The MEND rebels of the Niger Delta are on a charm offensive, hosting press on fact-finding missions. Are they legitimate freedom fighters or environmental profiteers?
The Niger Delta is a series of tropical estuaries on the southern coast of Nigeria, a complex system of rivers, creeks and tributaries which trickle out into the Atlantic. A densely populated and dynamic ecosystem, it is also abundant in “sweet crude”—oil low in sulfur and hydrogen, easily refined into gasoline and, as such, highly prized on the world commodities market. Nigeria is the world’s eighth largest exporter of oil, and the delta is, predictably, an indigent, polluted, and violent place, the scene of a “low intensity civil war” between the government and a militant group called MEND — the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. The group has made a name for itself over the past few years by kidnapping oil workers, destroying pipelines, and skirmishing with Nigerian soldiers. They are also said to reap great fortunes from the sale of stolen oil. As part of a documentary film crew last year, I traveled to the Delta to meet MEND.
Hired as a researcher on a film about conflict resolution, I spent a couple months studying the Delta conflict. I spoke to fixers who could gain us access to the Delta creeks, as well as a few western journalists and filmmakers who had traveled to the region. The Niger Delta is well-trodden terrain, and soon enough the names of militants —“Boyloaf,” “Tompolo,” “Ateke Tom”— took on a familiar ring, as if these were the local celebrities of the Delta, Rivers, and Bayelsa states. One filmmaker I spoke to boasted of his two-week stay in a Nigerian jail where he allegedly ate the SIM card in his phone and complained that one fixer had “cockblocked” some of his better militant footage. “You could talk to Asari,” he told me, referring to Al-Haji Dokubo Asari, a pioneer of armed resistance in the Delta. “But he’s kind of played out.” Traveling to the Niger Delta was now beginning to feel less like socially-conscious filmmaking and more like an eco-tourist adventure.
“I hope you realize,” our director told us, “that you could die or be kidnapped on this trip. I just hope you understand that.” She had mentioned this several times with a sort of manic glee, and while I did not question her sincerity, I also couldn’t help but feel that she was exaggerating these risks as a way to goad her own excitement. In all of my conversations—with Africans and westerners alike—I was never once warned of being kidnapped or killed. At least, not deliberately—the mayhem of urban traffic in Lagos is notorious, and I did indeed spot a mangled and de-limbed corpse on the outskirts of Lagos, where cars whizzed past without pause, blowing road dust over the wounds like a confectioner’s sugar. We arrived in Warri, Delta State, with two cameramen and two fixers—a joint Dutch and American crew.
Our contact from Holland, Sunny, was a native Deltan who fled Nigeria as a college student after the peace activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged by then-dictator Sani Abacha. Now, after more than a decade, he was returning as an activist with an ambitious proposal to resolve the Delta conflict. Holland had been good to Sunny. He was stout, goateed, and pinky-ringed to the extreme, a petit Don who put forth an image of the small town Urhobo made good. We had much to thank Sunny for. Since touching down in Lagos, we had exchanged dozens of friendly handshakes, palmfuls of inflated Nigerian Naira, otherwise known as the dash, to facilitate our every move. Knowing who to bribe is paramount when filming in Nigeria, and Sunny knew just who to bribe. He was also making a film about himself, about his Bacchic homecoming to the Delta, and brought along his own cameraman, a Dutchman named Jandries.
Jandries had spent considerable time in East Africa, Kenya specifically, which was evident in the high ochre tint to his face. On his calf and on the crown of his skull, he bore the marks of his travels—gunfire from Somalia and Serbia. He was sedate and professional, an adrenaline junkie who cut the edge by chain smoking Bali Shag and rolling spliffs on the hour. Between Rotterdam and Kenya, he had five children, spoke fluent Swahili, and split his time bi-continentally as a professional photographer and family man. He was on the job without pay—just travel, room, and board expenses. When I asked him why, like a dope fiend he confessed to me that when he first came to Africa it infected his bones, that he never wanted to leave, and that I wouldn’t want to, either.
One filmmaker I spoke to boasted of his two-week stay in a Nigerian jail where he allegedly ate the SIM card in his phone and complained that one fixer was “cockblocking” some of his better militant footage.
