(London, February 4, 2005) — In the oil-rich Niger Delta, the struggle among local leaders for oil revenue and government funds has fueled violent clashes between rival armed groups, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. An escalation in violence last year killed dozens of innocent people and disrupted oil production, pushing global crude futures over a record $50 a barrel.
The 22-page report, “Rivers and Blood: Guns, Oil and Power in Nigeria’s Rivers State,” based on a December fact-finding mission to the region, documents fighting between armed groups in the southeastern oil-producing state that escalated in late 2003 and continued throughout 2004. The clashes resulted in the indiscriminate killing of local people, displaced tens of thousands of villagers from their homes, and forced the oil industry to evacuate staff and scale back its production.
On October 1, the federal government brokered a peace agreement between the two main rival armed groups. The federal and state governments then granted an amnesty to the fighters. While commending the government’s effort to end the conflict, Human Rights Watch said that the perpetrators of grave human rights abuses must not be given immunity from prosecution.
“The Nigerian authorities must end the culture of impunity fueling this deadly cycle of violence in the oil-rich Delta,” said Peter Takirambudde, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “And the oil industry needs to ensure the funding that it earmarks for local communities does not end up in the hands of those fueling this violence.”
Unemployed and frustrated youth remain vulnerable for recruitment by leaders of armed groups and unscrupulous politicians. During the 1999 and 2003 elections, local politicians from the country’s ruling People’s Democratic Party hired youths to secure their victory through violence and intimidation.
These youths have also become involved in local conflicts over traditional leadership positions, which are a channel for the payments that oil company make to local communities. Contenders to these highly sought-after traditional titles, which guarantee the office holder access to significant financial resources, have recruited local youths to wage their increasingly violent battles. The oil companies operating in the region, including Shell’s joint-venture with the Nigerian government, should ensure the transparency of payments to local communities so that funds are not used to further the violence, Human Rights Watch said.
Similarly, those involved in the theft of crude oil have used the same youths to assist them in struggles to control the profits of stolen crude. The violence has become ever more deadly due to the high proliferation of small arms which are recycled and imported from other conflicts in the region or stolen from the security forces.
Human Rights Watch identified the main perpetrators of the violence in the Niger Delta as two armed groups, the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF), led by Asari Dokubo, and the Niger Delta Vigilante (NDV), led by Ateke Tom. Both leaders have drawn support from hundreds of smaller groups in Rivers state, and both were originally backed by members of the state government. Asari’s loss of political patronage in mid-2003 led him into violent conflict with Tom over control of territory and access to lucrative routes for oil theft.
The report documents a number of attacks by both armed groups. In Port Harcourt, the capital of Rivers state and the country’s hub for oil operations, attacks by the NDPVF in August killed at least 16 bystanders. In one incident, a NDPVF gunman opened fire on a busy restaurant in the heart of the city, indiscriminately killing a waitress and four customers. When the federal government deployed troops in response, NDPVF leader Asari Dokubo on September 27 declared “all-out war” on the Nigerian state. The threat of disrupted oil production sent shockwaves through the global futures markets.
In January, a raid by the NDV on the waterfront community of Amadi Ama left as many as four bystanders dead in a shootout with rival fighters. Terrified villagers told Human Rights Watch how the NDV arrived by boat in the middle of the night and began firing at houses. A local woman trader said, “If you peep through the window it was like stars, there were gunshots everywhere. So we just sat in the house and prayed. That was all we could do.”
Human Rights Watch called on the Nigerian government to pursue a comprehensive strategy to tackle theft of oil and stop the flow of small arms into the Niger Delta. The authorities should also provide urgent assistance to the tens of thousands of people who have been displaced, and deploy adequate numbers of police to protect the local population from future violence.
“The government’s failure to protect the local population and ensure justice does not bode well for the future stability of Rivers state,” said Takirambudde. “Unless justice is done, further bloodshed is likely as politicians remobilize frustrated youth ahead of the 2007 presidential elections.”