Prophet under Arms: A Profile of the Niger Delta’s “Ex-General” Reuben Wilson

Andrew McGregor

July 31, 2014

Reuben Wilson, a former commander in the loosely organized and allegedly disbanded Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), is threatening to block oil production in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria if the current president, Goodluck Jonathan, is prevented from running for a second term in February 2015 (see Terrorism Monitor, July 10). MEND was an umbrella organization for various Niger Delta militant groups fighting the Nigerian central government and targeting the region’s oil industry before the movement’s leaders accepted an amnesty in 2009. Despite this, disparate groups of militants in the Delta region continue to operate under the MEND banner, allegedly in response to continued environmental degradation and inequitable distribution of oil revenue.

NEOFEAD3/DESKTOP/PHOTO/ATEKE3Reuben Wilson

Wilson, like other ex-militant leaders, has tied his fortunes to those of Jonathan, who as vice president under the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, negotiated the amnesty and compensation payments that brought the former MEND leaders out of the creeks in 2009. Since then Nigeria has resumed something close to normal oil production in the region. Nigeria is plagued by its inability to secure the vast network of pipelines in the Delta. Last year alone, $11 billion were lost due to damaged pipelines and oil theft, which presidential spokesman Reuben Abati described as “an aspect of global terrorism” (Middle East News Agency, March 24).

Pastor Reuben Wilson (also known as “Ex-General” Reuben Wilson) was born in Koluama, a coastal community in the oil-rich Bayelsa State. A number of coastal communities in the Southern Ijaw region of Bayelsa State were recently wiped out by an ocean surge that locals and government officials blamed on Chevron’s offshore exploration activities (Nigerian Times, July 8). Koluama was among the worst affected, losing an important fishery terminal in the surge. The community was wiped out by a similar surge in 1953 that local leaders blamed on the exploration activities of Shell D’Arcy, the predecessor of Shell Nigeria (Vanguard [Lagos], June 20). While remarking on the latest surge, Wilson recalled the earlier destruction of Koluama as one of the reasons he took to the creeks:

I am from Koluama in Southern Ijaw. We don’t have money. We don’t have roads. From Yenagoa to my place is three hours with speed boat and when you go there, you see flames [gas flares] everywhere. That is a place that was once flooded and the people wiped out. As I talk to you now, water has gone back there and the people’s existence is being threatened. This was part of why we had to take up arms to attract government attention (The Nigerian Voice, January 29, 2012).

Wilson is a self-described “prophet” of the so-called “White Garment Church,” part of the Aladura (“praying people” in Yoruba) spiritualist movement in Nigeria. After coming in from the creeks of the Delta in 2009, Wilson founded a peace advocacy group known as the Leadership, Peace and Cultural Development Initiative (LPCDI), which soon included most of the militant leaders who had accepted the federal government’s amnesty.

Rebel Life in the Creeks

In 2006, Wilson took to the creeks of the Delta to join an insurgency targeting both the federal government and oil industry operations in the region. Wilson displays little nostalgia for his time there, describing it as a time of great hardship:

When we were in the creeks, we would not go out to the town. We would only leave our camp to the nearby riverine communities and then back to the camp. The only thing we were enjoying in the creeks was fish. Anytime we needed fish, we had enough… Then, we were in bondage, fighting with mosquitoes every day. To drink water, we would dig holes for water to come out. If you saw our skin then, you would pity us… We were there for like three years and could not see our wives (Nigerian Voice, January 29, 2012).

Wilson provides a somewhat glowing review of his leadership during his time in the creeks, saying the chiefs and elders “cherished me. I was not greedy; I shared whatever I have with them… My mode of operations attracted a very large followership” (The Tide [Port Harcourt], October 31, 2009). When asked to explain how a man of the cloth could take up armed rebellion against the state, Wilson replied: “I am a prophet in the church and for a prophet’s anger to rise to the point of carrying arms, then it is really serious and intolerable. When I saw the condition of my community and nobody was ready to do something, I carried arms” (The Tide [Port Harcourt], April 22). According to Wilson, his group always prayed before operations and never actually killed anyone: “If anything like that happened, it must have been by mistake. We never intended to kill anybody” (The Tide [Port Harcourt], October 31, 2009).

Niger DeltaHowever, there were lucrative aspects to Wilson’s time in the creeks with MEND and financial potential in the amnesty, as he recounted to a journalist in 2013:

When I was in the creek… We see money easily. We would call an oil company and say: ‘If you don’t give us this, we will blow up this facility,’ and they would send money to the camp. Anything we said we need, they would send to us… By the grace of God, the oil company will give me a major contract to supply chemicals and equipment so in two or three years when you come back maybe you will see me in a big mansion (BBC, May 1).

