Blood for oil in Nigeria: Military launches massive attack on Niger Delta villages

May 21, 2009 -- Democracy Now! -- The Nigerian military has been accused of killing hundreds, maybe thousands, of civilians in the oil-rich Niger Delta. The military offensive began eight days ago (May 13, 2009) but has received little international attention. We go to Nigeria to speak with Denzil Amagbe Kentebe of the Ijaw National Congress. We’re also joined by Sandy Cioffi, director of the new documentary Sweet Crude about the Niger Delta. The village of Oporoza, where much of the film was shot, has just been burned down.


Denzil Amagbe Kentebe, chair of the Ijaw National Congress (INC), Lagos Chapter.

Sandy Cioffi, director of the new film “Sweet Crude.” During the making of the film, Sandy and her crew were detained by the Nigerian military and held for seven days.

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JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to Nigeria, where the Nigerian military continues to carry out attacks by land, air and sea on the oil-rich Niger Delta. Reports indicate hundreds, possibly thousands, of Nigerian civilians may be dead. Entire villages have reportedly been burned to the ground.

The military offensive began eight days ago but has received little international attention. Aid groups and journalists have been blocked from entering the remote region, which is accessible only by boat.

On Wednesday, a coalition of environmental and human rights groups called on the International Criminal Court to launch an immediate investigation into the killings. The Nigerian military has claimed the attacks have only targeted militant camps as part of a peace-keeping effort.

AMY GOODMAN: For years, activist groups in the Niger Delta have advocated for fair distribution of oil wealth to local communities in the impoverished region. Last week, one of the main militant groups in the Niger Delta, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, known as MEND, declared an oil war and threatened all international industry vessels that approach the region. Eighty percent of the oil extraction in Nigeria is in the Niger Delta. Major oil firms in the area include Shell and Chevron.

We’re joined right now by Denzil Amagbe Kentebe. He’s on the phone from Nigeria, chair of the Ijaw National Congress, Lagos chapter. He is from Bayelsa State, the site of the ongoing military attacks.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! Can you describe what is happening at this point?

DENZIL AMAGBE KENTEBE: Well, what has happened at this point is that there’s a lot of criminal, unjustified and inconsiderate, callous action, which tends to be genocidal, by the Nigerian military on the people of the Niger Delta region. Women and children have been displaced. The military is saying they are restricting their actions only to the militant camps, that civilians do not live in the militant camps. And we have thousands and thousands and thousands of people being displaced, being killed, and no one is allowed to go into the war zone, because this is a war. And this is genocidal, as I have said earlier on.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Denzil, what has been the reason that the government has given for this offensive?

DENZIL AMAGBE KENTEBE: Well, the government doesn’t really have any reason. They are claiming that the militants have been disrupting the oil flow.

And what the citizens of the Niger Delta region are claiming is that 80 percent of the oil, of the crude oil, that flows from the country comes from this region. But there is no development. There is no potable drinkable water. There is no infrastructure in place. And so, these people are demanding that, you know, you should do something in this area. That is a crime of the people that have been killed by the Nigerian military.

AMY GOODMAN: Describe exactly what the actions are, what communities are under siege right now. And what are the numbers you understand of people who have been killed?

DENZIL AMAGBE KENTEBE: Well, people that have been killed, as of the last count yesterday, we have almost 500 people, civilians, men and women, children, dead. Yesterday, a woman and a little boy were shot dead in the city of Warri, which is far away from any of the militant camps. The burning and destruction is completely going on in Okerenkoko, Oporoza, Kunukunuama, Kurutie and many other places around the Niger Delta region, especially in the Delta State area.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What about human rights groups? Have they been allowed at all, or international aid organizations, to enter the region?

DENZIL AMAGBE KENTEBE: No, when this started about nine days ago, we foresaw what was a deliberate, calculated attempt to destroy the people of this region for their oil. And we immediately called on the United Nations and all international agencies to come to our aid. So far, no one has been in here, no one has called, and no one is even allowed in the area, even the local press. The military is saying they are not destroying, but they have no evidence to prove otherwise. We have gotten information from the citizens that have been displaced. Thousands and thousands of people are living in the forest, as we speak. Without access to any kind of food, water, clothing, they’re living in the big forest, as we speak, children inclusive.

AMY GOODMAN: And what has been the reaction right now? What is the Nigerian government saying?

DENZIL AMAGBE KENTEBE: Well, the Nigerian government is very lackadaisical about this. To them, it’s twelve military men were killed, according to them. And as such, they are going to raze down all these communities. They are more interested [inaudible] being deprived in oil funds than the number of people that have been killed. There was an executive council meeting yesterday where nothing was discussed about the civilians that were killed, that have been killed in this process. And that is unjustifiable. That is callous. [inaudible]

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break, then come back to this story. Denzil Amagbe Kentebe, chair of the Ijaw National Congress, the Lagos chapter, is speaking to us from Nigeria.

