Mar 19, 2009 | 11:18 GMT

19 mins read

Nigeria's MEND: A Different Militant Movement

To download a PDF of this piece click here. An outgrowth of the Ijaw Youth Council's (IYC) militant wing, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) first emerged in December 2005 when it took credit for blowing up an oil pipeline in Delta state. It is not clear who activated the group or coined its name, but it soon became clear that MEND was a useful tool for Ijaw Chief Edwin Clark in containing his arch rival, Rivers Gov. Peter Odili. By early 2006, as Nigeria geared up for its third round of elections in 2007, a different kind of militant group was waging war in the Delta. Editor's Note: This is the third part of a three-part series on the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta.
As he tried to envision his own political protégé as Nigerian president, Ijaw Chief Edwin Clark knew that he did not have a monopoly on power and influence in the Niger Delta. The Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force (NDPVF), the militant wing of the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), had been decapitated in September 2005 when the government arrested IYC President and NDPVF leader Mujahid Dokubo-Asari on charges of treason. As in 2003, when the NDPVF was formed, Clark needed a strong militant capability to challenge Rivers Gov. Peter Odili and emerge as the premier power broker in the Niger Delta. Clark no longer had Asari, but he still had Asari's network of NDPVF deputies scattered throughout the region. In December 2005, an umbrella militant group emerged calling itself the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), made up of former Asari deputies and factions empowered to carry out attacks in their home territories. Their first operation was an attack on Royal Dutch Shell's Opobo pipeline in Delta state. MEND has yet to identify its founder or current leader, but a spokesman known as Jomo Gbomo, who communicates to the media only by e-mail, announced in May 2007 that newly elected Vice President Goodluck Jonathan was a MEND patron. Jonathan also is widely known as a protégé of Ijaw Chief Clark's. At the time, the leaders of known MEND factions included Farah Dagogo, whose gang in the Tombia axis of Rivers state became known as the Niger Delta Strike Force (NDSF); Ebikabowei Victor (aka Victor Ben and Gen. Boyloaf), who commanded the faction Bayelsa state axis; Government Ekpemupolo (aka Gen. Tammo and Government Tompolo), whose faction, headquartered near the town of Warri in Delta state, was called the Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities; and Soboma George, whose gang, since breaking from Ateke Tom and his Niger Delta Vigilante (NDV), became known as the Outlaws and served as another MEND faction in Rivers state. Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, leader of the Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force MEND also included an arms dealer named Henry Okah, who was based in South Africa until his arrest in Luanda, Angola, in September 2007 on arms smuggling charges. Okah was later extradited to Nigeria, where he is being held on charges of treason. MEND was launched as a tool of the Ijaw to attain national prominence at a time when the presidency was up for grabs. Odili had made his move and Clark, from all indications, had responded. Odili had Tom and the NDV; Clark had Asari's network, rechristened MEND, which began conducting attacks in the weeks following Asari's imprisonment in November 2005. In addition to fighting Tom's forces, MEND attacked oil infrastructure targets as they had never been attacked before, sabotaging pipelines, bunkering oil and kidnapping foreign oil workers for ransom. These concerted and coordinated attacks under the MEND banner gave international prominence to the Ijaw as well as money. The attacks also represented a different militant strategy in the Niger Delta. What set MEND apart from earlier groups was its apparent willingness to destroy the oil sector in order to achieve political goals. MEND was interested in establishing income streams and filling political offices over the long term, not in agitating for quick payoffs, and its aggressive focus on oil infrastructure was meant to establish credibility, not destroy the sector. But they were willing to push it pretty far. MEND attacks in 2006 and 2007 resulted in the shuttering of 600,000 barrels per day in crude output — a quarter of the country's oil production — and in the kidnapping of hundreds of foreign and national oil workers (none of whom were killed). It was not long before the international oil companies (IOCs) operating in the Delta began having trouble recruiting people to work there. Higher salaries, bonuses, kidnapping insurance and reinforced security helped matters some, as did a concentration on offshore operations. The belief was that exploration and production onshore in the difficult-to-defend mangrove swamp and riverine environment exposed installations and workers to MEND attacks while the more distant and isolated offshore operations (some as far as 75 miles from land) were less vulnerable. Offshore platforms were not