With one phone call to her husband in the Niger Delta in 2008, SA-based Azuka Okah managed to secure the release of two South African divers kidnapped for ransom by rebels in Nigeria’s oil producing region.
Azuka Okah moved to SA with her four children in 2007 when her husband Henry, leader of Nigerian rebel group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), was detained by the Nigerian authorities on 63 charges that included sabotage, robbery, hostage taking and possession of arms.
She argued for the release of the SA men on the basis that her family had been well treated in their new home in the country.
In October Henry Okah, who was released from jail in Nigeria in 2009 under an amnesty negotiated with the government, was in court again – this time in SA, where he has joined his family. He appeared on charges of terrorism linked to the bombings in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, during the country’s 50th independence anniversary celebrations on Friday.
Original reports said MEND had claimed responsibility for the bombings. It is no stranger to planting bombs in the delta and even at an installation in the commercial capital, Lagos.
But Okah has claimed no knowledge of the blasts and the government has accused criminal elements of hiding behind the Niger Delta rebel group.
President Goodluck Jonathan, then vice president, was the main negotiator in the 2009 ceasefire agreement with MEND, in terms of which the state promised immunity from prosecution for all gunmen who laid down their weapons over a 60-day period ending in October last year.
One of MEND’s key ceasefire demands was the release of their leader – Okah – from jail, which was met soon after the talks were concluded.
Jonathan has a major stake in peace in the Niger Delta, particularly given that it is likely to be a key campaign issue for him in his fight to stand for president in the 2011 elections.
MEND, which has been waging war against the government and the international oil companies for the past five years, has been responsible for many instances of kidnapping of foreigners in the Niger Delta in its quest to get funding for its activities and publicity for its cause.
The organisation is the most prominent of many militant groups formed since oil was discovered in Nigeria in the late 1950s who have been fighting for a stake in Nigeria’s significant oil reserves which are located in the Niger Delta in south-east Nigeria.
Nigeria is Africa’s biggest oil producer and the commodity accounts for 95% of the country’s foreign reserves and about 80% of its revenues.
In the 1970s, the government nationalised oil assets and the nine states that make up the Niger Delta currently receive revenues from the central government as part of a revenue sharing agreement with the 36 states that make up the federation.
But their share in no way reflects the proportion of revenues that are generated from the area and it remains one of the poorest parts of the country for ordinary people. Development promises by the past administration of Olusegun Obasanjo were not kept, fuelling resentment among delta people.
Activities by oil companies over the years have left the environment degraded through oil spills and gas flaring.
Media images of MEND are pure theatre – heavily muscled men with balaclavas and automatic weapons riding the waters of the Niger Delta in speed boats.
But the waterways of the delta have been a theatre of war, not the scene of an action movie. Since MEND was formed in 2005, its members have launched dramatic attacks on oil installations in the area, affecting production, costing Nigeria about R200m a day in lost revenues since 2006.
This has not only affected the revenues of the central government and profit margins of the oil companies, it has affected global oil supplies and helped to push up prices. As Nigeria imports most of its fuel needs because of a lack of refining capacity, Nigerian consumers are affected too.
The Niger Delta is a vast area of south-east Nigeria characterised by swamps, rivers, creeks, estuaries and thick mangrove forest, making it a difficult landscape to fight any kind of insurgency. Okah’s message, conveyed by the media, was clear: “We control the oil and there is nothing the government can do about it.”
The area is home to a number of minority ethnic groups, such as the Ijaw, who have never been near the seat of power in Nigeria until Jonathan’s sudden ascendancy to the presidency earlier this year after the death of his predecessor, Umar Yar’Adua.
Yar’Adua chose Jonathan, a former governor of Bayelsa State in the Niger Delta, as his vice president with a view to tackling the Niger Delta insurgency. But even Jonathan found it difficult to make headway with MEND and other militant groups that had surfaced in the delta over the years.
The scenario of government versus militants has become increasingly complex and, importantly, monetised. Oil bunkering — theft of refined oil through pipeline sabotage — has become big business for militants. Payment for protection of assets, companies and people has created new political and economic fiefdoms and little of the money going into rebel coffers appears to be going to the development of communities whose lives the rebels claim to want to improve.
The rebel activity is becoming increasingly interlinked with rising criminality and kidnappings for ransom have spread to other parts of the country with no direct links to the Niger Delta issue.
In 2009, the federal government launched a major military offensive on rebel activity in the delta and several months later, agreement was reached on the ceasefire and amnesty for rebel fighters.
But in early 2010, MEND, frustrated by the lack of progress of talks with government because of the Yar’Adua’s serious illness, said its war against the oil industry would resume.
This has not happened but the ceasefire is on shaky ground as economic opportunities for former rebels are not being created fast enough. Huge investment in the region is required to meet promises to reintegrate them.
Despite – and because of – their massive oil and gas riches, the delta states have suffered from years of corruption, underdevelopment and infrastructural neglect. The turnaround is going to be long, slow and expensive.