On a street by the river port in the oil town of Warri, dozens of Nigerian soldiers and marines shelter behind sandbags, pointing their machine guns towards an unseen enemy. They are mounting a 24-hour watch on the southern approaches of the Warri River.
Twice in the past two months, the security forces have fought pitched battles at this point with armed militants of the Ijaw tribe who attempted to storm the town.
Warri, a sprawling city of one million people set amid the swamps of the Niger delta, is a major base for the oil companies that pump the black lifeblood of the Nigerian economy from nearby offshore platforms.
Nigeria produces two million barrels of oil per day and is the world's eighth largest oil exporter. The US $18 billlion earned from oil shipments each year accounts for more than 95 percent of the country's foreign exchange earnings.
But the oil rich Niger Delta is riven by tribal wars and bitter conflicts between the local people and government in the distant capital Abuja. There is also deep-seated resentment against the foreign oil companies. They are accused of filling the government coffers with petro-dollars and repatriating fat profits to their shareholders while leaving the inhabitants of the delta in miserable poverty.
Amid this confusion, and abetted by the notorious inefficiency of the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), oil industry experts reckon that well organised gangs of thieves siphon off up to 200,000 barrels of oil per day to sell on the black market. Some of the proceeds from this racket are used to flood the delta with guns that are making its complex web of conflicts even more deadly.
"The situation in the Niger Delta has graduated from restiveness to insurrection," Enilama Umoku, a political science lecturer at Delta State University near Warri, told IRIN. "Just as the region is getting more militarised, the youths are in turn becoming more militant and taking increasingly to the gun."
Following the recent attacks, the government has deployed troop reinforcements both within Warri and at key oil facilities in the outlying swamps. The city is dotted with checkpoints where soldiers, navy marines and police search vehicles and pedestrians for arms.
At the heart of the violence are claims and counter-claims to the ownership of oil-rich land. The individuals and communities who control the land mop up the many benefits that can be extracted from the oil companies whose wells have been drilled there.
These include rent and compensation payments, access to jobs, a quota of which are reserved for local people and the provision of social amenities such as clean drinking water, schools and health centres. Such manna from heaven is in an environment of widespread poverty and mass unemployment is considered well worth fighting over.
Rival local communities frequently fight each other over their claims to oil-rich land and sometimes they disrupt the operations of the oil companies themselves to back demands for greater benefits.
"Many of these people have been neglected by successive governments, and since the transnationals are in partnership with government they hold them responsible as the only arm of government they see," said Johnson Agboneni, a senior executive of Atlas Services, an oil service company.
Tension has floated close to the surface in Warri for the past decade, but disputes over the demarcation of electoral boundaries fueled a new outbreak of fighting in the run-up to general elections in April.
The Ijaw, the largest tribe in the Niger delta, numbering an estimated five to eight million people, accused the smaller but influential Itsekiri tribe of rigging the boundaries of electoral wards, in connivance with the government of President Olusegun Obasanjo, to win undue political advantage.
Fighting first erupted between the Urhobo, a small delta tribe, and the Itsekiri in February. This resulted in the death of more than two dozen people. Over 5,000 more were made homeless after their houses were burned in the ethnic clashes.
After the Ijaws joined forces with the Urhobo against the Itsekiri during March and April, the death toll topped 100, more villages were set alight and thousands more people were forced to abandon their homes.
Ijaw militants declared a boycott of the presidential, parliamentary and state assembly elections in April and set out to disrupt them through a campaign of violence. They were only prevented from carrying the fight into Warri itself by the heavy deployment of troops.
For now the guns are silent but the violence has assumed another form.
On 23 June more than 40 unidentified gunmen boarded a tugboat in a creek near Warri and took hostage a German and two Filipinos who were working for an oil service company contracted to Shell, Nigeria's biggest oil producer.
The kidnappers sent a ransom note demanding 25 million naira - the equivalent of nearly US $200,000 - for the hostages' release.
The following day in the eastern Niger delta, near the oil industry capital Port Harcourt, an armed gang which was siphoning off crude oil from a pipeline engaged navy troops in a 40-minute firefight before fleeing.
Tapping into pipelines to steal oil has become a common practice in the delta. On June 24, more than 125 were burned to death when a leaking pipeline ignited after fuel thieves had bored into it. Those who died, and more than 200 people who were injured in the conflagration, were all trying to scoop up leaking petrol.
Earlier, in April, saboteurs used explosives to blow up a major pipeline transporting crude oil from the Escravos crude oil terminal of ChevronTexaco to refineries in Warri and the northern city of Kaduna. Both refineries have remained shut since then, aggravating Nigeria's chronic fuel shortage and creating lucrative opportunities for black market suppliers.
In May the main pipeline supplying gas from Escravos to Nigeria's biggest power station, near Lagos, was similarly blasted. This act of sabotage reduced the country's electricity generation capacity by a quarter.
No one has claimed responsibility for any of these incidents, but nearly all occurred in areas close to Ijaw communities. The Nigerian navy has, not surprisingly, accused armed Ijaw militants of being responsible for the attacks.
Shell estimates some 200,000 barrels of oil per day - about 10 percent of Nigeria's total output is lost through the sabotage of pipelines. It reckons that about half this volume is stolen by powerful and well-organised gangs with high level connections.
