On 13 May the Nigerian military invaded towns and villages in the Warri SouthWest area of Delta State, using ground forces and helicopter gunships. Although the Government has enforced a media blackout, reports coming in estimate the death toll at over a thousand, with some 20,000 people - mainly women - displaced. In the initial invasion, the villages of Opuye, Okerenkoro, Kurutie and Oporoza (the site of the new documentary Sweet Crude) were targeted, but eyewitnesses have now reported nine villages destroyed. The pretext for these vicious and criminal attacks was to 'root out criminal elements and militants' so that the rest of the country can live in peace. But the people of the Niger Delta are not living in peace, and they have not lived in peace for the past 20 years. On the contrary, they have been living under military occupation and under the very real threat of brutal and unprovoked attacks by the Nigerian military. Again, the pretext has either been to 'catch criminals or militant youths', as in Odi in 1999 and Warri now. Most of these attacks have been on behalf of the multinational oil companies, to silence non-violent protests, which are carried out mainly by women.
With very few exceptions, the Nigerian media and the federal, state and local government representatives have stood firmly behind the Government's position, even going as far as demanding that the military action be extended to other states in the region. Mohammed Ibn N'Allah, a senator from Kebbi in the North, made the Government's position clear - Niger Deltans were to be eliminated in the interest of a greater Nigeria (20 million is a rough estimate of the population of Delta, Baylesa and Rivers States).
'Although Hon. Daniel Metu and Hon. Tam Brisibe backed Agoda on the call for restraint, their resistance soon crumbled as the Chairman, House Committee on Judiciary, Hon. Mohammed Ibn N'Allah (PDP, Kebbi), took the floor by storm and unleashed a tirade of verbal attacks on the militants. He described the activities of the militants as pure criminality and total disregard for constituted authority. "What is happening in the Niger Delta is pure criminality of the highest order, arising from total disregard for constituted authority. In Iraq, thousands of people lost their lives because of an insurrection against the Government during the reign of former Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein. We can do away with 20 million militants for the rest 120 million Nigerians to live," N'Allah said.'
The politics of oil and repression in Nigeria is highly complex, with a plethora of players -including the Western media - all having their own interests at stake. To begin to understand these complexities I believe we should turn things around and ask ourselves: What would the region look like if it had been developed like other oil-producing regions across, say, the Middle East? And, instead of focusing on a small group of militants (who incidentally only took up arms in 2005 because nearly 15 years of non-violent activism had fallen on deaf ears) let's look at the record of the Nigerian 'Military' State and try and discern a more truthful perspective.
The Niger Delta has always been at the extremities of Nigerian consciousness. The last 40 years have been hideous for the people and the environment. The situation with regards the Niger Delta is a testament to systematic corruption and repression by all levels of the Government, in alliance with the multinational oil companies. It speaks to a globalized system of human rights and environmental abuses and a conscious underdevelopment to maximise profits.
Successive governments have suppressed any resistance to exploitation and lack of development. Ten years ago Obasanjo invaded the town of Odi in Baylesa state, killing and wounding hundreds. Hundreds more fled to the swamps and bush to hide whilst the soldiers rampaged through the town. The attack was excused as an action to root out a small group of youths who were said to have attacked and killed 12 policemen. But why should a whole town have to suffer for the actions of a few? When I visited the town three months after the attack many people were still living under plastic sheets - in a region where rainfall is a daily event. Others were living in broken-down homes or sharing accommodation with neighbours and relatives.
The only reason a government would do this is if they felt the people had no rights and were not their equals. Other military attacks which have taken place are: Umuechem in 1990; Ilaje community in 1998 (the case against Chevron which took place in December); Oleh, Ozoro, and Olomoro towns in Isokoland in 1999; Ogoni between 1990 through to the judicial murder of the Ogoni Nine in November 1995; the rape of women by soldiers in Choba (Ikwerre) in 1999 and the attacks on communities in Delta state in 2002.
All these attacks took place before the militants took up arms at in 2004/5. The rhetoric coming from the Nigerian military state and its leaders, including those in the Niger Delta, is that the militants are a threat to the security and sustainability of Nigeria. But the real danger comes from the militarization of Nigeria's governance, which is only thinly veiled by the second civilian republic. Human rights abuses and collective punishment: these are not the actions of a democracy but of a semi-feudal military dictatorship in the hands of a small cartel which includes multinational oil companies. It is they who are the real threat to Nigeria's security.
Nigeria's leadership is inept and without an iota of vision. The situation in the Niger Delta has been deteriorating since 1990 and all attempts at non-violent protest have been squashed. A country with a vision would have seen over and over again that the only solution to peace in the region, and in the country at large, is to invest in development, to seriously tackle corruption on all government levels, and to force oil companies to clean up their environmental mess, to work to the same standards legislated in their own countries and to end gas flaring once and for all.