#. 129. January 2007

Electronic Journal & Daily Weblog

NIGER DELTA: BEHIND THE MASK
Ijaw Militia Fight the Oil Cartel
by Ike Okonta

COLOMBIA: THE PARAS & THE OIL CARTEL
State Terror and the Struggle for Ecopetrol
by Bill Weinberg, WW4 REPORT

COLOMBIA: WASHINGTON & THE PARA SCANDAL
What is Behind Bush’s Andean “Anti-Terrorist” Strategy?
by Julian Monroy, WW4 REPORT

LAND AND POWER IN BOLIVIA
Campesinos Mobilize for Agrarian Reform
by Benjamin Dangl, Toward Freedom

PERU: ELITE FACE THE HEAT
Voters Reject Traditional Parties in Elections Marred by Violence
by April Howard, Toward Freedom

From Weekly News Update on the Americas:

BOLIVIA: AGRARIAN REFORM LAW SIGNED
ARGENTINA: THOUSANDS MARCH FOR ENVIRONMENT
SOUTH AMERICA: SUMMIT PROCESS STALLS
CENTRAL AMERICA: CAMPESINOS MARCH FOR LAND, WATER

MEL GIBSON’S HEART OF DARKNESS
Apocalypto Reveals More About Mel than the Maya
by Shlomo Svesnik, WW4 REPORT

“Mankind’s poverty [is] a result of the wealth of the land.”
— Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America, 1973

“[T]he Great Powers of the West are seeking peace, not by curbing their greed, or by giving up the exclusive advantages which they have unjustly acquired, but by concentrating their forces for mutual security… I know I am crying in the wilderness when I raise the voice of warning; and while the West is busy with its organization of a machine-made peace, it will still continue to nourish by its iniquities the underground forces of earthquake in the Eastern Continent. The West seems unconscious that Science, by providing it with more and more power, is tempting it to suicide…”
— Rabindranath Tagore, “The Modern Age,” in Creative Unity, 1922

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Continue Reading#. 129. January 2007 

MEL GIBSON’S HEART OF DARKNESS

Apocalypto Reveals More About Mel than the Maya

by Shlomo Svesnik

Here we go again.

Mel Gibson’s 2004 surprise mega-hit The Passion of the Christ was all the more unlikely a success because the dialogue was entirely in Latin and Aramaic, a pretension intended to portray an air of exacting historical authenticity. Astute critics, however, pointed out that the film deviated sharply from both history and scripture. And the linguistic affectation was not even accurate: the Roman troops and administrators in Judea more often spoke Greek than Latin, and the dialect of Aramaic was wrong.

Continue ReadingMEL GIBSON’S HEART OF DARKNESS 

CENTRAL AMERICA: CAMPESINOS MARCH FOR LAND, WATER

from Weekly News Update on the Americas:

El Salvador: Water “Reform” Protested

About 50 Salvadoran union members, campesinos and environmental activists blocked the Juan Pablo II avenue near the Legislative Assembly in San Salvador for about two hours to protest a proposed new General Water Law that they say will in effect privatize the country’s water supply. Protesters held large banners across six lanes and handed out fliers to passersby. Police agents eventually removed the protesters from the street with no serious incidents; the activists continued to hold banners on the sidewalk afterwards. Meanwhile, hundreds of protesters shut down bridges and highways in coordinated actions at seven points across the country, including Santa Ana, Ahuachapan, Chalatenango and the Puente de Oro.

Officials in the government of rightwing president Antonio Saca—including Cesar Funes, who heads the government’s water agency, the National Administration of Aqueducts and Sewers (ANDA)—plan to introduce a new law to the Legislative Assembly early next year that would reduce ANDA’s role and transfer control of water rates to a panel including the National Association of Private Enterprise (ANEP), the main business group. Opponents include members of the ANDA Workers’ Enterprise Union (SETA) and the Salvadoran Ecological Unity (UNES), which is proposing an alternative law that would involve local communities and provide for protecting the environment.

Currently about 60 percent of Salvadoran households receive potable water. The water supply has a high level of contamination with lead, aluminum and other minerals; a March 2006 World Bank study found that 98 percent of household waste and 90 percent of industrial waste go into rivers and streams without treatment. (CISPES Update, Deec. 15; UpsideDownWorld, Dec. 14; Prensa Latina, Dec. 14)

Honduras: Campesinos Protest Murders, Logging

On Nov. 16, some 5,000 campesinos from the municipalities of Macuelizo, Nueva Frontera and Azacualpa in the western Honduran department of Santa Barbara blocked a major international highway in La Flecha and in the Seis de Mayo community to demand justice in the murders of a teacher and a church representative. The protest interrupted traffic for about eight hours along 40 kilometers of the highway, which leads to neighboring Guatemala and El Salvador.

Church delegate Hector Enrique Sola Ramos was killed on Nov. 10 in the village of Los Pocitos, in Macuelizo. Teacher Reina Isabel Pena was murdered by unidentified assailants on Nov. 6 on the detour to San Marcos in Santa Barbara; her body was discovered three days later in an advanced state of decomposition. The campesinos are also demanding a ban on logging in the area; they say powerful groups are destroying the forest and endangering local water sources. The protesters said Sola was killed because of his intense fight against logging. They are also demanding that local authorities ban the sale of alcohol, which they say is destroying their communities. Police say they are close to solving the murder of Sola, but that they can’t proceed because community members refuse to testify. (La Prensa, Honduras, Nov. 17, Nov. 18; Honduras News in Review, Dec. 5 from La Tribuna, Nov. 17)

According to organizers, both victims worked to protect the forest. The two had received death threats prior to their murders, and protesters say other leaders have been threatened as well. The protesters left the highway after agreeing to talks with representatives of the security minister. (Honduras News in Review, Dec. 5 from La Tribuna, Nov. 17)

On Nov. 29, hundreds of campesinos occupied the offices of the National Institute of Agriculture in Tegucigalpa demanding property titles, technical assistance and the removal of judges they say are bribed by large landowners, among other demands. Similar protests occurred in other cities around the country. The protests continued on Nov. 30. Agriculture and Livestock Minister Hector Hernandez said the government had previously reached an agreement with campesino leaders and the protests were due to a lack of communication. (Honduras News in Review, Dec. 5 from La Prensa, Nov. 29, EFE, Nov. 29, Hondudiario, Nov. 30)

Honduran Human Rights Lawyer Killed

On the morning of Dec. 4, presumed paid assassins riding a motorcycle shot to death Honduran attorney Dionisio Diaz Garcia of the Association for a More Just Society (ASJ). Diaz was on his way to the Supreme Court of Justice in Tegucigalpa to review case files in preparation for hearings scheduled for that afternoon. The hearings involved accusations that the firm Delta Security Services had unjustly fired a number of employees. Two of the fired workers were to have their cases heard that day; another 10 had hearings scheduled for Dec. 8. Diaz was representing the fired workers and supporting a journalistic investigation by ASJ. In a statement condemning the murder, the Committee of Relatives of the Detained Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH) said Diaz had been the victim of death threats and constant harassment. (COFADEH statement, Dec. 5 via Equipo Nizkor; Comite por la Libre Expresion-C-Libre, Dec. 8, translated into English by Rights Action)

Since March 2006, Diaz had been defending 16 security guards who worked for Delta Security Services, owned by US citizen Elvin Richard Swasey, or its subsidiary, Seguridad Tecnica de Honduras (SETECH). In August, when Diaz won a court embargo of the companies’ vehicles, Delta and SETECH began a campaign of intimidation and defamation against the ASJ and its staff, including journalists Dina Meza, Claudia Mendoza, Rosa Morazan and Robert Marin.

COFADEH is demanding that the government fully investigate the murder of Diaz and adopt protective measures for all of ASJ’s staff. COFADEH is also demanding that the government repeal a discretionary measure it adopted last Aug. 29 which allows private security companies to carry out police functions. In addition, COFADEH calls for an audit of all the security companies operating in Honduras, and the cancellation of the operating licenses of any found to be violating human rights law or constitutional guarantees. According to COFADEH, the owners of many private security agencies belonged to death squads that carried out repressive actions during the 1980s. (COFADEH, Dec. 5 via Equipo Nizkor)

On Dec. 7, ASJ president Carlos Hernandez was followed for two hours by an unidentified individual on a motorcycle in Tegucigalpa. At the same time, he received a message in English on his cellular phone, warning him that he would be the next victim because he is the head of ASJ. (C-Libre, Dec. 8, via Rights Action)

Costa Rica: CAFTA Closer to Approval

The International Affairs Committee of the Costa Rican Congress voted 6-3 late on the night of Dec. 12 to advance the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA), a trade accord between the US and Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. The move clears the way for the full Congress to debate ratification of the treaty in January; analysts expect the process to continue until March or April. Of the seven countries that signed the accord in 2004, only Costa Rica has failed to get the necessary approval from its legislature; the agreement took effect in the other countries during 2006.

Opposition to the accord—known as the TLC, the Spanish initials for “Free Trade Treaty”—remains high in Costa Rica. Hundreds of people protested the committee’s vote outside the Congress building. Unions and social organizations have been organizing against the accord through a coalition, the National Front of Struggle Against the TLC. On Dec. 11 politicians from the Citizen Action Party (PAC) and academics formed their own coalition, the National Front of Support for the Struggle Against the TLC. (Servicio Informativo “Alai-amlatina,” Dec. 13; Adital, Dec. 13; Punto de Noticias, Venezuela, Dec. 13 from AFP)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Dec. 17

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Weekly News Update on the Americas
http://home.earthlink.net/~nicadlw/wnuhome.html

See also:

WW4 REPORT #129, December 2006
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From our weblog:

“SOA protests at Ft. Benning—and throughout Americas”
WW4 REPORT , Nov. 21, 2006
/node/2812

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Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Jan. 1, 2007
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Continue ReadingCENTRAL AMERICA: CAMPESINOS MARCH FOR LAND, WATER 

SOUTH AMERICA: SUMMIT PROCESS STALLS

from Weekly News Update on the Americas:

The Second Summit of the South American Community of Nations (CSN), held Dec. 8-9 in Cochabamba, Bolivia, concluded with a declaration that the meeting had laid the “cornerstone” for a regional union with “a space integrated politically, socially, culturally, economically, financially, environmentally and in infrastructure.” Eight of the 12 member nations were represented by their heads of state: Evo Morales (Bolivia), Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (Brazil), Michelle Bachelet (Chile), Bharrat Jadgeo (Guyana), Nicanor Duarte (Paraguay), Alan Garcia (Peru), Tabare Vazquez (Uruguay), Hugo Chavez (Venezuela). Two presidents-elect attended as observers: Rafael Correa (Ecuador), Daniel Ortega (Nicaragua).

Despite the declarations of solidarity and the fact that most of South America now has left or center-left governments, the meeting made little substantive progress towards its goal of establishing a South American union on the model of the European Union. Lula pushed unsuccessfully for a South American parliament. Morales called for a merger of the Mercosur trade bloc (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela) and the Andean Community of Nations (CAN, composed of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru), as was discussed in the first summit [in Cusco, December 2004]. Morales also urged Venezuela to rejoin CAN. “I think, with all respect, that CAN doesn’t work,” Chavez answered, “or Mercosur either. They aren’t suitable instruments for the era we’re living in; they’re instruments for the elites.”

Vazquez complained that the summits are “very pretty” and a good chance to take “beautiful family photos” of the presidents but don’t lead to major advances. Chavez said the problem was that the region needs “political viagra.” But he and Garcia took advantage of the occasion to stop the verbal battle between them that started last spring; now Garcia called Chavez a “friend and companero.” The next summit will be held in 2007 in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia. (La Jornada, Dec. 10; EFE, Dec. 9; El Diario-La Prensa, NY, Dec. 10 from AP)

Grassroots and leftist groups held a parallel summit, the Second Social Forum for the Integration of the Peoples, in Cochabamba from Dec. 6 through Dec. 9. About 4,000 delegates attended, and more than 40,000 people came to the closing ceremony in the Cochabamba Stadium, where an Ecuadoran indigenous leader, Blanca Chancoso, presented the Social Forum’s conclusions. The parallel summit announced its opposition to “the death agreements that the trade agreements are,” to military bases in the region and to the privatization of natural resources. The concluding statement also called for the CSN nations to “withdraw immediately” their soldiers “that are occupying Haiti” and to establish “other forms of cooperation while respecting the principle of the self-determination of the Haitian people.” Several South American countries are part of the United Nation Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), a military force deployed to Haiti in June 2004.

Morales helped organize the Social Forum. He attended the closing event along with Chavez and Ortega—the only other major political leaders to participate in both summits. (Alterpresse, Dec. 9, 10; EFF, Dec. 9)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Dec. 10

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Weekly News Update on the Americas
http://home.earthlink.net/~nicadlw/wnuhome.html

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Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Jan. 1, 2007
Reprinting permissible with attribution

Continue ReadingSOUTH AMERICA: SUMMIT PROCESS STALLS 

ARGENTINA: THOUSANDS MARCH FOR ENVIRONMENT

from Weekly News Update on the Americas:

On Dec. 13, some 5,000 people from across Argentina (or as many as 10,000, according to some press reports) took part in a colorful march in scorching weather to the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires to defend the environment and natural resources. Marchers carried banners and puppets (including a giant toilet, flushing polluted waters into the environment), performed street theater and danced to regional traditional carnaval music.

Upon arriving at the plaza, the demonstrators installed a 12-meter high replica of the chimney of a paper mill being built by the Finnish company Botnia in the Uruguayan town of Fray Bentos, just across the river from Argentina’s Entre Rios province. At the end of the march, delegations from a number of provinces handed in a document to the federal government, demanding measures to stop environmental damage and the looting and exploitation of minerals and other resources.

