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Last Updated: Monday, 15 November, 2004, 17:13 GMT
Oil gangs threaten Nigerian unity

By Paul Mason
Business correspondent, Newsnight

Al-Haji Asari Dokubo (front left)
Rebel leader Al-Haji Asari Dokubo (foreground, left) at prayer
A gang boss fighting for Ijaw self-determination in the Niger Delta could threaten the world's energy balance and the existence of the Nigerian state itself.

Until recently, Al-Haji Asari Dokubo was just a powerful local gang leader and businessman.

But now he is responsible for a conflict that has spiralled into a global problem.

The conflict centres on Tombia, a small town in Africa devastated by war. First the rival militias came, then the helicopter gunships. Now the town is deserted, dominated by the burnt-out shells of homes and churches.

This is not Sierra Leone, Liberia or Sudan - this is Nigeria, the African superpower whose troops act as peacekeepers throughout the continent.

But here in the Niger Delta, the heartland of Africa's biggest economy, the peace is fragile and bitter. At the root of the conflict is oil.

Nigeria is rich in oil, as Daere Dokubo, a former local councillor in Tombia knows well.

"We are blessed with wealth," he says. "Everywhere in the world, if you have such wealth, the country you belong to is supposed to recognise this and give you special preference - but that preference we have not been given."

He complains that the Ijaw people, who form the Delta's largest ethnic group, do not get jobs in the oil industry.

Rival gangs

Without work, the youth face a choice between dollar-a-day farming or joining the groups and gangs who steal oil at the pipeline, a process known as "bunkering".

And it was the rival bunkering gangs who first turned Tombia into a battlefield - but the Nigerian army finished the job.

And the man responsible is Al-Haji Asari Dokubo, a gang leader who grew rich from his role in the illegal oil economy.

A report for the oil company Shell explains the role of the armed gangs at local level in the elections of 2003:

"With the return of democracy... these groups became even more prominent as local politicians and parties supplied youth groups with money, weapons and political/legal immunity... in the run up to elections.

"Once elections were over, these rewards were not forthcoming. Rather than returning weapons, these groups engage themselves in a range of criminal activities." (Peace and Security in the Niger Delta, WAC Global Services, December 2003)

National uprising?

The Delta population say they have been excluded from the wealth oil brings to Nigeria
The Delta population want jobs and development aid
In September, faced with rising disruption from gang violence, the Nigerian army intervened. Up to 500 were killed in the September conflict, according to Amnesty International.

But the crackdown did not work.

Asari survived and called for a national uprising in the Delta - not just of the Ijaw people, but by all the peoples of the region.

And his rhetoric - to reclaim the oil and gas, kick the energy companies out, and call a sovereign national conference - is resonating powerfully amid the poverty of the Delta.

Asari claims inspiration from a range of guerrilla fighters, past and present: "Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, the South African struggle. I take inspiration from the resistance that is going on in Iraq, Chechnya and in Palestine."

Asari had just 2,000 men under arms - but the political impact of his call was so great it was the factor that finally tipped the oil price above $50. Within weeks, Nigeria's president had to send his personal plane to bring Asari to Abuja and negotiate a ceasefire.

But the ceasefire solves nothing. Bunkering is still going on under the noses of the Nigerian navy, ripping off up to 10% of the country's oil production.

If there is no money, no plan for us to embrace the peace, it means the peace will not go very well
Gang commmander
And while the youths who took up arms have sold them back to the government as part of the peace deal - 1,000 assault rifles are set to be destroyed in Port Harcourt on Monday - only a settlement of who profits from the Delta's oil wealth can lay the conflict to rest.

Oronto Douglas, a human rights lawyer who works for Friends of the Earth in Nigeria and opposes the turn to armed force, spells out the danger Asari poses for the Nigerian federal system:

"The rise of Asari is an opportunity for others similarly inclined: they are saying if I pick up arms I get a jet to take me to Abuija - I will be respected. The atmosphere the government has provided is for people to pick up the Kalashnikov."

So the peace is fragile. When Asari arrived in Tombia to meet his local commanders, there was a shouting match. They accused him of taking money from Abuja and "eating it".

Oil field
Oil companies are also under fire about environmental standards in Nigeria
One commander told the BBC's Newsnight: "The government should send us relief materials, so we can establish small-scale businesses. We've come to realise there is nothing - if there is no money, no plan for us to embrace the peace, it means the peace will not go very well."

America's reserve tank?

For Nigeria's President Olusegun Obasanjo, that is a bleak message. He arrives in London this week to meet Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair. NGOs who work in the Delta expect the crisis to be high on the agenda.

The stakes are high. Oil provides 95% of Nigeria's foreign exchange and funds 65% of the Nigerian state budget. With the Middle East in crisis - and Venezuela still simmering - Nigerian crude oil has become highly important to the USA's energy security.

The Niger Delta is, effectively, America's reserve fuel tank.

If the Delta conflict spirals out of control, it could destroy Nigeria's unity and disrupt the global balance of oil supply. That is the doomsday scenario - and completely avoidable according to experts in conflict resolution.

But it is one that is focusing minds as the president makes his way to London.

Paul Mason and Martin Adler's film was screened on Monday, 15 November, 2004.

Newsnight is broadcast on BBC Two at 2230 BST every weeknight in the UK.

Newsnight's Paul Mason reports on a rebel leader who is striking terror into the hearts of the oil bosses

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