Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine
July 11, 1999
Incident at Opia

A helicopter attack on a delta village reveals Nigeria's tangle of oil and money, feuds and poverty.

Niger Delta. April 1999 (Maykuth Photo)

A gas flare at an oil well in the Niger Delta.

Chief Thompson Pabiri was not alarmed when the helicopter whirred into sight, hovering over his village of Opia.

It was not unusual to see choppers in the Niger delta, where numberless braids of the river meander through roadless swamps. This chopper, like many that regularly buzzed over Opia , belonged to a contractor working for Chevron Nigeria Ltd., one of the international petroleum companies working in the oil-rich delta. Chevron had just finished drilling three wells in the swamp adjoining Opia .

The surprise came when Nigerian soldiers poked their rifles from the chopper's open door, a few feet above the palm trees that shield the village. They began firing into Opia 's reed-and-thatch huts. As panicked villagers fled into the surrounding swamp, two boats belonging to a different Chevron contractor landed. Soldiers jumped out, set off smoke grenades and began shooting.

"I heard somebody yell out the order to kill," Pabiri recalled later, speaking in the language of his people, the Ijaws.

The soldiers set fire to Opia 's two dozen huts and communal buildings and destroyed most of the village's canoes and fishing nets. They sank Opia 's motorboat, the only means the villagers had to travel to the provincial capital, several hours away through a labyrinth of reptile-infested creeks.

The soldiers then traveled a few miles down river and burned Ikenyan, a place where villagers walk on plank paths between huts to keep from sinking into the waterlogged soil. Ikenyan is a sister village to Opia , and its people are members of the same clan.

Bonny Terminal, April 1999 (Maykuth photo)

Bonny Terminal, Niger Delta.

By the end of that day last January, four people lay dead in the two villages, including an aged Ikenyan chief. About 50 were missing. Some, like a woman and her five children who had the misfortune to land their canoe at Ikenyan when the soldiers struck, are presumed dead.

A few weeks later, community activists accompanied me and a photographer to the villages, where new huts were being built. Pabiri, wearing a skirt and carrying a wooden staff, exchanged drinks with the visitors, as is the tradition. He splashed some gin on the soil to invoke the blessings of the spirits, saving most of the liquor for himself and the other village leaders.

Pabiri, a tall man in his 50s whose stained front teeth are sharpened to points, said the Jan. 4 attack was a mystery.

"We have no trouble with anybody," he said. "We have no trouble with any company."

After a few more rounds of drinks, however, it became clear his people have serious problems with Chevron.

Chevron contractors had come to Opia to install three wells to tap into a reservoir of oil two miles beneath the delta. A dredge excavated a lagoon next to the village, where drillers built platforms for the wells, and the mounding soil created a landslide of mud that pushed against the walls of Opia 's huts.

The drillers paid the village about $1,000 for the inconvenience, but the villagers had demanded more. Meeting with oil company representatives, they said, they asked for jobs, schools and development projects. The oilmen said they'd get back with a response.

The attack occurred about a week later.

"They just wanted to move us out of this place and be free to do what they want with the land," said Godspower Sinwah, an Opia chief. "That's the reason they attacked us."

If only it were so simple. Nothing in Nigeria is ever as simple as people make it out to be. If only it were.

In fact, the attack on Opia - like so much of the turmoil in the delta - seems to have been spawned not only by oil, but by government corruption, corporate greed and intricate tribal rivalries. Oil has only raised the stakes to an international level.

An ocean away lies another village, another river. Where the Schuylkill joins the Delaware, scores of oil tanks march across the landscape at Sunoco's sprawling refinery. Complex webs of pipes lattice the acres of the waterfront, and the aroma of petroleum mingles with the traffic fumes from the Schuylkill Expressway.

This is where Nigeria meets Philadelphia.

Nigeria is the world's sixth-largest oil producer. Its sweet, low-sulfur crude is the largest single source of petroleum for Philadelphia refineries. Nigerian crude makes up more than 40 percent of the feedstock at Sunoco's refineries in Philadelphia and Marcus Hook. The Sunoco refineries buy one of every 10 barrels that Nigeria produces. The Coastal Eagle Point refinery in Westville, N.J., and the Tosco Corp. refinery in Marcus Hook also buy Nigerian crude.

Sunoco and the other refiners transform Nigerian crude into the gasoline for American cars, jet fuel for American planes, and heating oil for American homes.

