News and Information
Nigeria: Self-Styled Rebel Seeks Independence for Oil-Producing Niger Delta
|July 16, 2004
UN Integrated Regional Information Networks
July 16, 2004
Posted to the web July 16, 2004
The old, colonial buildings dotted around Tombia hark back to its former prosperity in the 19th and early 20th century when this town in the Niger delta was an important stop in the palm oil trade that fed Europe's soap and margarine industries.
But today these one-time glories are scorched and ruined wrecks on the battleground of an increasingly violent struggle for control of Nigeria's current economic lifeblood - crude oil.
The man in charge at Tombia is Asari Dokubo, a self-styled revolutionary who dropped out of university and converted from Christianity to Islam.
Accompanied by scores of heavily-armed gunmen, he cruises through the winding creeks of the densely forested delta in a flotilla of speed boats.
During the past few months, Dokubo's Niger Delta's People Volunteer Force (NDPVF) has battled repeatedly with government forces for control of Tombia and the surrounding area.
Tombia lies just 20 km from Port Harcourt, the main operating centre for Nigeria's oil industry.
Dokubo is a member of the Ijaw tribe, the largest ethnic group in the delta, and he has long been associated with their fight for a better economic deal.
He says he is fighting for the autonomy or independence of the Niger Delta, so that its people can draw greater benefit from the 2.5 million barrels of oil produced each day on their doorstep.
"We want to achieve self-determination and be able to control our oil resources," Dokubo told IRIN in an interview at his stronghold.
"We also want a sovereign national conference for the country so that we can decide if we still want to be part of Nigeria," he added, echoing the demand of many Niger Delta activists before him.
Revolutionary or gangster?
Dokubo's supporters see him as a Robin Hood-style robber hero, taking on the might of Nigeria's federal government on behalf of local people who have derived little benefit from the nation's oil bonanza.
But opponents of the 40-year-old militia commander say he is little more than a gangster who finances his operations by tapping crude oil from the pipelines of multinationals operating in the delta and reselling it on the black market.
Dokubo freely admits helping himself to the crude oil produced by Royal Dutch/Shell, the largest oil company in Nigeria.
"What we know is that the oil belongs to us, we're not stealing it," the portly robber baron said. "It is the Nigerian state stealing our oil from us."
Toting Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, Dokubo's fighters wage war against the security forces and a rival militia group with alleged links to the government in the mangrove swamps and creeks around Tombia.
Using fast speed-boats with powerful outboard motors, they even make forays into Port Harcourt, the heart of Nigeria's oil industry where all the multinational firms have offices.
Dokubo told IRIN that he has enough weapons at his command to equip a well-armed force of 2,000 men.
"We are very close to international waters and it's very easy to get weapons," he told IRIN. "We have AK 47s, general purpose machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades."
Oil industry experts estimate that up to 10 percent of Nigeria's oil is lost to well armed gangs like Dokubo's that tap into pipelines and fill barges with stolen crude oil for sale to tankers waiting offshore.
This wholesale theft, which deprives the government and oil companies of hundreds of millions of dollars per year, is known as "bunkering."
Clashes with the security forces
Over the last two months army, navy and air force personnel have launched repeated raids against armed militants and criminal gangs in Rivers State, of which Port Harcourt is the capital and Dokubo's men have often been their target.
Human rights activists say more than 100 people were killed in one such clash in the town of Ogbakiri in early June. Dokubo said that his group was the target of that raid by a joint task force of soldiers and policemen.
This week more fighting erupted on Tuesday on the outskirts of Port Harcourt. Dokubo said 11 of his fighters died in the Amadi-Ama suburb of the city as they engaged the security forces in a fire-fight which last several hours.
The police commissioner in charge of Port Harcourt denied anyone was killed in the raid, but said 74 people had been arrested in what he called an operation to flush out weapons.
Local residents in Amadi-Ama told IRIN they had seen the bodies of at least 10 people killed in the fighting, including the corpse of 14-year girl killed in the cross fire.
Dokubo is an extreme example of the discontent felt by many of the 126 million people in Nigeria, which is Africa's leading oil producer and the continent's most populous nation.
Until last year, this son of a high court judge, was president of the Ijaw Youths Council (IYC), a group that mostly comprises university-educated activists campaigning for an increased share of Nigeria's oil wealth.
The Ijaws represent the largest single ethnic group in the 70,000 sq km region of mangrove swamps, criss-crossing creeks and dense forests that make up the Niger Delta.
