Upheaval in Nigerian Oil Region is a Fresh Challenge to Government

John Barham, International Editor

Nigerian rebels are on the offensive again, targeting western oil company employees and attacking installations in the country’s main oil-producing region.

Over the weekend, militants briefly held eight foreign men prisoner, and sabotaged two pipelines. Gunmen in speedboats seized the workers from Russia, Lithuania, and Lativia from a liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) carrier anchored in the southern delta’s Bonny River.  The kidnapped were released later the same day, although the identity of their kidnappers is not known.

Oil production in Nigeria has slowed due to the sabotage, reports Reuters news agency, fueling a surge in world oil prices. Royal Dutch Shell confirmed that at least one of its pipelines has been cut. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), the region’s main militant group, said it blew up two in an e-mail message. Both pipelines are connected to the Bonny export terminal. Nigeria is the world's eighth largest exporter, and a key source of high quality oil.

MEND, however, said it was not involved in any of the abductions.

In a separate incident of mass abduction last week, gunmen took 11 Russian and one Ukrainian seamen from a vessel off the Bonny. Some were released on Friday while the remaining five were released today, according to Reuters. More than 200 foreigners have been seized since the militants began their campaign more than two years ago. Almost all have been released unharmed.

Companies have tightened security at their onshore installations. Many have focused production at offshore oilfields, hoping these would be easier to protect. However, gunmen have raided platforms and storage units more than 100 miles from the shore.

Attacks in the Niger Delta region have become more frequent and intense because government security forces are losing control in the area, and because the government’s attempts to negotiate a settlement with rebels has collapsed in disarray. Record oil prices have reduced the urgent need to start talks, even after oil production has slid by 20 percent since 2006, because government revenues remain strong. A mediator chosen by the government quit this month, and the main rebel group has refused to negotiate with the government. A Nigerian official infuriated the rebels by saying the government had paid them $12 million not to attack pipelines.

Last week, the MEND warned it would cut oil pipelines to demonstrate that it was not receiving any government money. The government later said it was paying money to local community groups.

The Niger Delta conflict has simmered for over a decade. Government crackdowns or offers of peace talks have had little effect on the rebellion. Grievances are rooted in the region’s deep poverty, environmental degradation, and the power of multinational oil companies, particularly British-Dutch Shell, which has dominated Nigeria’s oil industry for 50 years.

The picture is complicated by the power struggles between local warlords, political bosses, and federal officials. Corruption, a black market in stolen oil, and Mafia-style protection rackets all contribute to a culture of violence and impunity.


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