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NIGERIA: Govt Gears Up for Another Offensive in the Delta

WASHINGTON, Sep 13 2009 (IPS) - There is mounting evidence that the government of Nigerian President Umaru Musa Yar’adua is set to launch a full-scale offensive in the Niger Delta when a ceasefire declared by rebels ends on Sep. 15.

And this time, Nigerian military forces will be using special warships, helicopter gunships and troop transports, and unmanned drone intelligence planes and ships sold to Nigeria by Israeli, Malaysian, Singaporean, Dutch and Russian companies.

Israeli and Russian instructors have been providing specialised training to Nigerian Navy and Air Force sailors and pilots in how to operate the ships and helicopters over the past few months, and some of these instructors may help operate them during the offensive.

On Jul. 15, President Yar’adua declared a 60-day amnesty for members of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), the armed group that has been conducting an insurgency campaign in the Delta for the past five years. The amnesty offer is set to expire at midnight on Oct. 4.

The insurgents say that they are fighting to protect the rights of the people who live in the Delta and to get them a fair share of Nigeria’s massive revenues from the sale of oil produced in the region.

Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil producer and currently exports some 1.7 million barrels of oil per day. The United States imports 44 percent of Nigeria’s oil production, making the country the U.S.’s fifth largest foreign source of oil.

The Energy Information Administration of the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that if the insurgency ended, Nigeria’s effective oil production capacity could quickly be raised to around 2.7 million barrels per day.

When Pres. Yar’adua announced the amnesty, government officials said that they expected between 8,000 and 10,000 insurgents to accept its terms. But only a few hundred of the estimated 12,000-15,000 rebels have handed in their weapons.

Most members of MEND say that the government’s amnesty was not made in good faith and that they have no confidence that that the government will honour its promises to improve the lives of the Delta’s impoverished residents or to fix the massive environmental damage caused by decades of unregulated oil production.

One reason that MEND does not trust Pres. Yar’adua is that the Nigerian government has recently been buying hundreds of millions of dollars worth of sophisticated weaponry and military hardware in preparation for a new offensive in the Niger Delta.

These include deals worth 25 million dollars for two 24.8-metre Shaldag MK-2 patrol boats from the Israeli firm, Israel Shipyards – one has already been delivered and the other is on its way – and another deal involves air and sea drones from Aeronautica Ventures, another Israeli company.

Shaldag MK-20 patrol boats are generally armed with artillery guns and machine guns. Eighty Nigerian sailors are presently being trained in counterinsurgency operations at the northern Israeli port of Haifa.

Nigeria recently bought a surveillance system for the Delta that uses Aerostar unmanned drones and Seastar vessels produced by Israel’s Aeronautics Defense Systems/Aeronautics Ventures. Nigeria acquired 20 troop-carrying catamarans from the Dutch firm, TP Marine, to transport soldiers up the creeks and small rivers of the Delta region.

The Nigerian Navy also recently took delivery of two 38-metre Manta-class patrol boats built by the Nautica Nova Shipbuilding yard in Malaysia. These ships were officially commissioned on Apr. 12. Four additional 17-metre Manta-class patrol boats have also been delivered to Nigeria from Singapore Technologies Marine.

The Nigerian Navy also recently procured 35 new machine gun-equipped fast patrol boats in a deal that was paid for by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, reportedly on the instructions of Pres. Yar’adua. . The Nigerian Air Force has also received at least 15 Mi-24, Mi-34, and Mi-35 helicopter gunship and troop transport helicopters from Russia. Some of these were reportedly delivered just before Pres. Dimitri Medvedev’s visit to the country in June. These helicopters are armed with Gatling guns, machine guns, bombs, rocket launchers, and rockets, and can also carry up to eight soldiers at the same time.

Russian instructors are currently in Nigeria training Nigerian pilots how to operate these helicopters. The training is reportedly not going very well, raising speculation that the Nigerian government may ask the Russian instructors to operate the helicopter gunships during the impending military offensive.

These helicopter gunships were used extensively by the Soviet Union during its invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and have been used more recently for counterinsurgency operations by the governments of Sierra Leone, Guinea, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Chad.

It is clear that the Nigerian government is getting ready to mount a massive military offensive in the Niger Delta, either when the MEND ceasefire ends on Sep. 15 or when its own amnesty programme ends on Oct. 4. However, despite all the firepower and sophisticated weaponry that it has acquired in recent months, there is no reason to believe that this offensive will be any more successful in bringing the insurgency to an end than any of its previous military operations.

Moreover, by demonstrating that the Yar’adua government is committed to a military solution to the political, economic and environmental crisis in the Niger Delta, the offensive is very likely to lead to an explosion of violence not just in the Delta, but also throughout the country.

Tensions in other parts of the country have been mounting in recent months, most notably in the predominantly Muslim states in the north.

The repression of violence by an Islamic extremist group in the north, which was marked by indiscriminate attacks that killed many innocent people and by the extrajudicial murder of the group’s leader in police custody, alienated many moderate Muslims who previously constituted the government’s base of support.

They are sure to be further alienated by the growing involvement of Israelis in supporting the government’s offensive against the people of the southern part of Nigeria, even if the victims of this offensive are predominantly Christian.

All this serves to confirm the assessment of U.S. military officers, who increasingly have come to believe that the principal obstacle to a resolution of Nigeria’s continuing crisis is the Nigerian government itself and that the Nigerian elite is bent on committing suicide by continuing its efforts to hold on to power by military force.

*Daniel Volman is the Director of the African Security Research Project in Washington, DC. He is the author of numerous articles and reports and has been studying U.S. security policy toward Africa and African security issues for more than 30 years.

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