Wilson soon discovered, however, that a reconciled militant no longer enjoyed the easy extortion of oil companies practiced in the creeks, naming Chevron in particular as a reluctant target: “When you approach them for anything, they will say ‘we are dealing with government and we have paid money to them. It’s government that will take care of your problems’” (The Tide [Port Harcourt], October 31, 2013).

A Reconciled Militant

Shortly after accepting the amnesty, Wilson began to complain that the payments from the federal government were “not enough to take care of myself and family. I need a steady job; even being a contractor will not be bad. I should be given [a] surveillance job. This is important so that some of the boys could be engaged in safeguarding the oil installations in my area” (The Tide [Port Harcourt], October 31, 2009).

Yenagoa, the capital of Bayelsa State, has become known for the enormous mansions built by reconciled former militant leaders who have benefited from access to government and oil industry contracts as well as from their customary deductions from amnesty-related payments to former members of these former leaders’ groups. The lives of these past MEND leaders contrasts sharply with those led by their former comrades in the creeks, who continue to face challenges such as oil industry-related pollution, the lack of infrastructure, an absence of educational opportunities and widespread unemployment.

In recent years, Wilson has dedicated himself to visiting militant commanders still fighting the Nigerian government, such as General Lato, General Mammy Water and Commander Koko, to convince them to abandon their armed struggle, though the expiration of the federal government’s amnesty program complicates these efforts (Nigerian Voice, January 29, 2012).

In June, the Wilson-led LPCDI warned it was prepared to take action against contractors that had failed to carry out projects commissioned by the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), a growing complaint in the region. Wilson emphasized the LPCDI had other means than violence to force the contractors to act:

The same way we were able to fight the federal government and forced them to remember the Niger Delta, that same way, we will go after fraudulent NDDC contractors and force them to execute every job faithfully. We will not use guns, because we have surrendered them. But we will devise our own way of peacefully compelling all NDDC contractors to do what is right (Leadership [Abuja], June 30).

Ongoing Trouble in the Creeks

Despite Wilson’s claim he has put violence behind him, there are signs that former members of his group are still armed and pursuing their own agendas in Bayelsa State. In May 2013, five former members of Wilson’s militia, including his younger brother Benaibi Wilson, were killed in a shootout with a rival group in the Southern Ijaw region of Bayelsa State (AFP, May 5, 2013). Wilson denied that “his boys” had returned fire during the attack, believed to be connected to young ex-militants who have seen little or none of the amnesty allowance they were promised in 2009 (Reuters, May 5).

Other militants still active in the Delta creeks have a different perspective on the amnesty program. On October 22, 2013, a group claiming to be MEND attacked the Warri Refinery and Petrochemical Company, setting it ablaze. In a statement of responsibility, the group warned that peace would be elusive in the region so long as the president placed his faith in an “unsustainable and fraudulent” amnesty program (RealNewsMagazine.net [Lagos], November 11, 2013). While authorities claimed the fire was an accident, Wilson castigated those who claimed responsibility, insisting that MEND could not be responsible as it had ceased to exist when the amnesty was accepted in 2009 (RealNewsMagazine.net [Lagos], November 11, 2013).

In April 2013, a number of ex-militants killed 12 policemen in an ambush claimed a group claiming to be MEND in the creeks of Bayelsa State but believed to actually be part of a dispute generated by alleged illegal deductions from monthly amnesty payments made by the militants’ leader, Comrade Kile Selky Torughedi (a.k.a. “Young Shall Grow”) (Reuters, May 5, 2013). The policemen were on their way to provide security at the funeral of Torughedi’s mother at the time they were attacked (Sahara Reporters, April 7, 2013). Wilson rejected the MEND claim and suggested that such violence could be avoided if the ex-militant leaders maintained better communications with their followers rather than abandoning them in the creeks:

When we accepted amnesty, the federal government made lots of promises to the [militant] leaders. Because of the failures on the part of the federal government, the leaders were deducting the allowances of the boys. But if the Federal Government reached out and treat the leaders with respect and fulfill the promises, I don’t think any leader will make such illegal deductions (Guardian [Lagos], April 8, 2013).

