In Warri, Delta State, the raging battle between the men of the Joint Task Force (JTF) and militants operating in the creeks shifted to the metropolis yesterday as men of the Nigerian Navy invaded the predominately Ijaw enclave, the “Warri Corner” and Miller waterside near the Naval Base and the Warri Port, a move that resulted in a shoot-out that lasted several hours. – This Day Online

The Niger river at Warri photo by davethompsonministries http://www.flickr.com/photos/davethompsonministries/3019276569/in/photostream/

The Niger river at Warri photo by davethompsonministries on Flickr

… the resultant gun battle triggered a stampede as workers from the nearby NNPC Zonal office which also houses the Department of Petroleum Resources (DPR), the Warri South Local Government secretariat and the Warri ports took to their heels. Some journalists who were in the vicinity at the time of the invasion took shelter at the nearby Police Area Command office as the bullets continued to fly for over two hours.

The fighting in the Delta is costing the Nigerian government over 1 million bpd, barrels per day, of oil revenue. The JTF shows no concern for civilian casualties. Starting a gunbattle in a city such as Warri, is certain to kill far more civilians than fighters, it is a much more visible show of the JTF’s contempt for human life. There is far greater destruction for now in the villages. The civilians in the village communities themselves are most certainly part of the intended military target, they are not accidental collateral damage

The makers of the film Sweet Crude write:

On Wednesday, May 13, the Joint Task Force (JTF) began aerial and ground attacks on militant camps in the Niger Delta. On Friday, these attacks widened to include at least nine Gbaramatu Kingdom Ijaw communities, including Oporoza, the village where much of Sweet Crude was filmed. Based on our most recent information, these attacks on civilians continue.

According to first-hand accounts by village residents, the JTF used gunboats and helicopters to fire on villages, with women and children among the estimated 500 casualties. Some were killed while fishing in canoes. Residents fled in terror into the bush. The villages are now deserted and as many as 30,000 civilians are displaced without adequate food or water supply.

There is no way to accurately report on the number of casualties, as aid agencies have not been able to get into the region. This leaves the injured without medical attention, as there are no hospitals in the area. It is reported that the JTF has closed the waterways, barring outside access and preventing villagers from traveling and fishing.

There is a tragic history of Niger Delta civilian communities being targeted by the Nigerian military. In 1999, Odi, a community of 5,000 was wiped out completely � all residents were killed and the village was razed. In 2005, Odioma suffered a similar fate, as did the village of Agge in 2008.

And in an email yesterday the filmmakers wrote:

It was reported today that the village of Oporoza, where much of Sweet Crude was filmed and where we have many friends, was burned to the ground by the Nigerian military Joint Task Force. Other villages too. The destruction continues and the region is still blocked off to aid agencies.

Ijaw elders and leaders issued a statement: The Systematic Destruction of the Ijaw. It says the violence and destruction is on a scale greater even than in the Nigerian civil war, and includes these statements:

b) The burning, destruction, complete razing of Okerenkoko, Oporoza, Kunukunuma, Peretorukorigbene, Kurutie and many other communities and the killing and maiming of innocent people including women and children amount to systemic annihilation of an ethnic race and this is simply genocide. It therefore deserves international condemnation.

d) The Ijaw ethnic nation contributes more than 70% of Nigeria’s wealth. We appear to be a people who have become victims of our own wealth by the use of sophisticated military hardware bought with our own petro-naira to kill our people.

e) It is indeed criminal, unjustified, inconsiderate and callous to declare full military operations on communities in the guise of undertaking a search and rescue mission for hostages and missing personnel whereas it is common knowledge that hostages and hijacked vessels are secured within the precinct of militant camps and not villages inhabited by innocent people. This is nothing but a deeply contemplated systemic killing of the Ijaw people in furtherance of the age-long crave by sections of this country to either forcefully relocate us or make the Ijaw identity extinct in the Nigerian map with a view to taking over full possession of our natural resources.

f) The Ijaw ethnic nation appeals to the United Nations Organisation to set up a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the circumstances surrounding this latest assault and killing of hapless and innocent people since we do not foresee the possibility of justice from a Nigerian government commissioned inquiry.

