On May 14th, the Nigerian Joint Military Task Force (JTF), laid siege to towns along the coast, attacking from air, land, and sea. Although the Nigerian government maintains that the attack was targeting militant groups that obstruct oil flows, what transpired was a massive assault on the communities and villages of Gbaramatu kingdom. Thousands of lives have been lost and upwards of 20,000 persons displaced in the ongoing military offensive. This is an inexcusable abuse of military power, carried out only to gain greater access to the region’s oil.
“The helicopter gunships hovered low over a crowded street, where people had gathered to celebrate an annual festival, and opened fire with machine guns and rockets,according to several accounts.”
There is no question that these attacks were specifically targeted at civilians, not only young militant groups such as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). Such attacks are ongoing, driving civilians into the mangrove creeks and away from the reach of humanitarian organizations.
Much of the media has been restricted in their access to the affected areas, both for political reasons and for the physical difficulty of reaching civilians along the swampy coast. As a result, no clear reports have emerged on civilian deaths, other than what the Nigerian government is reporting. According to Friends of the Earth Nigeria, “the latest military offensive has made the attack on Odi where close to 2873 civilians lost their lives…” There are no accurate reports on the number of affected persons, which could be near 1 million. It is imperative that humanitarian aid agencies be allowed into the area to provide critical food and water supplies as well as medical attention.
The situation in the Niger Delta has been building for years. As companies such as Chevron and Shell set up oil platforms offshore, the government of Nigeria has increasingly sought a piece of that oil wealth to line its own pockets. The Delta region provides the country with 97 percent of its revenue and yet the people living on the land continue to live in poverty and instability. After years of neglect and environmental degradation, it is hardly surprising that civilians have taken up arms against the government. Although MEND cannot be justified for kidnapping and killing innocent civilians, it should be recognized that the government and oil companies are reaping what they’ve sown.
Despite proactive documents from civil society leaders and militant groups on disarmament and demobilization, the Nigerian government chose to use its military might rather than to act diplomatically. Ledum Mitee, Chairman of the Technical Committee on the Niger Delta offered his insight: “Every war ends up at the talking table. So why don’t we start with the talking instead of shooting because, once we start talking we can avoid killing, but if we start shooting there is bound to be killing and eventually a talk. So why don’t we start talking.”
Instead, as a result of the government’s choice, people from varying regions in the Delta are viewing this attack as a deliberate all-out assault by the government on its own people. The term “genocide” is being used among the Ijaw, some of whom claim that the government is purposefully eradicating Ijaw communities so that it may have unfettered access to oil supplies. Of course, more background research must be done, but it is significant that large portions of the population feel as though their government is more focused on oil profits than on the stability of the Nigerian people.
It goes by many names – the “resource curse,” the “petroleum paradox” – but at its root are people. Individuals who work for corporations and governments are making irresponsible choices that affect other individuals who happen to be standing in the way of profit. Recently, several court cases have been brought against Shell and Chevron for their human rights abuses in the Niger Delta, but more must be done. As one Nigerian put it in a meeting in Washington, the labor and environmental standards are entirely different in Nigeria than they are in Texas. There is no excusing this, and those who follow such business models must recognize that oppression only generates violence and animosity. Legal and political measures must be taken to stop U.S. companies from exploiting Africa’s people and environment.
It is equally important that President Obama take a strong stand against the actions by the Nigerian military. The European Union has already summoned President Umaru Yar’Adua to discuss the crisis on June 8th and 9th in England. President Obama should invite Yar’Adua to come to Washington immediately following his visit to the UK. Obama should use his leverage as a supplier of military and development aid to Nigeria to stop the violence in the Niger Delta. Nigeria is slated to receive approximately $4.5 million in military training, hardware sales, and counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics education in 2010. It is intolerable that the U.S. taxpayer must subsidize a repressive government’s slaughter of its civilians.
Please click here to send a letter to President Obama telling him to do all he can to stop the violence in the Niger Delta.
Written by Beth Tuckey