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The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, launched itself onto the international stage in January 2006 by claiming responsibility for the capture of four foreign oil workers. Since then, the group’s attacks on oil pipelines and kidnappings have reduced oil output in the Niger Delta by roughly one-third. Oil companies, the Nigerian government, and the United States (Nigeria is the United States’ fifth largest supplier of U.S. crude imports) are concerned about MEND’s ability to disrupt the global oil supply. Though skilled at leveraging international media, the group remains secretive and opinions vary on its power and ability to sustain itself.
A hotbed of militant groups
MEND is the most recent, and most renowned, of the large number of militant groups in the Niger Delta, an oil-rich region of mangrove swamps and creeks in the country’s south and one of the world’s largest wetlands. The militants, like the Niger Delta’s population at large, object to the environmental degradation and underdevelopment of the region and the lack of benefits the community has received from its extensive oil resources. While there is a revenue-sharing plan in which the federal government distributes roughly half of the country’s oil revenues among state governors, these funds do not trickle down to the roughly 30 million residents of the Delta. In 2003, some 70 percent of oil revenues was stolen or wasted, according to an estimate by the head of Nigeria’s anticorruption agency. Whereas many residents used to work as fishermen, oil installations and spills have decimated the fish population and now markets must import frozen fish, according to National Geographic.
Militant groups, which are primarily composed of young men dissatisfied at their inability to find jobs, proliferated beginning in the 1990s. The first Delta insurgent group to receive international attention was the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). Led by Ken Saro-Wiwa, the group launched a nonviolent campaign in 1990 against the government and Royal Dutch/Shell to protest environmental degradation and the area’s economic neglect. The group’s efforts led Shell to cease production in Ogoni in 1993. Saro-Wiwa and eight other MOSOP members, the “Ogoni Nine,” were executed by the military regime in 1995.
Subsequent groups, such as the Ijaw Youth Council and the Niger Delta Vigilantes, were organized at the village or clan level. Their attacks were designed to extort short-term funds or municipal development projects from multinational oil companies. Yet as an International Crisis Group report details, recently militants are more sophisticated and increasingly share a common goal of “resource control,” a share of the oil revenues their region produces. In 2004, the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF), an Ijaw militant group led by Alhaji Mujahid Dokubo-Asari (Ijaw are Nigeria’s fourth largest ethnic group), threatened “all-out war” against the Nigerian government. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo offered Asari and another militant leader amnesty and payments in exchange for their groups’ weapons. Nearly a year after this deal, Asari was arrested, charged with treason, and put in prison, where he remains.
MEND emerged in January 2006, several months after Asari’s arrest, and experts say the group is stronger than Asari’s NDPVF. “Asari was a one-man show,” says Ike Okonta, a research fellow in contemporary African politics at the University of Oxford. MEND “has managed to win broad sympathy among the [Niger Delta] community.”
MEND’s decentralized structure
Despite this popular support, many elements of MEND remain secretive. Estimates of its size range from the low hundreds to the low thousands. Like other Delta militant groups, MEND is largely made up of young Igaw men in their twenties. Yet Nnamdi K. Obasi, West Africa senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, says “MEND seems to be led by more enlightened and sophisticated men than most of the groups in the past.” Its leaders are educated, some at the university level, and they have learned from militant movements in other parts of the world, he says.
“MEND seems to be led by more enlightened and sophisticated men than most of the groups in the past.”
Experts agree that MEND does not have a united structure, and Okonta argues the group is an “idea” more than an organization. Olly Owen, research associate at the Center for Democracy and Development in Nigeria, compares the group to a franchise operation. “Nigeria is a fluid and difficult place to operate, so you need to choose the organizational structure that allows you to operate best.” This structure allows MEND more flexibility, he says, but has also created confusion over the group’s composition. An International Crisis Group (ICG) report describes a similar structure in which militant groups switch affiliations on a case-by-case basis. “Some of these elements alternate between identifying themselves as MEND and operating under other names,” the report claims. Such groups include the NDPVF, the Coalition for Militant Action in the Niger Delta (COMA), and the Martyr’s Brigade.
The leadership of MEND is similarly unclear. Most foreign journalists communicate with Jomo Gbomo, who claims to be a spokesman for MEND. Men called Brutus Ebipadei and Major-General Godswill Tamuno have communicated with the press and claimed leadership roles in the group. Oxford’s Okonta says he has spoken to members of the core leadership of MEND, who explained to him they remain undercover to protect themselves. “They have to work in such a way that the government does not get into their working structure,” Okonta says. Owen says the leadership of MEND maintains anonymity due to Asari’s arrest, but they are likely “recycled from other organizations” such as Asari’s group and the Ijaw Youth Congress.
MEND is able to maintain its secrecy because of sympathy for the group among locals. Government crackdowns have only bolstered that sympathy and driven recruits.
Taking and releasing hostages
MEND’s attacks have hurt Nigeria’s oil exports—costing at least eight hundred thousand barrels per day, or over 25 percent of the country’s oil output, according to Nigerian officials. A February 2006 attack on two Royal Dutch Shell oilfields accounted for some 477,000 barrels per day of the reduced output; analysts believe the fields may reopen after April’s election. Though the group regularly carries out attacks against pipelines and is responsible for at least two car bombings, its primary tactic is kidnapping foreign oil workers. It typically releases these hostages unharmed after a period of negotiations—via intermediaries—with oil company representatives and the government. Okonta writes that taking hostages allows MEND to focus international attention on the Niger Delta and “to exploit the blaze of publicity thus generated to announce their grievances and demands of the Nigerian government.”
