Author(s): Terry Hallmark
Type of publication: Article
Date of publication: February 13, 2017
There have been numerous reports over the last 18 months about terrorist attacks in Europe, the United States and elsewhere. But one long-running hotbed of political violence, Nigeria’s oil-producing Niger Delta, has garnered only a modest amount media attention.
Maybe it’s because the conflict between anti-oil insurgents and the government has gone on for so long, some 20 years, that there’s a bit of “Niger Delta fatigue.” Or perhaps it’s because the Niger Delta militants have no ties to radical Islamic groups like al-Qaeda or ISIS and have shown little or no interest in maiming or murdering the innocent opting instead to attack targets like drill sites, pipelines, tankers and facilities in order to stifle oil production and cripple the Nigerian government economically.
But regardless of why the conflict has flown under the radar, what’s gone down in the Niger Delta over the last two decades is worthy of attention much more so than Boko Haram for it has a direct impact on the level of oil sector investment and operations in the area, Nigeria’s oil production and economy, and even world oil markets and oil prices. Whatever happens will affect not only on oil companies, but consumers, too.
The story, in brief, is as follows: In the late 1980s, several indigenous tribal groups began raising concerns about international oil company operations in the Niger Delta, a region of about 27,000 square miles, larger than the state of West Virginia. The largest and best known of the groups was the Ogoni, an indigenous people of (now) nearly 1 million people. The Ogoni and other ethnic groups the Ijaws, Itserikis, Urhobos, Isikos, Liages, Ikwerres, Ekpeyes and Ogulaghas complained that Shell, Mobil and other oil companies were prospering at their expense, as the ethnic groups saw little of the wealth generated by the oil production, while suffering the fallout from widespread environmental degradation caused by exploration and production efforts.
The Ogonis’ response to these perceived wrongs was confined, at least initially, to protests, low-level acts of civil disobedience and minor, occasional acts of sabotage, along with the formation in 1990 of the Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP), led by author and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. The conflict escalated over the next few years, and in November 1995, Saro-Wiwa, and eight other activists were hanged by the Nigerian government.
It has a direct impact on the level of oil sector investment and operations in the area, Nigeria’s oil production and economy, and even world oil markets and oil prices
The hangings radicalized the Niger Delta opposition groups, which began to organize and engage in acts of violence and terrorism directed at oil interests. Over the next decade, a host of loosely-formed rebel groups, funded by kidnappings for money and “bunkering” (stealing oil from pipelines and selling it locally or taking it to tankers offshore to sell on the larger world market), came and went. The attacks were generally viewed by the oil and service companies as simply part of doing business in the Delta.
A new group emerged in early 2006 – the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) – that upped the ante and radically altered the operating climate. MEND was founded and led by Henry Okah, whose leadership showed a level of sophistication and innovation that had not been seen before in the Delta. For example, he coordinated operations and attacks from his home in South Africa via cell phone, and under his guidance, MEND became adept at using e-mail for press releases and orchestrating media campaigns to get the group’s message out. But Okah’s luck didn’t last long. He was arrested in September 2007 while trying to buy weapons in Angola, extradited to Nigeria, tried and convicted behind closed doors, and then incarcerated.
The ethnic groups saw little of the wealth generated by the oil production, while suffering the fallout from widespread environmental degradation caused by exploration and production efforts
From the very beginning, MEND was better equipped and trained than the militant groups that came before (camouflage body armor, speedboats, shoulder-held rocket-propelled grenade launchers, Kalishnakov assault rifles, Czech machine guns), and the group consistently demonstrated superior tactical skills, fuelling speculation that MEND had links to the Nigerian military. And while MEND gave the outward appearance of being a large, well-organized and coordinated group – an estimated 100,000 strong – it was in fact more of a loose, fluid, protean and almost virtual network of smaller groups, mercenaries and individuals that didn’t necessarily need Okah’s hands-on leadership to conduct operations. This actually worked to MEND’s advantage, for the group could continue with little drop in attacks when Okah landed in jail.
Over the next decade, a host of loosely-formed rebel groups, funded by kidnappings for money and “bunkering” (stealing oil from pipelines and selling it locally or taking it to tankers offshore to sell on the larger world market), came and went
But what is perhaps most interesting and important about MEND is the way Okah and the group managed to shift the focus of the conflict.