The delegations were headed by the assemblies of Gualeguaychu and Colon, in Entre Rios, where residents have been fighting the construction of the Botnia paper mill and another one planned by the Spanish company Ence. More than 2,000 people came to the march from Entre Rios. Also present were delegates from the Assembly of Neighbors Self-Convened Against Mining from the town of Esquel in Chubut province, as well as from numerous other groups organizing against mining and other ecologically damaging industries in their communities. (Adital, Brazil, Dec. 13 from Agencia de Noticias Rede Accion-ANRed; El Nuevo Herald, Miami, Dec. 13 from EFE; La Prensa, Argentina, Dec. 13; Noticias Yahoo!, Dec. 13 from Periodismo.com; Argenpress , Dec. 14)

Back in Gualeguaychu, residents have maintained a blockade of the bridge leading to Fray Bentos for the past three weeks. (ENH, Dec. 13 from EFE) On Dec. 12, the head of the Ence company, Juan Luis Arregui, announced that the company will move its planned paper mill to Punta Pereyra, 60 kilometers away at the mouth of the Rio de la Plata. Residents of Entre Rios province are continuing to protest the construction of Botnia’s plant, which is 70% complete. (Noticias Yahoo!, Dec. 13 from Periodismo.co; Agencia NOVA, Argentina, Dec. 12)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Dec. 17

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Weekly News Update on the Americas
http://home.earthlink.net/~nicadlw/wnuhome.html

See also:

WW4 REPORT #129, December 2006
/node/2856

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Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Jan. 1, 2007
Reprinting permissible with attribution

Continue ReadingARGENTINA: THOUSANDS MARCH FOR ENVIRONMENT 

BOLIVIA: AGRARIAN REFORM LAW SIGNED

from Weekly News Update on the Americas:

On Nov. 28, a standoff in Bolivia’s Senate ended when the rightwing National Unity (UN) party’s only senator joined two senators from the rightwing Democratic and Social Power (Podemos) in returning to the session, allowing a quorum. The Senate had been shut down since Nov. 22, when the opposition bloc withdrew its 14 senators, depriving the 27-member body of a quorum. The opposition was stunned by the betrayal of the three senators from the opposition stronghold departments of Beni and Pando. Opposition senators tried to get the dissident senators to withdraw, but only succeeded in removing one of them—not enough to break the quorum.

In a marathon session on Nov. 28, the two remaining opposition senators joined the ruling leftist Movement to Socialism (MAS) bloc in passing an agrarian reform law, ratifying 44 renegotiated contracts with multinational oil companies, approving a $43 million loan from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), authorizing a military pact between Bolivia and Venezuela and giving the green light to the reformulated national budget.

President Evo Morales Ayma wasted no time in signing the long-awaited agrarian reform law. In a midnight ceremony at the Quemado government palace before a crowd of thousands of campesinos and indigenous people in La Paz on the night of Nov. 28-29, Morales promulgated the Law of Community Redirection of Agrarian Reform and declared the end of large landholdings in Bolivia. The campesinos and indigenous people had marched for three weeks from various parts of the country to the capital demand passage of the agrarian reform law. (La Jornada, Mexico, Nov. 30; Servicio Informativo “Alai-amlatina,” Nov. 29)

On Nov. 30, Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera handed over legal titles for 238,162 hectares of “Community Lands of Origin” to the Indigenous Federation of the Leco People in Apolo, La Paz Department. The land—the first distribution under the new agrarian law—goes to benefit 547 families, a total of 2,980 people. (LJ, Dec. 1)

A 24-hour strike on Dec. 1, called by the opposition for five departments, had limited success in three: Santa Cruz, Beni and Tarija. Residents of Pando and Cochabamba did not heed the strike call. (LJ, Dec. 2 from Reuters) On Dec. 2, Garcia Linera invited the opposition to meet with Morales and other officials in Sucre, where the Constituent Assembly is convening, to work towards resolving a conflict over the assembly’s voting procedures. (LJ, Dec. 3 from AFP)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Dec. 3

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Weekly News Update on the Americas
http://home.earthlink.net/~nicadlw/wnuhome.html

See also:

WW4 REPORT #129, December 2006
/node/2858

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Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Jan. 1, 2007
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Continue ReadingBOLIVIA: AGRARIAN REFORM LAW SIGNED 

PERU: ELITE FACE THE HEAT

Voters Reject Traditional Parties in Elections Marred by Violence

by April Howard, Toward Freedom

A soldier running from angry protesters died instantly when he fell off of a cliff, town offices were burned down, and one mayor escaped to Lima, claiming that his constituency was planning to lynch him. In spite of the Organization of American States’ report of a normal election, Peruvian President Alan García called on the armed forces to quell violence across the country during and after regional elections held November 19, 2006.

Though García was re-elected as president representing one of the country’s oldest and most institutionalized political parties just six months before, these regional elections showed a widespread rejection of such parties, and favor for “independent” parties. The election results challenge García’s second presidency and demonstrate the deep social, economic and political divides that continue to run through present-day Peru.

The regional election results provide a contrast to the past presidential elections held on June 4, 2006, which had analysts wondering if Peru was going to join in on the current leftist shift in Latin America. Recent presidential elections across the continent have brought left-of-center presidents into office in Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Bolivia and most recently, Ecuador. The June 4 elections were a run-off between García, of the eighty-year-old and well-institutionalized Peruvian Aprista Party (PAP), and nationalist candidate Ollanta Humala who ran for the Union for Peru Party (UPP), and was also supported by his own Peruvian Nationalist Party. The choice of candidates already indicated the divide between rural Peruvians and those from Lima. While García’s base was concentrated in the northern coast and in the capital city of Lima, Humala’s support came from the 50% of Peruvians who live under the poverty line, mostly rural and indigenous poor in the south.

The fact that Alan García was willing to run for a second time was somewhat surprising. His first presidency from 1985-1990 is remembered as disastrous, marked by 7,000% inflation, food shortages and Marxist guerilla violence. His policies are now “used by ardent free-marketeers as a textbook example of how to ruin a country’s economy” (BBC News, June 5, 2006). Under his watch, the number of Peruvians living in poverty rose by five million, from 41.6% to 55% of the population, and Peru’s gross domestic product shrank by one-fifth. His 2001 run for presidency was unsuccessful, losing in a run-off to Alejandro Toledo, but his campaign message in 2006 insisted that he had learned from his mistakes. While the Peruvian economy recovered somewhat under Toledo, mostly due to high world prices for gold and copper exports, the underlying problems of poverty and unemployment remained critical.

While nationalist candidate Ollanta Humala led in the first round of the presidential elections, held on April 9, 2006, he lost ground when he faced García in the run-offs. In the first round, Humala came in first place, receiving 30.62% of the valid votes, while Alan García obtained 24.32%, beating conservative, pro-business and Lima elite favorite Lourdes Flores of the National Unity coalition. However, as run-off elections neared, Humala was hurt by a combination of family, international and trumped-up publicity. García’s campaign focused in on Humala’s radical father’s support for Shining Path leaders, and his mother’s assertion that homosexuals should be shot. When Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez entered the scene with support for Humala and scathing insults for García, Humala lost more support. Lima-based economist Fritz du Bois told the BBC News García became the “default candidate of the business community, the markets and the middle classes. Humala’s message was so aggressive and hostile to the private sector and hostile in general to the middle class here that they turned to García.” For many, García was the lesser of two evils.

After the elections, many Peruvians comforted themselves with the idea that García simply couldn’t be as bad as he was last time, and that with him came the experience of other Aprista leaders. Some, like political columnist, Mirko Lauer, looked to the Aprista party as a source of strength. “You can’t forget we will have Peru’s largest party in command and that will help with stability,” he told the BBC.

The Aprista party once “espoused an anti-imperialist, Marxist oriented but uniquely Latin American-based solution to Peru’s and Latin America’s problems,” and influenced several political movements throughout Latin America, including Bolivia’s Nationalist Revolutionary Movement (MNR) and Costa Rica’s National Liberation Party (PLN). It is now seen as a party of the center-left (if left at all). Years of repression, secrecy, dominance and opportunistic ideological swings to the right by Aprista founder Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre resulted in sectarian hierarchies, and the exodus of young leaders, and brought the party closer to the center. (Country Studies/Area Handbook Series, Library of Congress, 1986-1998). On November 19, the Apristas received a sound slap in the face in regional elections marred by violence and protests.

The regional presidencies (similar to governors), which control their own budgets and are somewhat autonomous of the national government, were taken by movements in opposition to traditional political parties, such as members of the Union for Peru Party, lead by Humala. The independent movements won in 22 of the 25 regional governments, a crushing victory over the governing PAP, which only retained three of the 12 administrations won in the 2002 elections. In one case, the Apristas lost a municipality that had voted Aprista for the last 40 years.

According to the Organization of American States (OAS), voting took place normally through out the country. Not all citizens were content to vote against candidates, though, and some were more inclined to prevent elections altogether. In spite of the OAS’ assertion, in many locations citizens met results with protests in response to unpopular re-elections and so-called “golondrino” votes, in which citizens voted in two locations.

Due to violence and lack of security, including the destruction of up to 1,000 election records, elections were suspended in several areas of the country—though those votes did not constitute 1% of the national votes,. The ministry of the interior denounced the destruction of electoral materials in towns and cities such as Puno, Piura, Cajamarca, La Libertad, Amazonas, Loreto, Ucayali, Lima, Huancavelica and Ayacucho. There was also violence in the areas of Huarochirí (Lima), Piura, La Libertad, Tumbes and Junín. On November 22, post-electoral violence lead President García to order the National Police and the Interior Ministry to use force, including arms, against so-called “vandalism,” which led to two deaths and up to 270 detentions across the country, (La República, Nov. 21, 24, 2006).

In many cases, election materials were not the only casualties of civil unrest. In the locations named and elsewhere, crowds of up to 1,000 protesters blockaded highways, took siege to and burned down city halls, attacked election officials, and took hostages. In one case, a soldier fleeing protesters fell off a cliff and died instantly, while in Cerro Azul, a citizen died during a protest. Clashes between the supporters of different parties also lead to violence and, in one case, a shoot out. Police responded by shooting tear gas at protesters, even when children were present. Human Rights Watch has detailed the past use of excessive force to quell demonstrations in Peru, and catalogues eleven demonstrators who died as a result of excessive use of lethal force by the police and army between 2000 and 2005. The president of the National Board of Elections, Enrique Mendoza, stated that in places where violence disturbed elections there wouldn’t be new elections, but penal processes instead.

Most voter dissatisfaction had to do with the re-election of mayors. In the Puente Piedra district of Lima, a large group of residents protesting the re-election of the mayor broke windows and doors of the municipal building, and burned a municipal motorcycle in protest. On November 24, Cléver Meléndez, the re-elected mayor of the town of Paucartambo, in Pasco, traveled to Lima to request protection from angry residents who he claimed were planning to lynch him. Some of the worst violence took place in Umachiri, Melgar, where the population protested against the re-election of mayor Róger Cáceres, and took an election official hostage for a short time. In radio reports, citizens accused Cáceres of paying for votes with money and food, as well as corruption in office, including the selling of medications donated by international aid institutions. Protesters reported harsh repression by armed forces and police, who they claimed shot at the crowd on election night. In Arequipa, elections were nullified based on charges that the re-elected candidate paid voters 10 soles (approximately $3.15) each to vote for him.

The elections showed little promise for stability under the Apristas, named for the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA), the party’s original name upon its founding in 1924. Javier Bedoya, spokesman for the conservative National Unity coalition led by Lourdes Flores, asserted that recent “electoral defeat of the government party…reinforces the impression that the APRA is nothing without García.” Still, instead of promising changes, some in the party refuse to see defeat. Prime Minister Jorge del Castillo stated: “The Peruvian Aprista Party is the only party that remains as a party of national dimension. Some other parties have virtually disappeared, others are becoming strictly watchdog organizations.” He asserted that the president still “has more than 60% approval.” It is most important “that people see clear leadership in the president,” he told reporters. Other Apristas, like the party’s leader in Parliament, Javier Velasquez Quesquén, admitted that party leadership has sometimes chosen the wrong candidates. (Living in Peru, Nov. 21).

Expert analyst for the organization Propuesta Cuidadana (Citizen Proposal) Eduardo Ballón said that the results expressed a “moment of the greatest weakness of the parties.” According to Ballón, the traditional parties don’t understand the meaning of the regional elections, aren’t dedicated to the construction of a serious constituency, and will face an even more adverse scenario in the 2011 elections. He explains the failure of the traditional parties as the result of three factors: “The incapacity of the national parties to have an active presence outside of Lima; the regions in the interior of the country’s rejection of the parties that call themselves national, but aren’t inclusive of those regions, which makes them be seen as Limans [from Lima]; and the fragmentation that can be observed in Peruvian society in general.” (La Republica, Nov 22).

These clashes combined with the anti-Aprista election results show Peruvian frustration with local corruption, and lack of access to justice. In the past few years, serious outbreaks of violence have occurred when irate townspeople vented their grievances against controversial local authorities, or when supporters of the authorities attacked critics. A 2004 report published by Human Rights Watch names seventy-seven municipalities affected by conflicts between townspeople and local governments. In April 2004, a mob lynched Cirilo Robles, the mayor of Ilave, Puno, and injured another official, both of whom citizens accused of corruption. “During the same month,” the report states, “men armed with planks, machetes, and other weapons attacked townspeople in Lagunas, on the Peruvian Amazon, injuring more than forty, some seriously. The townspeople had surrounded the town hall to prevent the mayor from evading an accounting audit. Local government corruption and the failure of the Peruvian justice system to investigate effectively allegations of corruption and abuse of power were contributory factors in such outbreaks of violence.”

Electoral violence is a sign that a population is not happy with elected leaders. In Peru, impoverished and indigenous populations are recognizing their exclusion from traditional electoral politics, and showing their dissatisfaction with their lack of representation. Alan García has another chance as president, but the events of the 2006 regional elections prove that Peruvians are wary—and may not be willing give him and the Apristas the chance that they were hoping for.

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April Howard is a contributing editor at Upside Down World, an online magazine uncovering activism and politics in Latin America. She lives in Bolivia and recently traveled to Peru during the regional elections.

