August 25, 2007: The army will
keep several thousand soldiers in Port Harcourt, the largest city in the Niger
Delta, for at least six months. The troops are taking on the local gangs, which
have become stronger than the local police. Last week, soldiers and police
shattered one major gang, leaving at least 40 people dead in the process. The presence of the army has enabled the
police to crack down on the oil thieves, who tap into pipelines and steal
millions of barrels of oil a year. The proceeds from this arms and equips the
gangs, giving them a firepower edge over the cops. The government has
identified over a hundred gangs in the Delta region. Soldiers and police are
also going after gang bases outside the city, in the many waterways of the
delta. One such recent operation left fifteen gang members dead. The gangs will
strike back, and the fighting could get pretty intense. The army and police do
not have an overwhelming advantage.
In addition to the gangs,
there are spontaneous local acts of criminality. For example, entire villages
have organized to prevent oil companies from extinguishing pipeline fires
(started when villagers tapped in to steal oil), until a payment is made.
Extortion has become a popular regional activity.
Part of the problem is
corruption in the police. To that end, some reform have been implemented. Some
are quite simple, if far reaching. Like having all police cars marked with the
name of the division (locality) they belong to. This makes it more difficult
for rogue police, and impersonators, to operate. This simple change is also
expected to reduce kidnappings, which are often carried out by police, or with
police help. Moreover, many of the gangs work for local politicians, at least
during election campaigns.