With a population estimated at between six and eight million, mainly dependent on fishing, they are reputed to be the fourth biggest ethnic group in the country of 126 million split among 250 ethnic groups.
Outrage at electoral fraud led Dokubo to take up arms
Dokubo studied law at the university of Calabar in south-eastern Nigeria, but dropped out in 1988 after converting to Islam and becoming strongly engaged in radical politics. He then spent several years visiting 38 countries around the world, including Egypt and Libya.
Dokubo said he decided to take up arms after witnessing massive fraud in the 2003 elections, which returned President Olusegun Obasanjo and the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) to a second term of office.
Opposition groups and independent observers said the elections were marred by large-scale fraud. Dokubo too voiced his condemnation of massive vote-rigging.
"I issued a statement on behalf of the IYC saying there was no election," he said.
Dokubo said PDP-sponsored thugs led by rival gang leader Ateke Tom, then tried to assassinate him. This, he said, prompted him to take up arms and fight.
"We are fighting against a government which rigged elections, which doesn't have the mandate of the people," he said. "The oppressed people of Nigeria will rise one day, this is only the beginning," he told IRIN.
A spokesman for the government of Rivers State flatly denied that the authorities had links with Tom's Niger Delta Vigilante Service (NDVS) or any other militia group in the state.
However Dokubo's group has clashed frequently with Tom's. Human rights activists say both groups have links with politicians and financed themselves by bunkering.
"Dokubo and Tom were once allies of the present civilian administration in Rivers State which allegedly armed them in the first place," Chinedu Ukaegbu and Stevyn Obodokwe of the Civil Liberties Organisation said in their recent study of violence in the delta, entitled "When Bullets Begin to Flower."
But while Dokubo had fallen out with the administration of state governor Peter Odili, Tom was a well-known member of the PDP and retained close links with the authorities, they added.
Former colleagues keep distance
Dokubo's former colleagues from the Ijaw Youths Council have distanced themselves from his declaration of armed struggle, insisting on a peaceful campaign to wrest the oil resources from the federal authorities.
However, Oronto Douglas, a leading activist in the organisation, said heavy-handed repression by the security forces in the delta simply played into the hands of people like Dokubo.
"There is a big debate in the Niger Delta right now about what is the best means of removing the yoke of oppression visited on our people, and the overwhelming position is that non-violent struggle is preferred," Douglas, who is also an environmental lawyer, told IRIN.
"But the government has adopted a very violent strategy of suppression that angers people like Dokubo, who see the strategy of negotiation failing woefully and are crying out for armed struggle," he added.
Angry villagers in the Niger Delta feel deprived of the oil wealth the government and oil multinationals produce on their land and have frequently mounted disruptive protests to press for social amenities.
At the more violent end of the spectrum, armed militants and criminals have attacked or kidnapped foreign oil workers and blockaded oil facilities to press their political demands and demand ransoms.
Tribalism has also reared its ugly head as rival communities vie for control of oil-producing land in order to demand jobs and social amenities such as schools and hospitals, from the oil companies and government.
For several years, Ijaw militia groups have battled rival gunmen from the Itsekiri tribe across the delta as the two communities have fought each other for the spoils of power, although under strong government pressure they signed a peace agreement in the oil town of Warri on 1 June.
This truce is still holding, but international security experts foresee no early end to the wider problem of violence in the Niger Delta.
An expert study commissioned by Shell from international security company WAC Global Services earlier this year estimated that 1,000 people were killed in the Niger Delta every year.
This puts violence in the region on the same scale as that it Colombia and Chechnya, it said, threatening both the oil industry and Nigeria's national security.
"If current conflict trends continue uninterrupted, it would be surprising if SCIN (Shell Companies in Nigeria) is able to continue on-shore resource extraction in the Niger Delta beyond 2008, whilst complying with Shell Business Principles," the survey concluded.
Shell, which accounts for about half of Nigeria's overall oil production and has quarter of its global oil and gas reserves in the country, has formally denied suggestions that it was planning to withdraw from Nigeria.
But the report commissioned by the oil company notes the role of politicians in the violence and predicts increasing problems in the coming years.
"Given the likely illegal oil bunkering links to political campaigns, the run-up to the 2007 presidential elections may see a significant escalation of Niger Delta conflicts which will be difficult to dismantle," it concluded.
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