Hostage negotiations can involve ransom money, though MEND denies this. ICG’s Obasi says MEND tries to distance itself from the criminal activities the smaller militant groups are notorious for, but some of those organizations linked to MEND may ask for ransom money on its behalf. These groups profit handsomely from the oil companies; the International Crisis Group has documented multiple instances of oil companies paying companies owned by militant leaders to provide “security” to oil installations. The other major source of income for the criminal militant groups is oil bunkering, a complicated process of tapping an oil pipeline and filling plastic cans with crude oil. The oil is then sold to locals or transported to barges offshore for transport to a neighboring country. Asari’s militant group was so notorious for oil bunkering, writes John Ghazvinian in the Virginia Quarterly Review, that its product became known in the Delta as “Asari fuel.”
Some, including Obasi, say MEND also participates in oil bunkering. The extent of its participation, however, and the amount of money it generates, is unclear. While details of their funding are murky, MEND does not suffer from lack of money. The group has been seen with costly advanced weapons, including shoulder-mounted rocket launchers. Sebastian Junger, who profiled the group for Vanity Fair, noted its possession of new Czech-made Rachot UK-68 machine guns.
Growing political aims
Since its inception, MEND has articulated three major demands: the release of Asari from prison, the receipt of 50 percent of revenues from oil pumped out of the Delta, and the withdrawal of government troops from the Delta. Its broader aim is “resource control,” but it has largely failed to delineate specific long-term goals.
Instances in which MEND has made specific demands have failed to produce lasting or substantial results. In April 2006, MEND demanded that Shell pay $1.5 billion in compensation for pollution in the Niger Delta, a sum previously mandated by the Nigerian courts. Negotiations between MEND and the government (brokered by an Ijaw political group) resulted in a brief truce, which broke in mid-August when Nigerian military units killed fifteen MEND militants on their way to negotiate the release of a kidnapped Shell worker. Since then, MEND’s attacks have become more frequent and its rhetoric more incendiary.
Experts disagree over the trajectory of MEND’s politics. Some Nigeria experts say the group’s demands have progressed to an interest in taking part in the political process. Obasi says the group issued a statement asking for a certain number of seats in the Niger Delta legislature and in the National Assembly, which shows they see themselves “perhaps even as a legitimate political party.” Others say MEND wants political autonomy for residents of the Niger Delta. Divisions within the core leadership may be perpetuating these conflicting messages: Owen says there are elements in MEND’s core leadership who want local government representation but others who are firmly opposed to being involved with the state.
Perhaps due to this leadership division, MEND does not appear to have a strong stake in the upcoming elections, scheduled for mid-April. While the practice of hiring militant groups to protect and deliver votes to political candidates was widespread in the 1999 and 2003 elections, and other militant groups have forged similar alliances ahead of upcoming elections, there is no evidence that MEND is playing such a role. International observers predicted MEND’s attacks might escalate prior to the elections, but thus far there has been no significant change in their frequency. Owen says MEND “seeks to influence people who are in political office and is looking to structure deals with politicians to be interlocutors for them.”
"The fact that no one else is advancing the debate is ceding power to people like MEND.”
MEND is the most powerful militant group in the Delta right now, but there is conflicting opinion on whether their influence is growing or waning. “They don’t have a clearly articulated political mission” says Ghazvinian. “I don’t think they will be around in six months or two years’ time.” Owen agrees the group lacks specific goals, but he believes it could sustain itself. “The lasting power of the group depends on events," he says. “At the moment, MEND is powerful and sets the agenda. The fact that no one else is advancing the debate is ceding power to people like MEND.”
MEND’s ability to attract international attention via the media illustrates that the group is fully aware of its ability to affect international oil prices. Yet if the media has somewhat overstated the threat MEND poses, the Nigerian government has failed to take the group seriously enough. Save for its negotiations in April 2006, the government has refused to enter a dialogue with the group or respond to any of its political demands, instead attempting to counter MEND by sending security forces into the Delta.
Experts agree this security strategy is ineffective. By writing MEND off as a criminal organization and attempting to quash it with force, the government risks exacerbating the situation. The Delta militants know the region much better than Nigeria’s security agencies, and they have superior weapons and equipment. The International Crisis Group report warns that even if a sustained effort to defeat MEND militarily succeeded, it would likely shut down oil production in the Delta for up to two years, not to mention precipitate new and more radicalized militants.
“The Nigerian state’s bark is a lot worse than its bite on this issue,” says Owen. “Their rhetoric is pitched to the outside world to reassure international partners that they are doing something.” Owen argues that instead of focusing on security, the government should engage MEND and prompt the group to clearly articulate its demands so that it can start a credible negotiation process.
The Nigerian government appears to realize its efforts are not sufficient. It has asked the United States and Britain to provide technical assistance to its navy under the Gulf of Guinea Energy Security Strategy, a request both countries agreed to. But a recent request by Abuja for the presence of U.S. Marines in the Delta was denied, reports the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.
Given the deep-seated complexity of the crisis in the Delta, the Nigerian government will need to work with other groups to address the grievances of MEND and other militant organizations. The International Crisis Group report recommends that the Nigerian government increase the percentage of oil revenues it sends to all Nigerian states, that oil companies make efforts to partner with community organizations on development projects, and that the international community offer a forum for mediation between the Nigerian government and MEND.