To download a PDF of this piece click here. Since 2006, a little-known militant group in Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta has made life difficult for international oil companies in the region. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) has attacked oil-field infrastructure, kidnapped foreign workers and stolen oil and sold it on the black market. Enriching itself and others in the process — and contrary to the image it tries to convey — the group is not exactly a band of freedom fighters. An in-depth STRATFOR investigation has revealed ties to the Nigerian political establishment and a lineage that begins with the end of military rule in 1999. Editor's Note: This is the first part of a three-part series on the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta.
Nigeria is the largest producer of crude oil in Africa and the fifth-largest supplier of crude oil to the United States. (One of its blends, called "Bonny light" after a town and oil port in Rivers state, is highly valued because of the ease with which it can be refined into high-quality gasoline.) Nigeria's oil output, however, has been reduced 20 percent over the last two years by the activities of an indigenous militant group that the world knows very little about. In 2006 and 2007, attacks on oil infrastructure in the Niger Delta by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) contributed to a spike in global oil prices — and to Nigeria’s placement high on the list of countries critical to U.S. energy security. For all its influence on oil prices, MEND has played its cards close to its chest. Its name denotes a liberation army fighting to free the people of the densely populated Niger Delta, Nigeria's main oil-producing region. But MEND seems more focused on making life difficult for — and profiting by — international oil companies (IOCs) operating in the Delta than on resisting the government in Abuja. Often, MEND refers to a mysterious "shepherd" and to itself as "sheep obeying orders," listening to the shepherd's voice for guidance on such matters as when and where to attack. Typical targets, owned and operated by such IOCs as Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, Agip, Gazprom and Total, include pipelines, flow stations and loading platforms. MEND makes money by kidnapping for ransom and by illegally "bunkering" crude oil. (By definition, bunkering is the supplying of fuel or oil to a ship, but in southern Nigeria it has come to mean the illegal process of tapping into pipelines, stealing the crude and selling it on domestic and foreign black markets.) That much is known about the group. It is also clear that MEND is not exactly a band of freedom fighters. Although it has tapped into a flowing spigot of oil money in the Delta, little of this cash has been redistributed to the people of the region. The group actually appears to have ties to the Nigerian political establishment, ties that are known but have never been clearly diagrammed. Who is the shepherd? How closely is he tied to Nigeria's government? Are there other patrons who can deploy MEND to do their bidding? How do its patrons intend to employ the militant group in the coming years, particularly leading up to local, state and national elections in 2011? STRATFOR set out to answer these questions (and more) in hopes of better understanding MEND’s origins, makeup and methodologies — and how it could continue to exert its influence on global oil supplies and prices.
A Mobilized Ijaw
In May of 1999, after almost 40 years of nearly continuous military rule, a group of politicians and former members of previous military regimes came together to form a new Nigerian government. This formation occurred at all levels throughout the country — local, state and national — and was the result of the first democratic elections that had not been annulled in Nigeria since the country gained its independence from Great Britain in 1960. It was truly a transitional era, offering hope and liberation from decades of oppressive military rule. Click to view interactive image It was also a mad scramble for power as politicians of all stripes joined under the banner of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) — the country’s dominant political party — to compete for assembly seats at the local, state and national levels. Compared to the PDP, other Nigerian political parties were inconsequential, but the PDP would take no chances. In the oil-rich Niger Delta, the tribal Ijaw organization, the Ijaw National Congress (INC), mobilized to influence the selection of candidates in the region. Representing the ethnic majority in the Niger Delta, Ijaw tribal Chief Edwin Clark, also the leader of the INC, had been appointed to the junta's Federal Executive Council as information minister in 1975 and served on the council with then-Gen. and later President Olusegun Obasanjo. Having seen the region ruled by non-Niger Delta appointments made by military juntas, Clark maneuvered behind the scenes in Abuja and the Delta selecting candidates who were natives of the Delta and who would be beholden to him as officeholders. (Sixty-seven years old in 1999, Clark preferred to leverage his long-standing experience and influence from behind the scenes rather than hold an official state office.) In December 1998, to help impose INC selections in anticipation of the April 1999 elections, the INC created the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC). Composed of young, largely unemployed men and headquartered in Yenagoa, Bayelsa state, the IYC was deployed mainly to coerce votes for PDP candidates. Non-PDP candidates and their supporters were cajoled, threatened or killed if they seriously challenged PDP candidates. IYC members also began bunkering crude oil from IOC installations, keeping a small portion of the proceeds for themselves and funneling the rest to local and regional PDP representatives, who used the money to buy votes and support. Flush with bunkering revenue and deploying bands of armed, marauding youths, the PDP swept the 1999 state governorship positions in the Delta as well as the national presidency (governors James Ibori in Delta state, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha in Bayelsa state and Peter Odili in Rivers state and President Obasanjo in Abuja; although 10 states technically comprise the Niger Delta, these three are the dominant oil-producing states). The PDP permitted the IYC to continue its illegal bunkering operations as payment for the services it performed for the PDP during election season.
Political Rivalry in Rivers State
By June 2001, a rivalry had begun between Ijaw Chief Clark and Rivers Gov. Odili, whose position as governor of the region's largest oil-producing state gave him control — with little transparency or oversight — over an annual budget of almost $1 billion (along with his government’s stake in illegal bunkering). The level of Rivers state revenues and those of its capital, Port Harcourt — hub of the entire oil-producing region — made Odili the Delta’s most powerful elected politician while Clark continued to pull the strings behind the scenes. Now that he was in the seat of power, Odili resented the challenge to state authority posed by the Clark-led INC and its activist wing, the IYC. While he was indeed a powerful politician in Rivers state, Odili was not an Ijaw. He was born into the minority Igbo tribe, the dominant tribe in the country's "south-east geopolitical zone" (one of Nigeria's six administrative regions; the Ijaw are the dominant tribe in the south-south zone). The fact that Odili’s tribal heritage was not Ijaw did not necessarily restrict his political power — oil income and PDP patronage gave him all the influence he needed. Moving to undermine the INC/IYC in Rivers state, Odili used his influence in the summer of 2001 to elect a new IYC leader, Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, one of the founders of the group (succeeding IYC president Felix Tuodolo). An ambitious and charismatic youth leader from Buguma town, located west of Port Harcourt, Asari repaid Odili by deploying IYC activists in Rivers state to conduct illegal bunkering operations and engage in political intimidation on behalf of Odili and against rival PDP politicians. Asari's youth activists became Odili's private paramilitary force in Rivers state, although Asari and the IYC did not work exclusively for Odili. With his IYC credentials and armed cadres in other Niger Delta states, Asari still commanded influence throughout the oil-producing region and continued to work for Clark and his loyalists who were in positions of authority in Delta and Bayelsa states (outside of Odili's jurisdiction). IYC activists were deployed again ahead of the April 2003 national elections to wage a low-intensity war against rival candidates, and governors Ibori (Delta), Alamieyeseigha (Bayelsa) and Odili as well as President Obasanjo were all re-elected on the PDP ticket. Despite Odili efforts to control INC/IYC operations in Rivers state, there was no immediate breakdown in the broader political machinery, since attention was focused on winning the 2003 elections. These elections were intended not so much to transfer power from incumbent to successor as to consolidate the PDP lock on elected positions throughout Nigeria. Elected officials playing by the PDP rule book (which calls for them to simply pay up and not double-cross their patrons) received support for a second term. Chief Clark remained a kingmaker in the Niger Delta, and although Odili had an agenda apart from INC/IYC's, he played his part by ensuring that the state helped fill government and PDP coffers as well as the purses of individual politicians. Next:Odili, Asari and the NDPVF