Never get out of the boat

Sebastian Junger has a spectacular report in Vanity Fair on the MEND guerrillas in the Niger Delta. Seriously, read the whole thing – we have corrupt warlords, men with Czech machine guns, huge outboards, and a crazy look in the eye, communiqués issued by a mysterious online presence, people in the US phoning their friends in Nigeria on mobile phones to track the movements of the reporter. All that good 4GW stuff.

Some points that arise: so far, despite the wide applicability John Robb, William Lind and others give to “global guerrillas” theories, their effectiveness appears to be concentrated in societies of one particular type. Southern Nigeria could almost be an ideal type of the rentier state invented for a scenario-planning exercise. Its economy is dominated by a single resource export, poorly substitutable, whose sale is denominated in hard currency and whose revenues are monopolised by an elite of questionable legitimacy.

The local-currency benefits of oil have been taken, as is usual in such states, by selling below-cost fuel, which in turn means a perpetual fuel shortage as demand rises fast and the state oil company can’t afford to build refining capacity. The costs are, again as usual, socialised in terms of pollution, land grabbing, and the Dutch disease.

The guerrillas’ aim is, at bottom, to redistribute export earnings. Other ideological motivations may be interpolated in this, whether because the guerrillas believe in them, or because ideologically-motivated groups seek out the guerrilla/black market scene. Popular support, almost always on class lines, makes it possible to continue the cycle of repeated systems disruption John Robb has described so well. Exports are the chief target, as in Iraq, where the NOIA has systematically set out to permit enough oil production to feed the Baiji refinery and no more. As the sale of oil products at home is a lossmaker for the elite, and exports their source of hard-currency profit, they hope this will coerce the elite.

A further twist is that attacking foreign companies is a force-multiplier. The companies are likely to exert more pressure on the elite, as are the governments of their home countries if it goes far enough. There is also a fracture of interest between the foreign companies and the elite – they have no interest in crushing the rebels if making a deal with them behind the elite’s backs would serve as well. And the whole point of being a rentier state elite is that you don’t have to study petroleum engineering and go to work, because you hire expats to do this, which leaves you free to enjoy the fruits of power.

But it strikes me that, at bottom, it’s just guerrilla warfare adapted to crappy oil tyrannies. The crucial element is still popular consent at the tactical level, and the crucial political dynamic is still primarily Marxist. The style, though, is sui generis, like the Hell’s Angels, NWA, and Mr Kurtz plus the pirate mythos.


  1. A.E.

    Yeah, I can see that. It’s more of a Galula-esque classical insurgency than a “global guerrillas” or 4GW movement. What’s very frightening is the amount of oil stocked there–what’s the bet that the real purpose of the new US African Command is to keep tabs on it?

  1. 1 kings and queens and generals learn your name « Alternate Seat of TYR

    […] about’em; like the Vikings, the Hell’s Angels, the rappers and the Viet Cong at once. Never get out of the boat, as someone said. J-Ro is always mad keen on them; I reckon they’re far more classically […]

  2. 2 it is never too late to MEND « Alternate Seat of TYR

    […] back a little; time was when they were roaring about the rivers of Rivers State in RIBs with three or four huge Evinrude outboards, assaulting oil installations and demanding money, following a strategy that was based on the current situation of the oil market, including things […]

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