In Fight Over Oil-Rich Delta, Firepower Grows Sophisticated

Niger Delta militants displayed their weapons, including heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, to journalists last month. Both the rebels and the government are said to finance arms purchases through oil sales.
Niger Delta militants displayed their weapons, including heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, to journalists last month. Both the rebels and the government are said to finance arms purchases through oil sales. (Photos By Craig Timberg -- The Washington Post)
By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 6, 2006

PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria -- People steeped in the bloody history of the Niger Delta recall when militants battling for control of the vast oil reserves here traded their fishing spears and machetes for locally made hunting guns and then, a few years later, upgraded to imported AK-47 assault rifles.

But those days now seem long ago to the delta's beleaguered residents and observers of the decades-old conflict, who say government forces and the militants fighting them are both using profits from record-high oil prices to rearm themselves with unprecedented levels of firepower.

The government, according to Nigerian news reports, is shopping in international markets for new weaponry. And the militants, who support their operations by tapping directly into pipelines and selling the stolen oil in a bustling black market, are using the proceeds to stockpile belt-fed machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

Dozens of militants displayed such weapons, fully loaded, during interviews last month on a stretch of river they appeared to control. With photographers snapping away, the hooded and camouflaged young men waved their guns menacingly at journalists and at one of the nine hostages they seized last month. The hostage, Macon Hawkins, an oil worker from Texas, and five others were later released.

The hundreds and perhaps thousands of unemployed young men who make up the militant forces have stockpiled boxes of ammunition that are as big as tables, said Ledum A. Mitee, head of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, a human rights group that advocates on behalf of the ethnic group in the delta.

Mitee saw weapons caches when he visited a base in January to help negotiate the release of four foreign hostages, he said. "I left thinking the situation was more serious than it has ever been," he said.

His group, whose former leader, Ken Saro-Wiwa, was hanged for treason in 1995, opposes violence. But Mitee said that sympathy is growing among residents of this impoverished region for armed confrontation with government forces that long have spirited the delta's oil wealth to far-off government projects and into the pockets of corrupt politicians.

The weapons come from many sources, according to analysts and independent groups such as Human Rights Watch. Corrupt police sell from their own stocks, sometimes offering training for an extra fee. Politicians import weapons to arm their personal militias. And oil companies hire and arm youths to protect their facilities. The guns often end up in the hands of militants, who also buy directly from international dealers.

Last June in Warri, a major delta port, militants purchased $5 million worth of weapons, included rocket-propelled grenade launchers, hand grenades and a variety of machine guns, said Patrick Naagbanton, a researcher for the Project for Environment, Human Rights and Development, a delta-based nongovernmental organization.

"There are so many more guns than before -- bigger guns, more sophisticated guns," he said.

The growing firepower has mixed with rising political frustration and jittery, overstretched global oil markets to produce an increasingly combustible mix here.

A new militant umbrella group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, has launched a series of attacks on oil facilities that have cut national production by 20 percent. Nigeria, with an average output of 2.5 million barrels per day, is the fifth-largest supplier to the United States. The group was also responsible for the recent kidnappings.


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