In April 2013, Lawrence Pepple, head of the Amnesty Committee’s Reintegration Department, told a group of ex-militants (including Reuben Wilson) that the murder of the 12 police officers was tied to the work of “anti-Jonathan forces” in Bayelsa State. If approached by such forces, Pepple urged the ex-militants “please take their money and do not execute the destruction they want you to do,” while noting ominously that the U.S. Congress must be told that “if they support these anti-Jonathan forces, we cannot guarantee internal security in the Niger Delta” (Sahara Reporters, April 22, 2013).

In February 2013, six foreign sailors (Ukrainian, Indian and Russian) were abducted from the offshore supply tug Armada Tuah 101 by Bayelsa-based gunmen. A ransom of $1.3 million was demanded, but the men were released nine days later without any ransom being paid (Reuters, February 27, 2013; Interfax, February 26, 2013; Maritime Bulletin, February 18, 2013). Wilson claimed he and other former militant leaders went back to the creeks to negotiate the release of the hostages and suggested that there was no justification for such kidnappings since the federal government was implementing the amnesty program:

We took the pains to go into the creeks that we left some years back to look for and rescue all the abducted foreign workers because for us, it was shameful and degrading that some disgruntled elements are still thinking of kidnapping people in times like this when the amnesty program has been on course… Our message to those elements is that they must stop the rubbish. There is nothing to gain in engaging in this kind of venture (Eagle Online [Lagos], March 1, 2013).

Conclusion

Wilson has been especially vocal on what he sees as a widespread campaign combining political activity and Boko Haram terrorism to discredit President Jonathan, who, like Wilson, is an Ijaw from Bayelsa (see Terrorism Monitor, July 10). Wilson believes that Jonathan will win the presidential election easily, even taking a large number of votes in the Muslim north, which is generally perceived as hostile to the southern-born president:

Forget what the elite are doing. The masses who will go to vote know the truth. I can assure you that many people will be so disappointed because the common man on the street knows the truth and when the time comes, he will gladly give his vote to President Jonathan. I, Ex-General Reuben Wilson, a former Niger Delta freedom fighter, am telling you that Jonathan will return to office in 2015 and he will do so in style (Daily News Watch [Lagos], May 1).

According to Wilson, the president’s northern opponents seek to prevent his re-election so they can “take charge and continue to enslave us as was the case for decades. We will not fold our arms and watch a section of the country which believes that it is their birthright to rule Nigeria to chase Mr. President out of office” (Punch [Lagos], September 6, 2013).

This article first appeared in the July 31, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor.

Operation Barkhane: France’s New Military Approach to Counter-Terrorism in Africa

Andrew McGregor

July 24, 2014

With several military operations underway in the former colonies of French West Africa, Paris has decided to reorganize its deployments with an eye to providing a more mobile and coordinated military response to threats from terrorists, insurgents or other forces intent on disturbing the security of France’s African backyard.

France will redeploy most of its forces in Africa as part of the new Operation Barkhane (the name refers to a sickle-shaped sand dune). Following diplomatic agreements with Chad, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania (the “Sahel G-5”), over 3,000 French troops will be involved in securing the Sahel-Sahara region in cooperative operations involving G-5 troops. Other assets to be deployed in the operation include 20 helicopters, 200 armored vehicles, 200 trucks, six fighter-jets, ten transport aircraft and three drones (Le Figaro [Paris], July 13).

Operation BarkhanePresident Hollande made a tour of Côte d’Ivoire, Niger and Chad between July 17 to 19 to discuss the new security arrangements with political leaders, but also to promote French trade in the face of growing Chinese competition (Economist, July 19). In Niger, Hollande was met by a group protesting French uranium mining operations in that country (AFP, July 18). In a speech given in Abidjan, French president François Hollande declared that the reorganization of French military assets in Africa would enable “quick and effective responses to crisis… Rather than having heavy and unwieldy crisis bases, we prefer to have facilities that can be used for fast and effective interventions” (Nouvel Observateur [Paris], July 19).

The official launch of Operation Barkhane will come in the Chadian capital of N’Djamena on August 1. The operation will be commanded by the highly-experienced Major General Jean-Pierre Palasset, who commanded the 27e Brigade d’Infanterie de Montagne (27th Mountain Infantry Battalion, 2003-2005) before leading Operation Licorne in Côte d’Ivoire (2010-2011) and serving as commander of the Brigade La Fayette, a joint unit comprising most of the French forces serving in Afghanistan (2011-2012).