This story first appeared in Toward Freedom, December, 2006
http://towardfreedom.com/home/content/view/937/

RESOURCES:

“Peru still wary of Garcia’s past” BBC News, June 5, 2006
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/5047950.stm

“Peru’s ruling APRA party mulls disappointing regional election results”
Living in Peru, Nov. 21, 2006
http://www.livinginperu.com/news/2761

“Essential Background: Overview of Human Rights issues in Peru”
Human Rights Watch, World Report 2005
http://www.hrw.org/english/docs/2005/01/13/peru9874.htm

From our weblog:

“Peru: Ollanta Humala charged in ‘dirty war’ atrocity”
WW4 REPORT, Aug. 23, 2006
/node/2369

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Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Jan. 1, 2007
Reprinting permissible with attribution

Continue ReadingPERU: ELITE FACE THE HEAT 

LAND AND POWER IN BOLIVIA

Campesinos Mobilize for Agrarian Reform

by Benjamin Dangl, Toward Freedom

Silvestre Saisari, a bearded, soft-spoken leader in the Bolivian Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), sat in his office in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. The building was surrounded by a high cement wall topped with barbed wire. It looked like a military bunker. This made sense given the treatment Saisairi and other like-minded social and labor organizers received from the city’s right-wing elite. In 2005, the young MST leader was attacked while giving a press conference on landowners’ use of armed thugs to suppress landless farmers. To prevent him from denouncing these acts to the media, people reportedly tied to landowners pulled his hair, strangled, punched, and beat him. Sitting in his well-protected headquarters, Saisari explained, “Land is a center of power. He who has land, has power… We are proposing than this land be redistributed, so their [elites] power will be affected.”

According to Saisari, the MST has been at the forefront of groups demanding changes to land distribution legislation. The agrarian law originally passed in 1996, the National Agrarian Reform Service (INRA) Law, establishes the right of the state to expropriate lands that “do not serve a just social-economic function” and redistribute those lands to landless farmers and indigenous communities. While the INRA Law already exists, many complain that gray areas in the legislation have led to an incomplete redistribution of land in some areas, and corrupt land hand-outs in others. Land activists like Saisari are now calling for Bolivian president Evo Morales and his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party to carry out a second “agrarian revolution” through legislative reforms to the INRA Law. The proposed reforms focus on the effective distribution of unused land to landless farmers. On November 28, 2006, various landless farmer, campesino and worker organizations, including the MST, arrived in La Paz after marching from around the country to demand such changes. Later that same day, the Senate—minus boycotting opposition party members—passed the reform bill.

MAS has supported the reforms, and even encouraged the country-wide march to the senate chambers to support the legislation—perhaps to give MAS the excuse they needed to muscle the reforms through the opposition. Many historic marches to La Paz have taken place in Bolivia, and most have been met by military and police forces who welcomed them with tear gas and bullets. This march was different in that it was supported, and even encouraged by the government. Events such as this march demonstrate the character of the MAS, and its attempt to renegotiate its identiy from that of a radical, union-built opposition social movement to that of a powerful governmental administration. During the march, I asked one woman from the Beni, a department in the north, about the possibility of police repression. “We don’t have anything to worry about,” she said, grabbing another coca leaf for stamina. “We are with the government now.”

After marching from around the country, the exhausted indigenous and campesino land activists converged in La Paz on November 28. When I arrived at the rally, the main plaza was flooded with placards and flags representing the wide array of social organizations that had united behind one demand: land reform. Instead of bumper-to-bumper traffic, the streets buzzed with the sound of Bolivia’s many indigenous languages. As a man in a condor costume flapped his wings from the top of a nearby statue, speakers rallied the tired marchers to make the final push to the Plaza Murillo, in front of the presidential palace. A river of colorful banners and clothing filled the city’s main street as the political center of the country was occupied. Marchers yelled such phrases as “Free Bolivia—Yes!, Yankee Empire—No!” La Paz residents supported the march from the sidewalks. Businessmen and women greeted the activists with applause during their lunch breaks while grinning street vendors handed out free ice cream in solidarity.

The marchers exhibited a spirit of fun more than the anger and urgency which marked so many previous mobilizations around issues such as gas nationalization and an end to forced eradication of coca crops. At the Plaza Murillo, around 50 policeman dressed in riot gear guarded the presidential palace in two rows. They showed no intentions of attacking the crowd, and the crowd seemed to ignore them all together, knitting and preparing ceremonial coca offerings right in front of the police line.

However, there was a symbolic threat. Adolfo Chavez, the leader of an indigenous organization from Santa Cruz, stood next to the man in the condor costume, explaining, “We are staying here in the Plaza Murillo. We aren’t going anywhere until these changes are passed.” The multitude remained in the plaza long after the sunset, hunkering over bags of coca, guitars and the tired banners they hauled from their homes. Late that night, they were victorious. Morales, who supported their calls for reforms, presided over a Senate without opposition parties and passed the reforms while a celebratory clamor rocked La Paz.

To Have and Have Not: The Bolivian Landless Movement

A bloody history of land occupation and unequal distribution led up that night’s passage of the reforms. On April 20, 2000, hundreds of Bolivian landless families peacefully took over land in Pananti, an area in Tarija, and began a precarious new life. They pooled their labor to cultivate the land, which had been abandoned for eight years, and built their homes close together for protection from the thugs hired by local cattle ranchers who claimed the land was theirs. The residents devised shifts to keep watch on the community while others slept, worked in the fields, or gathered water from far-away sources. In early November, 2001, 60 armed men hired by local cattle ranchers attacked landless farmers in the Pananti settlement, burnt down their homes, and unleashed a barrage of gunfire which killed five men, one 13-year-old boy, and wounded 22 others. In response, landless farmers killed a leader of the attack. Police arrested five landowners linked to the violence and nine landless farmers. Juana Ortega, who had given birth just three days beforehand, was one of those arrested. Ortega occupied the land for her children, “I decided to do it for them, for the land they will need to survive.”

This violence reflects an ancient system of exploitation in which land is concentrated in the hands of a few rich landowners while poor farmers are left to tenant farming slavery or starvation. The wealth of Latin America’s large landowners has been built on the backs of the region’s poor, landless farmers. In the Spanish colonial era, plantations were largely powered by slaves, though land was sometimes lent to workers in exchange for money, crops, or labor. It was common for owners to rule every aspect of life on their plantations—from communication with the outside world, to internal commerce and justice. These colonial chains still grip the continent. With the application of neoliberal policies, old plantations were turned into modern industrial farms owned or contracted by US and European corporations. Campesinos fed up with working conditions or unable to compete with large farms increasingly migrated to the city. Currently, Latin America has some of the most unequal land distribution in the world.

In Bolivia, a country largely dependent on agriculture, conflicts over land have arisen on numerous occasions. One of the only ways campesinos survived was through their work in horrible conditions on large farms. In return for the use of their own small plot of land, campesinos served the owner’s family day and night, cleaning, cooking, and tending to livestock and crops. The 1952 Revolution offered a glimpse of hope to these small farmers. Large land holdings, mostly in the western provinces, were broken up and distributed to landless farmers, and various forms of exploitation on large farms were outlawed. Some indigenous communities were given land titles.

Since then it has been uphill battle for most of Bolivia’s landless. In the 1970s, General Hugo Banzer gave his allies and friends thousands of hectares of land, much of which is in the fertile department of Santa Cruz. In the 1990s, when neoliberal policies were applied in full force to Latin America, privatization and foreign investment was encouraged, and small farmers were ignored by governments. Their credits were slashed and land was sold off to foreign owners. “Modernization” of the agricultural industry favored exports and cheap labor, goals that were threatened by empowered campesinos.

Seventy percent of the productive land in Bolivia is owned by a wealthy five percent of the population. Cattle ranching, the expansion of the soy industry, and mineral exploration has put a strain on land use and distribution. Brazilian soy companies have taken over significant portions of land in northeastern Santa Cruz, displacing the Guarayo indigenous populations. In southern Santa Cruz, ranchers compete with the Guarani indigenous communities for land. Conflicts between small farmers and industrial producers are common elsewhere in this department.

Various areas of indigenous land were not officially recognized until lowland indigenous people from Santa Cruz and Beni began a march in 1990 to demand legal recognition. Their cause was motivated by the fact that the land they traditionally used was being threatened by increased logging, cattle ranching, and soy production. Their demands were eventually met by President Paz Zamora who created decrees legally recognizing indigenous land. However, indigenous populations have often had trouble making the government enforce and enact the decrees that are made to sooth social conflict. Furthermore, the titles given to indigenous communities were only allowed to have one owner, instigating internal disputes as well as facilitating the sale of indigenous land by the individual owners.

Protests and violent confrontations continued across the country over this valuable resource, forcing the government to take action in 1996 with the passage of the INRA Law. The law included a plan to grant collective titles to indigenous communities, resolve conflicts, and distribute state-owned, unused, or illegally obtained land to landless farmers. However, as an investigation by the Andean Information Network reports, successive governments failed to enact this legislature due to vague definitions of unproductive land and standards for determining the legality of land holdings. During the nine years following the passage of the law, land titles were certified on only 18% of the targeted areas. Corruption and lack of initiative to fully implement the law resulted in few victories for Bolivia’s landless.

Another aspect of the INRA Law that angered small farmers was a change in the article of the land law, established in the Agrarian Reform of 1953, which stated “The land belongs to those who work it”—meaning that the land had to be used productively or else the state can take the rights to it. Under INRA, landowners were allowed to keep their unused land as long as they paid a one-percent property tax on the entire value of the land. Yet it was up to the landowners themselves to establish that value, leaving loopholes for corruption.

In the face of such inequality, landless farmers have organized to take unused land regardless of official sanction. On June 14, 2000, a march of farmers demanding land arrived in the town of Entre Rios, in the department of Tarija where a representative of the Prefect asked to meet with leaders of the march. It was then that farmers decided to form the Bolivian MST. From this beginning, the MST has coordinated actions, marches, and land occupations, inspiring others across the country to do the same. The first land occupations usually involved some 40 families who took unused land and set up tents or homes with log walls and plastic tarps for roofs. Communities then began cultivating subsistence crops on land that had often been unused for decades.

The land in Timboy Tiguazu, a humid area 65 kilometers outside of Yacuiba, Tarija department, was totally abandoned and unused when 13 landless families occupied it in 2000. After the takeover, men prepared the land for cultivation and women looked for the best places for homes. Though the poor quality of roads made the zone nearly inaccessible, it had plenty of water sources and good land for farming. In the beginning, family members took turns working for large landowners outside their area and in cities and towns to buy supplies for the new community. They divided work duties and organized shifts to protect themselves from thugs hired by local landowners. By 2001, a total of 40 families lived there, many of them producing surplus vegetables to sell in local markets.

In the wake of such success, landless farmers occupied land elsewhere, primarily in Santa Cruz and the Chaco where there are vast expanses of unused land. Wilfor Coque of the MST participated in a land occupation in 2000 in Ichilo, northeast of Santa Cruz. According to Coque, land there had been sold illegally, leaving little for indigenous people and small farmers in the region. Coque said that the community will continue occupying unused land until the “state gives us back what is ours.” Many farmers take part in the occupations to work the land for survival, as, in the past, labor for large landowners barely has paid enough to survive. “There are still haciendas where 30 peons work from sunrise to sunset for a completely inadequate salary,” said Ermelinda Fernández, an MST member in the Chaco. Some laborers are paid only $1.41 per day, but, according to Fernández, “they have no alternative because they have no land of their own.”

Various land distribution advances have been made under the MAS administration. Outside the city of Santa Cruz, 16,000 hectares of land have been given to 626 families, along with credits with low interest. The area has been re-named Pueblos Unidos (United People), and despite the difficult access to the community and the lack of basic services, the land is giving some farmers the chance to feed themselves. However, the landowners in Santa Cruz have moved against such progress by hiring thugs and members of the right wing Unión Juvenil Crucenista to harass and destroy such landless settlements.

The land reforms passed on November 28, 2006 are expected to help thousands of poor Bolivian families as well as fuel the growing fire among the country’s elite, which will be deeply affected by the redistribution of this natural resource. The passage of the reforms also marks an interesting moment in the brief history of the Morales administration. When MAS lacked support from opposition parties to pass the controversial changes to the land legislation, they worked to mobilize social organizations from around the country to provide the backing and, in many ways, the grassroots mandate Morales will need to continue confronting the Bolivian right. However, it remains to be seen how effectively these land reforms will be enacted.

Saisari of the MST believes the MAS government provides a window of opportunity that should be utilized by the country’s social movements. His organization has access to the government, and offers advice and proposals to the administration in ways that never existed with previous governments. “We feel listened to,” he said, explaining that it was important to support government policies that benefited the MST, and offer criticism and advice when necessary. “Our democracy depends on us as social movements,” he asserted with a smile.

——

Benjamin Dangl is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia, forthcoming from AK Press in March, 2007.

The fully footnoted version of this story appeared in Toward Freedom, December, 2006
http://towardfreedom.com/home/content/view/938/

See also:

“BOLIVIA: THE OPPOSITION STRIKES BACK”
from Weekly News Update on the Americas
WW4 REPORT #128, December 06
/node/2858

“THE NEW AGRARIAN REFORM IN BOLIVIA”
by Stefan Baskerville, Diplo
WW4 REPORT #125, September 2006
/node/2415

“BOLIVIA: THE AGRARIAN REFORM THAT WASN’T”
by Leila Lu, Upside Down World
WW4 REPORT #117, January 2006
/node/1442

——————-

Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Jan. 1, 2007
Reprinting permissible with attribution

Continue ReadingLAND AND POWER IN BOLIVIA 

COLOMBIA: WASHINGTON & THE PARA SCANDAL

What is Behind Bush’s Andean “Anti-Terrorist” Strategy?

by Julian Monroy, WW4 REPORT

Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe Velez—the Bush administration’s main ally in the hemispheric war on terrorism and drugs, as well as in the pursuit of free trade policies—was in Washington DC on November 13-4 to meet key legislators. His agenda was to secure continued military aid and the extension of the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA), which was to expire at the end of 2006.

His visit took place in the midst of a huge scandal without precedent in Colombia. On November 8, the Criminal Division of the Supreme Court of Justice ordered the capture of Senator Alvaro Garcia Romero and Representative Elkin Morris from the Colombia Democratica Party and Senator Jorge Merlano from Uribe’s Partido de la U (for “unity”). All of them are government bigwigs and close friends of the Colombian president.

In December 2005, the US ambassador in Bogotá, William Wood, voiced concerns that the paramilitaries were corrupting democracy in Colombia. His intervention drew a terse response from Uribe’s government, and the matter was dealt with in private instead. In mid-January 2006, two pro-Uribe parties banned and expelled five of their own representatives from standing for re-election in March. Congresswoman Rocio Arias claimed she had been sacked after Wood threatened to withdraw the US visa of her Colombia Democratica party’s leader—and the president’s cousin—Mario Uribe.

