Leaner Nigerian rebel group still threat to oil firms

Nigeria’s main militant group, revitalised by growing frustration over the government’s lack of leadership, has the manpower, weaponry and local support to disrupt much of the Niger Delta’s onshore oil operations.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend) last week ended a three-month-old ceasefire and threatened to unleash “an all-out assault” on Africa’s biggest oil and gas industry.

Security sources said the industry was taking the threat “very seriously” and believed Mend could attack a vulnerable pipeline, flow station or other oil facility if the government did not quickly show willingness to negotiate.

“Definitely something will happen. We had expected Mend to attack over the weekend,” a security source said.

“They know the places to attack where they can’t get caught … getting the credibility they need to push their political agenda,” the source said.

An oil pipeline was sabotaged on Sunday, forcing Royal Dutch Shell to shut three pumping stations in the Niger Delta. But a Mend spokesperson said its fighters were not “directly responsible” and security sources believed oil thieves were behind the incident.

Attacks by Mend on Nigeria’s oil sector in the past few years have prevented the Opec member from producing much above two-thirds of its capacity, costing it about $1-billion a month in lost revenues.

Mend, a loose coalition of militant groups, was severely weakened by the departure of many key field commanders that accepted President Umaru Yar’Adua’s amnesty offer last year.

But the group said it has since replenished its ranks.

“Mend has replaced every single commander. Those that have taken over were affiliated with Mend in the past but are not known by their predecessors for security reasons,” the group said in an email to Reuters.

“A two-pronged approach of attacks and dialogue will form the new way to go.”

Growing frustration
Some former militants have also indicated they may soon rejoin the fight after the government failed to follow through on its promises of giving them training and jobs.

“We are in support of Mend. We are going back to the creeks,” said General Monday, who commanded 175 militants in Bayelsa state before taking the amnesty.

“The federal government is playing games with us, so before the end of the week you will hear things, you will see things — all the oil companies will fold up,” he said.

Under Yar’Adua’s amnesty programme, Abuja promised to provide a monthly stipend, education and job opportunities to the thousands of ex-rebels that surrendered their arms.

But the programme has stalled since the president left Nigeria for medical treatment at a hospital in Saudi Arabia more than two months ago.

Yar’Adua has refused to hand over executive powers to Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan, sparking questions over the legality of government decisions in the president’s absence.

“The government is losing its window of opportunity to solve the Niger Delta problem,” a security source said.

Some community leaders are hoping Mend will give peace talks one last chance before resorting to violence again.

“They should not act or they could lose sympathy internationally. They should allow the government to respond and address the areas of their concerns,” said Jonjon Oyeinfe, a leading activist and ex-president of the Ijaw Youth Council ethnic rights group.

Calm before the storm?
The amnesty has been successful in providing a relative calm in the Niger Delta, allowing oil companies to repair and resume operations at some facilities.

Most of the amnesty’s success stems from the participation of former top Mend leaders Government Tompolo, Ateke Tom and Farah Dagogo, who each commanded hundreds of fighters before surrendering their weapons last year.

The new Mend leaders are unlikely to have as many followers or command the same respect in the Niger Delta as their predecessors, limiting the group’s operational capacity.

But even with fewer fighters, Mend is still capable of attacking pipelines and oil facilities that have little to no security, potentially forcing the shutdown of hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil per day.

“The nature of an insurgency is that you don’t need a large force to strike your targets,” said Dapo Oyewole, chairperson for the Centre for African Policy and Peace Strategy.

“In the Niger Delta, it is extremely easy to attack a pipeline. Nigeria is incapable of guarding the whole area.”

Shell-operated Forcados, EA and Bonny Light oil facilities have been favourite militant targets in the past because of their onshore locations. Agip’s Brass River and Chevron’s Escravos pipelines have also been attacked.

Offshore oilfields, like Shell’s Bonga and ExxonMobil’s Erha, are much more secure but Mend has attacked them at least once in the past two years.

The insecurity has kept Nigeria’s production at about two million barrels per day (bpd), significantly below its capacity of about three million bpd. — Reuters

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