On a speedboat, whip-wending through the tortuous creeks of the Delta, all I got was wind. In the distance, water and sky embraced as the brackish Escravos river churned up against the blur of mangroves which line the Delta waters. Cruising in the open air between fifty and sixty miles per hour, my face grew accustomed to the brutality of speed—I came to accept that my eyelashes may blow off my face, that my cheeks were not so reliably fastened to their fleshy underpinnings. About two and a half hours after this realization, a dozen anonymous forks and bends in the river later, just as the creek narrowed beyond the junked Biafran streamer, we arrived at the MEND camp. But just prior to this arrival, a warning: “Soon you may hear gunshots. The MEND fighters will appear in their speedboats to demonstrate their military capabilities, their ability to maneuver in the water. Do not be frightened. Do not film until I say so.”
At a rickety wooden dock, we climbed out of our speedboats and were greeted by a dozen or so MEND fighters. Lounging around in the shade, the MEND fighters swaggered, guzzled beer, and blazed Marley-esque spliffs in their tighty-whiteys. They swatted at the humidity and eyeballed us through dark shades. Many had keloids from scars that came easy and went deep, thick tubers of wound coiling around limbs and necks. Though listless at first appearance, when the cameras started rolling they would primp up, burqa themselves in exotic hoods and masks, and accessorize with couture belts of unknown caliber to become a militant boy-band, eager to take on the world.
After passing through a high compound wall manned by armed, glaring guards, we entered the MEND camp. Past the wall, we saw villagers herded away as we were led into a smaller cottage just off the main house. Inside was the finished basement that middle class dreams are made of: a bar stocked with top-shelf liquor, an enormous refrigerator full of beer, a pool table, and at each corner of the room a flat screen television replaying a recent CNN special on MEND. The sound was turned off as we awkwardly observed Lisa Ling and her crew travelling the same journey we had just completed to arrive here. An industrial-sized air-conditioner was on blast by the door. A couple of guys hung around the bar, drinking canned Heinekens and smoking Benson and Hedges. Sunny made introductions, and handshakes—from shake, to clasp, to finger snap—were exchanged.
Most of the MEND fighters were in their late teens, with the oldest of the bunch in their forties. They treated us hospitably, sitting us down in some uncomfortably modern furniture and plying us with beer. Our American cameraman did not drink alcohol, and quickly received a can of Sprite and some bottled water. Soon, they brought out plates of food, a chicken stew that trumped any meal I had eaten thus far in Nigeria, sumptuous and mercifully absent of fufu—the starchy and bland accompaniment ubiquitous in Central and West Africa. As we waited for the militants to arrive, two of the young men who served us our food so politely, with such familial urging, donned black shades and covered the lower half of their faces with bandannas. A third man, who had remained by the bar smoking and eyeing us skeptically, pulled on a camouflaged executioner’s hood, strapped on a vest with a MEND decal and holstered 9mm, and presented himself anew as Boyloaf, deputy to Henry Okah and a self-described general in the MEND organization.
A massive, bald man with bloodshot eyes and a sporty mustache, Boyloaf nonetheless exhibited the same boyish diffidence as some of the younger MEND fighters. While setting up our equipment, he asked us quietly if perhaps we would like to conduct the interview while he shot pool. Before I could speak up, both cameramen objected and the matter was settled. Instead, his two nameless apprentices would flank him silently, brandishing their rifles like electric guitars. Roll camera. Boyloaf delivered a line of polemic that echoed most of what we had already heard, repeatedly calling for the release of MEND leader Henry Okah, blaming the Nigerian military for most of the oil theft that occurs in the Delta, and presenting MEND as a highly-disciplined group that operates under the aegis of Egbesu, the Ijaw God of war. Soon, his awareness of the camera, of his own spectacle, began to reveal itself. He started to boast flamboyantly, his trill spinning out of control as he described his love for killing JTF (Joint Task Force) troops, and of the invincibility that Egbesu gives them in battle.
“I hope you realize,” our director told us, “that you could die or be kidnapped on this trip. I just hope you understand that.”
“The Congo,” Boyloaf said. “I admire the guy. The guy is doing a good job.” He was referring to the renegade Tutsi general Laurent Nkunda, who had just made news again that week—some photos had surfaced of a “roadblock” constructed from the corpses of two government soldiers, leading into his camp in the eastern Congo. If marketing is indeed the key to international prestige, I considered that Boyloaf could have committed a massive gaffe by connecting Nkunda—whose troops carry a reputation for mass-rapes, forced conscription of child soldiers, and the occasional village massacre—with MEND, which is a homegrown, atrocity-free insurgency based in local and popular grievances.