The legislators have been accused of the creation of paramilitary groups, crimes against humanity, selective assassinations, massacres, forced disappearances, and embezzlement to finance paramilitary activity. They are presumably among the 35% of the members of Congress in the hands of right-wing paramilitaries, according to a statement by their commanders, Salvatore Mancuso and Vicente Castaño in 2005.

Uribe began dialogues with the paramilitaries on 2002 and granted them a series of benefits including a small area ceded to their control, the so-called “zona de distension” at Santa Fe de Ralito, a small ranching outpost in Cordoba department. In late 2004, Salvatore Mancuso and some 400 were given the 142 square-mile (368 sq. km.) safe haven as a supposed first step towards “demobilization” of the major paramilitary network, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). While the AUC leaders remained in this area, they were not subject to arrest warrants. Colombian authorities and security forces could enter and leave Santa Fe de Ralito at will, but paramilitary leaders required government authorization to do so.

Then president Uribe submitted the “Justice and Peace” bill for congress to approve on June 2005. The law would give maximum sentences of no longer than eight years to ex-paras—with the 18 months they had served in Santa Fe de Ralito counting as part of the time. After four years they would be eligible for parole. This deal would cover all crimes committed by paramilitary groups, among them more than 14,200 selective assassinations of civilians, many of whom tortured and dismembered by chainsaws, et cetera.

Nor have the abuses halted. Senator Gustavo Petro estimated in October 2006 the paras have killed 3,005 and held kidnapped 250 since the “demobilization” began, and they have continued their drug business, mainly in cocaine.

The apparent infiltration of the paramilitaries in Colombia’s congress is not the first scandal. The former Attorney General (Fiscal), Luis Camilo Osorio, left his job in the end of 2005 under charges he had allowed paramilitary infiltration of the office.

A similar scandal occurred when the director of the primary government intelligence agency, the Department of Administrative Security (DAS) Jorge Noguera faced charges of collaboration with the AUC. The allegations were made by a former DAS senior official, Rafael García, whowas under investigation for laundering money and erasing the records of several people from the DAS database. According to García’s statements to prosecutors and reporters, for approximately three years the DAS worked in close collaboration with several paramilitary gangs, particularly the “Northern Bloc” led by Jorge 40. Garcia charged that the DAS provided the paramilitaries with lists of labor union leaders and academics, many of whom were subsequently threatened or killed. He also said Noguera collaborated with the paramilitaries to carry out massive electoral fraud when he was Uribe’s campaign director in Magdalena state during the 2002 presidential elections—resulting in 300,000 additional votes for Uribe. He also charged that DAS collaborated with paramilitaries in a plot to assassinate several Venezuelan leaders, including President Hugo Chavez and a prosecutor, Danilo Anderson, who was in fact killed in November 2004. Based on testimony of one of some 100 alleged Colombian paramilitaries those arrested in Caracas, Venezuelan authorities have charged Noguera with in the Anderson case.

Noguera had to resign in October 2005, but later he was awarded an appointment as Colombian consul in Milan—where he finally resigned again, in the midst of more scandals and media pressure. Uribe responded to the revelations by accusing the Colombian news media of being dishonest and malicious, and with harming Colombian democratic institutions.

The president and his family have also been unable to distance themselves from charges they helped to create paramilitary organizations in the 1990s when he was governor of Antioquia. Between 1995 and 1997, he created a new public force of citizen vigilance committees called CONVIVIR in Antioquia. Supposedly formed to defend against guerrillas, CONVIVIR was accused of killing opposition leaders, activists and human rights advocates. Unions were especially targeted at the time. In 1996, 198 unionists were killed in Antioquia. In 1997, 210 were killed. At the end of his term, Uribe declared Antioquia’s northern region of Uraba—once an area of great labor militancy by the banana workers—to be “pacified.” The “pacification” had been won by the assassination of some 3,500 over three years. Rights advocates saw in CONVIVIR an effort to legalize the paramilitaries.

The US State Department has officially designated the AUC as a “foreign terrorist organization”—meaning that the pro-Uribe legislators meeting and working together closely with the AUC violated the State Department’s policy of not negotiating with terrorist, and may also have violated US law.

Therefore, human rights groups charge, the $4 billion paid by US taxpayers under Plan Colombia have been managed by a government which is essentially in the sway of narco-terrorists.

What is the real purpose of Plan Colombia?

Since the implementation of Plan Colombia under the Clinton administration, some detractors have been saying the official purpose of the policy—to fight drugs—is just a smoke screen. They assert the real interest behind Plan Colombia is geopolitical control of a strategic and oil-rich region which is fast deviating from the US orbit.

On December 21, 2006, Ecuador’s President-elect Rafael Correa canceled his visit to Colombia at the last minute to protest Colombia’s refusal to halt US-backed aerial fumigation of coca crops along the nations’ shared border. “With much pain, we have decided to suspend the visit to Bogota,” Correa said in Caracas at a joint news conference with leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Correa had been scheduled to fly from Venezuela’s capital to Bogota the following day.

Correa, a leftist and ally of Venezuela’s anti-U.S. leader, had called for Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to at least temporarily stop glyphosate spraying during the two days that he had planned to visit. Correa said Uribe should have shown “some gesture of grace” by suspending the fumigation. “Lamentably, we did not get a positive response.”

Correa contends that the fumigation is unacceptable because it kills legal crops on the Ecuadoran side of the border and has been blamed for causing health problems. His decision threatens to further strain already tense relations with the Colombian government. Both Correa and Chavez say Colombia should find another way to stamp out cocaine production. The two are united by leftist ideology and critical stances toward the US. Correa, who takes office Jan. 15, also said he planned to restructure Ecuador’s foreign debt.

Rafael Correa has also recently done what no Colombian president has dared to in the last thirty years: hold the United States accountable when it comes to the war on drugs. He did it as a consequence of a threat by the US Congress made to cut the tariff benefits extended under ATPDEA, and to limit existing access to US markets for countries that refuse to sign the Andean Free Trade Agreement (AFTA) imposed by the United States. Correa said: “The ATPDEA is not charity, it is a compensation for the countries that have demonstrated efforts in the anti-drug struggle.” He also suggested that to compensate the Ecuadoran exporters affected by this US policy, his government will re-focus “the enormous resources” of the anti-drug struggle toward them.

Therefore, it seems Bush’s original plans to expand the NAFTA model through the FTAA are at jeopardy, at least in the Andean region. This first became evident when the US president notified Congress in November 2003 of his intention to negotiate a free trade agreement with the Andean countries rather than a sweeping FTAA for all the Americas. Venezuela refuse to be part of AFTA, as has Bolivia. The latter was invited as an observer to the negotiations—before the populist Evo Morales was elected. Each country has been negotiating with United States bilaterally, not in bloc.

Peru was the first Andean nation to sign the AFTA, on April 12, 2006. This was under the outgoing administration of Alejandro Toledo, who had reason to push for a quick passage. In the coming presidential elections, the two favorites were the populist candidate Ollanta Humala—who was totally opposed to the AFTA—and former president Alan Garcia who was ambivalent on the FTA and had attacked Toledo for the way in which it was negotiated. On April 9, no single condidate obtained more than half of the total valid votes, thus leading to a nasty and tense run-off election held on June 4, which Alan Garcia finally won. After his election, he flip-flopped, endorsing the US-Peru FTA.

The leftist cocalero’s leader Evo Morales won the presidential elections in Bolivia in December 2005 with a big margin, and flatly refused to negotiate a FTA with the US. He has since been working on the nationalization of the Bolivia’s natural resources. The US Undersecretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs Thomas Shannon signaled privately that while Washington might be open to “dialogue” on the issues of hydrocarbons and coca planting, the issue of free trade itself was non-negotiable.

Nearly a year later on November 26, 2006, Ecuador’s Correa won with a big difference against the eternal presidential candidate and pro-US banana tycoon Alvaro Novoa. When Correa was asked what he would do with the stagnated negotiations on the Free Trade Agreement if elected, he answered: “Al TLC lo voy a tirar al ‘tacho’ de la basura”—”I will throw the FTA to the garbage can”.

Ecuador is currently the second largest South American exporter of crude to the US. The small Andean country hosts the only US military base in South America, where 400 troops are currently stationed. Correa opposes an extension of the US lease at the air base in Manta, which serves as a staging ground for drug surveillance flights. The lease expires in 2009. “If they want,” Correa said ironically, “we won’t close the base in 2009, but the United States would have to allow us to have an Ecuadoran base in Miami in return.”

Correa denied claims by his conservative opponents that his campaign was financed by Chavez, and asserted that his friendship with the Venezuelan leader was as legitimate as President Bush’s friendship with the bin Laden family. “They have pursued the most immoral and dirty campaign against me in an effort to link me with communism, terrorism, and Chavismo,” Correa stated. “The only thing left is for them to say that bin Laden was financing me.”

Chavez and Correa certainly have a good rapport. During a stint in 2005 as finance minister under President Alfredo Palacio, Correa brokered a $300 million loan from Chavez. Reportedly, Correa pursued the loan deal behind Palacio’s back; in any event he was soon forced out of the government. He later visited Chavez’s home state of Barinas, where he met with the Venezuelan leader and spent the night with Chavez’s parents.

“It is necessary to overcome all the fallacies of neoliberalism,” Correa has stated. Echoing one of Chavez’s favorite slogans, Correa says he supports so-called “socialism for the twenty-first century.”

Meanwhile in Venezuela, on December 3, with more than 60% of the vote, Hugo Chavez was reelected: “It’s another defeat for the devil, who tries to dominate the world,” Chavez told cheering supporters, mocking George Bush, and sending a “brotherly” salute to Cuba’s President Fidel Castro.

Democrats cave in

The battle over AFTA may follow the pattern already set by the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA). On July 27, 2005, DR-CAFTA passed in the US Congress, 217-215. The vote took place at midnight when Bush and Dick Cheney showed up to persuade some hesitant Republicans like Robert Hayes from North Carolina, who was facing outsourcing of jobs from his district’s traditional textile industry. Bush succeeded in convincing Hayes and other recalcitrants with promised concessions.

Weeks before the vote the media and insiders predicted DR-CAFTA was going to be defeated. Republicans and Democrats alike made public statements expressing their opposition, but they flipped at the last minute vote. Public Citizen, the watchdog group, found thate these flip-flop representatives were under a very strong lobby by the corporations with interests in DR-CAFTA.

Returning to the AFTA: Uribe came to Washington for a second time in the same month, on November 22, 2006 to sign the US-Colombia FTA. Now, both the Peru and Colombia free trade agreements await a ratification vote by the US Congress.

During the AFTA negotiations, large blocs in Congress repeatedly issued demands to Bush administration and tits Trade Representative Robert Portman to add labor and environmental standards to treaty, with the same enforcement measures as those for commercial terms. They also demanded the removal of “data exclusivity” patent terms that drive up medicine prices; elimination of new foreign investor rights at US port operations; adding safeguards for prevailing wage laws and anti-sweatshop policies; reviewing the mandatory service privatization and deregulation rules affecting water, social security and other sensitive sectors; and rewriting farm rules predicted to displace millions of peasant farmers.

Two days before Uribe signed the treaty, Democratic Ways and Means committee members wrote the White House with a last letter warning that the Colombia FTA would only create unnecessary difficulties, given that aspects of both the Colombia and Peru FTAs must be renegotiated to garner the support necessary for approval. The emerging scandal revealed those days in the Washington Post regarding extensive links between civilian massacres by terrorist paramilitary groups and Colombian President Uribe’s ruling party should have provided another reason for President Bush to pause before signing the controversial pact with Uribe.

Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue, a right-wing Washington think-tank, told The Economist the Democrats are unlikely to halt the $600 or so of mainly military aid that Colombia gets each year since they will not want to be seen soft on either drugs and terror ahead of the 2008 presidential campaign.

In 2007 we will see if there is any real difference between Democrats and Republicans regarding the War on Drugs and Free Trade Agreements in Latin America.

SOURCES:

“Paramilitaries Trade Guns for Politics”
Christian Science Monitor, Sept. 7, 2005
http://www.csmonitor.com/2005/0907/p07s02-woam.html?s=widep

“Rightist Militias are a Force in Colombia’s Congress”
New York Times, Nov. 10, 2004
http://www.nytimes.com/2004/11/10/international/americas/10colombia.html

“Petro: Colombian Paramilitaries Reviving”
Associated Press, Oct, 19, 2006
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/10/19/AR…

“Colombia: Drug Lords Join Paramilitaries to Seek Leniency”
New York Times, Nov. 27, 2004
http://www.nytimes.com/2004/11/27/international/americas/27colombia.html?ex=1259
211600&en=74cb028b9e563fa5&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland

“Uribe Must End Attacks on Media”
Human Rights Watch, April 17, 2006
http://hrw.org/english/docs/2006/04/17/colomb13196.htm

“El Computador de ‘Jorge 40′”
Semana, Bogota, March 12, 2006
http://www.semana.com/wf_InfoArticulo.aspx?idArt=96785

“Donde estaba el fiscal Osorio?”
Semana, Bogota, Nov. 19, 2006
http://www.semana.com/wf_InfoArticulo.aspx?idArt=98273

“Cuando renunciara?
El consulado de Jorge Noguera en Milan es insostenible”
Semana, Bogota, April 16, 2006
http://www.semana.com/wf_InfoArticulo.aspx?idArt=93806

“El salario de la ambicion” (on Rafael Correa)
Semana, Bogota, Dec. 17, 2006
http://www.semana.com/wf_InfoArticulo.aspx?IdArt=100114

“The Rise of Rafael Correa: Ecuador and the Contradictions of Chavismo”
by Nikolas Kozloff
Counterpunch via ZNet Nov. 29, 2006
http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=11502

“Correa: No aceptamos amenazas por el TLC”
El Universal, Guayaquil, Dec. 7, 2006
http://www.eluniverso.com/2006/12/07/0001/9/C…14363072D1.asp

“New Day for Bolivia”
by Tom Hayden
The Nation, Jan. 27, 2006
http://www.thenation.com/doc/20060213/hayden

“Chavez wins Venezuela re-election”
BBC News, Dec 4, 2006
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/6205128.stm

“Snubs and Opportunities:
The new United States Congress seems poised to strike a blow for Hugo
Chavez by killing trade deals in Latin America”
The Economist, Nov. 23, 2006
http://www.economist.com/world/la/displaystory.cfm?story_id=8322866

“Dangerous CAFTA Liaisons”
Public Citizen, February 2006

See also:

“VENEZUELA: MURDER CASE LEADS TO MIAMI?”
from Weekly News Update on the Americas
WW4 REPORT #105, Dec. 10, 2004
/andes/venezuela/miami

“CENTRAL AMERICA: CAFTA PASSES, STATE TERROR RESURGENT”
from Weekly News Update on the Americas
WW4 REPORT #112, August 2005
/node/856

From our weblog:

“Colombia: para leader testifies at tribunal; dialogue stalled”
WW4 REPORT, Dec. 21, 2006
/node/2932

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Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Jan. 1, 2007
Reprinting permissible with attribution

Continue ReadingCOLOMBIA: WASHINGTON & THE PARA SCANDAL 

COLOMBIA: THE PARAS & THE OIL CARTEL

State Terror and the Struggle for Ecopetrol

by Bill Weinberg, WW4 REPORT

After seven hours of debate on Dec. 12, Colombia’s Congress voted 60-29 to authorize the sale of a 20% stake in the Colombian state oil company. Ecopetrol. Under the terms, shares in Ecopetrol will be sold on Colombia’s stock market to finance the company’s expansion. The sale is set to be carried out in the third quarter of 2007. (La Republica, Dec. 13)

Priority in allocating the shares will be given to labor unions, the company’s workers, cooperative associations, pension funds and Colombian citizens. Said Mines and Energy Minister Hernan Martinez: “Ecopetrol will become stronger for the benefit of its workers and all Colombians.”

