while, a few feet away, other young boys squatted
to relieve themselves. Every 20 minutes or so, an oil-company
helicopter thumped past on its way to one of the offshore rigs.
"The Niger-delta people are the new
world power," Owei informed me solemnly. "I don't have
a bulletproof vest, but I can drink acid. Can you drink acid?
I can drink acid. We are a world power. We are waiting. We want
to live in peace because God is peaceful, but the rest of the
world is building armaments while they wait for Jesus. I don't
A History of Violence
On November 10, 1995, an Ogoni author
named Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other anti-Shell activists were
hanged by the Abacha government on trumped-up charges of incitement
to murder. Saro-Wiwa had been a driving force in the formation
of a group called the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People-MOSOP-which
had taken a stand against environmental damage caused by the oil
industry and the uncompensated appropriation of Ogoni land for
oil drilling. Ignored by the Nigerian government, MOSOP petitioned
Shell and the other oil companies directly. They wanted $10 billion
in accumulated royalties and environmental-damage compensation,
and a greater say in future oil exploration. Again ignored, Saro-Wiwa
organized mass protests that managed to shut down virtually all
oil production in Ogoniland. It was a severe blow not only to
the oil industry but also to the system of corruption and patronage
it had spawned, and the Nigerian military reacted with predictable
"Shell operations still impossible
unless ruthless military operations are undertaken," the
commander of the Rivers State Internal Security Task Force wrote
to his superior on May 12, 1994. The memo went on to suggest "wasting
operations during MOSOP and other gatherings, making constant
military presence justifiable." (The memorandum was leaked
to the press, though its authenticity was questioned by Shell.)
Nine days later, the military moved into Ogoniland in force. They
razed 30 villages, arrested hundreds of protesters, and killed
an estimated 2,000 people. Four Ogoni chiefs were murdered during
the chaos-possibly by government sympathizers-and the military
used their deaths as a pretext to arrest the top MOSOP leaders.
Saro-Wiwa was subjected to a sham trial and condemned to death.
Before he was hanged, Saro-Wiwa's last words were "Lord take
my soul, but the struggle continues."
Indeed it did.
The next major outbreak of violence occurred
in 1998, when several Ijaw groups tried to duplicate MOSOP's strategies
by declaring Ijaw territory off limits to the Nigerian military
and demanding a stop to all oil extraction. Their rebellion was
called Operation Climate Change. Within days, the Nigerian military
saturated the delta and Bayelsa State with up to 15,000 soldiers
and commenced a series of attacks that resulted in dozens-if not
hundreds-of civilian deaths. Ijaw militants retaliated by shutting
off and destroying oil wellheads in their area, and over the next
several years an armed militancy evolved that the government was
unable to contain. Fighting also broke out between different armed
factions-many of which were hired by politicians to intimidate
local rivals-and in 2004 an Ijaw leader named Mujahid Dokubu-Asari
retreated into the creeks to wage "all-out war" against
the government and the oil companies. His statement helped drive
New York oil-futures prices above $50 for the first time ever.
Asari was a convert to Islam and had briefly
worried U.S. authorities by expressing his admiration for Osama
bin Laden. His overriding concern, however, was control of the
oil resources of the Niger delta. One form of control, according
to Asari, was simply stealing back the oil that he believes has
been stolen from the Ijaw. In Nigeria, stealing oil is called
"bunkering," and it is huge business; by some estimates,
10 percent of the oil exported from Nigeria every year-several
billion dollars' worth-is actually bunkered.
The safest way to bunker oil is essentially
to bribe people into letting you steal it. Vastly more dangerous,
and common, is tapping crude directly out of the pipelines themselves.
Light sweet crude is extremely volatile, so metal-on-metal contact
can touch off a massive explosion. Bunkerers start by building
a temporary enclosure around a small section of underwater pipe,
pumping the water out and then drilling a hole into the steel
casing that contains the crude. They then fit the hole with a
short pipe and valve and let the creek water back in so that the
apparatus is underwater, and therefore hidden from oil-company
inspectors. Crude moves through the pipeline under a pressure
of 600 pounds per square inch, and with such pressure it takes
only a few hours to fill up a 1,000-metric-ton barge. The barge
is then moved offshore to a transport ship-an operation that is
vastly simplified by renting the Nigerian military.
"Most of the soldiers are paid 15,000
naira [around $100] a month, so you go to the military man and
say, 'I want to make you richer,'" a bunkerer in Warri told
me. He had just worked all night moving bunkered oil; the work
had probably netted his boss upwards of a hundred thousand dollars.