When Sunny asked about government negotiations, Boyloaf made clear his disdain for the Nigerian state, and pointedly, for the very concept of Nigeria. “There is no way you can believe the Nigerian state. Nigeria itself is a fraud, the name Nigeria Everybody knows it’s not a country, it’s a company, a fraudulent company.” He went on to describe Nigeria as a sham entity, a colonial money-making scheme inherited by the historically dominant Hausas and Yorubas.
The conflict in the Delta could be generously described as an intractable clusterfuck of violence, poverty, and endemic corruption. The militants accuse the government of hoarding oil revenues while returning nothing but abuse, allowing the Niger Delta to deteriorate from the attendant eco-hazards of oil extraction. The federal government regards the militants as gangsters, thieving opportunists who use the poverty of the Delta to mask their lucrative trade in stolen oil. Probably both are correct, as it is difficult to define criminality in a country like Nigeria, where corruption is woven into the very fabric of public life. In what has been the longest stretch of civilian rule in the nation’s history, politics in Nigeria is a chaotic affair marked by rigged and violent elections catering to the opaque political class of the country. And though “true federalism” and “real fiscal federalism” are the most frequent demands made by MEND, it is common knowledge that regional greed is as much to blame for the plight of the Niger Delta as federal corruption. It is said that the oil companies are encouraged to pay out the hefty ransoms in exchange for hostages, as the proceeds of this bounty will trickle forth in a circuitous web of government venality, both locally and federally. Likewise the proceeds of stolen oil. Where the money goes, how it circulates, is murky terrain. Ask ten Nigerians about the Delta conflict, and prepare yourself for ten different scenarios of corruption.
The normal questions one might have about MEND, whether they are legitimate resistance fighters or petty criminals, soon become irrelevant once you visit the Niger Delta. The place is hell, and no criminal act of MEND will alter the bald facts of corporate malfeasance and governmental neglect which make it so. This hell comes in a collage of statistics. Putting aside the over one hundred million gallons of oil that have spilled into the Delta ecosystem, we add to this the sin of gluttony, as 75 percent of natural gas is burned off in hundreds of ominous “gas flares” that dot across the region like a pox, leading to acid rain, blindness, and a host of other deadly ailments. Meanwhile, these same communities exist without any steady source of power.
“There is no way you can believe the Nigerian state. Nigeria itself is a fraud, the name Nigeria everybody knows it’s not a country, it’s a company, a fraudulent company.“
Very recently, the Nigerian government announced an amnesty to all militants operating in the Niger Delta. This was soon followed by a MEND ceasefire to honor, in good faith, a nascent dialogue between the government and a select team of negotiators acting on behalf of MEND. While this may seem like a positive step, most Nigerians are skeptical. Decades of brutal dictatorships have not fostered much trust between the people and their government, and the amnesty has been largely scoffed at as a superficial guns-for-money transaction which has rewarded violence while continuing to ignore the desperate poverty and rampant unemployment of the region.
Sunny ended the interview with a pitch for his proposal: a dialogue between the militants and the government, to be hosted by Sunny in Holland. Boyloaf abruptly stated that Henry Okah was the only one able to make these decisions, and that the first condition of any dialogue would be his immediate release from government custody. End of discussion. Then he played a DVD for us, an amateur video documenting the varieties of pollution unleashed into the Delta ecosystem.
The mythmaking of Henry Okah comes from stories—of his commendable military prowess, that the Nigerian army itself delivered arms directly into his hands—and from his very conspicuous absence in the region itself. Prior to his arrest, Okah was permanently based in South Africa. In 2007, he was arrested in Angola for gun-running and extradited back to Nigeria where he was held in secret by the government on charges of treason and arms smuggling. The release of Okah, who was in poor health from kidney complications, had become the foremost demand of MEND. When asked how it was that he could command such loyalty and admiration from afar, MEND spokesman Jomo Gbomo stated: “Henry Okah is an environmental activist and a caring, warm individual that you will like at first meeting His goodness is contagious and that is why we remain loyal to him.”