In pushing the legislation, the government of President Alvaro Uribe sited the need to find new reserves and boost production. According to official figures, production fell to an average of 526,392 barrels a day in October from about 815,000 barrels a day in 1999. According to government estimates, if no new reserves are found, the country will become a net oil importer in 2012. (Business Week, Dec. 13)

Martinez said the sale could raise as much as $4 billion. He warned that without expansion, Colombia—Latin America’s fifth-largest oil exporter with 1.45 billion barrels of proven oil reserves—could become a net importer by 2011. The sale also will give Ecopetrol independence to make its own finances and allow its board to choose its chief executive, heretofore appointed by the governmentt. “The most important reason for this sale is to give autonomy to the company, so that it doesn’t need to be under the control of the government,” said Martinez. (Bloomberg, Dec. 14)

The move comes as private contracts are also expanding in Colombia’s oil sector, with Ecopetrol farming out more work to foreign firms. Days after the congressional vote, it was announced that Ecopetrol has awarded a $50 million “project management consulting” contract to the French energy-services company Technip for the expansion of its main refinery at the jungle river port of Barrancabermeja. (Construction & Maintenance, Dec. 21)

Other refineries have already been partially privatized. In August 2006, the Swiss-based Glencore International had purchased a 51% stake in Ecopetrol’s Cartagena refinery on the Caribbean coast. Glencore outbid Brazil’s Petrobras in the government auction, and Petrobras is now considering a bid to Gelncore. “We’re negotiating with the winner of the auction,” Petrobras international director Nestor Cervero said. (Market Watch, Dec. 14)

But the changes at Ecopetrol are challenged by the company’s workers at the Barrancabermeja refinery—who have repeatedly paralyzed operations in protest of the moves towards privatization, resulting in the plant being occupied by the army. The Syndicated Workers Union (USO), representing the oil sector, has threatened to bring the entire company to a halt if the sale proceeds.

Paramilitaries Enforce Privatization

Labor is under attack in Colombia. According to a year-end study by Colombia’s National Labor School (ENS), a total of 71 unionists were assassinated in 2006—compared with 67 in 2005. Thirteen of those targeted were leaders, the Medellin-based non-governmental organization said. Another 13 were women. At least nine could be definitively attributed to the supposedly “demobilized” paramilitary network, the Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). Seven were attributed to the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The findings were based on reports from local human rights groups throughout the country.

The ENS sees a rapidly contracting space for civil opposition in Colombia. The study found that the aggressors have an “intention of annihilation and closing off by whatever means—generally by violent character—legal or institutional strategies.”

The report also contested President Uribe’s contention that his “democratic security” policy has brought about a safer environment in Colombia. “There has not been any positive change in reference to homicides; on the contrary, it is evident that the dimension of the violations has continued.”

Beyond assassinations, the ENS also noted “continuous persecutions and threats” against labor in Colombia, especially on the part of the paramilitary groups. In an implicit reference to the supposed “demobilization” of the paramilitaries now underway, the report states there is a state of “persecution without truce.”

The study found the greatest increase in killings to be in the two departments of Magdalena, on the Caribbean coast, and Arauca on the eastern plains. (RCN Radio, Colombia, Dec. 23)

Arauca is a key strategic region for Ecopetrol, site of the Cano-Limon oil fields, currently the country’s most productive. Cano-Limon is also where US oil companies in joint partnerships with Ecopetrol have been granted most generous access.

Fictional “Demobilization”

The so-called “demobilization” of the AUC is starting to look increasingly dubious. The AUC formally broke off dialogue with the government Dec. 7 when 59 AUC leaders were transferred from the “reclusion zone” they had been granted for the talks at La Ceja, Antioquia. to the top-security prison at Itagui, outside Medellin. The government cited the Nov. 17 murder of AUC’s Commander Omega (Jefferson Martinez) in Copacabana, Antioquia, and the disappearance of another AUC commander, “Danielito.” “Omega” was the right-hand-man of “Jorge 40” (Rodrigo Tovar Pupo), the figure at the center of the current scandal involving paramilitary control of elected officials and regional political machines.

But “Omega” was not the only victim of apparent AUC terror in recent weeks. Colombia’s non-governmental Council on Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES) states that throughout the country there are perhaps 60 “emergent bands” of “demobilized” paras who have returned to action. CODHES especially reported a new wave of terror in the Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander department, which has displaced 8,000 local people over the past three months. The report named a local outfit called the Aguilas Negras (Black Eagles), it said was led by men in the “confidence” of Jorge 40 and top AUC commander Salvatore Mancuso. (El Tiempo, Dec. 10)

Neither has displacement of Colombia’s civil population—with campesinos and the indigenous especially targetted—been slowed by the supposed “demobilization.” In June 2006, CODHES reported that more than 10,500 had been displaced over the past five months. They pointed to 22 instances of massive exodus due to threats from and cross-fire between illegal armed groups. (Vanguardia, Bucaramanga, June 14, 2006)

CODHES reports that Colombia could now have the second largest internally displaced population in the world, after Sudan. Nearly three million people have been displaced by violence since 1985, by CODHES estimates. The government contests the figure, but all sources agree that the annual number of new displacements has significantly increased since 1993. (ReliefWeb Situation Reports, May 15, 2003)

As always, human rights monitors are themselves the targets of para terror, and the “demobilization: has not changed this. On May 20, 2006, CODHES received a threatening e-mail from a group calling itself the “Democratic Group for a Free Colombia”—doubtless one of the “emergent bands” the organanization warned of. The message stated that CODHES and like groups “would not be allowed to continue” their work. The note also referenced the fact that computers were stolen from the CODHES office several weeks earlier. It read in part: “We are not willing to continue allowing a bunch of disguised people like all of you to continue dragging our country through the mud of communism, and especially not under the influence of the current socialist versions of Chavismo, Castrismo, Evomoralismo, Lulismo or any other version in which you try to disguise yourselves. We are warning all of you supposed defenders of human rights (as well as these guerrillas described as professors who say they are opening spaces of free thought in the sacred state universities) that we are watching you. We are not going to allow your glory days to return.” (Lutheran World Relief, August 21, 2006)

Arauca: Pacifying the Oil Frontier

Arauca, on the eastern plains along the Venezuelan border, is one of Colombia’s most militarized departments. The Colombian army has an overwhelming, visible presence throughout Arauca, and is routinely accused by human rights groups of arbitrary detainments and other abuses. Arauca has been declared a special “Rehabilitation Zone” where normal civil rights protections are suspended. (Observatorio de la CCEEU, via Colombia Indymedia, Dec. 9, 2006)

The forces are overseen by a group of Green Berets from the US 7th Special Forces Group under a special multi-million project approved as part of Plan Colombia. This program is turning the Colombian army’s 18th Brigade into a special force to protect the local investments of Occidental Petroleum, which operates in a partnership with Ecopetrol. (The Telegraph, Dec. 10, 2002 via 7th Special Forces Group website)

Despite this high-profile military presence, the paramilitaries operate with a free hand in Arauca. Indigenous leaders who have protested the contamination of their traditional lands and waters by the oil operations are among those who have been targeted, leading the environmental network Biodiversidad en America Latina to see a coordinated campaign of “ecocide and ethnocide.” (Biodiversidad en America Latina, Dec. 22)

The region’s indigenous peoples won a victory in May 2002, when Occidental announced at its annual shareholder meeting in Los Angeles that it was quitting its oil exploration bloc in the high cloud forests overlooking the eastern plains, straddling the departments of Arauca and Norte de Santander. The company cited economic reasons for the move, including a negative result from its first exploratory drill in the region last July. However, the announcement comes after 10 years of effort by the U’wa people and their international supporters to halt the oil development. At least two U’wa had been killed when their blockades of access roads to the drill sites were broken by the army.

But the victory may now prove temporary. On Dec. 15, 2006, Colombia’s Interior Ministry cleared the way for Ecopetrol to begin new explorations in the same territory—this time on behalf of the Spanish firm Repsol. The Ministry stated in its decision that the U’wa had refused to participate in consultation meetings it had organized to discuss the question. (El Tiempo, Dec. 16, 18 via ReliefWeb)

In response to the announcement, Luis Tegria, president of the Assembly of the U’wa Indigenous Community, said that the question of oil development was not negotiable and pledged that his people will defend their ancestral lands. He also protested that the Ministry’s decision was made public before the U’wa were officially notified. (Prensa Latina, Dec. 19)

The greater freedom for foreign oil corporations in Colombia is predicated on the extinguishing of human freedom. Trade unionists, campesinos and indigenous peoples whose lives and lands are threatened by the opening of corporate access face the systematic terror of the paramilitary network. Despite the supposed “demobilization,” the paras are the de facto enforcers of Uribe’s free trade policies.

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SOURCES:

La Republica, Bogota, Dec. 13, 2006
http://www.la-republica.com.co/noticia…

Business Week, Dec. 13, 2006
http://www.businessweek.com/ap/financialnews/D8M01T1G1.htm

Bloomberg, Dec. 14, 2006
http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601086&sid=ay…

Construction & Maintenance, Dec. 21, 2006
http://home.nestor.minsk.by/build/news/2006/12/0702.html

MarketWatch, Dec. 14, 2006
http://www.marketwatch.com/news/story/petrobras-talks-about-japan-refinery/…

RCN Radio, Bogota, Dec. 23, 2006
http://www.rcn.com.co/noticia.php3?nt=16875

El Tiempo, Bogota, Dec. 10, 2006
http://www.eltiempo.com/justicia/2006-12-10…

La Vanguardia, Bucaramanga, June 14, 2006, via Instituto Latinoamericano de Servicios Legales Alternativos – ILSA
http://www.derechoydesplazamiento.net/article.php3?id_article=258

ReliefWeb Situation Reports, May 15, 2003
http://www.reliefweb.int/w/rwb.nsf/…

Lutheran World Relief August 21, 2006
http://www.lwr.org/colombia/alert/archive/053006.asp

Observatorio de la CCEEU, via Colombia Indymedia, Dec. 9, 2006
http://colombia.indymedia.org/news/2006/12/54023.php

The Telegraph, UK, Dec. 10, 2002 via 7th Special Forces Group website
http://www.groups.sfahq.com/7th/colombias_oil_fields.htm

Biodiversidad en America Latina, Dec. 22, 2006
http://www.biodiversidadla.org/content/view/full/29126

El Tiempo, Bogota, Dec. 16, 18 via ReliefWeb
http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/rwb.nsf/db900SID/VBOL-6WQE85?OpenDocument

Prensa Latina, Dec. 19, 2006
http://www.plenglish.com/article…

See also:

“COLOMBIA QUAGMIRE DEEPENS
FARC Indictments Spell Escalation in Andean Oil War”
by Peter Gorman
WW4 REPORT #121, May 2006
/node/1901

“WHO ARE THE ‘NARCO-TERRORISTS’?”
by Bill Weinberg
WW4 REPORT #105, Dec. 10, 2004
/105/andes/narco-terrorists

“COLOMBIA VS. VENEZUELA:
Big Oil’s Secret War?”
by Bill Weinberg
WW4 REPORT #108, April 2005
/colombiavenezuelabigoil

From our weblog:

“Colombia: para leader testifies at tribunal; dialogue stalled”
WW4 REPORT, Dec. 21, 2006
/node/2932

“Colombia announces 20% privatization of state oil company”
WW4 REPORT, Sept. 14. 2006
/node/2479

“Oxy pulls out of U’wa country”
WW4 REPORT, July 14, 2002
/static/42.html#andean9

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Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Jan. 1, 2007
Reprinting permissible with attribution

Continue ReadingCOLOMBIA: THE PARAS & THE OIL CARTEL 

NIGER DELTA: BEHIND THE MASK

Ijaw Militia Fight the Oil Cartel

by Ike Okonta

“They have taken crafty counsel against thy people; and consulted against thy hidden ones. They have said, Come, and let us cut them off from being a nation.”

—Oboko Bello, president of Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities (FNDIC), quoting Psalm 83:1-5.

The fragile truce brokered between Nigeria’s central government and the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) in April 2006 jerked to a bloody halt on August 20. On that afternoon soldiers of the Joint Task Force—a contingent of the Nigerian Army, Navy and Air Force deployed by the government to enforce its authority on the restive oil-bearing Niger Delta—ambushed fifteen members of the MEND militia and murdered them. The slain men were on their way to negotiate the release of a Shell Oil worker kidnapped by youth in Letugbene, a neighbouring community. The Shell staff also died in the massacre.

The incident occurred five days after Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s president, instructed armed forces commanders in the region to resort to force and quickly “pacify” the region. This marked a sharp turn-around from the promise Obasanjo gave to representatives of the MEND militia in Abuja, the capital, in early April that he would utilise dialogue and carefully-targeted development projects in a new initiative to return peace, law and good government to the impoverished Niger Delta.