The violence is losing the country a lot of money, also from This Day Online:

At the present price of $60 per barrel, and at the current exchange rate of N145 against the dollar, Nigeria is losing about N8.7 billion daily …

There are comments on many Nigerian websites to the effect of kill them all, or sometimes just kill all the militants. He may not like the loss of money, but Speaker Bankole appears quite comfortable with the violence:

Bankole: Military Action Part of Peacekeeping
Speaker Bankole yesterday said that the military operation in Niger Delta is part of the effort to achieve peace in the violence ridden region.
Bankole, who spoke with journalists at the Presidential /VIP terminal of Murtala Muhammed Airport, Lagos, described the military option recently being employed by the federal government to counter and suppress the insurgence of the militants in the Niger Delta, who have almost held the nation’s social and economic activities to a stand still in the area for some years now, as a necessary option to achieve peace in that part of the country.
As far I am concerned, it is a peacekeeping option that is going on in the Niger Delta,” he said.
On the innocent citizens who are being killed on daily basis in the crossfire, the Speaker said casualties of that status were inevitable in the cause of attempting to resolve any conflict.
“When two people are fighting and you try to separate them, you might get punched as well,” Bankole added.
He also expressed his sympathy for the families of the victims.

Quite touching that last bit, you can tell just how sincerely he cares.

And it is true the militants are a mixture of actions and motives. In many quarters they get little or no sympathy, from Punch:

While one may count millions of reasons why the military should never engage in its present activities in the Niger Delta, the fact that the militants are causing the nation great pains is incontrovertible.

In the beginning, the militants were protesting the rape of their land by oil explorers and many people regarded it as part of the struggles to get those who are reaping the resources of the area to pay attention to the sufferings of the people. Then they were kidnapping foreign oil workers and setting them free after the payment of ransom. Today, the militants have taken the business of kidnapping to a blood chilling level. Now they kidnap everybody including Nigerian men, women and innocent children many of who neither have business with oil in the Niger Delta nor the oil companies. The kidnapping of a three year old girl is a case in point. Recently, the nation was awe struck with the news that a kidnapped young lady was killed after a N10m ransom was paid.

There are and have been strong links between the militants, elected officials, and even the oil companies.

Punch also reports:

Indications have emerged that the Federal Government’s rebuff of pleas to stop further military onslaught against militants in the Niger Delta communities may have been caused by negative intelligence reports on some leaders of the region.

A security source said that some prominent leaders in the region, including state governors, had been found to be fraternising with militant groups before the ongoing operation.

He said, “How can you listen to people you know have openly identified with known militants in the Niger Delta region? Today, they have lost control of the boys and there is nothing they can do about it.

For more information on how this works, Human Rights Watch released an extensive report on the political situation in Nigeria in 2007, called Criminal Politics: Violence, “Godfathers” and Corruption in Nigeria, click here for the Pdf version.

With their village homes destroyed, and their families fleeing, in hiding, or slaughtered, the militants are threatening a nasty escalation, from Punch:

The JRC [Joint Revolutionary Council] is made up of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, the Martyrs Brigade and the Reformed Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force

The spokesperson for the JRC, Ms. Cynthia Whyte, who accused the Joint Task Force of attacking civilian settlements, including the palace of the Agadagba of Gbaramatu, schools and other public places, vowed that the soldiers would be made to pay for the “desecration of Ijawland.”

Whyte said, “Let us also warn that any bandit soldier of the Nigerian state who breaches the rules of engagement in this campaign will be summarily executed.

“Any attack on unarmed and innocent village-folk will be revenged. Any attack on community people will result in an equal attack on families of soldiers in any barracks we choose to attack. It will be an eye for an eye henceforth.”

The militants debunked the claim by the JTF that Camp 5 of the militants had been taken over by the soldiers.

According to the statement, militants had long vacated the camp, adding that it had already become a tourist centre before it was taken over by the JTF.

The statement reads in part, “Let it be known that Camp 5 had long become a tourist centre and a haven of sorts for various Ijaw organisations who seek to keep the peace.

Let us remind all men of goodwill that the attacks on Gbaramatu Kingdom represent the height of an attempt by a northern cabal to fully sink their teeth in oil production operations in the Niger Delta.”

