Nigeria: War Looms? Is The Delta About To Blow?

Mar 21, 2003


Trouble is brewing in the Niger Delta. The impact of the violence, triggered by the run-up to April 12 elections, may shake the foundations of the entire country.


Something big is going on in Nigeria. While the rest of the world watches bombs falling on Baghdad, oil companies in Nigeria are declaring force majeure and the United States has just cut off military assistance to the West African state.

What is going on remains unclear. The possibilities, however, are finite: Only a few events could upset the chronically chaotic situation in Nigeria enough to scare oil companies into halting production and frighten or anger Washington sufficiently to shut down dialogue with the Nigerian military, which is the country's main powerbroker. The three most likely scenarios are: a coup in Abuja, a military massacre of mammoth proportions that has yet to be reported or the expectation that the oil-rich Delta is about to erupt into war.

What triggered the most recent trouble is unclear. Ethnic violence in the Delta region is a near chronic problem, but recent events point to something much larger. The situation's center of gravity seems to be Delta state.

Trouble has been brewing for several months, and violence erupted in early February when the rival Urhobo and Itsekiri tribes clashed over the delineation of electoral wards. Ethnic Ijaws sided with the Urhobos in the dispute, escalating the violence.

Then, on March 5, the All Nigeria People's Party vice presidential candidate, Harry Marshal, was assassinated by unknown gunmen. Marshall had been tapped to organize ANPP support in the Delta region. He was from Rivers State, another Delta region area populated by ethnic Ijaws.

Marshall was a key player in the ANPP, whose presidential candidate -- retired Gen. Muhammadu Buhari -- is the main rival to incumbent President Olusegun Obasanjo in elections. Marshall's assassination likely was a political act, and it rocked the Delta.

Nigerian naval troops on March 12 raided Okerenkoko, an Ijaw community near Warri on the Nigerian coast. According to reports, at least five people were killed. Navy officials said the raid was to pre-empt an attack on Shell operations, but Ijaws argue that the navy provoked the hostilities.

The next day, Ijaw militants took three police officers hostage in the region. The violence continued March 17 when Ijaws attacked two Itsekiri villages in Delta, torching homes and killing seven people. Ijaws also razed a Shell base camp at the nearby Escravos terminal that had been used to house company workers and supplies, a local Shell spokesperson said.

The escalation apparently frightened the oil majors, because on March 18 Royal Dutch/Shell began pulling employees out of the region and closing several flow stations. Meanwhile, a representative at ChevronTexaco -- also active in the Delta region -- said the violence had not affected the company's main export terminal at Escravos.

But the next day, Chevron Nigeria Ltd. declared force majeure following the shut-in of production from all of its onshore and swamp locations in the western Niger Delta, Dow Jones reports. In a statement, the company said it had shut in 140,000 barrels per day of crude -- up from 30,000 bpd -- as a result of growing ethnic violence.

Finally, on March 21, Royal Dutch/Shell declared force majeure.

The U.S. State Department also confirmed March 21 that it had suspended military aid to Nigeria. The actual amount of assistance has not been disclosed, but the United States reportedly has trained Nigerian forces as peacekeepers, contracted MPRI -- a Washington-based consulting group that specializes in organization and streamlining of militaries -- and provided boats for the Nigerian navy.

State officials said the cancellation was prompted by an October 2001 Nigerian military massacre of people in the Benue state village of Zaki Biam, which came after residents killed 14 troops in ethnic clashes with another village. This justification is too flimsy to be believable -- the massacre occurred more than a year ago, and if Washington was going to react, it would have done so at the time.

Earlier reports suggested that the cut-off had something to do with Abuja's anti-war stance. Washington has denied this and indeed, it is unlikely, given the context of what's been going on in the Delta and the fact that military-to-military contacts and dialogue are a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy. Washington cuts off military assistance only in extreme circumstances or crises.

The ethnic clashes, the assassination of a powerful local opposition leader, the energy companies' evacuation of employees and force majeure declarations, and now Washington's severance of military aid all point to something much bigger happening in the Delta than the typical day-to-day violence and ethnic strife.

Given Nigeria's high tolerance for chaos and violence, whatever has happened has shaken the entire country. A coup is a possibility. There have been no sightings of Obasanjo, although he reportedly spoke at a conference in Abuja on March 19. But Stratfor for several months has predicted wide-scale ethnic and political violence would occur in the days and weeks before the elections. It's highly likely that with the elections weeks away and the stakes so high, the ethnic violence is a cover for political violence -- and politicians stirring up trouble -- and that the Delta is about to blow.