"People who are behind these activities are sophisticated, big time businessmen," said Ndu Ughamadu, a spokesman for the state-owned NNPC, which has a 57 percent stake in joint ventures with the transnational companies that produce almost all of Nigeria's oil.
Oil industry sources said barges were used by the crime syndicates to collect crude oil from pipelines in the interior of the delta. It was then transferred to tankers waiting offshore.
More than 19 vessels believed to have been used in the illegal business known locally as "bunkering" have been seized by the navy this year. Military sources said this trade had financed the purchase of guns which are now awash in the region.
Ron van den Berg, the managing director of Shell Nigeria, recently recommended the international certification of all crude oil exports as a way of checking the phenomenon. "All crude oil can be finger-printed to indicate its source and so with international certification and some paper work, every crude oil cargo checked could be traced to its source," he told reporters recently.
"Certified oil is the only way forward," van den Berg stressed.
Across the river from Warri, in the intertwining rivers and creeks flanked by mangrove swamps, the Ijaw - a naturally water-bound people - hold sway. Young militants espousing the Ijaw cause speak with unseen colleagues on two-way radios. Their guns are not visible, but their newfound confidence is evident.
"The military is carrying out the Itsekiri agenda and coming at us with their guns, but we shall fight back with our stones and pebbles," Bello Oboko, president of the militant Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities (FNDIC) group, told IRIN.
The FNDIC, the only militant Ijaw group in the western delta with a public face, denies any involvement in the blasting of pipelines and the theft of oil, but its leaders decline to discuss the source of their weapons.
The Ijaw militants acknowledge the existence of criminal gangs that steal oil from pipelines and accuse them of operating with the connivance of corrupt naval commanders.
"The Niger Delta is a very large and already very volatile, so you can't blame everything happening there on the Ijaw," said Dan Ekpebide, another militant leader. "The navy people do have their own problems with people who are doing bunkering from whom they collect money."
Navy officials dismissed the allegations of bribery offhand. But they agreed with the Ijaw militants that the confrontations in March and April, in which more than 100 people died - including 10 troops and 50 militants - were precipitated by the security forces' hot pursuit of suspected oil thieves.
One outbreak of violence involved a three-sided firefight between government troops and Ijaw and Itsekiri militants and briefly shut down 40 percent of Nigeria's oil production as oil companies pulled key staff out of the area. Following their withdrawal, Ijaw gunmen attacked oil facilities belonging to Shell and TotalfinaElf, killing several soldiers and civilian guards who had been posted to protect them.
The Ijaw, who are mostly fishermen are to be found throughout the 70,000 square kilometre Niger delta, wherever there is water. Many live in deep poverty in remote villages where they lack access to the most basic government services. Consequently they have suffered the worst effects
of oil operations. Their waterways and fishing grounds have been polluted by oil spills which have messed up their traditional way of life, and they have received little in exchange.
Young, educated Ijaw youths complain not enough Ijaws are being employed by the oil companies. They accuse the companies of hiring people from other smaller, but more influential ethnic groups, such as the Itsekiri.
This new and dissatisfied generation provides the brains for groups such as the FNDIC and the Ijaw Youths Council. Both have been at the forefront of demands for greater Ijaw control of oil resources.
However, the Ijaws are not the only ones to complain. Other ethnic groups in the delta, such as the 500,000-strong Ogoni, have voiced similar complaints about the oil companies.
For centuries the Ijaws, the Itsekiris and the Urhobos lived in harmony in the western delta, intermarrying with one another. But the Itsekiris made early contact with Portuguese traders in the 16th century and many acquired Western education early. That gave them a head-start against other ethnic groups in gaining influence with the British colonial administrators, who ruled Nigeria from the 19th century until independence in 1960.
Warri was a small town where people from all over Nigeria lived together peacefully until oil was discovered nearby in the 1950s. It was only two decades later that ethnic conflicts by rival tribes seeking to corner the benefits of the oil boom emerged.
The situation took a turn for the worse in 1996 following a dispute over the location of a nearby local council headquarters near Warri. This was first sited in an Ijaw area and was later relocated to an Itsekiri community.
The Ijaws saw an opportunity to bring government and amenities such as schools and health centres closer to home slipping through their fingers and resisted the move. The two sides engaged in battles that spilled over into Warri itself. Hundreds died in the fighting.
Following the latest round of violence associated with this year's general elections, Obasanjo set up a special presidential committee to find a permanent solution to the increasingly violent disputes in the delta. It is headed by a former defence minister, retired General Theophilus Danjuma and includes members from the rival ethnic groups.
Warri and the surrounding district remain tense, awaiting the committee's recommendations.
However, while it tours the region and conducts hearings to gather evidence, difficulties are already appearing. Danjuma declared recently that it would not be possible to come up with "a solution which will please everybody".
Some Ijaw elements have already accused Danjuma of working against their interests. They point to the continued deployment of troops in the western delta and the presence of three warships donated by the United States as evidence the government is only interested in a military solution.
"We have no confidence in Danjuma because he is really an interested party in the dispute," Oboko of the FNDIC told IRIN. "Besides, we don't have a listening government."
He noted that as defence minister Danjuma had overseen military operations to pacify the Ijaw in 1999. Oboko alleged that during one of these, the town of Odi had been levelled by troops in reprisal for the killing of 12 policemen by Ijaw militants.
"The current, second operation is meant to silence us for the benefit of the oil companies, but we shall resist it," Oboko said.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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