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Nigeria's Oil War

By Dan Darling | February 21, 2006

Recent attacks by Nigerian rebels within the Delta state have raised questions as to the identities of the groups responsible and their possible connections to international terrorism, particularly given that they have occurred in conjunction with sectarian violence in the northern part of the country. While it is not possible to rule out a common link between these incidents, the weight of the evidence would seem to be against it, as both campaigns appear to have started more or less independently of one another. Whether or not either is connected to international terrorism is another matter altogether, as this analysis of the violence in Delta state will attempt to explain.

The primary actor in the Delta state attacks is a group that operates under a variety of names, most of which are some variant of the Coalition for Militant Action in the Niger Delta (COMA) or Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), a primarily Ijaw group led by Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, who was captured by Nigerian authorities in September 2005 and is currently jail on treason charges.

Despite the nom de guerre adopted by the COMA leader, the Ijaw are a primarily Catholic ethnic group numbering roughly 14,000,000 who live in the Nigerian states of Ondo, Edo, Delta, Bayelsa, Rivers, and Akwa Ibom. They were among the first Nigerian ethnic groups to make contact with European missionaries from Spain and Portugal during the 1600s and were quickly converted to Catholicism. Because of their location along the Niger Delta (as opposed to the modern Delta state), most Ijaw lived as fishermen and organized socially into groups of boat-clans referred to as Houses, each of which elect leaders for the purposes of representing the House’s interests, protecting its trading rights, and leading them during wartime.

Following the discovery of oil in Nigeria in 1958, a number of prominent US, British, French, Dutch, and Italian companies set up agreements with successive Nigerian governments to set up oil facilities on Ijaw land. Because most Nigerian governments have been dominated by members of the nation’s northern Muslim population, many Ijaw believe that they are not receiving a fair share of the oil revenue and have formed a number of groups in order to rectify the situation through violence including the Egbesu Boys, the Ijaw National Congress (INC), the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), Movement for Survival of Ijaw Ethnic Nationality (MOSIEN), and the Niger Delta Volunteer Force (NDVF), of which COMA is the evolutionary descendant. Despite both their names and historical Ijaw grievances, many of these groups have long since ceased to be little more than bandit gangs that rely on high-sounding political rhetoric in order to justify their activities.

Mujahid (sometimes translated as “Moujahid”) Dokubo-Asari is considered the current leader of COMA despite his conversion to Islam or current imprisonment. By maintaining the support of the most powerful House leaders, COMA and its members are able to operate amongst their base of support within the Ijaw population with little if any danger of being turned over to the federal authorities. As a result, COMA is now the largest and best-organized of the remaining Ijaw groups, fielding as many as 10,000 members and protecting those Houses that support it from their people’s traditional enemies, the neighboring Itsekiri, who are used by the Nigerian government to administer to control the oil facilities in and around Warri.

Because COMA emerged independent of either the Wahhabi sha’riah movement in northern Nigeria that has resulted in so much sectarian violence there or the Nigerian Taliban that first appeared in Yobe state in December 2003, it is unlikely for a number of reasons that it is aligned with either group. The Nigerian Taliban movement appears to have been successfully defeated, while the Wahhabi sha’riah movement seeks to use the power of the state to establish an environment favorable to Wahhabi Salafists, at least at the local level, while COMA and its Ijaw backers believe that the Nigerian government already has too much power and favor stronger local control.

This is not to say that there is no evidence of Islamist or al-Qaeda involvement in the Niger Delta conflict, but it is extremely important to recognize here where the facts and end and speculation begins. Far too much information out of Nigeria is already based on rumor and hearsay and it is exceedingly easy for the Nigerian government to exploit Western ignorance of Ijaw culture and history in order to paint them as being in league with al-Qaeda, something it has gone to great pains to avoid with respect to the leadership of the northern sha’riah movement.

Those caveats noted, there are two pieces of information that need to be aired and evaluated by the reader. The first was reported by the Israeli counterterrorism news and rumor website DEBKAfile’s counter-terror sources report that a group identifying itself as Coalition for Militant Action in the Niger Delta (COMA) has claimed the crash on Oct. 23. The plane bound for Abuja came down at Lissa village minutes after takeoff from Lagos airport. Aboard were senior Nigerian officials who have never been identified by the authorities. Before disappearing from the airport radar, the pilot sent a distress signal. COMA threatens more attacks on Nigerian agents and infrastructure until its leader Mujahid Dokubo-Asari is released from detention. The detained man has asked his followers to cease violent action, but they publicly rejected his request and threatened strikes against Nigeria’s oil pipelines. The Nigerian group claims to be linked to al Qaeda and operating under the command of Abu Musab al Zarqawi. One theory is that the plane was brought down by a missile.

As noted, this was authored in October and it is still unclear at this point as to whether COMA’s claims concerning ties to Zarqawi or having shot down a Nigerian plane were accurate or even released by the group. However, it is in the interest of the reader to have as much information available as possible when evaluating COMA and its cause.

A second, far more interesting account appeared in the Nigerian Daily Independent concerning former Bayelsa state governor Depriye Alamieyeseigha, COMA’s main backer who is currently facing extradition to the UK where he skipped bail on money laundering charges:

Meanwhile, a diplomatic source has disclosed in Abuja that the London police had expected to make a large haul of weapons when they arrested Alamieyeseigha last month.

According to the source, he was being suspected of backing terrorism and – based on intelligence reports forwarded to the British by the Nigerian authorities – of smuggling arms.

That was why the British police made the arrest with 25 police vehicles, cordoning off the British Airways plane as it touched down in London. The police searched all his suitcases, looking for the arms.

It was learnt that the Nigerian authorities had told the London police that Alamieyeseigha is not just a major sponsor of terrorism he enjoys close links with Osama Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda.

This was the connection Abuja reportedly made between his arrest and that of South South resource control activist, Asari Dokubo, who was incarcerated soon after the governor’s travail began.

The source explained that since no arms were found on Alamieyeseigha, the Federal Government had to justify its terrorism allegation against him by arresting Dokubo who allegedly once said Osama bin Laden is his hero.

The London police had reportedly been told that the governor and his “terrorist cell” had perfected plans to destablise Nigeria by ensuring that it is not governable and by making conditions impossible for oil production in the Niger Delta – thus threatening world supply.

Dokubo’s conversion to Islam and his religious title of “Alhaji” makes him fit the Islamic terrorist bill. But those conversant with Rivers State politics have said again and again that Dokubo’s gang was sponsored by an unnamed governor for strong arm tactics during past elections.

He came to national limelight when he fought a rival militia in gangland style, which nearly exposed the governor.

It should be noted that al-Hajji (“Alhaji”) simply means that Dokubo-Asari has made a pilgrimage to Mecca and carries with it no terrorism accusation. The claim that COMA was sponsored by a local state governor who used the group to intimidate his political opponents during elections is quite plausible and it remains to be seen as to whether or not Alamieyeseigha is the cog in a sinister machine or merely yet another crooked politician who has been the unfortunate victim of Nigerian propaganda. Assuming he is extradicted to the UK, his trial should make for some interesting viewing.