Fighting for Nigeria's oil wealth

  • Thursday, January 08, 2009 - By Sue Lloyd Roberts
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The Niger Delta, a region the size of England, is littered with violence and gas flares - the offshoot of oil extraction - whose roar and heat you can feel for hundreds of metres around.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/newsnight/7816541.stm

The flares have become symbols of the region and the paradox that exists in an area where you find one of the world's richest oil regions alongside some of the poorest people.

People here blame the fallout from the oil industry for their ruined environment, ill health and unemployment.

On the waterfront at Port Harcourt, the city at the heart of the oil industry, we found slums where people live without running water and electricity, and miles from the nearest school or clinic. No wonder many are angry.

One woman told us: "We are suffering. We don't have jobs. They make so much money with oil, but we don't see it."

Shootouts and stolen oil

JTF soldier
The maze of waterways makes policing the delta incredibly difficult
With unemployment at 90%, many people of the Delta are tempted to join the criminal gangs who terrorise the area, kidnapping foreign oil workers and launching raids on oil platforms.

We joined the Joint Task Force, set up to restore order to the area, as they patrolled the streets and waterways - searching cars for weapons used by the gangs and boats for stolen barrels of oil.

"We are very happy, very happy that you are here," said drivers who were forced to stop and open their boots for inspection. The law-abiding citizen is weary after more than a decade of violence.

Maintaining the gangs is funded by the theft of oil on a huge scale - up to 200,000 barrels a day.
The Nigerian delta might be blessed with the world's best quality oil but, for the security forces, it's a nightmare. Half of the delta region is made up of water - thousands of creeks in which the gangs can operate with ease and from where they launched their most daring recent attack - on the Bonga oil platform.

Built by the Shell Oil company more than 100km offshore it was thought to be safely out of their reach. But gunmen sprayed the platform with machine gun fire, forcing it into automatic shutdown - it took weeks for production to be resumed.

RPGs and AK47s

It took us as many weeks to negotiate a meeting with the man who led the attack.

A dawn rendezvous with a boat and a three-hour journey through the creeks brought us to "General Boyloaf" and his boys in training, careering through the water in their high-speed boats and firing their RPGs and AK47s for our benefit.

Why did the general attack the Bonga platform?

map
"We really wanted to prove that nowhere is untouchable, that is why we visited there. We wanted to make this point because Shell, Chevron, all of them are moving offshore. So we visited them to prove that there is nowhere to hide," he said.

Maintenance of the gangs, their boats and weapons is expensive and is funded by the theft of oil on a huge scale - up to 200,000 barrels a day.

It's called illegal bunkering - the gangs break into and siphon oil out of the pipelines which run close to the shore.

The gangs are well-armed and the Joint Task Force is ill-equipped for the challenge.

They've managed to seize only a few of the barges used to ferry the stolen oil to huge tankers waiting offshore to take it on to the world's refineries. It's a huge and sophisticated operation on an international scale.

'Blood oil'

The Head of Shell in Nigeria, Basil Omiyi, says: "It's a huge concern and a major issue for the government and the state government because of loss of revenue.

"You will recall that the President of Nigeria on two occasions has called it 'blood oil' - similar to 'blood diamonds' - and that it requires international collaboration to resolve it and I think I agree very strongly with that."

When the drop in legal production in the Nigerian Delta helped push the price of oil to new heights last year, the British prime minister offered military aid to the Nigerian Government to tackle the problem.

The officers of the Task Force told us that they want helicopter gunships and new boats and ships. They're unlikely to get what they want.

Human rights groups reacted in horror to the prime minister's offer, pointing out it is often the politicians themselves who arm and use the gangs for their own, political purposes.

'We will shoot them down'

"General Boyloaf" and his gang
The gangs are often better armed than the force charged with policing them
The offer has now been scaled down - to training help only - but it did have one, dramatic result. In retaliation, Gen Boyloaf called off a temporary ceasefire.

"The message I have for Gordon Brown", he says, "is to tell him that no matter the para-assistance, the amenities they bring from the United Kingdom and elsewhere.... we will make sure we will shoot them down."

For the time being, guns on both sides will continue to exchange fire on the creeks of the Delta and the communities who live at the heart of the oil-producing areas will continue to wonder whatever good the oil wealth has ever done for them.


Sue Lloyd Roberts' film on oil and violence in the Niger Delta can be seen in the UK on Newsnightonline and on BBC Two at 2230 on 8 January. An extended version can be seen on Our World on BBC World News - check schedules for local times.

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