Monday, April 03, 2006

Nigeria: Delta Blues

This backgrounder on the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta appeared in Lloyd's List on March 15.

They call themselves the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. They threaten to bring about a 'huge crippling blow to Nigeria’s oil industry'. To show they mean business, they kidnap Western oil executives.

But who is this group? What do they want? And just how much of a threat do they pose to Western interests?

Conflict in the delta — source of almost all of the country’s 2.4m barrels-a-day output — has been endemic for decades.

The Ijaw ethnic group has been politically marginalised while seeing little benefit from the oil industry in a country that is the world’s eighth largest producer of crude.

Ever since exploration began in the 1950s the area has been subject to low-level insurgency that reached its earlier peak in 2003 and 2004. So sabotage, political killings and kidnap for ransom have become almost traditional.

According to political risk intelligence consultancy Exclusive Analysis the rebellion is diffuse, and hundreds of small groups have been active in recent years.

'Most are small and carry out only discreet attacks, focusing mainly on oil theft,' said Martin Kimani of Exclusive Analysis’ Africa division. 'They form a complex web of actors drawing on agendas that are partly political and partly criminal.'

Unknown until the start of this year, MEND is already showing itself to be a more challenging proposition.

Its seizure of nine foreign oil workers last month immediately marked it out from previous insurgents.

This time the abductors did not want cash. Instead, they threatened to kill their prisoners. Six have since been released.

Other activities have included bombing of key oil pipelines and organised military assaults on platforms. Dozens have been killed as a result.

Royal Dutch Shell, the largest producer in the delta, has been forced to withdraw personnel from some remote locations. Total of France and Agip of Italy have also been affected.

'Sources suggest that [MEND] is comprised of several loosely connected factions, rallying under a name recognised by the media,' said Mr Kimani.

This hydra-like nature will make it difficult to quash the rebels by conventional means.
Based deep in the mangrove forests, their use of small boats gives them rapid mobility.

They are well-armed — with rocket launchers, machine guns and US-made M16 rifles — and there are even indications that they are militarily trained.

That marks them out as superior to other militias and criminal gangs. MEND also denies any involvement in rackets such as the local oil theft cartel.

Nevertheless, an oil market already jittery over the tension with Iran has suddenly found something else to worry about.

'It is not a full-blown rebellion yet, but definitely an escalation,' said Tom Cargill, Africa analyst at the Royal Institute for International Affairs.

Given the importance of oil to the Nigerian economy, the federal army has already been deployed in strength in Bayelsa state. A crackdown now seems inevitable.

'With global supply fears having pushed crude prices 7% higher this year, Western donor nations are unlikely to oppose strong-arm tactics,' Mr Kimani continued.

'While the army has a surplus of soldiers and equipment compared with the militias, it is a crude instrument whose past operations have alienated large sectors of the delta’s civilian population.

'Its moves against MEND have so far been mostly unsuccessful and their intensification will only fuel popular opposition to the federal government.'

MEND’s campaign has already had the effect of reducing Nigeria’s output by up to 20%.

Its stated demands have included the release of ethnic Ijaw leaders, a payment of $1.5bn from Shell to compensate for years of pollution and local control over oil wealth.

However, one significant difference from the past is that MEND is seeking greater autonomy rather than separation from the Nigerian state.

The delta area is the only region of Nigeria never to have held the presidency.

However, the top job is expected next year to go to a northern Muslim after Olusegun Obasanjo, from the southwest, steps down.

Mr Kimani’s verdict for the future is gloomy: 'Shell and other oil corporations will continue to be targeted for the remainder of 2006.

'We forecast more oil worker kidnappings, flow station attacks and an increasing number of force majeure declarations as oil flows are interrupted.'

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