While the west is lauding the Nigerian military dictatorship's "transition to democracy", the regime has launched a campaign of murder and rape to crush an uprising by the peoples of the Niger River delta in the south. Led by militant young people of the Ijaw ethnic group, the delta peoples are demanding a fair share of the region's oil wealth, an end to environmental destruction and control of their homelands. Giant western oil corporations are collaborating with the military to deadly effect.
On December 11, more than 5000 young people, representing about 500 communities and the 40 or so Ijaw clans, met in the town of Kaiama in the south-eastern delta state of Bayelsa. "We cease to recognise all undemocratic decrees that rob our people and communities of the right to ownership and control of our lives and resources, which were enacted without our participation and consent", the youth declared in the "Kaiama Declaration".
The Ijaw youth demanded that all oil operations cease and federal military personnel leave Ijawland by December 30 or "Ijaw youths in all the communities ... in the Niger delta will take steps to implement these resolutions". The declaration added, "Any oil company that employs the services of the armed forces of the Nigerian state to protect its operations is viewed as an enemy of the Ijaw people".
The Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), the leading militant group, warned that young people would stage non-violent occupations of installations and organise mass protests if the oil companies did not heed their call to withdraw. The campaign was dubbed "Operation Climate Change".
The 70,000 square kilometre Niger delta, home to 6 million of Nigeria's 108 million people, is the source of most of Nigeria's daily oil output of 2 million barrels. Oil accounts for more than 90% of export income. In partnership with the military regime's state oil company, most of the world's largest oil companies — Anglo-Dutch Shell, US-owned Chevron, Mobil and Texaco, Italian Agip and French Elf — operate under the protection of armed troops.
The Ijaw people are Nigeria's fourth largest ethnic group; about 4 million live in the Niger delta states of Delta, Edo, Bayelsa, Ondo and Rivers. The Ijaw share the region with other ethnic groups, including the 500,000 Ogoni people who have been at loggerheads with the military and Shell for many years.
Little of the billions in oil revenue generated from the Niger delta each year reaches the peoples of the region. Communities do not have electricity, running water, decent roads, schools or hospitals.
Since the late 1950s, when oil production began, thousands of spills from poorly maintained pipelines, and fumes from hundreds of gas flares, have polluted the region. Life expectancy and per capita income are among the lowest in Nigeria.
The military regime responded to the Kaiama Declaration with brute force. On December 30, authorities declared a state of emergency in Bayelsa state and imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew. Hundreds of extra troops, 10 tanks and two warships were sent to the region.
Troops opened fire on a 1000-strong protest march in the Bayelsa capital, Yenegoa, on December 30, killing at least three people and wounding dozens. More than 20 people were reported killed in subsequent confrontations. A week after the first killings, estimates of the number killed by troops ranged between 26 and 240.
Youths were reported to have been dragged from houses and cars and executed on the spot. Hundreds have been detained. Troops invaded villages throughout Ijawland, including Kaiama, where more than 90 house were burned down.
On January 11, 1000 Ijaw women took to the streets in Port Harcourt, the delta's main city. The march was organised by the Niger Delta Women for Justice. Riot police fired in the air, used tear gas and brutally beat the marchers. The women were protesting against the military's killings and the rape of women by troops occupying delta communities.
The oil companies are reported to have urged the crackdown and, in several instances, collaborated in the attacks. The Lagos daily Punch reported that soldiers raided two villages in Delta state on January 4, killing several villagers and a traditional leader.
The men arrived in a helicopter later revealed to be owned by Chevron. Sedeco Forex, a drilling company associated with Chevron, has a rig in the area. On January 8, Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth (Nigeria) reported that the attack took place soon after a delegation from one of the villages visited the rig to request that Chevron provide community facilities.
Chevron, which produces about 400,000 barrels of oil a day in Nigeria, has been involved in previous killings. On May 28, 120 protesters occupied Chevron's Parabe oil platform, about 14 kilometres off the Atlantic coast. The young Ijaw were incensed that Chevron had cut a channel through a creek that supplied drinking water, contaminating it with sea water.
The company called in the feared paramilitary Mobile Police, known as "kill-and-go" to locals. They stormed the platform in three Chevron helicopters. Eyewitness Bola Oyinbo told the November 19 San Francisco Chronicle: "They started shooting commando-style at us even before they landed. They shot everywhere. Arulika and Jolly fell. They died instantly."
Chevron Nigeria chairperson G.L. Kirkland described the killings as "regrettable" but said, "Repeated brazen acts of piracy and kidnapping are intolerable". Chevron spokesperson Mike Libbey told a radio reporter, "In order for Chevron to do business in 90 countries around the world, we must cooperate with governments of many kinds."
The IYC on January 14 announced that Operation Climate Change would continue "indefinitely". "Ijaw youths will continue to work towards closing down the remaining oil facilities in Ijawland, as a step towards reclaiming our destiny and ecological integrity", the group's leaders said.
The Kaiama Declaration was the culmination of a rising tide of militant opposition to the activities of western oil corporations and outrage at the mounting environmental devastation and the military regime's neglect of the region.
Beginning in May, young Ijaw launched daring raids against offshore oil platforms, onshore pumping stations and other facilities. Youths swooped in on speed boats and motorised canoes, and occupied installations offshore and within the maze of swamps; oil company staff were told to leave; pumps and gas flares were turned off; company helicopters were captured.
By October, more than 20 installations, owned mainly by Shell and Chevron, had been put out of action, reducing Nigeria's daily oil output by 33%.
The militant actions set alarm bells ringing in the head offices of the oil giants. Oil companies are desperate to maintain, and if possible boost, the production of the high quality Nigerian oil which, at less than US$3 a barrel to produce, remains an important source of profits as the world oil price drops below $10.