Nnamdi Onyeuma

The Rise of the Big Men

Nigeria | Investigation in Niger Delta reveals the businessmen behind the kidnappings.

The recent kidnap of a group of Nigerian-Dutch visitors, on a mission to help a poor community in the Niger Delta, has brought the oil-rich region back into the international spotlight. And with a twist at that. The commonly held view of a region of downtrodden and disenfranchised people, exploited solely by foreign oil companies, is no longer the whole truth, reports ZAM correspondent Nnamdi Onyeuma. The main exploiters and polluters are now former rebel warlords, local politicians and business tycoons.

The main polluters are rebel warlords

Onyeuma reports from the creeks where local ‘big men’ sabotage pipelines, sponsor kidnappings and don the mantle of activists to attack foreign oil companies in exchange for positions, contracts and projects from these very same companies. “They do not care about the poor in their midst. All they do is shout ‘marginalisation’ and ‘pollution’ to arm-twist the foreign companies for personal gains.”

Money-worth houses

In the Niger Delta, from Warri to Yenagoa and beyond, in the villages and near cities, all the money-worth office complexes and houses one sees – those with their compounds, security, gardens and guards – are owned by local militants, politicians, and oil contractors. Local oil contractors that is, not foreign oil executives: these stay further away.

The people in the polluted villages know their local rich, warlords and tycoons, yet hardly get to see them or meet them, travelling as they do with convoys and armed escorts. Locals also don’t want to talk much about them, fear evident in their faces when asked. “I once complained to the police about a local gang, who had vandalised some oil pipelines and polluted our water,” says Monibo Joel Monibo, a former youth leader in Kalabar village, Bayelsa State. He and his fellow villagers care about nearby Taylor Creek, their only, even if still rather unhealthy, water source. Monibo, who lives in a sparsely furnished bungalow a few steps away from the creek, is a surveillance officer for Italian oil giant AGIP. His job entails keeping an eye on AGIP pipelines running through the area.

“The vandals were arrested, but quickly released. Three of them immediately came to my house, one armed with a machete. I think the others had something more than a machete. They warned me to desist from reporting them again or I would be killed.” He suspects that the gang must have had the protection of certain powerful ‘big men’ because neither the police nor AGIP itself wanted to take the matter further. “I held a press conference at Cool FM Studio in Port Harcourt, the capital of the Rivers State, also in the Delta. I also reported the matter to AGIP, but they wriggled out, saying they could only act if I had personally held one of the culprits. Held, how?” After a pause, he adds that: “AGIP is aware, just like I am, that some government officials usually help in the release of pipeline vandals.” Often, it is better to let an act of damage slip, than to anger such ‘big men’ even more.

The region is not solely exploited by foreign multinationals

The ‘big men’ are a relatively recent phenomenon.  When the foreign oil companies arrived, 58 years ago, the Delta was a place of farming and fishing, ruled by traditional leaders.  They and their communities greeted the massive oil resource first discovered in 1956 at Oloibiri, in Bayelsa State, with jubilation and hope for fast-paced development. Plans were made for roads, refineries and schools, but these were not to be: waves of destruction and pollution followed rapacious exploitation coupled with active collaboration from a federal government that was only interested in lining the pockets of the elite. The destruction of the land and pollution of the water led to protests, for which the author and activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa became a spokesperson. Instead of listening, the Nigerian government – helped along by complicit silence from oil companies – responded with brute force. Activists, including Saro-Wiwa, were convicted and sentenced to death.

“If they had listened to Saro-Wiwa, all this pollution and degradation could have been prevented long ago. But they hanged him,” says Morris Alagoa, the tall and very dark project officer of the NGO Environmental Rights Action (ERA) in Yenagoa, the capital of Bayelsa State. Ken Saro-Wiwa’s photographs looks down on us from the wall in Alagoa’s office on the outskirts of town. Accessing the place through a narrow wooden path constructed on stilts, one could be forgiven for forgetting the wet environment for a moment to simply enjoy the cool and peaceful scenery defined by palm trees.