There have been several iterations of the Delta militancy, but thanks to this man, Henry Okah, MEND has been the most enduring, the best branded of them all. Casualties, at least those inflicted by the militants, have been relatively low, as it is not people, but things—pipelines, flow stations, manifolds—that are MEND’s preferred target. Even the threat of violence against the multinationals can traumatize the global price of oil, a fact MEND is giddily aware of. It is said that at least a third of Nigeria’s oil output has been staunched by the militants. After the interview, Boyloaf proudly claimed responsibility for last summer’s raid on Shell’s off-shore Bonga Oil Platform, briefly halting Nigerian crude output by a staggering 10 percent. The endurance of MEND is attributed to a decentralized corporate structure. MEND, not unlike Al-Qaeda, represents not a finite group of people, but an ideology to be shared by all, where, retroactive to a kidnapping, bunkering, or raid, any group can at the very least claim MEND affiliation. It is this spectral military presence, and what could only be described as a guerrilla marketing strategy, that has accounted for MEND’s overall success.
“MEND wishes to draw your attention to the unrest in this oil rich region of Nigeria which is gradually building up to a crisis that will make Darfur an adjective for child’s play.”
This statement, from an open letter addressed to George Clooney, from MEND, is quite telling. Our most recent reflections of Africa—offerings like Blood Diamond, Hotel Rwanda, and Mia Farrow’s exhortations for a mercenary intervention in Darfur—seem to have informed MEND’s approach in internationalizing their cause. The western largesse to publicize crisis is an arbitrary and often belated phenomenon. As such, MEND has had to improvise their public relations campaign, conducted entirely through email press releases penned by a fictive MEND spokesperson named Jomo Gbomo. Originally Henry Okah himself, the Gbomo voice lives on as a cross between a message board provocateur and an internet scam artist, a cheeky and excitable character steeped in an irony reminiscent of Andy Kaufman. “Mr. President,” Gbomo writes in a letter to George W. Bush, “after 9/11 you took a stand. We are only emulating a leader we admire.”
Gbomo also serves as a vetting instrument for those groups who can and cannot claim affiliation with MEND, thus giving definite shape to the character of their struggle. Last year, a gang abducted several German oil workers, and Gbomo came out immediately denying MEND involvement. Shortly thereafter, he released another statement claiming that MEND had freed the hostages in a daring rescue.
By email, I asked the current Jomo Gbomo the origins of this name. “Jomo Gbomo is the same thing as saying Scarlet Pimpernel,“ he replied. It was an odd comparison to the old British superhero fighting on behalf of a pre-democratic aristocracy, but it is this very reliance on popular culture that MEND exploits to broadcast itself, speaking to the western world through a variety of familiar images and political celebrities. In this manner, MEND has become the Scarlet Pimpernel and the angry mob rolled into one, both menace and martyr. What was offered to us in the camp was an extension of this strategy, so that when Boyloaf mentioned the infamous Nkunda, it was for a reason: Nkunda was making news in the western press, was bringing attention, however inadequate, however perverted, to the situation in eastern Congo. The whole experience became a reflection of ourselves, a parody of our promiscuous imaginings of an Africa that consists of one part African Menace and one part African Plight, curiously hewn behind the same lines and set to deliver a very specific message to the international community: come for the militants, stay for the misery, but more than anything else, please notice us.
As our speedboat went idle, our cameramen hurried to the bough and began rolling. We were sent out on the water to observe the MEND fighters in all their staged glory. Two boatfuls of militants had stilled themselves for a choice tableau where they chanted, hollered, and flaunted their menace by spontaneously zipping off in their plastic speedboats, showing us just how quick and devastating a MEND attack could be. It is this maneuverability in the water, the ability to cut hairpin turns at breakneck velocities, which keeps the JTF at bay.
There was a time in the Niger Delta when people welcomed the multinationals with open arms, even christening their newborns with names like “Chevron” and “Agip,” before realizing that their sentiment was callously unrequited.
I had remained in the back of the vessel, taking the occasional photo, while the rest of the crew filmed up front. Sitting near me was a younger MEND fighter, unmasked, ever wary of my camera. While observing the masked men in front of us, I could feel him stealing coy glances in my direction. Finally, I turned to him and he smiled, embarrassed, one hand blocking my camera superstitiously. For a moment, we stayed like this, him smiling at me curiously, and I confused, before he leaned over and spoke to me softly. “What is your name?”