And this last is one of the huge problems facing Nigeria. The illegal bunkering in the Delta is big time and sophisticated. The criminals and syndicates involved make $60 million a day, by one insider estimate.

From the BBC in an article that also talks about the UK offering Nigeria military assistance for dealing with the militants:

But a source close to the former government of President Olusegun Obasanjo says the problem is not about quashing militants in boats.

Some of the people who run the cartels are among Nigeria’s top political “godfathers”, who wield massive political influence.

“If the president goes after them, they could destabilise the country, cause a coup, a civil war. They are that powerful, they could bring the state down,” said the source, who did not want to be identified.

He says that attempts in the past to bring the trade under control were stopped for that reason.

“This is an industry that makes £30m ($60m) a day, they’d kill you, me, anyone, in order to protect it,” he said.

In order to get away with the theft, the bunkering syndicates operate under the cloak of the conflict between militants and oil companies in the Niger Delta.

They need “security” – gangs of armed heavies to protect their cargos – and threaten anyone who tries to interfere.

They don’t have to look far to find large groups of unemployed youths willing to do what they are told for a little money.

These youths protect bunkering ships, force local community leaders to let bunkerers pass and bribe the Nigerian military.

The thieves may also need “the boys” to blow up pipelines, forcing the oil company to shut down the flow, allowing them to install a tap in the pipe.

“Hot-tapping”, as it is known, requires considerable expertise, usually supplied by a former oil company employee.

The US and the UK have offered Nigeria military assistance of one sort or another. It is quite clear that there is no possible military solution in the Delta. There are criminals on all sides. There are many many more people who are just trying to live their lives. Lawful regulation and transparency in the oil industry and the related banking would make a big difference, along with lawful and reliable policing. And by reliable I mean citizens would not need to fear the police. The problem that needs to be solved is that the people of the Delta have no clean water, no schools, no clinics, no jobs, and a heavily polluted environment that makes traditional farming and fishing impossible. Nobody seems too uncomfortable with the thought of killing all of “them” to “solve” the problem, the current JTF approach. Any military assistance will certainly assist this “solution”.

Kayode Komolafe writes some wise words in an article printed in This Day:

Not surprisingly the information about the latest bloodbath has been murky as everything about the handling of the Niger Delta crisis over the years. There are no means of getting the records of casualties, if any is being taken at all. Deaths are simply counted in dozens and displaced persons in thousands. Newspapers are awash with photographs of hapless children and old men and women who have been displaced. These defenceless folks are fleeing the spots where soldiers are battling it out with militants. Viewers have been treated to footages on television of people streaming out of the creeks to avoid getting caught in the crossfire. Even the military task force that is “flushing out” the militants has only invited the media to visit the areas of operations “when the dust settles”. Meanwhile, one does not need to be a security expert to know that helpless people will bear the brunt of the crisis.

It is, therefore, not enough to have official declarations that Camp Five and the Iroko Camp of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) have been destroyed. It is even more urgent to stop the suffering of the defenceless persons. While the debate may continue about who is to blame primarily for the Niger Delta debacle, the government and people of Nigeria should be interested about the humanitarian dimension of the fighting now.

It is unfortunate that the nation has ignored the lessons in the tragedies of Odi, Zaki Biam, Umuechem and other places where the military response to attacks on soldiers recorded indefensible collateral damage. The extent of this damage should be made clear as we draw on lessons from the past operations. These are steps that should not be delayed.

For clarity, the government has the responsibility for security in all parts of the republic. And no sane person can justify the activities of criminals who kidnap persons, vandalise pipelines, steal oil or even chase a way construction workers from sites. These criminals operating in the region have distorted the legitimate struggle of the people for justice and equity in the administration of the revenues from oil. The activities of the criminals should be separated from the justifiable protest against the neglect, poverty and underdevelopment of the region. Security and law enforcement forces should be able to deal with criminals without wreaking havoc on whole communities. It is a professional challenge. For instance, kidnappers have operated in other parts of Nigeria outside the Niger Delta such as south- eastern states, Lagos, Abuja and Kaduna. The crime could be fought without unleashing onslaught on the communities.

Yar’Adua should not stop at flushing out militants out of Camp Five and Iroko Camp, he should move swiftly to implement policies that would flush out inequity, poverty, and underdevelopment in the region.