The oil is pumped out of Nigeria 's swamps into giant tankers that hold a million barrels each - enough to supply Philadelphia's five refineries for one day. The supertankers are so huge they must unload part of their cargo into smaller vessels in Delaware Bay so they can float high enough to clear the Delaware River channel and dock outside the refineries without running aground.

From 1,500 wells in the Niger delta, Nigeria sent $9 billion worth of crude oil last year to Philadelphia and the rest of the world. But very little of that money finds its way back to the delta.

In the marshes of the Niger delta, a rebellion is brewing.Amid sweltering swamps of mangrove and palm, young men armed with fast boats, hot rhetoric, old weapons and an ancient warrior tradition have taken on the government of Africa's most populous nation.

Angered by decades of exploitation, the rebels have launched a war of sabotage. They have kidnapped foreign workers, commandeered oil installations and blocked pipelines in an attempt to force the oil companies and the government to return more of Nigeria 's wealth to its source.

They have also channeled the rage against Big Oil into long-standing tribal feuds. Much of the fighting and violence in the delta is rooted in the ethnic divisions that predate petroleum exploration.

The uprising has reduced Nigeria 's 2-million-barrels-per-day production by as much as a third. And it demonstrates the strife that could lie ahead for the country's new civilian government under President Olusegun Obasanjo, who took power on May 29, ending 15 years of repressive and greedy military rule.

As the delta goes, so goes Nigeria , the nation that could be Africa's economic engine. Violence could move beyond the delta and even threaten Obasanjo's new government.

Nigeria 's delta contains 10 million people. Like the nation as a whole, they are divided into many ethnic groups and tribes and further split by language, religion and historical grievances as subtle as the facial scars that define clan membership. Oil and oil money have only exacerbated the disharmony.

Since 1956, when oil was found, four years before the British colony became independent, petrodollars amounting to hundreds of billions of dollars have paid for modern highways and high-rises in Lagos, the sprawling financial capital, as well as an entirely new capital, Abuja, in the center of the country.

But even so, Nigeria is among the poorest third of African countries - its per capita income has fallen from a high of nearly $1,000 in the 1970s to $260 a year, about half that of the average African nation. Delta villages are largely without schools, clinics, electricity or roads. Most residents drink directly from the Niger, which also serves as their toilet.

The government's few feeble attempts to develop the delta have generated more graft than finished projects. The area is littered with mildew-covered shells of schools and clinics that were never completed.

The decline in oil prices since 1980 has exacted a steep toll. Petroleum still accounts for 40 percent of Nigeria 's gross domestic product. But oil income amounts to only a third of the $25 billion it generated two decades ago.

And Nigeria has little to fall back on. It has neglected its traditional economic sectors, such as agriculture, and accumulated a huge foreign debt. Because more money can be made by importing fuel and selling it on the black market, Nigeria 's four refineries have fallen into disrepair. It is practically impossible to find a gallon of gas in a region that rests atop 22 billion barrels of oil.

In the early days of the oil business in Nigeria , the government and the oil companies were under little pressure to develop the communities where they worked.

The result is starkly evident in the village of Oloibiri, a five-hour drive down a muddy dirt lane from the nearest paved road. Even a short rain makes the lane impassable. It was in Oloibiri that the first oil was struck in 1956. The only evidence of the momentous event is a rusted and faded sign on idle wellhead No. 1. The well stopped producing in 1976.

"This was the first oil well in West Africa, but there is nothing here," said Moses Damini, a passing bicyclist. He was born the year oil was found. "There is no road, no education. Nothing. That's why we're suffering."

Frustrated with the Nigerian government, community activists have turned their attention to the oil companies they view as the government's agents.

"Trickle-down hasn't worked," said Bronwen Manby, a researcher for Human Rights Watch and the author of a recent report on repression in the Niger delta. "The youth are saying it's time for direct action."

In one of the most significant instances, a delta tribe of about 500,000 people called the Ogoni organized to protest the practices of Royal Dutch/Shell Group of Cos., which has the largest oil operations in Nigeria . The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) demanded a share of royalties, a halt to oil spills and political autonomy. Shell suspended its operations in Ogoni territory in 1993.

In response to the protests, the government of Gen. Sani Abacha cracked down brutally: In 1995 playwright and MOSOP founder Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists were executed on trumped-up murder charges. International uproar ensued, and many countries, including the United States, imposed sanctions against Abacha's government.

