January 20, 2008: The main rebel group
in the Niger Delta, MEND, has offered a ceasefire, if their leader, Henry Okah,
was released from prison. Okah was arrested last year in Angola, where he had
gone to buy weapons for MEND. Okah was arrested on gunrunning charges and is
still imprisoned in Angola. MEND is the most visible rebel group, but not the
only one. There are over a dozen groups, most of them based on one (of many)
clans of the Ijaw tribe (which predominates in the oil producing areas.) These "rebels"
engage in many criminal activities (stealing oil from pipeline being the most
lucrative one), and attack oil facilities. Recently, this included a fire on an
oil tanker (which appears to be an accident that MEND simply took credit for,
claiming having agents on the ship) and an attack on a supply boat going to an
offshore oil platform. All this is having an impact. Over the last two years,
these attacks halted 20 percent of daily oil shipments (about half a million
barrels per day). So far this year, another
100,000 barrels a day has been halted, and an increasing number of foreign
suppliers have either raised their prices, or refused to do business in Nigeria
until the violence is reduced. For example, Nigeria was second only to Somalia
in pirate attacks last year.
But MEND threatens to use new weapons.
There has been one crude roadside bomb attack this year (which wounded two and
damaged a vehicle). The local state government is not intimidated, and has
refused to comply with any rebel demands, and will only agree to a ceasefire if
the rebels disarm. The rebels would only do this if the government paid them
enough money. In effect, the government would buy the rebels weapons, and would
have to pay much more than market value. The government believes that many of
the rebels would go right back to lawless behavior. The ceasefire deal is
basically MEND demanding a bribe to quiet down for a while.
Meanwhile, a tribal war has broken out
on the Cameroon border, with tribes on either side of the frontier battling
over land ownership. The fighting is taking place in a very remote area (no
roads, for example), and information is spotty.