This is Democracy Now!,, the War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re continuing to talk about Nigeria. We want to turn now to an excerpt from a new documentary called Sweet Crude. It’s by Sandy Cioffi.

    SANDY CIOFFI: Oil was discovered in the Niger Delta in the last days of British colonial rule in the late 1950s. When the British left, their colonial power structure remained. That was the same moment that the oil companies were coming in to set up their own system. They began funneling billions of dollars into a succession of military governments in exchange for the promise of extracting oil in an unregulated environment.

    MICHAEL WATTS: For thirty years, oil companies did exactly what they wanted to, because they had the backing of military governments who didn’t ask anything of them, except that they had the oil continuing to flow. After fifty years then, and after 700 billion or more dollars of oil revenues, the Niger Delta is one of the most polluted landscapes on the face of the earth.

    SANDY CIOFFI: On my first visit, the NAGS students taught me that the rain that falls every afternoon in the Delta is toxic enough to destroy a metal roof or fishing net. This acid rain is a consequence of the ubiquitous gas flaring. They explained that the shorelines covered in toxic sludge had once been white sand beaches and that people in the Delta used to live well into their sixties. After fifty years of oil production, life expectancy has dropped to forty.

    CHRIS EKIYOR: Before the coming of oil, we had good fishes, good rich estuaries, good coastal land. We had no pipe-borne water; we had fresh water that was floating, unpolluted, that our parents and our grandparents had. And we held it. They were just living, and they were getting by. And then this thing called oil came.

    ORONTO DOUGLAS: In the Niger Delta, we have been colonized by the Nigerian elite, by the corporations. Their strategy is to get the whole of the people in taking this oil without any form of resistance. But that is not going to be possible, because our people—these are our ancestral homes. We will prefer to die on this land of our ancestors than surrender it because of oil and gas, which is a very temporary resource. In twenty to thirty years, or thereabout, there will be no more oil. The land will be left devastated, the waters polluted, the people angry, hungry, because there will be no land where they can fish and farm.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of Sandy Cioffi’s film called Sweet Crude, as we turn now to another clip from her film. It’s about what’s going on in the Niger Delta.

    MICHAEL WATTS: It feels to me like it’s stuck, and yet it’s at a tipping point. And it could be really a disaster, depending on which way it tips. I think it’s going to take something pretty dramatic, actually, and it could be dramatic in the sense of being a tragedy, or it could be an individual or collective act of extraordinary bravery and courage and innovation. Either of those could happen.

    CHRIS EKIYOR: So, we’re looking like a time bomb. A time bomb. And when it blows, it’s going to blow us all away. Everybody will be involved.

    UNIDENTIFIED: Today, we have a very delicate situation, a situation that is waiting to explode anytime in the Delta. Even if you move in the military to wipe out those young men who are carrying guns, I can rest assure the world that maybe the children that are going to be born today will carry guns tomorrow.

    OMOYELE SOWORE: There’s a limit to the amount of beating the human body and spirit, you know, and resilience can take before it turns into resistance. And that’s what has happened, you know. This is what they planted, and now they are reaping it.

    CHRIS EKIYOR: There’s two things that can happen. We all get together and look for peace, nonviolently. Or the world sits by and watches and thinks it’s a Nigerian problem. Nobody wants war. This is the time that the world should get together for peace.

AMY GOODMAN: Excerpts of Sandy Cioffi’s film Sweet Crude, as we go back for a final comment to Denzil Amagbe Kentebe. What do you think needs to happen right now? Denzil Kentebe is chair of the Ijaw National Congress, Lagos chapter, speaking to us from Nigeria.

DENZIL AMAGBE KENTEBE: Nigerian government needs to allow international humanitarian organizations to come into this region to at least take care of the wounded, take away the dead, and take care of our children, and begin a process of developing these areas, so the people who have been displaced can go right back to their homes.

We call on the youths who have been carrying arms, which we do not support, by the way—the Ijaw National Congress does not support armed struggle. We have always believed in dialogue. And we have been dialoguing with the Nigerian government to date. So we call on all those carrying arms, both the military and the youths that are agitating, to drop their arms for the sake of peace. That’s my last comment.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to turn now to Sandy Cioffi. Sandy Cioffi is joining us from Seattle, Washington, director of the film Sweet Crude.

On Wednesday, as we were saying, the village of Oporoza, where much of Sweet Crude was filmed, was burned down.

Sandy, the latest news you have from the area and why you focused in Sweet Crude, of course, before this latest attack, on that area?

SANDY CIOFFI: Well, I focused in the area that I did, because the Gbaramatu Kingdom is typical of the Niger Delta, which is to say that like the conditions you heard earlier, the people there really have no drinking water, hospitals, etc., though billions of dollars come out of the ground, but most importantly because this moment, as you heard, is such a tipping point. And I don’t think there could be a more tragic piece of news than to hear that instead of preventive diplomacy, that now the Nigerian military has decided to actually go ahead and open fire in the way that they have.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Sandy, as we were speaking to Denzil Amagbe Kentebe, he was telling us about what’s happening there now. When you were filming, what kind of interaction did you have with the Nigerian government? And what kind of restrictions did they place, if any, on you when you were filming?