The recent uprising of ethnic Ijaws is perhaps even more ominous. The Ijaw area is the heart of the oil region. After the notorious Abacha died last year, the militant Ijaw Youths Council stepped up protests.

In December, the Ijaws issued a proclamation claiming ownership of the oil still in the ground and insisted the oil companies leave the delta by the end of the 1998.

Nigeria 's outgoing military government was in no mood to negotiate. It dispatched more than 10,000 soldiers and police to the region. Security forces killed dozens of protesters in December and early this year. The mysterious attacks on the villages of Opia and Ikenyan occurred at that time.

Now, fighting between Itsekiri and Ijaw tribes has accelerated. Arms are flowing into the region, and there have been frequent bloody clashes, deaths numbering in the hundreds, razed homes and a shoot-on-sight curfew imposed by the government. Angry young Ijaws have revived the mystical cult of Egbesu, the god of war. Warriors wear charms that they believe make them impervious to bullets.

"Armed struggle is a difficult choice to make," said Oronto Douglas, the 32-year-old spokesman for Ijaw Youths Council, whose office in the city of Port Harcourt is adorned with posters commemorating Saro-Wiwa and Martin Luther King Jr. "It is the oppressor who determines which method the people use to defend themselves."

Since independence, Nigeria 's army has stepped in repeatedly to govern a nation that is more a confederation of rival tribes than a unified state.

And many people think that the country's ruling interests arranged February's election of President Obasanjo, a former military ruler and political prisoner, as a comfortable way to shift to civilian rule. Now Obasanjo must balance the interests of Nigeria 's rival ethnic groups. It's the same problem facing many African rulers who govern nations whose borders were created by colonial powers without regard for tribal boundaries.

Nigeria has about 250 different tribes and ethnic groups competing for resources. Some rivalries date back hundreds of years, to a time when victorious tribes sold their prisoners to American and European slave traders.

The British governed Nigeria as separate regions, each controlled by a dominant ethnic group: the Hausa-Fulani, the Muslim tribes from the north; the predominantly Christian Yoruba in the southwest; and in the east, the Ibo, whose domain includes part of the Niger delta.

Tribal rivalries have played themselves out continuously since independence. In 1967, the Ibo declared themselves the independent Republic of Biafra. It took the Nigerian government three years to put down the Biafrans, and more than a million died, mostly from starvation.

That civil war set the stage for the current struggle by concentrating more power in the hands of the federal government. The federal government claimed ownership of all the oil in the ground, and agreed to share a percentage of the income with the states and local governments. With each successive military dictatorship, a greater percentage disappeared into the hands of the larger northern tribes - those controlling the military government.

"All the money has been seized by the national government and used to develop the north," said Mofia T. Akobo, a former oil minister who lives in Port Harcourt.

There are echoes in today's uprising of a rebellion a century ago, when the Royal Niger Co. came to establish palm oil plantations. Nigerians in 1895 rebelled, demanding more in return than the bowler hats the British traders handed out.

"Whatever is happening now has happened before," said Douglas, the Ijaw Youth Council spokesman, who studied law in England under a British scholarship. "It's the same issue - corporate dominance, military dictatorship. Then it was palm oil. Now it's crude oil."

Shell was the first and remains the dominant oil company in Nigeria , and many Nigerians use the term Shell generically for all the oil companies. Concessions are also controlled by Mobil, Chevron, Texaco, Agip of Italy and Elf-Aquitaine, the French national oil company.

The oil companies initially shared profits 50-50 with the government. In the 1970s, the Nigerians forced the oil companies into partnership with the Nigerian National Petroleum Corp., the state-owned oil company. The state oil company owns between 55 and 60 percent of the joint ventures. After the international oil companies pay taxes on their share of the profits, the Nigerian government ends up with about 85 percent of oil revenue.

The oil companies, though they are minority partners, control day-to-day operations. They are deemed responsible for oil spills, for the boats that cut fishing lines and the salt water that infiltrates freshwater streams when dredges dig canals across the delta.

It costs little to extract a barrel of oil from the Niger delta largely because there are few environmental laws - or few that are enforced. The oil companies don't bury many pipelines; they simply lay them across the earth's surface. When they install a pipeline, the oil companies have to compensate the residents only for that season's lost crops.

When an oil spill occurs, the oil companies decide how much compensation is due - there is no independent compensatory agency.