immune to MEND attacks, however. In June 2006, MEND fighters on speedboats attacked an oil rig 40 miles off the coast of Delta state, kidnapping eight foreign workers and several Nigerian workers. It was a new seaborne capability the militant group would use more frequently. Click to view interactive image In early 2006, it was still not clear what was going to happen in the 2007 elections. President Olusegun Obasanjo was working to amend the constitution in order to serve a third term. By May 2006, however, Obasanjo's constitutional amendment bid had been blocked in the senate, with opposition mobilized by Vice President Atiku Abubakar, who had his own eye on the presidency. Obasanjo would not be running for re-election in 2007. With the presidential field wide open, aspiring candidates piled on. Nigerian northerners believed it was their turn to hold the presidency, after having seen a southwesterner rule at Aso Rock since 1999 (Obasanjo, a member of the Yoruba tribe, hails from the country's south-west zone). Political tradition in Nigeria calls for presidential power to rotate among the country's six geopolitical zones. After being ruled by a southwestern president and a northeastern vice president (Atiku Abubakar, from Adamawa state), northerners believed it was their turn again. (The northern Hausa tribe dominated Nigerian politics during the military junta era and remained a powerful force through their continued dominance over the army.) Perhaps fearful the Hausa would use the military to overthrow Nigeria's nascent democracy, Obasanjo agreed that the northerners should regain the presidency and that the best the southerners could do was gain the vice presidency. But Obasanjo would drive a hard bargain, particularly with the Ijaw and Odili. Political advancement in Nigeria is not free, nor is it based on merit. The campaign waged by militants in the Delta against the IOCs (together with the revenues the militant activity generated) would win the vice presidency for the south-south zone. Publicly, Clark began to undermine Odili's candidacy for vice president by questioning the Rivers state governor's ethnicity. Odili was a member of the Igbo tribe, which is the dominant tribe in the south-east geopolitical zone but has a minority presence in Rivers state (where Odili was born). In any case, Odili's tribal heritage did not automatically disqualify him for the vice presidency. He was still a useful politician to Obasanjo. According to sources, Odili made significant financial contributions to the country's dominant People's Democratic Party (PDP) in order to secure the vice presidency. PDP politicians from other geopolitical zones likely received backchannel payoffs to sign off on Odili's candidacy. At some point, however — probably in the fall of 2006, shortly before the PDP held its December primaries — Odili lost his bid for vice president. Despite his sizable down payment for the job, STRATFOR sources say, Odili was displaced at the last minute by Clark protégé Goodluck Jonathan, then governor of Bayelsa state. (click image to enlarge) When Odili was still maneuvering to secure the vice presidential slot, he needed to protect his turf in Port Harcourt. Two of his aides were maneuvering to succeed him as Rivers state governor: Celestine Omehia, Odili's special assistant since 1999, and Rotimi Amaechi, Rivers state assembly speaker. In the PDP primaries in December 2006, Amaechi's name emerged as the candidate to succeed Odili. STRATFOR sources say Amaechi was not Odili's preferred successor, however, and in February 2007 Amaechi's name was removed from the election roll — likely by Odili — and replaced with Omehia's. Meanwhile, Omehia hired Soboma George of the Outlaws gang to act as his enforcer. Facing no resistance from the state, the Outlaws proceeded to wage an unrestrained militancy campaign in Rivers state throughout the election season, indicating that they received political protection to do so. Omehia was sworn in as Rivers state governor on May 29, 2007, but his governorship was doomed from the start. An NDPVF-allied gang led by Rivers state militant Prince Igodo, and hired by Amaechi threatened to attack the inauguration. The Outlaws, calling in Farah Dagogo's NDSF for assistance, proceeded to attack Igodo's camp, killing the gang leader and preventing an attack on the inaugural festivities. That same day, in Abuja, new Nigerian President Umaru Yaradua and Vice President Goodluck Jonathan were sworn in. Shortly before the inauguration, a MEND spokesman confirmed that Jonathan was one of its patrons. With Jonathan assuming a point position for managing Niger Delta affairs, the Ijaw now had a prominent seat at the table in Abuja, with a direct hand in managing resource flows and lucrative patronage appointments. One of Jonathan's first moves was to release the imprisoned Asari, who got out in June 2007 and immediately began singing Jonathan’s praises. According to STRATFOR sources, Asari was released to serve as a proxy for the federal government to re-establish control over his gangs in the Niger Delta. Soon after Asari returned to the region, his gangs began to ally with Tom’s NDV to battle the Outlaws.

