- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 28, 2004

PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria — It was a band of up to 2,000 armed men based deep in the mangrove swamps of the Niger Delta who delivered the latest jolt to world oil prices.

Prices rose on world markets yesterday after the ragtag Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF) vowed all-out war on the government of Nigeria — the fifth-largest oil exporter to the United States — and warned foreign oil workers to leave the region.

The threat was just the latest move in a long-running battle with the government led by NDPVF chief Alhaji Dokubo Asari, who granted an interview at his jungle base earlier this month.

“I want to destroy their exploration, not personnel,” Mr. Asari said of his struggle against U.S. and other foreign oil firms. “We will blow up pipelines, occupy flow stations, but the personnel are just trying to earn their daily bread.”

But in his latest threat yesterday, Mr. Asari stepped up his rhetoric, saying, “Any part of Nigeria, wherever we have the opportunity to strike any target, we will strike.”

Mr. Asari, a large, neatly groomed man whose clothes run to track suits and sneakers, said at his militia camp that he is fighting to reclaim the resources of his people, the Ijaw tribe, from what he says is a corrupt government.

Many of his followers are former employees of the same oil companies he attacks, and wander around in Shell or Wilbros uniforms with Kalashnikov rifles slung over their shoulders. In the camp, a rain-speckled bathtub lay beneath a line of ragged washing.

The homely details contrast strongly with the sporadic fire from the men’s weapons.

Some 500 people have been killed in the last month in and around Port Harcourt, the country’s oil-producing capital, as rockets, grenades and dynamite have been used to destroy dwellings made of a few planks and sheets of corrugated metal.

The ferocity of the attacks has even reached the expatriate community, usually insulated from such disturbances. In the city’s bars, men with Midwestern accents and moustaches discuss the massacres over cold beers and pizzas.

Mr. Asari, who claims to command 2,000 men, says there will be an “all-time war against Nigeria” beginning Friday unless government forces stop attacking his camps and oil companies cease production.

The threat drove the price of Nigeria’s Bonny sweet light crude to more than $50 per barrel despite the efforts of Nigeria’s senior oil adviser, Edmund Dakoru, to calm the markets.

“We have had these kind of threats before, and nothing has happened,” Mr. Dakoru said. “And I am not concerned that Nigeria’s oil industry will suffer as a result of these threats.”

Nevertheless, Shell Nigeria confirmed it had evacuated 250 staff members from facilities in the Delta last week “as a precautionary measure.” American oil giant Exxon Mobil said it does not operate in the area, while ChevronTexaco was unavailable for comment.

Two weeks ago, an NDPVF attack on Port Harcourt penetrated to within a five-minute walk of the central police station. Police dismissed the incident as a battle between rival gangs, but residents said the seven-hour gunbattle was staged by forces loyal to Mr. Asari.

A task force comprising the police, navy and army has since been set up and is patrolling 24 hours a day, but residents say the streets still echo with the sound of gunfire.

Mr. Asari claims to have a large following among the Ijaw people, Nigeria’s fourth-largest ethnic group.

“We steal oil from the pipelines, refine it ourselves and sell it at a discount price to the local people,” he explained in the interview. “That is why we have local support.”

Overseas Nigerians have also contributed, he said, gesturing to a bag stuffed with wads of notes worth the equivalent of more than $250,000. “That was brought to us by an American woman who read about our struggle on the Internet,” he said.

Corruption has robbed Nigeria of the money to develop, and the people are frustrated. Although oil revenues are predicted to reach $27 billion this year, 70 percent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day. Life expectancy barely tops 50 years.

Despite its poverty, West Africa is strategically important as an alternative source of oil. Nigeria is Africa’s biggest oil producer. Its sweet, light crude is relatively easy to extract and the cheapest type of oil to refine into gasoline.

Violence frequently halts production. At the height of fighting in the Delta last year, Nigeria lost 40 percent of its output.

Ten U.S. Navy Seals are currently performing joint exercises with local troops in the Nigerian port of Calabar, although diplomatic sources insist the exercises are not related to the conflict in the Delta.

A U.S. Navy battle group, meanwhile, is scheduled to patrol in the Gulf of Guinea, outside of Nigerian territorial waters. Some locals hope the presence of Americans may help halt the violence caused by the rebels.

“It is like Prohibition-era Chicago, except they are smuggling oil instead of alcohol,” said one oil industry executive. “If this trend continues, the Niger Delta will be a war zone during the next elections.”

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