The streets of Warri, the city where Shell and ChevronTexaco’s western delta operations are based, were thick with tension on the morning of September 2 when Ijo youth converged on Warri Central Hospital in the suburbs to retrieve the corpses of their colleagues and commence the burial ceremonies. The Ijaw are the largest ethnic group in the Niger Delta. The MEND militia draws the bulk of its membership from the Ijaw.

Significantly, there were several prominent Ijaw political and civic leaders at the ceremony. Ordinary people, mainly Ijaw peasant farmers and fisher folk, had left their hoes and fishing nets and travelled from their hamlets in the creeks to pay their respects to the slain. Spokesmen of the Nigerian government had sought to represent the fifteen militiamen as “irresponsible hostage-takers” in the wake of the slaughter. But those massed at the hospital that morning spoke only of heroes who had fallen in the battle for “Ijaw liberation.” MEND, it was clear to observers, was firmly embedded in the Ijaw communities from which it emerged in February 2006, and continues to enjoy the support of youth and impoverished peasants alike whose farm lands and fishing creeks—their sole source of livelihood—have been destroyed by half a century of uncontrolled oil production.

However, the MEND militia only considers armed force a tactical tool they have been forced to wield as a last resort after three decades of peaceful entreaty was met with cynical indifference from the central government and the oil companies. Leaders of the Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities (FNDIC), a civic group whose headquarters is in Gbaramatu, have served as informal representatives of the MEND militia in negotiations with President Obasanjo and Nigeria’s central government following the abduction of nine foreign oil workers in the creeks of the delta in February. When this writer interviewed Oboko Bello, president of FNDIC, in Warri in early August, two weeks before the Letugbene massacre, he spoke warmly about the peace meeting he and other Ijaw leaders had had in Abuja with Obasanjo and other government officials on April 5 and 18. He even assured that MEND militants would lay down their weapons if the government went some way to address the long-standing grievances of his people.

But it was a sorrowful and stone-faced Bello who addressed his fellow Ijaw during the burial ceremony that afternoon in Warri. He said: “Shell officials were privy to the arrangements Ijaw patriots had made as part of the Joint Investigation and Verification exercise to free the captured company worker and also facilitate the re-opening of the company’s facilities in the creeks. Shell was in direct communication with the commanders of the Joint Task Force, even up to the time our young men set out in their boats to rescue the Shell worker in Letugbene. These young men were not hostage takers. They were Ijaw patriots, selflessly working to repair the damaged peace between the oil company and our people. For this they were ambushed and murdered by soldiers in the service of Shell.”

Oboko Bello ended his one-hour speech on a note of conciliation, arguing that the peace process between the MEND militia and the government that was begun on March 12 following a meeting between President Obasanjo and prominent Ijaw leaders must not be derailed. But angry voices are rising all over the creeks vowing revenge. These are young men—the volatile, striking arm of the Ijaw political and civic resurgence. Whether moderate voices will be able to rein them in remains to be seen.

For its part, the central government has adopted a new defiant, militaristic posture, publicly announcing in late August that it was now collaborating closely with the US and British governments to deploy more naval personnel and new hardware to “root out oil rustlers, kidnappers and other undesirable elements from the Niger Delta and the wider Gulf of Guinea.” To the MEND militants hunkered down in their heavily fortified redoubts in the creeks, this sounded ominously like an open declaration of war.

FNDIC leaders who spoke to this writer shortly after the burial ceremony expressed the concern that the government’s belligerent posture could be an attempt to generate political turbulence in the Niger delta during the April 2007 general elections—thus providing an opportunity for Obasanjo to impose an interim government and extend his tenure beyond the constitutionally-stipulated two terms. Although the elections had been massively rigged in the region and even more so in the Ijaw areas by the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in 1999 and again in 2003, FNDIC officials continue to hold out the hope that fair elections will provide the solution to the political and economic crisis. They insist they will continue to work zealously to thwart any attempt to prevent free elections from taking place in Ijaw communities next April.

But elections in Nigeria and the Niger Delta in particular, are usually turbulent affairs, sometimes descending into the bloody and violent. As was the case in the past, politicians are replenishing their arms caches and resuscitating the network of thugs they rely on to intimidate their rivals, coerce voters to do their bidding, or stuff the ballot boxes outright. The region is awash with small arms and hard cash yet again, and the already volatile cocktail of local resentment of the government and oil companies looks set to blend with guns-for-hire prowling the creeks and sire another bloody inferno.

Spectacle as Weapon

The MEND militia and its political sponsors set out in the early months of the year to draw the attention of the world to the parlous condition of the Ijaw people, deploying spectacle as a powerful weapon. Images of armed youth in masks wielding sub-machine guns in the creeks and helpless oil workers at their mercy, squatting in the bowels of speedboats, were beamed to the media all over the world through a skilful use of the Internet.

These graphic images generated intense emotions in government circles as well as in the environmental and human rights community in the West. Global oil prices surged and fell with the tone of MEND’s press statements, and the physical condition of the captives whose photographs they put out on the net. But the drama invariably ended on a peaceful note, with MEND setting the oil workers free unharmed. After the spate of armed attacks on the facilities of Shell and two other oil companies in the western delta following MEND’s emergence in February, there seemed to have emerged an unspoken agreement between the militants and the government that this drama could go on, and the actors permitted to air their grievances on the world stage, as long as the oil workers periodically taken hostage were not harmed.

Following the Letugbene murders, the outrage with which this bloody event was greeted by Ijaw youth in the creeks, and rising political tensions all over the country, there is no knowing whose voice will command allegiance in the coming months—the moderates counselling patience and political participation, or the young hotheads eager to return to the creeks and take up against arms against the government and the oil companies.

PRELUDE TO AN UPRISING

Before the emergence of MEND, the last time the Ijaw took up arms against the Nigerian government in an organised effort to assert their political rights was forty years ago. In February 1966, Isaac Adaka Boro, a graduate of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, formed the Niger Delta Volunteer Service (NDVS), a militia comprising of several young and educated Ijaw men. They declared the Ijaw-speaking areas of Nigeria’s then-Eastern Region an independent “Niger Delta Republic.” In an eleven-point declaration of independence, Boro stated that “all former agreements as regards the crude oil of the people undertaken by the now defunct ‘Nigerian’ government in the territory have been declared invalid,” and that “all oil companies are commanded…to stop exploration and renew agreements with the new Republic. Defiance of this order will result in dislocation of the company’s exploration and forfeiture of their rights of renewal of such agreements.”

Federal troops, directed from Enugu, the regional capital, soon quashed Isaac Boro’s uprising. But the twelve-day revolt jolted the nation, focussed attention on the travails of the riverine communities of the Eastern Region, and re-opened debate about their demand—first raised in the Willincks hearing of 1958—to be separated from the Eastern Region in an independent state of their own. At the time the Eastern Region was dominated by the more populous Igbo ethnic group—obliging the Ijaw, Ibibio, Ogoni and other smaller groups to band together and ask for a new “Rivers State.”

Boro and his two associates, Sam Owonaro and Notthingham Dick, were arrested and imprisoned. Developments elsewhere in the country were soon to alter the fortunes of the three militants in a dramatic manner. Nigeria had been convulsed in political crisis following independence from Britain in October 1960. At the heart of the dispute was the unwieldy three-region structure that the departing colonialists bequeathed to the country, ensuring that the Northern region, led by Muslim feudal lords who had cooperated with British administrators in governing the country, were given the largest slice, bigger than the Western and Eastern Region combined. Northern politicians were quick to turn this numerical advantage into political and economic rewards, introducing a corrupt and authoritarian mode of rule in the country that enabled them to transfer wealth derived from the south to their own region. In January 1966 five young army majors, the bulk of Igbo extraction, staged a military coup in an attempt to end to the drift towards misgovernment. Several leading politicians and senior army officers, including the prime minister and the premier of the Northern Region, were killed. The bulk of those that lost their lives were northerners.

Six months later, in July 1966, northern officers staged a counter-coup, and attempted to pull the North out of the Federation—but changed their mind at the last minute (under pressure from the British high commissioner and the US ambassador). Leaders of the coup had killed the military head of state, General Ironsi, an Igbo who had taken over the reins of government after the January coup had collapsed. Over three hundred other officers, the bulk of them from the Eastern Region, were also murdered. The coup leaders appointed Yakubu Gowon, a lieutenant colonel and fellow northerner, the new head of state and declared that the Ironsi government had been overthrown.

The military administrator of the Eastern Region, Col. Emeka Ojukwu, refused to recognise Gowon as head of state, and insisted that the late Ironsi’s second in command, Brigadier Ogundipe, take over. Relations between the two sides deteriorated swiftly. Fearing that the East was about to secede, the Gowon regime, hunkered down in Lagos, the federal capital, split the country into twelve new states in May 1967—two for the ethnic minority groups of the Eastern Region. The Ijaw formed the bulk of the new Rivers State. Ojukwu responded a few days later by declaring the East the independent Republic of Biafra. Federal troops invaded Biafra and civil war broke out. Isaac Boro and his compatriots were released from prison by federal troops. He subsequently joined the federal side as a major and commanded his own unit under the Third Marine Commando Division. Boro was to die in battle a few weeks before the war ended.

The bloody civil war which raged for thirty months, and in which an estimated three million people died, was to profoundly alter Nigeria’s political landscape. The war ended in January 1970 with a federal victory. Although the Ijaw had reason to be content, having secured the new state they had been asking for since the 1950s, the euphoria was to prove short-lived. The central government had passed on to a victorious federal army the bulk of whose commanders were from the now-defunct Northern Region. These officers quickly turned their attention to the oil wells of the Niger Delta, and in cooperation with civil servants, pushed through a number of military edicts that nationalized the delta oil fields. The formula for sharing revenue was altered. Where previously 50% of revenue went to the region or state from which it was derived, all the states now had an equal share, with the central government in Lagos keeping the lion’s share for itself.

The new fiscal regime, which now left the Ijaw and the other oil-bearing communities of the Niger Delta at a distinct disadvantage, took nearly ten years to achieve. The process began in the heat of the civil war, when the Gowon government enacted Decree 15 of 1969, removing the control of the oil fields from their states of origin to the federal government. By the time civilian government was restored in October 1979, a rash of decrees and edicts (including the 1978 Land Use Act that placed the oil-bearing land of the delta under the “protection” of the central government), had transformed the Niger Delta into a colony whose inhabitants bore the brunt of the oil production on which the national economy relied but enjoyed virtually none of the benefits.

The new civilian government, under President Shehu Shagari, a northerner, was purposeless and corrupt. This ill-fated Second Republic was overthrown in December 1983 by General M. Buhari. On Buhari’s watch, the portion of oil revenue that went to the Ijaw and the other oil-bearing communities of the Niger Delta plunged to a derisory 1.5%. Meanwhile Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), the local subsidiary of the Anglo-Dutch oil giant, and other Western oil companies operating in the Niger Delta continued to benefit from legislation that had reduced the delta communities to squatters on their own land. Shell, which began operations in 1956, now accounted for half of the country’s total oil production of two million barrels per day.

By the provisions of the legal regime guiding oil production, the oil companies were not required to obtain the permission of the local communities on whose land and creeks they sought to mine oil. They were only answerable to government officials far away in the capital. All that the oil companies were asked to do was pay “compensation” to local people for crops and other valuables destroyed in the course of oil production. Estimation was largely left to the discretion of Shell officials, and they were quick to undercut the local people. Environmental protection laws were also flagrantly breached by all the companies, resulting in the devastation of the farm lands and fishing creeks on which the Ijaw and the other communities had relied for livelihood for millennia. Where previously decades of government neglect had reduced the delta communities to excruciating poverty, now their very existence was threatened.

General Ibrahim Babangida overthrew General Buhari in a palace coup in August 1985, and introduced a Structural Adjustment Program supervised by the IMF. Ostensibly designed to ameliorate the financial crisis into which decades of corrupt and inefficient government had plunged the country, Babangida’s new economic policies only succeeded in plunging the people into worse poverty. The currency was devalued, hiking up the price of imported necessities. Social services were cut.

The already impoverished Delta communities felt the new harsh economic climate particularly keenly. There were neither factories nor government jobs in the region. The enclave oil economy employed a handful of local people; even as it left environmental destruction in its wake. Hospitals, roads, piped water, schools, paved roads and electric power were grossly inadequate where they existed at all. As thousands of Ijaw, retrenched from their jobs in the cities and towns, began to stream home in late 1980s, the Niger Delta region began to heave. It was clear to the discerning that a political storm was about to break.

The first storm came in the shape of an attempted military putsch, led by Ijaw and other Delta elements in the army. In April 1990 these young military officers stormed the central Dodan Barracks, and reduced its perimeter walls to rubble with mortars and AK47s. But General Babangida managed to escape, rallied senior commanders to his side and mounted a counter-attack. Outflanked and outgunned, the coup plotters surrendered. After a hasty trial, closed to the public, they were executed.

The defiant utterances of the young officers as they faced the firing squad, declaring that they had “struck a blow for the oppressed people of the Niger Delta in the spirit of Isaac Boro,” were to prepare the ground for the emergence of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) sixteen years later.

MEND: EMERGENCE OF A PEOPLES’ MILITIA

The first thing that strikes you on meeting members of the MEND militia is the ease with which they move about in Warri metropolis, and also in the creek villages, indicating clearly that they are amongst people who identify with their cause and are ready offer them protection and safe haven during attacks by Nigerian federal troops. However, their movements are constrained by the ever-prowling soldiers.

The second thing you notice is that the militants—or the ones elected by the others to respond to your questions—are articulate, well-educated, and conversant with latest political developments in Nigeria and other parts of the world. This writer’s introductory encounter took place in a hotel room in Warri, arranged through a local journalist. But there were no firm promises, as getting hold of MEND leaders would be dependent on the level of Nigerian military presence in Warri that week.

MEND leaders are constantly on the move, extremely cautious, and do not take telephone calls personally, aware of the fact that the soldiers hunting for them have electronic devices capable of pinpointing mobile phone signals with accuracy. But this wrtier arrived in Warri when the peace process—initiated by FNDIC leaders, lawyer and environmental activist Oronto Douglas, and other Ijaw representatives—was still plodding on. The Obasanjo government appeared willing to restrain the soldiers for the negotiations to be concluded. A knock sounded on the hotel room door. A young man casually dressed in blue jeans and shirt sleeves stood there smiling.