"You say, 'This pipe will bring money; every night you will
work here.' Then they will guard you. We give them five months'
salary in a single night. Every time they bring in new people,
we make new friends."
This man claimed that the federal government
could easily stop bunkering if it wanted to, but local officials
are making so much money off it that they would revolt. Ideally,
he'd like to get out of the business. "There's so much risk
in bunkering-fire risk, water risk, ambush risk. What I want to
do is work for the oil companies as a production supervisor,"
he said. "I'm just bunkering until I get a job. There are
plenty of people here with degrees in petroleum engineering who
can't get jobs. They're offered positions by the bunkerers, so
of course they take them."
Bunkering would not be possible without
guns-militant groups are constantly fighting one another over
access-and of course those guns are bought with oil money. The
most impressive weapons I saw were Czech-made Rachot UK-68s that
were new and well oiled and looked like they had just been unpacked
from their crates. Rachots are highly portable general-purpose
machine guns that can also be mounted on tripods for use against
aircraft; they are not the sort of secondhand weapons commonly
found floating around West African war zones. Someone brought
those in with a special purpose in mind. "Their supplies
seem to be unending," an arms expert named Dr. Sofiri Joab-Peterside
told me in his office, in Port Harcourt. "The police have
to count the rounds that they use-they don't have more than 10
or 15 each. The militants have belt-fed guns that can sustain
action for 20 minutes. That, too, is a problem."
According to another contact of mine-a
man who freely associates with the militants-the most recent arms
shipment was 300 Russian-made AK-47s, built in 1969 but never
used, that came from Moscow via London. He also said that in early
October a South African businessman unloaded a ship full of weapons
in the creeks in exchange for bunkered oil, which he then sold
on the international market. Nigerian soldiers who have recently
returned from peacekeeping missions in Liberia and Sierra Leone
are known to sell their guns, he told me, as are soldiers currently
stationed in the delta. There are even rumors of floating weapons
bazaars-freighters filled with guns-anchored off the Nigerian
coast. All you have to do is pull up in your boat with cash.
However violent and dysfunctional it may
seem, the convergence of bunkered oil, smuggled weapons, and illegal
payoffs has worked fairly well within the broader violence and
dysfunction of Nigeria. The original concerns of activists such
as Saro-Wiwa were environmental degradation of the delta from
oil spills, and the extreme poverty and backwardness of the villages.
Two and a half million barrels of crude spilled or leaked into
the delicate riverine environment between 1986 and 1996, resulting
in wholesale devastation of the fish stocks that most villagers
rely on. Flaring of excess natural gas has produced a blighting
acid rain in the mangrove swamps, and freshwater even around wells
that have been capped for years is still so polluted with hydrocarbons
that it cannot be drunk safely. But people still do.
The costs of fully protecting the delicate
delta ecology are almost incalculable. Once the militants participate
in illegalities, however, the Nigerian government can dismiss
the entire movement. "I recently directed the Nigerian security
services to arrest and prosecute persons responsible for kidnapping
under whatever guise the criminals and terrorists carry out these
dangerous acts," President Olusegun Obasanjo declared in
August 2006. Further complicating the issue is that much of the
oil pollution in the creeks is from sloppy bunkering operations-which
villagers then use as a basis for further claims of environmental
damage to the delta. Shell recently appealed a decision by the
Nigerian courts that ordered it to pay $1.5 billion to the Ijaw
people in compensation for environmental damage to the delta.
Under the current system, everyone involved in the oil business-from
corrupt government officials to military commanders to the militants
themselves-makes vastly more money than he would in a transparent
economy. And the bunkered oil isn't lost to the market; it simply
becomes an additional tax borne by the oil companies for doing
business in Nigeria.
The brutal functionality of this system
started to break down in January 2006, when MEND arrived on the
scene. MEND was not simply another bunkering cartel; it renewed
the grievances first voiced by Saro-Wiwa and began to seriously
disrupt the flow of oil from the creeks. "We are not communists
or even revolutionaries," Jomo commented by e-mail to a journalist.
"We're just extremely bitter men."
The formation of MEND seems to have been
triggered by Asari's arrest in September 2005. Asari had threatened
to "dismember" Nigeria, which smelled enough like treason
for the Obasanjo government to finally go after him. The first
MEND attack came four months later and was soon followed by e-mails
from Jomo demanding the release of both Asari and Diepreye Alamieyeseigha,
the Bayelsa state governor charged with corruption. (Alamieyeseigha
is Ijaw and was closely connected to Asari.) The first four oil
workers kidnapped by MEND were lectured for 19 days on the poverty
and environmental degradation of the delta. More than ransom money,
the militants said they wanted all foreigners to leave their territory.
