Henry Okah freed: But will that end Niger Delta militancy?

The MEND leader, Henry Okah, has been freed from jail as part of a government amnesty. But even as he was being released MEND, Nigeria’s most prominent militant group says it carried out an “unprecedented attack” on an oil tanker facility close to the main commercial city of Lagos.  


The Lagos attack marks a major escalation the activities of Mend, which has rarely attacked outside the Niger Delta. Five people were killed in the attack on an oil tanker facility. Emergency crews said the bodies of five workers were found near the facility. They were all burnt beyond recognition.


The alleged attack follows claims by Mend in recent days that it had blown up several oil pipelines and captured six foreign crew on board an oil tanker.

Okah is one of the heads of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend), but on leaving jail denied he was the leader. He was arrested in Angola in 2007 and charged with treason and gun-running charges. His release has been a key demand of his group.   On his release, Mr Okah said he would hold consultations with the rest of the group.

In a bid to end years of rebel attacks on the oil industry, President Umaru Yar’Adua declared a N50 billion amnesty for all the militants and said any rebel willing to give up their weapons by October would benefit from a rehabilitation programme, including education and training opportunities.


But Mend leaders said they would reject the amnesty – and have since claimed responsibility for several attacks including one earlier in Lagos, away from its usual area of operation in the Nigeria Delta.


The rebels say they are fighting for the rights of local people in the delta and for an increased share of Nigeria‘s vast oil wealth, but in the past the government has dismissed them as criminals.


In view of the escalation of these attacks, observers believe the amnesty is unlikely to work because the unrest is not a straightforward political struggle but involves economic and land rights. The rebel attacks have severely reduced Nigeria‘s oil output. Production has been cut by one-fifth in the past three years, partly as a result of violence.


According to BBC‘s Caroline Duffield in Lagos, the timing of the attacks is significant, coming at a time when the government has offered an amnesty to the militants. She says they are sending a message to the government: they will continue to use violence at the same time as negotiations.


They hope to put pressure on the government to extract greater concessions as part of the amnesty. They want to show they have the capability to strike anywhere – even Lagos, the country’s economic heart, our correspondent says.


Pessimism concerning the success of the government declared amnesty is fuelled by the fact that whereas the rebels claim they are fighting for the rights of local people in the delta and for an increased share of Nigeria’s vast oil wealth but evidence suggests that the Niger Delta militants are also associated with illegal oil bunkering, though they are but one of many elements involved in the trade.

According to a UNODC report, In 2003, Brigadier-General Elias Zamani, then commanding a Delta peacekeeping force, was asked whether oil was being stolen by local people, the security forces, government officials or an international element. His reply was: “All.”  The militant groups started out as ethnic self-protection societies or protest groups, eventually some were drawn into the high-stakes world of Delta politics.   

In a patronage system many of the militant groups have been funded and armed by local political leaders to ensure electoral victory for their patron. This victory gives the patron the opportunity to loot the preferential share of oil revenues assigned to the oil producing states.


In between elections, these armed groups may freelance in crimes against the oil companies – including kidnapping, extortion, and illegal bunkering – all committed in the name of fighting for the people of the Delta.


They commit these crimes with a sense of impunity, due to their connections to their political patrons. It may be that some of the revenues find their way back to their sponsors, or that license to loot is simply one component of the patronage agreement.


There are a great variety of armed groups operating in the Delta region, and it is likely that most, if not all, of them profit from illegal bunkering. The militant groups do spend a good deal of time and money presenting their political message, but they have also asserted their involvement in oil theft.


The leader of the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force, Dokubo Asari, has openly admitted to gaining the funds to arm his group through the sale of stolen crude oil. He has argued that he was simply taking back the oil that was stolen from the Ijaw.

It also appears that the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), the most prominent militant group presently operating, is involved in stealing oil in addition to its kidnapping activities.   In October 2008, Brigadier General Wuyep Rimtip, the new Joint Task Force commander for the western part of the Delta said: “There is a connection between militancy and illegal bunkering. It is their main source of sustenance.   

They use the proceeds from the sale of stolen petroleum products, whether refined or crude, to procure arms and take care of their needs.” The view that MEND is involved in bunkering was also suggested in statements made around the extradition of the putative head of the organization, Henry Okah, from Angola.

Moreover the Federal Government of Nigeria has not manifested utmost good faith in tackling the problems of the Niger Delta. The violence in the Niger Delta region could be traced to the people’s vexation over environment degradation and neglect.  

Over the years, there has been a near total neglect or failure to diligently integrate environmental concerns into oil exploration and production activities both by the government and the oil companies. The region is heavily polluted due to oil spillage, sabotage, pipeline vandalisation and emission from gas flaring.


The on-going agitation in the region includes quest for a better environment gravely affecting peace and security in the region. Unfortunately, youth restiveness has assumed a high level of criminality in many instances and the primary cause cannot be removed from the gross neglect by the oil companies and allied industries to the yearnings of communities, lack of basic infrastructure and employment opportunities and the degradation of the environment on which the rural people depend for their sustenance.


Until the nation restructures in line with true federalism to attain its full potential, the problems in the Niger Delta will no doubt continue.