The initiation of Operation Barkhane brings an end to four existing French operations in Africa; Licorne (Côte d’Ivoire, 2002-2014), Épervier (Chad, 1986-2014), Sabre (Burkina Faso, 2012-2014) and Serval (Mali, 2013-2014). Licorne is coming to an end (though 450 French troops will remain in Abidjan as part of a logistical base for French operations) while the other operations will be folded into Operation Barkhane. Operation Sangaris (Central African Republic, 2013 – present) is classified as a humanitarian rather than counter-terrorism mission and the deployment of some 2,000 French troops will continue until the arrival of a UN force in September (Bloomberg, July 21). Some 1200 French soldiers will remain in northern Mali (Guardian [Lagos], July 15). Existing French military deployments in Djibouti, Dakar (Senegal) and Libreville (Gabon) are expected to be scaled back significantly, a process already underway in Dakar (Jeune Afrique, July 19).

8 RPIMaSoldiers of the 8th Regiment of Marine Infantry Paratroopers (8e RPIMa), deployed in Gabon and Côte d’Ivoire

The force in Chad has been boosted from 950 to 1250 men. Chad will play an important role in Operation Barkhane – N’Djamena’s Kossei airbase will provide the overall command center, with two smaller bases in northern Chad at Faya Largeau and Abéché, both close to the Libyan border. Zouar, a town in the Tubu-dominate Tibesti Masif of northern Chad, has also been mentioned as a possibility (Jeune Afrique, July 19). Kossei will provide a home for three Rafale fighter-jets, Puma helicopters and a variety of transport and fuelling aircraft. Chadian troops fought side-by-side with French forces in northern Mali in 2013 and are regarded as the most effective combat partners for France in North Africa despite a recent mixed performance in the CAR. Four Chadian troops under UN command died in a June 11 suicide bombing in the northern Mali town of Aguelhok (AFP, June 11). Chadian opposition and human rights groups are dismayed by the new agreement, which appears to legitimize and even guarantee the continued rule of President Idriss Déby, who has held power since 1990 (RFI, July 19).

Intelligence operations will be headquartered in Niamey, the capital of Niger and home to French unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operations in West Africa. There are currently about 300 French troops stationed in Niger, most of them involved in protecting, maintaining and operating two unarmed General Atomic MQ-9 Reaper drones and an older Israeli-built Harfang drone (Bloomberg, July 21). The French-operated Harfang drones are being gradually phased out in favor of the MQ-9s, though the Harfangs saw extensive service during French operations in northern Mali in 2013. Three Mirage 2000 fighter-jets will be transferred from N’Djamena to Niamey. A French Navy Dassault Atlantique 2 surveillance aircraft has been withdrawn from Niamey with the conclusion of Operation Serval.

Small groups of French Special Forces will continue to be based in Ougadougou, capital of Burkina Faso, and at Atar, a small settlement in northwestern Mauritania. Other small bases are planned for Tessalit in Mali, which controls the road running between the rebellious Kidal region and southern Algeria, and in Madama in Niger, a strategic post near the Malian border that was the site of a French colonial fort. There are reports that French troops have already occupied the nearby Salvador Pass, an important smuggling route between Niger and Libya that appears to have acted as a main transit route for terrorists passing through the region (Libération [Paris], July 16).

French forces in the Sahel-Sahara region will continue to be targeted by Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s Murabitun group, which claimed responsibility for the death of one Legionnaire and the wounding of six others in a suicide bomb attack in northern Mali on July 15 (al-Akhbar [Nouackchott], July 16; RFI, July 17). Much of the ground element for Operation Barkhane is likely to be drawn from the French Légion étrangère and the Troupes de marine, the successor to the French Colonial Infantry.

The implementation of Operation Barkhane, an apparently permanent defense agreement with five former French colonies, raises a number of important questions, not least of which is what attitude will be adopted by Algeria, the most powerful nation in the Sahara-Sahel region but one that views all French military activities there with great suspicion based on Algeria’s 132-year experience of French occupation. There is also a question of whether the new defense agreements will permit French forces in hot pursuit of terrorists to cross national borders of G-5 nations without obtaining permission first. The permanent deployments also seem to present a challenge to local democracy and sovereignty while preserving French commercial and political interests in the region. For France, Operation Barkhane will enhance French ability to fend off Chinese commercial and trade challenges and allow France to secure its energy supplies while disrupting terrorist networks and containing the threat from southern Libya.