In other words, they wanted control of their oil.
A former hostage whom I talked to (who
did not want to be identified by name) reported essentially the
same experience. He was a contract pilot for Shell who was taken
from a landing platform in 2000 and held for two weeks. He was
never physically abused or threatened, though he did worry that
he might eventually get malaria and die. "Their grievances
are legitimate," this man told me. "It's just that those
who do the kidnapping don't necessarily do it for the community.
There's no water in these communities, no education, no medical
facilities whatsoever. To be out in the swamp without any electricity
or drinking water-of course they're upset."
We were sitting at an open-air bar inside
the Shell compound near Warri. It was early evening, and bats
flitted through floodlights that illuminated a tennis court. On
the other side of the compound's chain-link fence was a local
village that had been plunged into darkness. "The host community
here," the man went on, waving at the ramshackle houses,
"they are without electricity for days sometimes. This is
obscene. They are looking through the fence at golf courses and
tennis courts where the floodlights are on at midnight. Why not
throw them an electric line? I mentioned it to someone at Shell.
I said, 'Why not? You've got the turbines! Let there be light!'
He said, 'If we do that, they'll all want that.'"
After his release, this man was repatriated
to his home country and immediately came down with malaria. While
he was recovering, he received a letter from the lead militant
of the group that had kidnapped him. It was directed to his wife
and children, and it even had a return address. "I apologize
for kidnapping your husband and father," the letter read.
"I did it because of Shell. I am born again and I will not
do it again. I should be forgiven."
"They used light plastic speedboats
with 75-horsepower engines," the man said. "They take
the top off the engine to get more cooling. They know exactly
what they're doing. The army will never have a chance."
This is why oil is so valuable: one tank
of gas from a typical S.U.V. has the energy equivalent of more
than 60,000 man-hours of work-roughly 100 men working around the
clock for nearly a month. That is the power that the American
consumer can access for about $60 at the gasoline pump. If gasoline
were a person, we would be paying 10 cents an hour for his labor.
Easily accessible reserves are running dry, though, which means
that the industry must develop increasingly ingenious-and costly-techniques
for getting at the oil. Deepwater drilling, for example, now happens
so far offshore that rigs can no longer be anchored to the seabed;
they must be held in place by an array of propellers, each the
size of a two-car garage. The cost of deepwater drilling is close
to twice that in shallow water.
As a result, oil is one of the few commodities
with virtually no surplus production; just about every drop of
oil that gets pumped gets used. The world currently goes through
84 million barrels a day, a figure that is expected to rise to
almost 120 million barrels in the next 25 years. As that happens,
oil will become more and more expensive to extract. When oil was
first exploited, in 1859, the energy equivalent of one barrel
of oil was required to pump 50 barrels of oil out of the ground.
Now that ratio is one-to-five. Thus far, nearly half of the proven,
exploitable oil reserves in the world have been used up. Barring
the discovery of new reserves or new drilling technology, some
experts predict the world will run out of oil by 2040.
Added to these technological problems
is the fact that-as if by some divine prank-most of the world's
oil reserves happen to be in politically unstable parts of the
world. (The alternative theory is that oil exploitation tends
to de-stabilize underdeveloped countries.) Because of the financial
risks involved, oil reserves in politically stable countries have
more value, per barrel, than oil in politically unstable countries.
As we speak, the value of Nigerian oil-as a function of the capital
investment that must be risked to produce it-is in steady decline.
That is MEND's trump card. It has several
times threatened to shut down all Nigerian oil production, but
it's possible MEND doesn't quite dare, because of the chance it
will provoke a military retaliation it wouldn't survive. By the
same token, the Nigerian military has threatened to sweep the
delta with overwhelming force, but it doesn't know whether that
might force MEND to carry out one devastating counterstrike-taking
out the Bonny Island Liquefied Natural Gas facility with a shoulder-fired
rocket, for example. An act of sabotage on this scale could drive
Shell and the other oil companies from Nigeria for good, completely
wiping out the national economy. One major company, Willbros,
has already discontinued operations in Nigeria because of the
On the world stage, as well, MEND's political
power depends on its ability to cause economic pain in other countries.
Some industry experts contend that new market mechanisms and the
availability of U.S. petroleum reserves would mitigate the effects
of even a complete shut-in of Nigerian oil. "Look at Katrina,"
one oil analyst at the Department of Energy told me. "There
was a spike in oil prices for a couple of weeks, but then demand
shifts and there is a little bit of conservation. Two years ago
we were at $28 a barrel and now we are in the mid-50s. Short-term
market predictions are a fool's game."