“Are you the MEND leader?” I asked, surprised. The media images beamed out to the world always depict MEND fighters as muscular masked men, clutching Kalashnikovs and adopting belligerent postures, as though ready to fire at the slightest provocation.

“But exactly what do you understand by MEND?” he countered. “There is no such thing as MEND. What I do know is that there are armed youth in the creeks who say they have had enough of the oil companies’ double standards, and are determined to put to an end the exploitation of their people by Shell, Chevron and the federal government.”

MEND is not an “organisation” in the formal sense of the word. It is an idea, a general principle underlying the slew of communal, civic and youth movements that began to proliferate in the Niger Delta, and particularly in the Ijaw-speaking areas, in the wake of General Babangida’s failed adjustment policies in the late 1980s. The Ken Saro-Wiwa inspired Movement of the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), which emerged in 1990, and the Ijaw National Congress, birthed in Port Harcourt a year later, have their genesis in this turbulent economic and political milieu.

These organisations pursued such civic goals as the end to military rule and the return of democratic civilian government, creation of new states in ethnic minority areas, and increase in their share of oil receipts. They utilised non-violent protest marches, advocacy in the mass media, petitions addressed to the government, and awareness-building seminars to press their case. However, as economic conditions worsened country-wide and election results were annulled by Babangida in 1993, a wave of anger and desperation began to spread.

Militant youth organisations such as Odua Peoples Congress (OPC), Arewa Peoples Congress (APC) and Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) emerged in this period. These were communal organisations that drew their membership from the Yoruba, Hausa, and Igbo ethnic groups respectively. OPC and MASSOB wanted dissolution of the federation, which they said should be replaced with new independent countries based in the various ethnic groups. APC, on the other hand, called for perpetuation of the centralized system, but under Hausa political and military leadership. The youth militias began to arm. Clashes with the Nigerian military, and also among themselves, became a staple of Nigerian public life from 1994 onwards. General Sani Abacha had toppled the interim government Babangida had installed before he quit in November 1993. He threw Moshood Abiola, winner of the June 1993 presidential elections, into jail, and unleashed a wave of terror targeted at journalists, democracy activists, and the youth militias challenging his right to rule.

Political developments in the Ijaw territory followed a slightly different trajectory. The ethnic group had not benefited from the various state creation exercises embarked upon by the government in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Skirmishes between Ijaw youth and the oil companies operating in the western delta had begun in the late 1980s. Ijaw elders and community leaders had mediated, and this process gave birth to new youth-led civic groups. Prominent among these were Movement for the Survival of Ijaw Ethnic Nationality (MOSSIEND) and Movement for Reparations to Ogbia (MORETO). Ogbia is an Ijaw clan in the central delta, and from which Oronto Douglas hailed.

The creation of new local government councils in the Warri area by the government in 1997 provided the trigger for the militarization of youth groups in the area. Three prominent ethnic groups occupy Warri metropolis and its hinterland, extending into the creeks. The Itsekiri are perceived to be small but politically dominant. The other two are the Ijaw and Urhobo. There have been squabbles turning on ownership of land, and the rents to be derived therefrom, among all three groups since the 1920s—usually peaceful affairs, fought out in the courts.

But the lethal cocktail of economic deprivation, military dictatorship and worsening environmental crisis in the western delta ensured that when the next round of land tussles arrived, the entire city would go up in flames. This was exactly what happened in 1997 when the military governor announced the creation of a new local government council with headquarters in an Ijaw village, and then rescinded the decision the following day and moved it to an Itsekiri village. Ijaw youth accused Itsekiri elites of having pressured the government to relocate the seat of the new council to their area. The latter countered that the entire Warri territory belonged to the Itsekiri, but that they had no hand in the governor’s decision. Youth from both groups quickly entered the fray. There was a stampede to arm on both sides. Events quickly degenerated into ethnic massacres and counter-massacres.

The proliferation of small arms in the Warri area inevitably fed into “oil bunkering,” an illicit activity which had been practised on the high seas by government officials in collaboration with oil workers for decades. Fringe elements in these militarized youth groups now helped illegal oil barons to tap into pipelines, siphoning crude oil which was then taken to waiting ships. With the return of electoral politics in 1999, politicians in the Niger Delta also recruited from these armed elements to intimidate their political opponents and rig the vote. The oil companies also offered local youth “protection work” in their facilities, arming them with lethal weapons in a cynical move to divide the politically assertive youth organisations. The Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), a new influential organization founded by Oronto Douglas, Asume Osuoka and others in 1998, had united youth all over Ijaw land in a peaceful but powerful opposition to the oil companies and the federal government in the region. The famous Kaiama Declaration, a document adopted by youth from several Ijaw clans, spelling out their grievances and demands, was the brainchild of the IYC leadership.

It is important to note that it was a small number that drifted into oil bunkering and protection “services” for the corrupt politicians and oil companies. The overwhelming majority of Ijaw youth remained solidly with the civic and communal organisations they themselves had founded, even after they had come under brutal attack from government troops in such towns as Kaiama and Odi in 1998 and 1999 respectively.

The IYC was to subsequently split into factions following a leadership tussle. Asari Dokubo, one its leaders, went on to establish the Niger Delta Peoples Volunteer Force (NDPVF), declaring that the peaceful methods of the IYC had not been effective and that what the new civilian government headed by President Obasanjo would heed was militant action. Even so, the bulk of the remaining IYC members continued on the path of non-violent political action.

In the morning of February 15, 2006, government helicopter gun-ships attacked the Ijaw village of Okerenkoko in the western delta. Okerenkoko is a part of Gbaramatu, an Ijaw clan in the western delta. Government officials alleged that Okerenkoko and neighbouring villages were the epicentre of the illegal oil bunkering activities President Obasanjo had resolved to stamp out, and that federal troops had been instructed to “deal with” the Ijaw youth participating in the activity. The gun-ships returned again on 17th and 18th, flattening houses and huts and killing several innocent people. Enraged youth all over Ijawland vowed revenge. It was this bloody incident that triggered the birth of the MEND militia.

MEND AND ITS METHODS

The founding core of MEND’s membership is from the Gbaramatu clan which was in the eye of the storm in the 1997 local government crisis, and then bore the brunt of the helicopter attack of February 2006. But as already stated, MEND is not so much an “organisation” as an idea which many civic, communal, and political groups have unified around.

Resentment at the government and oil companies runs deep in all Ijaw clans in the delta. An intricate maze of creeks links these clans all the way from Port Harcourt in the east to Warri in the west. The explosion of mobile telephony and Internet services in Nigeria since 1999 has ensured that communication and coordination between armed units can be effected within minutes.

MEND’s strength and military successes so far lie in four key factors:

It has successfully tapped into the fifty-year Ijaw quest for social and environmental justice in the Niger Delta. There is no village in the Niger Delta where MEND sympathisers do not exist. Consequently, the movement is able to mount lightening attacks and melt into the hamlets undetected.

Second, MEND is a loose coalition of armed militants, guided by a collegiate leadership, but which does not in any way constrain the ability of the various units to take their own decisions and mount military attacks independent of the others. The units plan their attacks separately, but are able to coordinate with other units in joint expeditions when necessary. Consequently they are active in all parts of the delta, adopting hit-and-run tactics and making it difficult for federal troops to box them into a particular area and launch a massive attack.

Third, MEND militants fight in familiar territory, having fished and farmed in the maze of creeks, marshes, and mangrove swamps that constitute the Niger Delta since childhood. The Nigerian army and navy have superior hardware, but they often lose their way in the creeks when they mount attacks or give chase to the militants, rendering them impotent or—worse—vulnerable to counter-attack. Several soldiers and naval ratings have lost their lives in this manner.

Fourth, MEND is an astute manipulator of the mass media, and has ensured that its case against the government and the oil companies has been clearly and eloquently made in newspapers and television networks in Nigeria and world-wide. Its case has been helped by the tragic events of 1990-1995 in the Ogoni area, when Shell officials worked actively with the Abacha junta to unleash harsh repression, culminating in the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the “Ogoni Eight”—peaceful activists framed on murder charges—on Nov. 10 1995. Journalists and activists in Nigeria, Europe and America who followed in the Ogoni struggle have enthusiastically taken up MEND’s case.

Political logic of hostage-taking

MEND’s weapon of choice is kidnapping of foreign oil workers. The calculation here is simple. The Nigerian government is notorious for its cavalier attitude when the lives of its citizens are at stake. But other countries—particularly the United States, France, United Kingdom and Italy—which have massive oil installations operated by their citizens in the Niger Delta, cry out in loud protest when the latter are taken hostage. Foreign workers are thus the militants’ favourite targets. MEND’s most spectacular hostage taking was carried out at Shell’s Forcados oil terminal in February 2006. Militants grabbed nine workers employed by Willbros, an engineering firm contracted by Shell, and spirited them away in a speedboat. Following several weeks of complex negotiations between the militants, Ijaw leaders, the Obasanjo government, the oil companies and the American and British governments, the last three of the hostages were set free on March 27.

It is significant that since MEND began to take hostages early in the year, none has been harmed. Government officials have sought to present this aspect of MEND’s activities as racketeering, claiming that the militants usually extort ransom from the hostages and the government before the former are released. While it is true that there are fringe elements in the Niger Delta who have embraced hostage-taking as a lucrative commercial venture, they are not to be confused with MEND militants. The objective of the latter is fundamentally political: to focus the attention of Western governments and the world media on the Niger Delta, exploiting the blaze of publicity generated by hostage-taking to press their grievances and demands.

However, MEND militants have displayed little restraint in their attacks on Shell’s facilities, an indication of their deep anger at the company’s callous treatment of the Ijaw. Shell participated in military attacks on delta communities all through the 1980s and 1990s, providing cash and logistics (weapons, vehicular transport, etc.) to Nigerian soldiers repressing local communities in the 1990s. Shell also established its own security force, that also repeatedly harassed local activists during the period.. In my interview with several of the militants in August, they reeled off the names of the towns and villages that had tasted Shell’s guns: Iko, Umuechem, Ogoni, Nembe, Kaima, Odi… It was a very long list.

MEND’s attack on the Forcados oil-loading platform was as audacious as it was crippling. The oil company was forced to suspend production of 19% of its daily Nigerian production. The company’s Cawthorne Channel flow station and Odidi II flow station were also destroyed. Pipelines all over the delta were blown apart, and Shell workers threatened with slow and painful death.

ChevronTexaco, Elf and ENI did not escape MEND’s attention. Their facilities also came under attack, and their staff routinely abducted. At the height of MEND’s military assaults in April, a quarter of Nigeria’s oil production had been shut down, and Shell’s giant offshore Bonga oil field—although protected by naval ships and gun boats—was also considered a potential MEND target. Dr. Edmund Daukoru, a former Shell employee and since 2003 President Obasanjo’s oil minister, was so worried that he hurried to Washington DC to confer with Sam Bodman, the US energy secretary, on ways and means of taking the MEND “problem” on hand.

In response to what they deemed to be an imminent invasion by special forces from the United States, MEND and Asari Dokubo’s NDPVF in April 2006 joined with two new groups, the Martyrs Brigade and Coalition for Militant Action in the Niger Delta (CMND), to announce the formation of a “Joint Revolutionary Council” and pledged that they would deploy newly acquired heat-seeking rockets to attack and disable Shell’s offshore Bonga Oil Field. Given that they had successfully attacked several offshore oil facilities in the past, this announcement triggered panic in the international market. Spot prices surged towards the roof, hitting $72 per barrel.

MEND’s press statements are not only calculated to create maximum panic in the international oil markets, but to leverage the concerns of the giant US and European financial companies that have invested heavily in Gulf of Guinea’s burgeoning oil and gas industry, with the Niger Delta as its epicentre. Leading the pack are Merrill Lynch, Societe Generale, Bank of America Securities, Credit Suissie First Boston, Morgan Stanley, UBS Investments, Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, and Lehman Brothers. These financial behemoths, who together have invested an estimated $15 billion in the Nigerian oil and gas industry (a sum not including direct investments by oil companies and related industries), held meetings with Nigerian officials in November 2005 when confidential reports by US embassy officials in Abuja indicated that the Obasanjo government was speedily losing control of the delta to emergent youth militias.

MEND’s shock tactics yielded dividends initially. Chevron and Shell officials had backed military attacks on local communities all through the 1990s, insisting that their business interests obliged them to offer logistical and financial support to Nigerian troops protecting the delta oil fields from “miscreants.” But attacks on its facilities in the western delta accelerated in 2003-2004, resulting in the killing of company workers (three Nigerians and two Americans and their guards), shutting down 140,000 barrels of daily production. Chevron executives in California began to rethink their martial policy, and subsequently made the unprecedented statement that the company was not in support of military solutions to restore peace in the Niger Delta. In 2006, Chevron unfurled a new Global Memorandum of Understanding, which they promised would tackle development problems in the impoverished communities. Fred Nelson, head of Chevron’s West Africa operations, told journalists in early June that “brute force does not work in the long term. Our strategy is dialogue with the communities to solve their problems. If we can solve their problems, the security issue will go away.” MEND’s spokespersons claimed this new pacific posture as a victory.

The militia has also carefully positioned itself to derive maximum mileage from the activities of other militant groups that, although less well-organised and politically coherent, share similar grievances and regularly mount their own military attacks on oil facilities and government troops. These groups have a bewildering array of names, forging alliances and coalitions as quickly as they dissolve them. Prominent are the South-South Liberation Movement (SSLM), the Movement for the Sovereign State of the Niger Delta (MSSND), the Niger Delta Vigilantes, DE Gbam, and Meninbutus, among others.

MEND spokespersons regularly deplore the activities of these groups when they veer from the political objective of advancing the cause of self-determination and equitable sharing of oil receipts. But MEND is also quick to spring to their defense when soldiers and riot police attack them. On July 1, the MEND-led Joint Revolutionary Council issued an ultimatum to President Obasanjo to hand over the Rivers State police commissioner for “fair trial.” The police had attacked and killed three Ijaw youth in Abonema town in the eastern delta, who they subsequently claimed were gangsters involved in bank robberies in Port Harcourt. MEND rejected this claim, insisting that the slain youth were Ijaw patriots who had “fallen in the field of battle.” Four days after the expiration of the ultimatum, militants struck in the remote oil facility area of Sangana, and abducted four naval ratings.

