To the many reasons given for why oil prices have hit record highs -- a weak dollar, market speculators, peak supply concerns -- you can also add rebels in Nigeria. Oil analysts have been pointing to the growing violence in Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta for a while now, but rarely with the frequency that they have over the last few weeks. In that time, militants have pulled-off about a half-dozen attacks on oil pipelines and facilities. With world oil supplies already stretched, Africa's largest producer -- and the US's fifth largest supplier -- has been forced to cut production. And if the rebels themselves are to be believed, the situation may only get worse.
But who are these rebels? And what's behind the violence?
To find out, we traveled for Current TV to Nigeria's southern swamps. The result is our film Rebels in the Pipeline.
Our plan was to try and meet with members of the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta, or MEND, the group claiming responsibility for most of the attacks. While the self-professed leader and spokesman of the group, Jomo Gbomo, had proven to be a reliable email companion, sending us frequent updates about the group and heads-ups about forthcoming attacks, he was a bit more skittish about helping us arrange an actual meeting with his troops.
But MEND isn't so much a hierarchical organization as it is a loose collection of independent militant groups who claim to be fighting under the umbrella of MEND for a greater share of the region's oil wealth. Through a local contact, we thought we might be able get the permission of the leader of one faction, a guy who went by the nom de guerre "General Shoot At Sight." While the general weighed his decision, we set out on what amounted to a history tour of oil in Nigeria.
We had to keep a low profile. On the one hand, the Nigerian authorities aren't keen on having journalists snooping around and on the other, kidnapping foreigners for ransom is a booming industry in the delta. These days, foreigners are mostly confined to well-guarded compounds. They travel with armed escorts or by helicopter. Bars that were once crawling with oilmen and prostitutes are now empty. People we met just assumed we were oil workers and were a bit surprised to see us out on the streets. (Some even joked about kidnapping us for ransom. Ha, ha.)
Our journey began in Port Harcourt, the center of Nigeria's oil region, where we met a group of unemployed young men playing soccer on top of a landfill. Despite producing tens of billions of dollars worth of oil every year -- and 80 percent of the country's revenue -- the Niger Delta remains one of the poorest and underserved regions in Nigeria. Most live on $1 or less a day and are without power, potable water and other basic services. The violence, the young footballers told us, would only get worse as long as there were no jobs.
A few hours outside Port Harcourt, we visited Nigeria's very first oil well. Not far from the faux-marble plaque that commemorates this historic event in 1956, we were greeted by a group of 20 government-sponsored thugs. They surrounded us while we were interviewing a local chief about how his community had seen no benefits after decades of oil production. After some b.s. and bluster, the chief managed to sneak us out the back of his village, explaining that the men were there to intimidate the local community from speaking to us.
The other memorable oil well we saw on our tour was spewing crude into the mangrove swamps of a small fishing village in Ogoniland. Other than the fact that the rivers smelled like a gas station and the marsh crabs were suffocating under an oil slick, it was an idyllic place. And here there was history, too. Ogoniland was the heart of the nonviolent protests that became a bit of a cause celebre in the early 90s. One guy we met was even sporting an old Body Shop sweatshirt that read, "Boycott Shell". But the movement fizzled out after its leader, Ken Saro-Wiwa, was arrested and hanged by the military dictatorship. "Fizzled out" probably isn't the right word. "Evolved" might be better. As one of the Ogoni leaders explained, having learned the futility of peaceful protests, people are now taking up arms. Which brings us back to MEND.
General Shoot at Sight came through on our last day in the delta.
When we arrived at our designated meeting point, a small port in the creeks, a group of young boys approached our car.
"Oyibos (white people), the men are waiting for you," one said. "Follow me."
We had the impression that this was all going to be very clandestine, so we were surprised when arrived at the dock and saw that in the middle of the daily hustle and bustle, there were half a dozen young men holding AK-47s and machine guns with bullet belts draped Rambo-style across their shoulders.
The militants, we were told, operate openly here. After decades of watching their leaders pocket and squander billions in oil funds, many in the Niger Delta support the militants or, at least, sympathize with their struggle. After all, what harm does blowing up a pipeline do to people who never benefited from it in the first place?
Darren Foster and Mariana van Zeller's film, Rebels In The Pipeline is currently airing on Current TV and available on Current.com.