All Roads Lead to Clark

In August 2007, after the government's Joint Task Force (JTF) carried out a two-pronged attack against the Outlaws, assaulting a hotel in Port Harcourt where George was staying as well as one of his village homes, George appealed to Chief Clark for protection. George addressed Clark as if Clark were a father figure who needed to intervene to save his son. Omehia faced a different kind of attack. Amaechi filed an appeal challenging Omehia's election, and in October 2007 the Nigerian Supreme Court annulled Omehia's victory (ruling that no election actually took place) and ordered that Amaechi be installed in his place. Mere days after Amaechi was sworn in as Rivers state governor, he travelled to Clark's camp professing his loyalty for whatever Clark did to secure Amaechi’s belated victory. When Amaechi was sworn in as governor, Tom was given political protection — for the time being, anyway. Tom's forces were needed to push back George's Outlaws, who had the run of the state. While Tom was receiving patronage, George retreated underground. Tom's protection did not last long. In January 2008, JTF forces attacked his camps at Okrika. The NDV was attacked again by the JTF in June 2008 and pushed back from positions in Rivers state toward positions in neighboring Bayelsa state. Clashes there resulted in the death of the NDPVF-allied gang leader Gibson Kala. In July 2008, while Tom's forces were being pushed toward Bayelsa, Dagogo's NDSF was called in to fight George's Outlaws, who were still conducting kidnapping and bunkering operations — though unsanctioned, as far as Gov. Amaechi was concerned — in Port Harcourt and southern Rivers state. Amaechi lured Dagogo away from George's control by promising protection in gaining a monopoly over bunkering and kidnapping operations in Rivers state. Cooperating with Dagogo was a gang leader named Egbiri Papa (aka Soboma Jackrich), whose gang became known as the People’s Liberation Force (PLF). Dagogo and his patron in Port Harcourt did not remain on positive terms for long, however. In August 2008, the two had a falling out over a disagreement on kidnapping ransom money. A month later, units of the JTF attacked NDSF camps in Rivers state. (MEND blamed the move on Amaechi and Nigerian President Yaradua). Battles waged for a week between the JTF and NDSF before a ceasefire was reached. Two days later, JTF forces attacked NDV camps in Rivers state with inconclusive results. (Tom was not arrested, nor did he launch reprisals). The government offensive continued. In November 2008, MEND accused the JTF and the Rivers state government of paying $3 million to NDSF insiders to assassinate Dagogo. The plot was uncovered and Dagogo survived the assassination attempt. Only marginal reprisals took place (some NDSF insiders reportedly were killed). Then in December, the JTF arrested PLF leader Papa, who had been a deputy to Dagogo. Papa was arrested on his way to peace talks in Rivers state arranged by Asari, who was nowhere to be found at the time of the arrest. In January 2009, the JTF conducted raids against NDV and Outlaws camps in Rivers state. (MEND said nothing specific about the raids against George's Outlaws and mentioned only that the JTF attacked three communities in an unsuccessful attempt to secure the release of two British hostages.) According to an NDV spokesman, Tom's forces called off threatened reprisal attacks following Clark's intervention. Ateke Tom and the Niger Delta Vigilante, a gang with links to MEND By early 2009, IOCs had hardened their office and residential compounds in Port Harcourt to the point where kidnapping operations seldom, if ever, occurred. Oil workers now traveled to exploration and production sites by helicopter to avoid the threat of being kidnapped while caught in traffic. When ground transportation was required, workers were moved in heavily armed convoys surrounded by protective details of Nigerian soldiers (whose competence is sometimes questionable). IOCs have essentially abandoned plans for large-scale investment in the Nigerian onshore sector, while the offshore sector still attracts widespread interest. Despite the threats, violence and costs of working in Nigeria, the quality and quantity of the region's crude ensures that IOCs will remain active in Nigeria's oil sector as long as the oil is there.

As it Stands Now

Today, Asari is the sole militia gang leader moving about openly in the Niger Delta without interference from the government. STRATFOR sources say he travels with a security detail of official Mobile Police ("Mopol") officers, although he also probably relies on NDPVF loyalists for personal protection. (Mopol is a paramilitary unit of the Nigerian police that specializes in rapid response operations.) STRATFOR sources report that Tom, George and Dagogo, in contrast, are forced to sneak around the Delta to avoid being detained. Asari is working to re-establish his influence among his former deputies (who along with their followers make up MEND), but STRATFOR sources say his influence has yet to be consolidated. Asari’s former deputies are not so thrilled to see their independence and influence usurped by their old leader, and have not automatically accepted him back into the fold. Odili, meanwhile, is no longer active in Rivers state politics, and STRATFOR sources say he splits his time between Abuja and South Africa. The ex-Rivers state governor received an immunity deal in March 2008 that protected him from prosecution and enabled him to keep the money he acquired during his governorship. The deal will likely last as long as he avoids interfering in or destabilizing Rivers state. Should he become active again he would likely be investigated by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and, if convicted of any kind of wrongdoing, put in prison and stripped of his wealth, which is precisely what happened to former governors Diepreye Alamieyeseigha of Bayelsa state and James Ibori of Delta state. Alamieyeseigha, released from prison in July 2007 after serving two years, maintains a very low profile and a small degree of influence in Bayelsa state. According to MEND, his successor as governor, Goodluck Jonathan, now vice president, owes his current position to the militant group as a result of its 2006-2007 campaign. STRATFOR sources say Clark is a patron of Jonathan’s and that Asari is being controlled from Jonathan's office. Jonathan's successor in Bayelsa state, Timipre Sylva, is kept on a very short leash by the PDP. Sylva's 2007 election was challenged by the opposition Action Congress party, which filed an appeal with the appellate court in Port Harcourt. The court ruled that that no election actually had taken place and called for a new election. With backing by Vice President Jonathan, Sylva won the new election and remained in office. The ordeal was a reminder to Sylva that as long as he played by the rules, the PDP would support him. If he did not, then the PDP would find a way to reopen the court case or remove him from office in a less judicial manner. Clark, too, could use a short leash in Delta state. Although incumbent Gov. Emmanuel Uduaghan maintains positive relations with Clark, the Ijaw chief initially held up Uduaghan's nomination in order to extract loyalty from the Warri-based politician. Former President Obasanjo left office in May 2007 to become chairman of the board of trustees of the ruling PDP party, a godfather position that would allow him to retain the power to reward his friends and punish his enemies.