The Niger Delta struggle, personified by Saro-Wiwa, and later taken up with arms by the oil rebels of MEND, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, has been successful in some ways. Certainly, MEND’s attacks on oil company installations and kidnappings of foreign oil workers helped to pressurise the multinational companies to become more responsible.  Alagoa: “Companies such as Shell and AGIP (nowadays) make it a point of duty to clean up spill sites, even if there is still a failure to compensate locals whose farmlands and other means of livelihood have been destroyed.”

But whilst the companies behave better than before, lawlessness persists. “We still have as much pipeline vandalism and kidnappings as we had in the nineties.” He doesn’t hesitate to blame ‘the government the most’ for the situation. “The government was supposed to regulate oil activities, but it never did.”

A routine of appeasement

In the absence of government, the companies have bought into a routine of appeasement. They award contracts and positions to those who campaign against them, especially if they are capable of harming them. Clean-up contracts, for example, are obtained easily if one first sets one’s men out to damage a pipeline and create an oil spill. All that is needed then is a ‘request’ to the affected company to award the clean-up project ‘to the community.’

'Big Men' control gangs, militias, illegal refineries and quite a few government officials

Every foreign oil company in the Niger Delta, nowadays, deals with at least four or five such ‘big men’ who combine old rebel allegiances with business acumen, running companies that contract to the oil multinationals for cleaning, security, shipping, sand blasting and offshore services. Local oil tycoon and community association chairman in the Dodo River Community Berry Negerese, for example, is also reportedly an old friend of former militant leader, Ebikabowei Victor-Ben, popularly known as Boyloaf. He also manages seven ships with which his company, Mabeco, provides services to Total, Chevron and AGIP.

Many ‘big men’ also hold local political positions. Negerese is regional auditor for the governing PDP party. Ex-governor Timipre Sylva, still an important political player, commands the loyalty of rebel militias who feel left out from the recent government amnesty negotiated with that other very important ‘big man,’ MEND leader Boyloaf.  Because of the amnesty and the training programmes and monthly salaries for his men, Boyloaf is now back in the government’s and the oil companies’ good books, but no one can predict what will happen when the money runs out.

The ‘big men’ often purport to speak on behalf of ‘the communities’. Taking on the mantle of activists, they complain about pollution, marginalisation, and devastation of farmlands, and they demand compensation, always more compensation. At times, they bring on scores of people to support them – this is helped along greatly with a few cash and food donations – whenever there is a protest against oil companies.

“But what they get is not helping the communities,” fumes Chief Nengi James, Chairman of the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO) and head of the oil communities of Nembe kingdom, in the one-room office in Yenagoa that he shares with a few staff members. “What we have seen over the years is that the poverty of the true locals increases, while a few powerful individuals profit from the situation.” Dressed in a blue traditional Ijaw shirt emblazoned with a lion head, and leaning forward agitatedly, he articulates his anger and frustration about the ‘big men’ of the local oil rebel elite. “They do not care about the people. They do not care about the poor in their midst. All they do is shout marginalisation, pollution, after which they go behind our back in the cloak of darkness to arm-twist the foreign oil companies for personal gains.” He calls them the ‘new hypocrites’ of the region.

AGIP has done well for Ikarama

Sometimes, development projects donated by ‘big oil’ and communities do work. Italian oil company AGIP, for example, has donated a rural electrification project to the Ikarama community in Bayelsa State. A whirring ceiling fan welcomes visitors to the bungalow of engineer Dickson Ikioweri, Chairman of the Ikarama Community Development Committee in Ikarama village. The sitting room is furnished with all that a sitting room should have, with enough plastic chairs to even hold a small party: the place is clearly often a buzz point for visitors. During our conversation, Ikioweri’s wife walks in with two other women. After a short welcome, they retire to an inner room. Ikioweri speaks glowingly of all that the oil company has done. “We are enjoying the electricity, as you can see,” he says. “They also built a community town hall and have been building roads here since 2010. The road project is yet to be completed, but in all truth, AGIP has done well for us.”