The Oil ShockWave panel wasn't so sure.
It found that a complete shut-in that coincided with another event-a
terrorist attack in the Persian Gulf or even an exceptionally
harsh winter, for example-could trigger a major recession. Furthermore,
there seemed to be no good options for dealing with it. Opening
up the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve-some 700 million barrels
of oil in underground salt caverns along the Gulf Coast-would
lower oil prices for the whole world without providing a long-term
solution. Begging Saudi Arabia for more oil could compromise the
United States politically and damage our long-term interests in
the region. And sending the U.S. military into the Niger delta
would be politically risky and possibly unfeasible, given American
commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq.
That did not stop the U.S. government
from authorizing a joint training exercise with the Nigerian military
in 2004. It was reported to have been focused on "water combat."
Two weeks after our first trip to the
creeks, Jomo told me by e-mail that he would arrange for MEND
to take us into its camp. It was deep in the mangrove swamps,
and he said that no journalist had ever been there. Allegedly,
the only foreigners who have ever seen the MEND camps were hostages.
We hired a boat at the Port Harcourt waterfront
and headed south into the creeks, hoping not to run into any Nigerian
gunboats. We had the feeling that the authorities knew what we
were up to, and it seemed like an encounter that would end badly.
We passed a few fishing villages and a flow station and two gas
flares, and then we swung into the broad expanse of Cawthorne
Channel. Twenty miles to the east, wobbling in the heat shimmer,
was the Bonny Island L.N.G. facility. The rumor in Port Harcourt
was that MEND was planning to blow it up. A wind had come up,
and we banged our way southward into a hard chop and finally swerved
into one of the nameless creeks and ran our boat into the village
where we'd been two weeks earlier.
Calls went out, and half an hour later
a boatful of militants dressed raggedly in old Western clothes
pulled into the landing, and we climbed on board. We continued
south for a while, almost to open ocean, then plunged back into
the mangrove up a creek that got narrower and narrower until we
had to duck to avoid getting hit by branches. We passed under
a talisman strung between two trees, and minutes later we were
at the camp. Every tree, it seemed, had a man behind it with a
gun pointed at our heads.
Mike and I stepped out onto land and were
immediately blessed by a man who dipped a handful of leaves into
what might have been palm wine and splashed us twice. No one blesses
someone before killing him, I thought. The camp was a rough wood
barracks hidden in the trees with a few nylon tents scattered
around. There was a small generator and a satellite hookup for
television. There were two Egbesu shrines, unremarkable little
thatched enclosures with inexplicable things tied to them. The
men had stocking masks on their faces with leaves sticking out
of the eye slits, and they watched our every move through the
slits, though they had stopped pointing their guns at us. Some
of the militants couldn't have been 15 years old. They carried
old British guns from the colonial days and ugly little submachine
guns with the clips sticking out to the side-and the big belt-fed
Rachot machine guns that Nigerian soldiers were so scared of.
We walked through the camp rubber-kneed and weak, or at least
I did. Their leader was named Brutus and he sat on a wooden bench
in a clearing. He motioned me to take a seat next to him, and
I opened my notebook and sat down. His men surrounded us in a
semicircle with guns cocked at all angles.
"I have been instructed by Jomo to
answer any question you have," he said. "And to let
you take any pictures you want. The Nigerian government has been
marginalizing the people who have the resources of this country.
We are deprived of our rights. This time around we don't even
want to wait for them to attack. When the order is given we can
go ahead and crumble whoever we can crumble, because we don't
die; we live by the grace of God. If one man remains, that man
can win the cause-that is my own belief."
I had heard this before-that the delta
was bracing for a wave of attacks. The attacks were rumored to
include coordinated car bombings, assassinations, and hostage-taking.
I asked Brutus what was going to happen next. "The first
phase was just a test run for the equipment," he assured
me. "Soon the real violence will come up and will be let
loose. We are waiting for the orders from above and we won't waste
an hour. This is modern-day slavery. They have killed so many
people in the struggle. The government will attack us, but we
are very ready for them. We are just waiting for orders from above.
Then we will move." (On December 18, two explosions were
reported at Shell and Agip facilities in the delta. MEND claimed
responsibility for the attacks.)
Brutus looked at me through the eyeholes
of his mask. "When the Nigerian man moves," he said,
"nothing can stop him."
Sebastian Junger is a Vanity Fair