SANDY CIOFFI: Oh, well, they actually detained me in military prison at one point, so that was very restrictive. It is not a government that is very friendly to journalists, to say the least. They’ve actually been named by Reporters Without Borders one of the press freedom criminals.

And the Nigerian government, as you may know, is really a newly democratic government. It has been a military dictatorship for years, and that legacy continues. It’s, largely speaking—the Niger Delta, that is—an occupied land.

And I think what’s very disappointing right now is that there were steps. There was a report called a Technical Committee report. And although that sounds quite dry, understand that from the perspective of the international community and some very strong leadership, I want to say, by Senator Russ Feingold on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, there was actually a move toward pushing, especially as we entered a new State Department and new administration here, pushing the Nigerian government toward demilitarizing the Delta, toward amnesty for militants, toward third-party mediation. So, what the Nigerian government is currently engaged in is flouting completely what my understanding is of both the Obama administration’s position on Nigeria as well as what was an understanding with Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

AMY GOODMAN: Sandy, I want to ask you about the militant leader known as Tompolo. According to many press reports, he is one of the targets of the current offensive by the Nigerian military. As a leader of MEND, or the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, he has been accused of carrying out kidnappings and attacks.

You interviewed Tompolo on the condition you didn’t film his face. I just want to play part of what he said. This is from your documentary, Sweet Crude.

    TOMPOLO: [translated] We are not in this for money, for our own personal self. We are a people invested in a cause. And that cause is to liberate our people from abject poverty and deprivation in the midst of plenty. We are not violent people. We did not start the struggle with arms and guns. It is not part of our philosophy to use guns and weapons. But the multinational corporations of Shell and Chevron, with the collaboration of the federal government, have given the struggle arms. They introduced guns into our radius. Anytime we rise up to make demands, they send the Nigerian military to suppress us, to kill our people. And, of course, you will agree with me, you cannot sit down and fold your hands and watch your people be killed and destroyed.

AMY GOODMAN: Sandy Cioffi, director of the new film Sweet Crude, speaking to us from Seattle. Tompolo, tell us about him.

SANDY CIOFFI: Well, Tompolo has long been considered one of the leaders of a more political aspect of the movement. As you can understand, in an area where you have the amount of money and the amount of corruption that you do, stemming mostly from the Nigerian government in collusion with oil companies—and this is decades-old—you actually have had companies that have armed young groups against each other in their interests in keeping control over the Niger Delta. And as one might expect, there has been resistance. And in that resistance, there have been several leaders along the way. Tompolo is a leader in an area called Delta State.

Now, it’s certainly not mine to judge whether the choice to be involved in an armed resistance is the correct choice. When I asked him about Nelson Mandela, he said that he hoped that a move toward a political struggle could really occur, but that at the time the feeling was that without arms, that the people of the Niger Delta were laid to bear against the Nigerian military. I think that Tompolo’s position at the time, that I think remained the case, was the request that the international community intervene so that a ceasefire was something that would be trustworthy. I think to simply request that the militants no longer use guns, when the Nigerian military is occupying their villages, was considered unreasonable.

AMY GOODMAN: In April 2006, militants from the Niger Delta kidnapped six foreign oil workers and held them for two weeks. One of the oil workers kidnapped, Mason Hawkins, was a contractor for Shell. He appears in the documentarySweet Crude.

    MASON HAWKINS: They wanted us to, you know, look at these little villages. They all had dirt floors. And there was no schools. It was a pitiful life to live. I didn’t like being a captive. But then, looking back on it, I think those people did what they thought they had to do to try to get, you know, something out of all of that billions of dollars. And I can’t—I can’t hold it against them. They want their fair share. And they’ll tell you right quick what they want. And it’s not unreasonable.

AMY GOODMAN: Mason Hawkins. Final comment, Sandy Cioffi? Also, you’ve called for a International Criminal Court investigation?

SANDY CIOFFI: Yes. I think, as Mason Hawkins is saying, you know, some people call it the resource, others say the petroleum-poverty paradox. Obviously, water and oil don’t mix, but blood and oil sadly commingle very easily.

And this is a moment that I would ask that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the American president, in concert with the international community, call for an immediate ceasefire, so that the Red Cross, which I understand is trying to make their way from Warri into the creeks, as well as other aid groups, could get in to help civilians and so that there could be an immediate call for international mediation and peace talks.

AMY GOODMAN: Sandy Cioffi, I want to thank you very much for being with us, director of the new film Sweet Crude.

SANDY CIOFFI: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: In the coming days, we will look at the trial against Shell around the execution, the state execution, of Ken Saro-Wiwa that actually occurred November 10th, 1995. And we’ll be bringing you that in the next few days.

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