Once Terror Of Nigerian Oil, Former Militants Back Jonathan

As the Islamist group Boko Haram intensifies attacks in northern Nigeria, former militants in the Niger River delta who once cut oil production by almost a third have become some of the government’s biggest supporters.

Militant commanders like Government Ekpemupolo have gone from targeting Nigeria’s oil industry, riding around in speed boats with automatic weapons and explosives, to protecting it. He now runs the Global West Specialist Ltd. security company that has a $115 million contract with the National Maritime Administration and Safety Agency.

Ekpemupolo is one of a group of former militants, including Ebikabowei Victor Ben and Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, who are prospering under the rule of President Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria’s first leader from the region that’s the heart of Africa’s biggest oil industry. They form the backbone of support for Jonathan, 57, in the area as he seeks re-election in February, and have vowed to resist attempts by some opposition lawmakers to impeach him.

“We know what they’re doing and we’re watching them,” Reuben Wilson, a former militant and president of the Peace and Cultural Development Initiative lobby group for ex-combatants, said in a Nov. 22 e-mailed statement. “They should not push us to the wall, because if they do, we shall react.”

Before Jonathan announced he would seek re-election, Dokubo-Asari, the former leader of the militant group, the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force, told Lagos-based Silver Bird Television that if the president didn’t run for another term, he’d be barred from ever returning to the Niger delta.

Dokubo-Asari currently runs a school in neighboring country of Benin, to teach former combatants skills useful in the oil industry such as welding and diving, while Ben is the chairman of the Centre for Youth Development in Bayelsa state. He has contracts with the government to help ex-fighters find jobs and monitor pipelines.

For ordinary residents of the region, where more than 50 percent of the population lives in poverty, according to data published by the National Bureau of Statistics, the benefits of having a native son in the top office are less clear.

When Jonathan took power five years ago, the Aleibiri community expected that its decade-old spill disaster would at last get the government’s attention. A ruptured pipeline operated by Royal Dutch Shell Plc in 1997 left farms and streams coated by an oil slick. The Aleibiri spill is one of 2,744 oil pollution locations in the delta region that haven’t been cleaned up, according to Abuja-based National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency.

“Jonathan is our son from this area, who understands our pains,” Obudu Obuka, a 51-year-old fisherman who lost farms and fishing areas to the slick, said as he sat under a tree in front of his mud-brick home, sorting tangled nets. “So we expected some urgent action to rescue us from our situation. But so far we have seen nothing.”

Jonathan’s spokesman, Reuben Abati, said he would send a response when contacted for comments. He didn’t answer four subsequent phone calls or respond to e-mail and text messages.

“I think the Niger delta has been more or less neglected,” Bismarck Rewane, chief executive officer of Financial Derivatives Co., a Lagos-based risk advisory company, said by phone. “Maybe strategically he’s focusing on other parts of the country so he wouldn’t be accused of favoring his own part.”

As soon as the attacks eased in the Niger delta, the Islamist militant group Boko Haram started a campaign in the north of the country to impose Islamic law. Jonathan, who imposed a state of emergency in three northeastern states last year, said the group has killed 13,000 people since 2009.

In the delta, government action has been slow. Jonathan inherited an industry-reform bill first sent to lawmakers by his predecessor, Umaru Yar’Adua, that sought to change the way oil and gas investments are funded and regulated to give Nigeria a greater share of profits.

International energy companies oppose the bill’s proposals for higher taxes and royalties, while lawmakers from the north, where there isn’t oil output, reject its provisions to give a share of oil investments to the local communities.

The failure to pass the bill over the past six years has created a climate of regulatory uncertainty that has seen oil exploration activities drop to the lowest in more than a decade. Oil reserves have fallen to just below 32 billion barrels from 37 billion barrels over the period, according to figures released by the Petroleum Ministry.

Brent crude, which compares with Nigeria’s Bonny light oil, traded at $70.75 per barrel as of 7:22 a.m. in London, down 36 percent this year. That’s helped to weaken the naira 9.3 percent this quarter and force Jonathan’s administration to cuts its budget next year. Petroleum accounts for for more than 70 percent of government revenue and 95 percent of foreign-exchange income.

In the past four years, Shell, the oldest and biggest operator, has sold off most of its onshore oil assets in Nigeria, closing its entire western division that was run out of the city of Warri and shipped crude through the Forcados export terminal. Most of the buyers have been Nigerian-owned companies, such as Seplat Petroleum Plc (SEPL), First Hydrocarbon Ltd., Shoreline Natural Resources Ltd. and Neconde Energy Ltd.

From accounting for less than five percent of Nigeria’s output a decade ago, indigenous companies are expected “to own almost 25 percent of total production” by the end of the first half of next year, according to Dolapo Oni, head of energy research at Lagos-based Ecobank Research.

While local residents bemoan the lack of development in the region and failure to clean up pollution sites, the former militants remain steadfast in their support of Jonathan.

“Mr. President, continue the good work, don’t be distracted,” Ben, the former militant commander also known as General Boyloaf, said in a full-page notice in ThisDay newspaper on Nov. 14, three days after Jonathan declared that he would seek re-election. “Our support for you is unalloyed and total.”

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