As discontent grew in the delta, especially in the 1990s, the oil companies attempted to buy peace by paying off local leaders. Some chiefs now have nice houses in the cities, where they govern the villages from a distance.

"It was like bribe money," said Akobo, the former oil minister. "They just gave it hoping they could control the youths."

The oil companies say there is nothing wrong with this. "You want to work in a local community, you look for a central authority to deal with," said Shell spokesman Bobo Brown, an Ijaw.

Many young people, however, had a different agenda: They began challenging the authority of the tribal leaders. Community organizations emerged, demanding attention. Militant youths sabotaged pipelines to create oil spills. Then the oil companies stopped paying for damage that sabotage had caused, which led to more disputes.

The petroleum companies say they are caught between warring tribes and a government that has so mismanaged its fortunes that it owes the oil partnerships $1.6 billion for its share of the cost of extracting the crude.

Shell complained about the growth of a "compensation culture syndrome." The oil business was seen "as a way of making easy money," Brown said.

Yet the oil companies are not neutral players. They encouraged the government to protect their interests by making reprisals against protesters, and Shell once even acquired weapons for government security forces. But as international pressure mounted on the companies to distance themselves from the harsh government, Big Oil hired professional public relations officers like Brown, who began talking about "building relationships."

Brown acknowledges "the wealth is not going back to the delta the way it should, given the impact of the industry."

The oil companies now watch environmental damage more closely and are putting more money into community outreach programs. Shell is organizing development projects to bring roads, electricity and communications into villages. It spent $36 million last year on such projects.

But Brown said the oil companies cannot take on responsibilities best left to the government. So, he said, Shell is quietly putting pressure on the Nigerian government to address the region's political problems. "We're doing it," he said, "but it's not something you talk about with the media."

Shell's attempts to do things right sometimes go wrong. Communities that receive few benefits begrudge those that get more. Sometimes the animosities cleave single communities.

Take the town of Nembe. Nembe has perhaps 10,000 people - all Ijaws - and is two hours from the rest of the world by speedboat. Nembe is divided by a 40-foot-wide creek. One side of town, populated by a clan called the Ogbolomabiri, has four Shell installations. Its residents have forged a close relationship with the oil company.

The other side of town, home to the Bassambiri clan, has only one oil facility and believes it has been slighted by its neighbors and by Shell.

Fighting broke out two years ago over local government issues. The fracas became ugly - 15 people died - and now nobody crosses the pedestrian bridge that joins the two sides of town. The Ogbolomabiri cut off the power going to the other side of town, so Shell gave the Bassambiri a diesel generator. Not even sick and dead Bassambiri are welcome in the other side of Nembe, so the Bassambiri had to build their own clinic and mortuary.

It's hard for Shell, or any company, to work in such an environment. A Shell helicopter pilot once mistakenly flew an Ogbolomabiri chief and his wife to the Bassambiri side of town. A angry mob chased the royal couple back into the helicopter. Shell had to apologize profusely.

Walter Numomikari, 32, a Bassambiri political leader, has participated in protests at Shell facilities; he has a deep scar in his thigh from a police bullet. Some days, he gets so angry he is tempted to go to the flow station near Nembe and shut it down.

"If you go out there and turn a valve, you could shut down the whole Shell operation," he said.

He knows that such an act would provoke a fight with the military, not to mention the Ogbolomabiri, who work as guards at several Shell flow stations.

Some activists like Numomikari say the oil companies deliberately inflame tribal divisions to prevent the delta clans from uniting against Big Oil. That's ridiculous, say the oil companies; it is not in their business interests to create chaos.

"The situation is more complicated than a simple case of divide and rule," said Brown, the Shell spokesman. "What we are seeing is interethnic competition arising from diminished opportunities and resources."

There was not much to the fishing village of Opia even before the soldiers came in Chevron's helicopters and destroyed it.

Opia now looks more like a camp. New houses are being framed from poles, and most people sleep at night on the ground under makeshift huts. Catfish are smoked on twigs above a smoldering fire. Smoked fish heads lie discarded on the ground, among bits of plastic litter and fishing apparatus.

The arrival of the photographer and me a few weeks after the attack provided the town's leaders an opportunity to communicate their message. As Chief Thompson Pabiri spilled gin on the soil and called to the spirits, Godwin Miebi, a teacher and community activist, busily scratched out a poster for the demonstration the community planned.

