Background Briefing

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On September 27, 2004, the leader of a powerful armed group threatened to launch an “all-out war” in the Niger Delta -- sending shock waves through the oil industry – unless the federal government ceded greater control of the region’s vast oil resources to the Ijaw people, the majority tribe in the Niger Delta. The threat, made by Alhaji Dokubo Asari, leader of the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF), followed the deployment of federal government troops to quell months of intense fighting between the NDPVF and a rival armed group, the Niger Delta Vigilante (NDV), led by Ateke Tom. The threat also provoked an immediate response from multinational oil companies, global financial markets, and Nigerian government officials. Shell Petroleum Development Company, which produces about half of Nigeria’s approximately 2.1 million barrels per day (bpd) production, shut down a facility that produces some 28,000 bpd because security concerns prevented the company from traveling to the area to fix a technical problem. The threat of supply disruption rattled already twitchy oil markets, and helped push global crude prices above an unprecedented U.S. $50 a barrel.

A Human Rights Watch fact-finding mission to Rivers State in November 2004 found that months of fighting between the armed groups has led to serious human rights abuses against ordinary Nigerians. The violence between Asari’s NDPVF and Tom’s NDV occurred mainly in riverine villages southeast and southwest of Port Harcourt, known as the oil capital of Nigeria, and within Port Harcourt itself. Since late 2003, the running fight for control of these villages and towns has resulted in the deaths of dozens of local people and forced tens of thousands to flee their homes. Schools and businesses have closed, and homes and property worth millions of dollars has been destroyed. Hundreds of mostly young male fighters have also been killed. The violence has created a profound climate of fear and insecurity in Rivers State, leaving local people reluctant to return to their homes or to seek justice for the crimes committed.

The recent violence in Rivers State is primarily the result of a struggle between the NDPVF and rival NDV for control over illegal oil revenues. Underlying the conflict are several key issues that fuel the violence, including: the manipulation of frustrated youth1 by political leaders, traditional elites, and organized crime syndicates involved in oil theft; the impact of oil money on community politics; crushing poverty and youth unemployment; and the widespread availability of small arms and other lethal weapons. Human Rights Watch found strong evidence to suggest that senior members of the state government at one time gave financial or logistical support to Asari and Tom, laying the foundations for a later conflict that would spin out of control. Both the leaders of armed groups and their backers have been emboldened in their acts of brutal violence by the prevailing culture of impunity. Across the Niger Delta, as throughout Nigeria, impunity from prosecution for individuals responsible for serious human rights abuses has created a devastating cycle of increasing conflict and violence.

The Nigerian government first publicly dismissed Asari’s September 2004 threat of “all out war,” calling him a “gangster” and “criminal.” Later in the month, however, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo invited Asari and Tom to the capital, Abuja, to broker an agreement to end the fighting. On October 1, 2004, Asari and Tom agreed to an immediate ceasefire, the “disbandment of all militias and militant groups,” and total disarmament. At this writing, attacks have sharply diminished. However, the agreement —as currently structured—offers only short-term prospects for stability and the protection of the local population.  All levels of government, the oil industry and the international community must address the causes of the escalation of violence in and around Port Harcourt.  Individuals responsible for organizing and perpetrating the violence, including government officials at all levels, must be held legally accountable. To bring about long-term change, the government must disarm the armed groups and develop a meaningful strategy with the oil industry, donor governments and international financial institutions, to address the absence of educational and employment opportunities for youth in the Niger Delta. Underlying factors fuelling the violence such as oil bunkering (stealing large quantities of oil for resale on the black market), and problems associated with the community development strategies of oil companies must be also be resolved.

[1] The word “youth” in Nigeria is used to describe all young men who have not reached the status of “elder” in their communities: it is a flexible term that includes people up to the age of forty, or sometimes older.  Most communities will have an organized youth association encompassing all the young men living in the village that will be formally consulted when community decisions are made.  In addition, there may be separate youth organizations acting outside formal community structures.

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