Journeying into the Niger Delta
Getting clearance to travel to the Niger Delta is one of the most difficult tasks any foreign correspondent might face in Africa - such is the federal government’s sensitivity over what gets out to the public about the situation on the ground in the Delta.
Our journey into Nigeria’s violence-prone, oil-rich Niger Delta region begins in the marbled corridors of the ministries of defence and information in the government capital Abuja.
Its pristine skyscrapers are a world apart from the hundreds of mangrove creeks and ravines dotted across six Nigerian oil-producing states. There, a low level on–off war has been waging for years between Nigerian security forces and thousands of men fighting for a greater share of the billions of dollars that oil exports earn Africa’s most populous nation.
Many working outside of journalism would not know it, but getting clearance to travel to the Niger Delta is one of the most difficult tasks any foreign correspondent might face in Africa. I imagine it to be similar to the hazards that might be involved in getting into and reporting from North Korea or Myanmar. Such is the federal government’s sensitivity about what gets out to the world about what is happening on the ground in the Delta - one cannot just walk in and out of the region.
The Nigerian government feels it has a duty to manage the information flow coming out of the Delta in order to protect and maintain the fragile peace and security situation there, and perhaps not to scare off foreign oil companies and investors working in the Delta. Why? because more than 80 per cent of the country’s revenue comes from the sale of "black gold" – local if not now universal slang for crude oil.
The pumping of millions of barrels of crude every day is critical to keeping Nigeria’s economy afloat. When calm, the Niger Delta can produce 2.5M to 3M barrels of oil a day, but fighting in the region has caused that figure to drop to as low as 1.7M. Allowing the world's media unbridled access might have a negative impact on the sense of peace and security the government is trying to create for those living and working in the Delta.
This being the case, the Al Jazeera team is asked to go from one ministry to the other, from one department to another, from one office to another, after the issuance of at least a dozen letters requesting an audience with this or that important official within one of the two ministries principally involved in securing our access to the Niger Delta.
The irony is that the faces of the Al Jazeera team are all too familiar to the ministries of defence and of information. When official protocols have been fulfilled and we walk into the various offices for further "light" questioning about our exact itinerary and what stories we are in Nigeria to cover, it quickly moves onto back slaps, criticism about unsightly weight gain on both sides, the weather and traffic in Abuja and so on and so forth. All this while our individual accreditation files, that of my own as the correspondent, as well as our producer and cameraman, snake their way upstairs for one rubber stamp after another, until they reach the minister’s desk for the final seal of approval to travel.
It’s a process that ordinarily takes two to three weeks of waiting in an Abuja hotel for clearance. And it has taken that amount of time in the past. But with the right connections and having been through the process before, that time can be cut in half.
This particular Al Jazeera assignment marked a critical moment in efforts by the federal government of Nigeria to bring peace to the Niger Delta. In August the federal government offered amnesty to the thousands of men fighting under the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) – provided they laid down their arms and embraced a peace process.
The federal government claims that MEND fighters have handed in thousands of weapons at arms depots across the Niger Delta and that the anmnesty is a success.
But as you will hear in the first of these two special reports from Rivers State in the Niger Delta, despite our requests, the government failed to give us even approximate figures for how many weapons and how much ammunition had been handed in by MEND militants. They also failed to give us an approximate number of how many militants had handed themselves in for rehabilitation.
The first report reveals worrying signs that the amnesty deal, which expires Sunday, may fail. We speak to a former key commander in MEND who says that the government is going back on terms of a deal it struck with him to hand over his weapons. In our report he issues a worrying threat to the government.
The second special report focuses on a side of the Niger Delta crisis all too often forgotten – the lives on the thousands of young men and women living in the Niger Delta who are not engaged in armed struggle against federal government forces for a greater share of oil wealth. They are peacefully going about their lives trying to make ends meet. We speak to a young man illegally siphoning oil from wells abandoned by the Shell Oil company to make what he sees as a justifiable living.
There are reports the federal government is planning an all-out strike against MEND on or after the amnesty expires. Fighters we have spoken to say they are ready to take up arms.