Christian Science Monitor
September 18, 2008
Lagos, Nigeria – A rare military raid on a militant camp in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta last week points to a new, tough approach by the Nigerian military that could force the region into a deeper state of anarchy.
Militants have responded to the pre-dawn raid with a series of deadly counter attacks on oil facilities and military positions. The delta’s most prominent rebel group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) issued a statement Sunday via e-mail declaring an “oil war.”
“MEND has declared an oil war in response to the unprovoked aerial and marine attacks on a MEND position in Rivers state of Nigeria on September 13, 2008 by the armed forces of Nigeria,” read the statement.
MEND emerged as a fighting force in the delta almost three years ago. Since then, it has sought to portray itself as a unified political militant group. But the reality has been somewhat different with MEND operating as an umbrella organization for a host of armed gangs. Their coordinated attacks against oil infrastructure and personnel have slashed Nigerian oil output by a fifth.
Following the Sept. 13 military attack, formerly disparate gangs are looking increasingly unified, raising fears that long-running unrest in the delta could hit new levels. “When it comes to a common enemy, we all help each other,” says a senior MEND leader, who declined to be identified. “The Army is not as formidable as they say, and we are ready to take them on.”
Armed gangs, including one headed by a notorious delta criminal, Ateke Tom, and the Niger Delta Volunteer Force, have buried previous differences with MEND to attack the military and foreign oil infrastructure this week.
“The attack by the Nigerian military is uniting them – there have been a lot of meetings recently between the different groups,” says Patrick Naagbanton, a human rights activist in Port Harcourt.
Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua has received criticism for moving too slowly to address the problems of the Niger Delta, which he promised to make a priority for his administration when he took office a year and a half ago. Last month, he replaced his top military commanders. Given the military’s recent attacks, some analysts conclude the new appointees want to take a tougher line with the delta militants.
But the Nigerian government is keen to downplay this week’s violence, saying the government, which recently established a cabinet level ministry for the Niger Delta, is working with the Nigerian people to find a lasting solution to regional problems.