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Communities Brace For Fresh War In Niger Delta

Akanimo Sampson,
Port Harcourt

Gas Flaring: Communities Brace For Fresh War In Niger Delta

OIL communities in the Niger Delta area of Nigeria, are currently bracing to launch a multidimensional anti-gas flaring war with all the oil companies carrying out the environmentally harmful practice in the region.

The battle which is likely to take the form of legal suits is receiving the support of the environmental rights advocacy groups like Environmental Rights Action (ERA). Similarly, various government actors have also threatened to enforce a December 31st deadline on ending gas flaring from oil operations, or at least levy punitive fines that could make flaring prohibitively expensive.

But the Stakeholder Democracy Network (SDN), a civil society group, says other parts of government, including key ministers, have been cool on the prospects of action while several oil companies have sought to move the goalposts to 2012. ''It seems unlikely –but not quite inconceivable – that drastic action will be taken by December 31st, debate is intensifying. There are presently bills before both the Senate and the House of Representatives that enforce proposed fines and effectively seek to ban 'routine' gas flaring'', SDN Co-ordinator, Gaia Sprocati said.

Civil society groups are however, active in the debate. Social Action, a Port Harcourt based group, led presentations at the Senate. ERA, whose Executive Director, Nnimmo Bassey, was recently elected the Chairman of Friends of the Earth Internation (FoEI), a global federation of environmental rights advocacy groups, is supporting community lawsuits against companies flaring in their area.

Less progress has been made on flaring than oil companies claim. Anglo-Dutch supermajor, Shell, acknowledges that it still flares 64 per cent of the gas associated with its oil production, while at least one other company told the Senate hearing that it would need to close its operations if proposed gas flaring legislation was enacted.

SDN is arguing that there are major local and international gains that can be made from the end of flaring in Nigeria, adding, ''we would recommend it as an area of priority for all readers who can wield influence on the various parties involved''.

This is coming as analysts say the attack on a Chevron pipeline leading to Escravos in November, which shut around 100,000 barrels of oil per day, was an abrupt reminder of how swiftly the situation across the region could deteriorate, due to the fact that underlying issues are not being addressed.

Equally important, the pipeline attack and the brief seizure of a ship and crew off Delta state were claimed to be in response to the arrest of a tanker allegedly carrying stolen oil from the neighbouring Bayelsa State. If there was any doubt about the extent of ongoing problems with "bunkering" increased bunkering activities resulted in Shell's closure of the Soku Gas plant and declaration of "force majeure" just last November 27, affecting around 40 per cent of the Liquefied Natural Gas delivered for export through Bonny terminal.

The Joint military Task Force (JTF) claims to have the armed groups and militants on the back foot, after weeks of raids, including success against both criminal groups in Rivers and 'bunkerers' in Bayelsa and Delta State. However, while it seems that the armed groups are under some increased pressure there is limited objective evidence for the claims of either side.

November witnessed an increase in local violence. Apart from JTF clashes with armed groups there was an increase in armed robbery and there have been two highly suspicious killings in Rivers state – the deputy general manager of leading logistics company, Intels, and the brother of Supreme Court Justice Nikki Tobi. In both cases witnesses suggested there was no attempt at robbery or abduction.

Despite JTF claims of success it has become increasingly clear that some militant leaders are graduating to a status akin to 'warlord' in their area – where the payment of protection money, ransoms, and other levies makes them extraordinarily influential and further blurs the line between armed actors and government. Due to continuing back door payments by government and oil companies some armed groups are very well placed to respond rapidly and violently whenever their interests are challenged.

Kidnapping continues to sporadically reach further across the region with Abia being the latest state to suffer an alarming level of violence. There are also clear signs of hardening attitudes amongst armed groups and the JTF with open discussion of new levels of violence. A security/military response that does not take into account a broader resolution of the drivers of the conflict could easily lead to disaster.

Presently communities often live mainly in fear of armed groups with some benefiting minimally from a "Robin Hood" redistribution of some profits However communities also increasingly resent the violence of the JTF – which is often misplaced or sometimes simply corrupt.

There is an immediate risk that further clashes and JTF raids could drive communities to more actively support armed groups. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) has also made credible threats to resume attacks on the oil industry this December, creating a further opportunity for conflict to deepen unless new strategies are developed and implemented.

The present situation is clearly unsustainable, with analysts already discussing the cementing of an 'economy of violence'.


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