This article first appeared in the July 24, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Ex-Militants Use Oil as a Political Weapon in the Niger Delta

Andrew McGregor

July 10, 2014

Former Niger Delta militants have threatened to cut off Nigerian oil production in the event beleaguered Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan is prevented from seeking re-election in 2015. Jonathan has been under intense criticism from northern politicians who cite incompetence in dealing with Boko Haram and other issues in their demands that the president decline to run for a second term. The declaration came out of a meeting in Akwa Ibom State of some 600 former militants who had accepted amnesty under the federal government’s Leadership, Peace and Cultural Development Initiative (LPCDI) in 2009 as part of a national effort to bring an end to militant activities in the Niger Delta region that were preventing full exploitation of the region’s abundant energy reserves.

Vandalized Pipeline in the Niger Delta

The leader of the ex-militants, Reuben Wilson, described a wide campaign in Muslim north Nigeria to discredit and distract the president, who is of southern and Christian origin:

You will agree with me that the Niger Delta people are sustaining the economy at great inconveniences and pains to its people and the environment. It is the only time that the region has had the privilege of producing a president for the country. It is unthinkable that the North will be plotting against our son, intimidating him with bomb blasts here and there and causing the untimely death of scores of innocent Nigerians, all because they want to take back power. We have always seen the need for us to live together as one indivisible country and this is what Mr. President believes in. However, with the way things are going, we have been pushed to the wall and we cannot but react. Accordingly, the former freedom fighters have agreed that all the routes through which the north has been benefiting from crude oil finds coming from the Niger Delta will be cut off, if they insist on forcing Mr. President out of office. (This Day [Lagos], July 1).

The declaration was reinforced by a pledge from the Niger Delta Youth Movement (NDYM) to organize a “million-man march” of Niger Delta youth in Abuja to condemn the “distraction” of President Jonathan from his development program by the terrorist activities of Boko Haram. NDYM leader Felix Ogbona insisted the movement would stop oil flows from the Delta if Jonathan is prevented from running for president in 2015 (Daily Independent [Lagos], June 29). According to the former militants, it was Jonathan (as vice-president) who visited the militants in the creeks of the Delta and convinced them to sign on to the amnesty in exchange for promises of development (Information Nigeria, May 2, 2013). The ex-militants see Jonathan’s efforts to develop the Delta being diverted by Boko Haram activities in the north and are certain such efforts will be dropped if a new president is elected from the northern Muslim communities in 2015.

Elsewhere, former Niger Delta militants belonging to the Ijaw people of the Delta demanded Jonathan (an Ijaw) declare his intent to run in 2015, saying in a statement:  We, therefore, call on you to contest the seat of the President. And if for any reason you fail to contest come 2015, you should not come back home but remain in Abuja forever” (Vanguard [Lagos], June 29).

Mansion Belonging to a Former Militant Leader in Yenagoa  (BBC)

While attacks in the Niger Delta and elsewhere continue to be claimed by “MEND spokesmen,” those militant leaders who accepted amnesty insist MEND ceased to exist in 2009: “Nobody should hide under the guise of a so-called MEND to sabotage the nation’s economy… We restate that the amnesty program of the Federal Government is working and those of us that are beneficiaries are happy that we were given the privilege to come out of the creeks to contribute to the peace and development of the country” (Vanguard [Lagos], October 24, 2013).

The amnesty has been granted to roughly 30,000 people since it began, promising each of them at least $410 per month to keep the peace in a program that costs upwards of $500 million per year (BBC, May 2). While lower-level militants have been offered job-training as they collect often-sporadic payments, there is abundant evidence that some former militant leaders have used access to major oil industry-related contracts to build enormous personal wealth that is typically flaunted through the construction of rambling mansions (Leadership [Abuja], June 30). The militant leaders who once targeted the Delta’s pipelines for oil theft or destruction now seek lucrative government contracts to provide security for these same pipelines (Information Nigeria, May 2, 2013).

Residents of the Niger Delta have complained for years that they see little benefit from the massive revenues generated by oil production in their region while enduring industrial pollution, poor infrastructure and a shortage of employment opportunities.

This article first appeared in the July 10, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Egypt’s Domestic Security Threat: Ajnad Misr and the “Retribution for LIfe” Campaign

Andrew McGregor 

July 10, 2014

A Cairo-based extremist group using the name Ajnad Misr (Soldiers of Egypt) has intensified its bombing campaign in the Egyptian capital with a surprising attack on the Ittihadiya Palace in Heliopolis, the home of Egyptian president Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi. The bombing was part of the movement’s “Retribution for Life” campaign, apparently mounted in support of pro-Muhammad Mursi/Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations in the capital met with ruthless responses by Egyptian security forces that have left hundreds dead. Ajnad Misr refers to Egypt’s police as “criminals” who carry out “massacres” and has made them the main target of their bombing campaign so far (Ahram Online [Cairo], April 3).