I told him my name, and then repeated it for him.
“Can you write it down for me?”
I pulled out a pen but was at a loss for paper. “Here,” he said, taking from his pocket a crumpled naira. “Write it here.”
I asked him if he was sure. He dismissed me with a wave of his hand and urged me to write it. I did. He took the naira close to his face and smiled at my name, then, feeling his confidence swell, he turned to me again.
“Where are you from?” His words were lilting, delicate. I told him where I lived.
“I am Blausson,” he said, announcing it preciously. He wrote it down on the naira in large, capital letters. “Can you write down your phone number?”
I was caught off guard. I was used to giving out my phone number in the Delta—at that point, I had given it to at least a dozen people. But they were much younger, teenaged girls who relied on their old Nokias for all manner of entertainment, blaring static-ridden pop songs and collecting phone numbers like a game. None of them had assault rifles. I gave Blausson my phone number and he thanked me, studying it carefully. A minute or so passed before he spoke my name softly and looked me in the eyes.
“I am going to call you, okay?”
I told him that, sure, it was okay.
“I am going to call you in America,” he said, “And if there is anything, anything at all you want to talk about, I will listen to you.”
In the boat ahead, masked fighters pouted and posed, rocking steadily upon the water, underneath the vast sun.
Blausson and I parted once our boat came ashore a remote beach. Here, more fighters emerged from the sandy scrub, taking orders, making and breaking formation. More chanting, more strutting, more cameramen shuffling and jostling for angles. After a while, Sunny posed with the fighters and had Jandries film him.
The sun grew earnest in the afternoon, and our tour of the MEND experience was almost over. The final leg took place a few miles upriver at a local village, where the rococo stylings of MEND gave way to something far more menacing. The former fishing village was a rudimentary grid of shacks and huts, dirt pathways littered with plastic bottles and oil-blackened fish. The chief came out and greeted us urgently, eager to docent us through the misery created by oil. He promptly directed us to a village ground well, bringing along a two-liter plastic bottle. “You see?” he said, lifting the bottle from the murky water. “It’s from the oil! It looks like Lipton! Do you drink water like this?” He asked, thrusting the bottle at our squeamish cameraman. “Do you drink Lipton?” The chief began to guzzle it down, speaking to the camera between gulps.
Given this kind of environmental abuse, MEND’s strategy of blowing up pipelines and tankers—which account for over a quarter of the oil spills in the Niger Delta—takes on the appearance of collective suicide, the kind of self-spiting punishment one reserves for an intimate enemy. There was a time in the Niger Delta when people welcomed the multinationals with open arms, even christening their newborns with names like “Chevron” and “Agip,” before realizing that this was a sentiment bluntly unrequited.
Standing in the village, I was reminded of Oslo, Norway—capital of the global peace industry and home to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. I had spent the week in Oslo just prior to our trip to Nigeria. Smoking outside my hotel one night on Karl Johans Gaten, I struck up a conversation with some icy executives at their company Christmas party. When I told them I would be travelling to Nigeria for a film festival, they laughed. Although they had never been to Nigeria, they told me they had “business” there and couldn’t fathom why I, or anyone else, would want to travel there. At the end of our chat, I discovered that they were in the off-shore oil business. And so I considered that perhaps kidnapping was a good thing. That it was a different, necessary kind of tourism.
From the well, a crowd had gathered. Here were the ones who didn’t pack heat. Instead, they drank oil-infested water from contaminated wells, ate their pepper soup without fish, and attended bookless ghost-schools downright tornadoed on the interior. They are, for the most part, ignored. The crowd began to chorus the chief’s words, asking us to help them, hollering from the grassy overgrowth near the school. They asked us for phone numbers, email addresses. Not in the charming, pen-pal manner of the kids in Warri or of the young militant Blausson. These people were adults, inhospitable, unsmiling, who begrudged the ease with which we came in and out of their blighted world. But now the spectacle of the Delta was coming to life. Grown men asked us for help obtaining visas to the U.S., and mothers attempted to marry off their daughters in a last-ditch effort to save them. Our American cameraman, agitated by the swell of attention, complained to me to keep the villagers away, out of his shots. There were too many. I couldn’t do it, even if I had wanted to.
Pranav Behari is a writer living in New York City.