But not all local projects have developed so swimmingly: they also fall victim to greed by the local ‘big men’. “Our committee was also awarded a guest house project by AGIP. It was to enable us to generate income from tourists. But it stopped after certain ‘community members’ stormed the site and ordered work to stop.” Ikioweri doubts if these ‘community members’ were interested in the actual community. “They told me to hand over the project to one Timothy Zebemie, who is not from Ikarama, to complete it. I refused.” The case is now before the local high court, where it is expected to stall until it eventually disappears.

But even when the ‘big men’ leave a project alone, the government doesn’t help to maintain local well-meant initiatives. A project for a primary and secondary school in Ikarama, Ikioweri says, was abandoned soon after the structures were built.  Nowadays, only fresh university graduates, on compulsory one year national service, try their best to teach children in the area to read, write and count.

Further down south, in Nembe territory, the Okoroba-Opume road construction, started in 2012, has practically slowed down to a halt after a suspicious ‘sand research study.’  According to local activists Comrade Hitler (sic) Apumon of the Okoroba Youth Development Association and local land owner High Chief Alawari Agum, the study was a money-making scheme. “After we showed the company a part of Okoroba where sand could be excavated to use for the road, its management insisted on constituting a committee to undertake a research study of the best place to get the sand. After two weeks, they came out with a report that favoured the terrain around Opume village. But when they moved their equipment to Opume, they realised that there was no good sand after all,” says Agum.

It is a familiar timeline for a public services project in the Niger Delta. Contracts are signed, money is handed over (often, again, by foreign oil companies and government agencies), studies are done, committees are formed, and when all the money has been handed out to those in the committees and the other relevant structures, the project slows down or stops completely.

The big man and the kidnap

Not even Bayelsa State governing party auditor, oil tycoon and multimillionaire Berry Negerese has succeeded in successfully developing the hospital project he manages for the Dodo River Community Association, which he chairs. The hospital, donated by Chevron recently, is already in disarray. In order to campaign for more funding, Negerese invited a Dutch delegation to come help by doing a documentary about it. Whilst in his area, however, the visitors were kidnapped.

“By sea pirates,” Negerese had told me over the phone when I first contacted him. “They were from another community. Very sad. But fortunately, we managed to help free the victims again.” Locals, however, said they found it surprising that a powerful regional strongman like Negerese could not have avoided this event. “If you want to go to Letugbene, the community where the Dutch were kidnapped, you know that the ‘bad boys’ there can kidnap you, but you will be safe if you speak to their sponsor first, that is, if you have the contact,” Morris Alagoa of the environmental NGO ERA in Bayelsa State had commented. “But even then, no one travels without security [i.e. armed escort, NO].”

When I had asked how anybody can kidnap five people in Negerese’s own community without any resistance from his escort, or so much as a hiccup from the federal government army men stationed along the waterways, Negerese said that he and his men were not armed, because they ‘had thought it was safe.’ He added that he and the local police, for whom he had much praise, worked together to get the victims released; that the police rescued the victims and that not a cent was paid in ransom. “How the police worked, I cannot say. It is the police that will explain that. All I can say is that we went to the Deputy Governor’s Lodge where the police brought the hostages. And, that we met the Netherlands’ ambassador there, who was waiting to receive the rescued persons.” Negerese had ended our conversation by praising the State Police Commissioner for the ‘recent arrest’ of several of the kidnappers.

Police spokesperson Alex Akhigbe however denied that any arrests were made and other reports, from the kidnap victims themselves, denied that the police had played any role at all. In an effort to clarify the contradictions, I had phoned Negerese again after our first conversation and even made an appointment at his offices in Port Harcourt to see him personally. But Negerese did not keep the appointment and also did not answer my repeated phone calls later on.

A cordial relationship

Meanwhile, the common people in the Niger Delta don’t seem too surprised about what occurred recently in Dodo River. The incident, when raised, mainly prompts them to repeat, exasperatedly, that there must now finally, finally be an end to violence in the creeks. It would also be nice, they say, if there would be a quick response to oil spills, education and employment opportunities, compensation to locals whose lands and water sources have been damaged, an end to infighting and intrigues, rule of law and, above all, a cordial relationship with oil corporations.

Nnamdi Onyeuma is assistant editor with The Saturday Mirror in Lagos, Nigeria.

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