MEND’s military exploits have not dented the offensive capabilities of Nigeria’s armed forces. But they have demoralised the troops, and also forced local journalists and other public commentators to question the combat-readiness and overall effectiveness of the army and navy. Most importantly, MEND has transformed the image of the Ijaw, and the entire local communities of the Niger Delta, from that of hapless and quiescent victims to an increasingly organized and assertive political bloc, able to hit back at their oppressors.

WORSE THAN IRAQ?

It is not yet clear whether the massacre at Letugbene on August 20 will turn out to be a crippling blow, compelling MEND militants to beat a retreat and explore peace alternatives with greater vigor. One fact is clear, though. Both the central government and the oil companies have retreated from their “peace and dialogue” stance of last April when overtures were made to Ijaw youth and community leaders to come to Abuja and discuss a new “Marshall Plan” for the Niger Delta. The new policy, although not favored by some of President Obasanjo’s senior commanders, is containment and subsequent evisceration of the youth militias through superior fire-power.

Shell led the return to the hardline when its officials secretly approached the US military in early March to broach the possibility of intervenention in the delta. Faced with MEND’s increasingly focused attacks on its facilities, the company had shut down 455,000 barrels of daily crude output, evacuated the bulk of its staff, and declared force majeure. Company executives adopted two policies at the same time in this period, both designed to serve the same end of ensuring that Shell remained the top player in the delta. When Admiral Henry Ulrich, commander of the US Naval forces in Europe, visited Nigeria in March 2006, a delegation of oil company officials led by Shell asked him to deploy his ships to the region to “protect our investments.” The meeting was revealed in a Reuters report of March 23.

At the same time, company officials were briefing local journalists in Lagos and Abuja that they favored dialogue with Ijaw youth as the only route to lasting peace in the restive region—a manoeuvre seemingly designed to buy time while they readied their military option.

Admiral Ulrich turned down the request. According to Reuters, while maritime analysts at the US Office of Naval Intelligence in Fort Lauderdale openly acknowledge that the Nigerian government is no longer able to ensure security in the delta region, they have been careful to avoid giving the impression that increased US military presence in the Gulf of Guinea is a prelude to “Vietnamization” of West Africa’s oil-rich belt.

However, Ulrich, on the occasion of a courtesy visit to Nigeria’s chief of naval staff in Abuja on March 19, informed journalists that the US planned to increase its naval presence in the Gulf of Guinea for the sole purpose of ensuring maritime safety in the region. He explained that his primary concern was the proliferation of “terrorist activities,” and that he had deployed two ships with training and repair facilities to the Gulf of Guinea to assist West African navies in policing their shores more effectively.

The Gulf of Guinea, comprising fifteen west and central African countries, is critical to the United States’ oil security. The region accounted for half of the nine million barrels per day produced by Africa in 2004. In the same year, the continent supplied an estimated 18% of US net oil imports, with Angola and Nigeria as the leading suppliers. This has meant an increase in the number of ships and oil tankers that pass through the west coast of Africa on their way to America’s east coast. Ulrich was quoted in the Nigerian daily This Day on March 20: “In this day and age, all nations have a vested interest in knowing the ships that are coming into their waters, their territory and what they are carrying.”

Right-wing American commentators and think-tanks, with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in the lead, have also been playing up the supposed Islamic terrorist threat in the Gulf of Guinea, arguing that with billions of dollars of US investment now in the region, thousands of US workers in the oil fields, and strategic supplies of energy at stake, US efforts to boost the capability of these countries to repel terrorist attacks has become imperative.

Local journalists and environmental activists in Nigeria and other Gulf of Guinea countries have questioned the assertion that the region is crawling with Islamic terrorists, pointing out that neither the Bush government nor the right-wing think-tanks have been able to produce compelling evidence to back up their claims. They have expressed fears that the new ring of steel being put in place in their region by the US navy is an underhanded attempt to encourage attacks on oil facilities by armed militias and then use this as justification for military occupation of the Gulf of Guinea.

References to “another Vietnam” and “the new Iraq” are now routine in the Niger Delta creeks, and such talk is not restricted to armed militias like MEND. When rumors began to make the rounds in February, at the outset of MEND’s offensive, that the US government had resolved to send in the Marines to assist Nigerian troops in rescuing the nine workers they had kidnapped, there was a general uproar. Patrick Bigha, leader of the Warri Ijaw Peace Monitoring Group, a civic pressure group that espouses non-violent political action, quickly called a press conference in the city and declared: “The Niger Delta is not Afghanistan or Iraq and any attempt to dare us will end in a bloodbath and the greatest defeat in the history of the American Army.”

Such utterances are sweet music to American journalists like Jeffrey Taylor of the Atlantic Monthly, who, after travelling in the Niger Delta for a couple of days, wrote an article in the magazine’s April 2006 edition making the controversial claim that Nigeria had become the largest failed state on earth, threatened with take-over by radical Islamic forces. This, Taylor, argued, would endanger the region’s abundant oil reserves that the US government had vowed to protect. He added that “should that day come, it would herald a military intervention far more massive than the Iraqi campaign.”

US deployment of military hardware in the region continues apace. The Pentagon’s European Command has concluded plans to construct a naval base in Sao Tome and Principe, off the West African coast, to complement the permanent military base in Djibouti, in the strategic Horn of Africa. On August 28, Nigerian and US officials in Abuja announced a joint Gulf of Guinea Energy Security Initiative aimed at securing $600 billion of new investments in oil fields in the region.

Present estimates indicate that the Gulf of Guinea hosts some 14 billion barrels of crude in deep offshore fields. There are 33 fixed crude oil production platforms, 20 floating production facilities, and 13 floater and off-take vessels in the Gulf. This is expected to increase to 159 fixed platforms and 700 oil wells by 2008. Any disruption of production would not only threaten US and European energy supplies, but the loss of billions of dollars in investments could throw their economies into a tail-spin. The energy security initiative is the American response to this potential threat.

But critics ask if building a new infrastructure of state violence in the Gulf of Guinea an effective answer to the fundamentally political questions that fifty years of uncontrolled oil exploitation, massive corruption, and cynical exploitation of the local communities have raised—questions now given militant expression by the MEND militia.

CONCLUSION: BRINGING THE CIVIC BACK IN

This writer has been travelling in the Niger Delta’s devastated communities since the late 1980s, but nothing prepared him for what he encountered in Oporoza and its satellite hamlets in the western delta in August 2006. Poverty and neglect are the norm in the region. But in Oporoza—and further still in the clutch of creek hamlets that constitute the Ijaw clan of Egbema—they rise up to smack you rudely in the face, in the shape of flimsy huts on decayed wooden stilts, bracken greenish ponds from which the bedraggled inhabitants drink, and polluted fishing creeks long denuded of life. To visit Oporoza and Egbema is to encounter the very nadir of the noxious embrace of Big Oil, unaccountable government, and the excruciating indigence that only complete exclusion from the civic sphere can bring about.

For as Amartya Sen has so brilliantly demonstrated in his book Development as Freedom, poverty and famine only result where people are deprived of the right to participate in the political and civic process. This is only too true of Oporoza and the wider Niger Delta, where the machine guns of the Nigerian military have elbowed ordinary people out of the public sphere.

Jeffery Sachs, the Columbia University economist and adviser to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on Millennium Development Goals, developed the so-called “Resource Curse” theory to explain the seeming inability of resource-rich states in Africa and Latin America to industrialize and prosper like their counterparts in Southeast Asia. Academics, journalists and development workers that espouse the this theory argue that resource-rich countries like Nigeria inevitably degenerate into authoritarian and corrupt rule. Governments plentifully supplied with dollars from oil sales will inevitably reduce its citizens to powerless spectators. Poverty, corruption and violence will inevitably follow.

But there is nothing inevitable about resource-rich regions regressing into the ditch of privation, as the cases of oil-rich Norway and Canada today illustrate. Nor is it the case that all movements toward authoritarianism are driven by the lure of easy spoils. Nigerian politics was already well on the way to centralized and unaccountable government before oil production commenced in 1956. This was largely the legacy of colonial conquest: the undemocratic institutions of governance put in place by the British to exploit the wealth of the country undisturbed by the local people, subsequently handed over to carefully chosen political leaders who would continue to protect their interests after the colonial rulers quit in 1960.

Norway is prosperous because her institutions of accountability were well-established and self-propelling long before she struck oil. Nigeria is a basket case today because her people were still under unaccountable colonial rule when oil was discovered in the Niger Delta in 1956. The machine guns that slaughtered the innocents of Letugbene last August are directly descended from the Maxim guns that Baron Frederick Lugard employed to “pacify” the “natives” at the behest of the Royal Niger Company at the turn of the twentieth century. Shell and crude oil may have replaced Sir George Taubman Goldie and his thirst for palm oil, but the marriage of egregious violence and resource extraction remain undisturbed—a potent link which in the specific case of oil, is illuminated by Prof. Michael Watt’s “petro-violence” thesis.

Top on the list of the grievances that MEND pointed to in its negotiations with government officials in March was the exclusion of the Ijaw from meaningful political participation in the Nigerian project since the return of electoral politics in 1999. Anxious to arrange a ceasefire so oil production could resume, a delegation comprising two Shell executives and Timi Alaibe, finance director of the government’s Niger Delta Development Commission, visited MEND’s “Council of Elders” in Camp Five, a fortified island near Oporoza where they were ensconced in early June. The MEND spokesperson argued that discussions must go beyond “mere provision of electricity and water” and focus on the political marginalization of the Ijaw—because, he said, “we believe that we have to seek first our political freedom and every other thing will follow.”

Oboko Bello had earlier framed these grievances in the handbook Constitutionality of the Ijaw Struggle thus: ‘The Ijaw of Warri, hitherto denied liberty, political space, and peace, have been continuously robbed of equal participation in democracy and good governance of the Federation at the local, state and central governments… These entities corruptly control oil and gas resources, which exploration has had devastating impact on the Ijaw people and their environment.”

Oronto Douglas, the Ijaw lawyer and environmental campaigner, again put these political issues in the forefront of the list of demands he and other Ijaw leaders presented to their fellow delegates when they participated in the constitutional dialogue President Obasanjo convened in Abuja in 2005.

We have it on the authority of the Atlanta-based Carter Centre that local and presidential elections were massively rigged in the states comprising the Niger Delta in 1999, following the return of the armed forces to their barracks. Former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalyn travelled to the region to monitor the elections and reported: “Serious problems were observed in the National Assembly elections of February 20, partially caused by low voter turn out and the unknown status of many candidates who had been nominated by the political parties. Some ballot boxes were stuffed, election officials bribed, and the final results incorrectly tabulated. In addition to our normal reports, I wrote personal letters to the presidential candidates asking them to urge their supporters to refrain from improprieties during the presidential election.”

Carter’s well-meaning entreaty was ignored, and the Peoples Democratic Party proceeded to rig the presidential election in March 1999 and install Olusegun Obasanjo president. The PDP also rigged the vote four years later, and returned Obasanjo and all the PDP governors to office. In Bayelsa State in particular, Shell and ENI executives provided cash and logistics to ensure that the local and governorship elections went the way of their favored candidates in 2003. In the Niger Delta, several influential politicians and community leaders who spoke out against this massive disenfranchisement of the local people were set-upon by government-sponsored thugs and murdered.

Prominent members of such civic groups as the Ijaw Youth Council were lured with promises of cash and government contracts and made to work for the governors of the various Niger Delta states as enforcers and thugs. Indeed, the metamorphosis of political activism in the delta region from non-violent advocacy to armed insurrection is partly explained by the deliberate infiltration of activist ranks by government and oil company agents, thereby narrowing the civic options of those who refused to be co-opted. In desperation, elements of the latter group embraced the AK-47 to seek redress.

The venality and corruption displayed by the governors of the delta states following the return of electoral politics in 1999 is driven by the fact that they rigged themselves into office with the support of powerful patrons in Abuja, and now loot local treasuries at the behest of the latter. Such government development initiatives as the newly-established Council on Socio-economic Development of Coastal States in the Niger Delta (COSEDECS), ostensibly designed to address long-standing poverty and social neglect in the region, have also been transformed into avenues to dispense perks and favors to the friends and relatives of the PDP leadership in the capital.

Authoritarian in conception and execution, these projects, like the “community development projects” run by the oil companies, have not been able to deliver jobs, social amenities and peace—the so-called “dividends of democracy” that President Obasanjo promised the people of the region when he took office in May 1999.

Those who sneer at youth activists in the Niger Delta today and claim that the return of electoral politics has only transformed them into younger versions of the corrupt military leaders they battled against in the 1990s fail to acknowledge the fraudulent nature of the elections which put the present crop of political “leaders” in the region in power in 1999. At the heart of the Niger Delta crisis, which has now ballooned into armed insurgency, is this democracy deficit.

MEND, properly understood, is the violent child of the deliberate and long-running constriction of any public space in the Niger Delta through which ordinary citizens, now reduced to penurious subjects, could exercise their civil and political rights. Behind the mask of the MEND militant is a political subject forced to pick up an AK-47 to restore his rights as a citizen.

The journey to peace and prosperity in the region can only commence when the civic is brought back in.

——

Dr. Ike Okonta is a Leverhulme Postdoctoral fellow in African politics at the University of Oxford, and also serves on the advisory board of Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth, Nigeria. He is co-author, with Oronto Douglas, of Where Vultures Feast: Shell, Human Rights and Oil. Research for this article was facilitated by Community Defence Law Foundation, Port Harcourt, Institute of International Studies, University of California, Berkeley, and the United States Institute of Peace.

See also:

“THE PETROLEUM COMMONS:
Local, Islamic, and Global”
by George Caffentzis
WW4 REPORT #105, December 2004
/105/planetwatch/petroleumcommons

“GLOBAL OIL SQUEEZE:
Deconstructing the Propaganda”
WW4 REPORT #104, November 2004
/shadows/oil

From our weblog:

“Nigeria: 2,000 dead in ten years of pipeline blasts”
WW4 REPORT, Dec. 29 2006
/node/2963

“Niger Delta oil war back on”
WW4 REPORT, Oct. 26 2006
/node/2688

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Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Jan. 1, 2007
Reprinting permissible with attribution

Continue ReadingNIGER DELTA: BEHIND THE MASK