The oil interests attacked were no longer simply targets of opportunity – they were strategic targets. MEND’s goal was to destroy the Nigerian government’s ability to produce and export oil, and to make it clear that the government could not protect oil company personnel or assets. Indeed, MEND warned in no uncertain terms that the oil companies and their personnel should leave the Niger Delta while they could – or else they were likely to die.
To that end, MEND proceeded to engage in every kind of attack at anything linked to oil in the Niger Delta, especially kidnappings, which markedly increased the fear factor, along with a few killings of oil company personnel. It even took the attacks offshore, targeting platforms, tankers and FPSOs Floating Production, Storage and Offloading vessels once considered out of reach.
There is even some evidence to suggest that MEND orchestrated attacks to coincide with oil market conditions and maximize the effect of shut-in Nigerian production and overall supply anxiety. At their peak, the MEND attacks cost the Nigerian government billions of dollars in lost oil earnings.
Over the last 10 years or so, the Nigerian government has attempted to quell the rebel attacks with a combination of military force and appeasement. The military actions have been generally ineffective. The Niger Delta terrain is dense and difficult, and it gives the rebels plenty of cover – as Henry Kissinger once remarked about the Vietcong during the Vietnam War, the Niger Delta rebels are “at once everywhere and nowhere.”
MEND’s goal was to destroy the Nigerian government’s ability to produce and export oil, and to make it clear that the government could not protect oil company personnel or assets
Appeasement efforts have fared a bit better. In 2009, the Nigerian government announced an amnesty program, which paid MEND militants millions of dollars and released Henry Okah from jail. In return, MEND declared a ceasefire. Although the ceasefire didn’t stick immediately, many members put their guns down and for the most part, the group ceased active operations.
Okah was tried in South Africa in 2013, found guilty on 13 counts of terrorism and sentenced to 24 years in prison. His conviction spurred a minor flurry of new attacks by MEND, but they didn’t last long.
In February 2016, a new group, the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA), emerged on the scene. Think of the NDA as MEND 2.0, only smaller, reportedly just a few hundred men. The NDA has the same goals as MEND, namely running the oil companies out of the Niger Delta and giving the folks who live there as much control over oil operations as possible. The group is as well-armed as MEND, too, having at its disposal weapons and materiel ranging from machine guns to speedboats to rocket-launchers.
And, like MEND, the NDA has been successful at hitting high-value, strategic targets – Shell’s Forcados oil pipeline, Chevron’s Okan platform and ExxonMobil’s Qua Iboe terminal (Nigeria’s largest). Not surprisingly, the attacks have had the same crippling effect on Nigeria’s oil production as those by MEND – a drop of 800,000 barrels per day in 2016, from 2.2 million barrels per day to 1.4 million, the lowest production level in 25 years.
Appeasement efforts have fared a bit better. In 2009, the Nigerian government announced an amnesty program, which paid MEND militants millions of dollars and released Henry Okah from jail. In return, MEND declared a ceasefire
After a collective pat of the back for a job well-done, NDA announced “plenty of surprises” and an “all-out” war against the Nigerian government and oil interests for 2017. It is not clear what the group will do or how the government will respond. The only thing that is clear is that ending the conflict will not be easy.
The oil companies are not going to leave. A military solution to the conflict, reportedly favoured by Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, is not likely. The Nigerian government has never successfully defeated a militant Niger Delta group via military action, and the Nigerian army would never be able to protect all the infrastructure, facilities, etc. The Nigerian military already is stretched thin because of the campaign against Boko Haram.
Buying off the militants with money and amnesty is a possibility, but the Nigerian economy isn’t in the best shape and history suggests money and amnesty alone may not be enough to convince the militants to stop their attacks. A truly satisfactory, long-lasting settlement to the conflict would probably need to include more environmental clean-up and compensation for damages, along with some percentage of oil earnings going to the people in the Niger Delta.
Should peace eventually come to the Niger Delta, the Nigerian economy will benefit from higher oil earnings and more exploration. New discoveries are likely, and more than a million barrels a day of currently shut-in or yet to be produced oil could hit the world oil market. This would mean more downward pressure on crude oil prices good for consumers because of lower prices at the pump, but not so good for the job market in the oil patch.
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