He held up the poster as the villagers lined up behind him for a photo opportunity: "Criminal destruction of Opia and Ikenyan village communities by Chevron's military agents. Save Our Souls."

There is much disagreement about what happened in Opia in early January - who provoked the attack, whether the villagers had weapons. But one undisputed casualty was Chevron's public image.

It did not take long for news of Chevron's involvement to reach the network of international activists. In February, Human Rights Watch, the international monitoring group, denounced the use of the Chevron-contracted helicopter and boats in the attack. "The oil companies can't pretend they don't know what's happening all around them," said Kenneth Roth, the executive director of the organization.

A few weeks later, environmental activists in San Francisco pelted Chevron chief executive Kenneth Derr with pies.

Chevron officials, irritated by the wave of bad publicity, did not deny that the Nigerian military used Chevron-leased equipment in the attack. (Shell no longer lends its helicopters for military operations, to avoid being associated with human-rights violations).

But Chevron said there was more to the story. It argued that the military assault was a counterattack for a confrontation between armed local youths and soldiers posted to the drilling rig that had installed the wells next to Opia .

According to Chevron, the area around Opia was seething with angry youths in December, when the Ijaw Youth Council had demanded the oil companies vacate the delta. On Dec. 30, armed youths took 17 oil employees hostage as they departed the rig near Opia , Chevron said.

Four days later, Chevron said, youths approached soldiers guarding the drilling rig and attempted to extort money by threatening to vandalize the rig. The next day, on the morning of Jan. 4, some youths returned and fired at the soldiers. The soldiers called in reinforcements from a support group in a nearby town.

"We understand that it was this support group's counterattack that led to the incidents at Opia and Ikenyan," Chevron said in a statement.

The villagers deny any confrontation took place.

Yet conversation with the Ijaws over several days suggests another aspect to the situation. For as long as anyone can remember, the villagers say, they have been fighting over land and fishing rights with a smaller ethnic group, the Itsekiri. The Itsekiri moved into the delta several hundred years ago, which makes them recent arrivals to the Ijaw.

The Itsekiri are known as a more politically shrewd tribe. Their chiefs are said to offer their daughters as wives to powerful leaders of other tribes, insinuating the Itsekiri into royal houses.

Three years ago the Itsekiri persuaded the national government to move the local governmental seat from an Ijaw community to one of their own, and with it went a great deal of patronage. The move outraged the Ijaws. The two groups have been exchanging revenge attacks ever since.

Last October, Ijaw warriors raided an Itsekiri market in the provincial capital, Warri. The warriors gunned down 30 people, burned homes and sacked a police station.

A few days later, 35 Ijaws died in an a counterattack on one of their towns.

On Jan. 4, 1998, a year to the day before the soldiers came and burned Opia , Itsekiri commandos raided and incinerated Opia .

"As men, we could not let such an act go unanswered," said Anthony Lawuru, an Opia official.

"Let's just say one or two Itsekiri villages disappeared," said Benson Edekou, Opia 's public relations officer.

And so Opia 's leaders were not entirely surprised when Nigerian soldiers attacked their communities on Jan. 4 this year. And despite the Chevron helicopters, they have an idea who was behind it. They say the Itsekiri masterminded the attack with their allies in the army.

On June 5 militant Ijaw youths attacked Arunton, a predominantly Itsekiri village, and two days later they attacked again. At least 200 people were killed. Homes and schools were burned. Soldiers were sent to the area, and security was tightened. The price of bread tripled.

Since the attack in Opia , villagers say soldiers occasionally pass in speedboats, firing their rifles over the village with menace. Young Ijaws ply the same waters, wearing white headbands and raising their fists in signs of support to their tribesmen.

It is a story without an end. The tales are as braided and intertwined as the Niger delta, where creeks cut paths every which way, changing from freshwater to saltwater with the tides.

Oronto Douglas, the activist lawyer who heads the Ijaw Youth Council, sometimes wonders what might happen if the youths' dream comes true and the oil companies pack up and pull out.

"If the oil companies went away, the oil companies would lose and the government would lose," he said. "The only people who would be better off are the people who actually live here."

Perhaps. But the ethnic divisions that cleave the Niger delta may well persist long after the last drop of oil is sucked out of the ground. Without petrodollars, there still may not be peace. But without petrodollars, would the rest of the world care?