Moving Forward

The next national elections in Nigeria will be held in April 2011. If tradition holds (and politicians play by the rules), incumbents will be nominated for a second term. Yaradua will be nominated as president; Jonathan will be nominated as vice president and Amaechi, Sylva and Uduaghan will be nominated as governors in Rivers, Bayelsa, and Delta states, respectively. Thus, national elections in 2011 will be no watershed and should not generate widespread violence. However, if Yaradua's health prevents him from standing for re-election (he has had to travel abroad for medical attention several times since the 2007 election season), competition over who would fill his shoes will likely turn violent. Should Amaechi step out of line, his minority Ikwerre tribal status in Rivers state could be used to end his political career. Considerable — though geographically concentrated — violence could occur if any candidate refuses to play by the rules (e.g., fails to acknowledge his patron or pay the money expected of him). An aspiring candidate could also trigger violence in order to carve out a political position for himself. The way to get attention in Nigeria is to become a big man, and the way to become a big man is to employ a militant gang to beat your rivals. Nice guys do not get very far in Nigeria. Masked Niger Delta Vigilante militants at their camp The bigger battle will come ahead of the 2015 national elections, when the presidency is up for grabs. With tradition calling for northerners to rotate the presidency to another geopolitical zone, the Ijaw of the south-south Niger Delta will no doubt believe that what was denied them in 2007 should come their way in 2015. The 2007 vice presidency was a compromise; the Ijaw have their sights set on the presidency. Of course, other geopolitical zones will also be aiming for Aso Rock, so a battle for prominence and patronage will surely be waged to determine the officeholders in 2015. Given the campaign patterns in past elections, the action will likely begin in 2013. In the meantime, Chief Clark will continue to play a leading godfather role as he maintains his influence among Ijaw youth, who can be quickly mobilized to achieve political aims. Politicians in the Niger Delta will pay homage to Clark, who in turn will pay homage to his network of senior Ijaw figures as well as PDP power brokers at the national level. Militant gang leaders like Tom, George and Dagogo will not be killed (if previous strikes against their camps are indicative of JTF capabilities) but will be kept around for use when their forces are needed. Until then, in times of lean patronage, they will carry out bunkering and kidnapping operations to support themselves. All the while, inter-gang violence will continue as Asari tries to rebuild his influence over the gang networks and as MEND faction leaders resist that influence. The fact is that as long as there is sweet Nigerian crude to be extracted from the Delta, first tapped by the British in the late 1950s, there will be political and militant turmoil in the region. Tenuous understandings that keep tensions and violence to a manageable level will occur from time to time, as long as the Ijaw believe their political and financial stake in the region is assured. This is currently one of those times. Meanwhile, some questions may have to go unanswered. Who is the "shepherd"? The weight of evidence (gained through open sources and STRATFOR human intelligence sources) indicates that MEND has an assortment of patrons at the state level that can activate various units for localized attacks. Our intelligence also suggests that at least one national-level politician (the sitting vice president) can activate MEND factions for larger, more centrally controlled operations. Is there one preeminent godfather? That would be the aging Ijaw patriarch Edwin Clark, though our MEND sources tell us he is not the so-called "shepherd" (who may be more than one person or who may not even exist). Another principal enabler is former President Obasanjo, who has been instrumental in allowing regional politicians to activate attacks against oil infrastructure and rival militant proxies to achieve his and their political goals. Who the shepherd is does not really matter. MEND or its component factions will be a fact of life for the denizens of the oil-rich Niger Delta for the foreseeable future. Nigeria is a fledgling democracy with an economy wholly dependent upon crude oil. Until it matures as a nation-state with a more diversified economy, militant groups emerging, evolving and fighting each other and the IOCs will continue to make the Delta a dangerous place.

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