As oil bunkering, piracy, and kidnapping in the Niger Delta has continued or worsened over the course of the year, the general instability has increasingly politicized militants in the region, exacerbating a growing problem for the central government. The more political mindset of the militants has entailed an intensification of the rhetoric emanating from the Delta, marking an evolution in the aims of the militant networks in the region. The more political – and religious – justifications cited in their threats indicate that the militants are pursuing loftier goals in recent times than the mere pragmatic economic benefits derived via oil theft, which since the 2009 amnesty has been the prime driver of local criminal behavior. In such an environment, 2015 looms large, not only because of the contentious presidential elections that year, but also because the stipend payments and training protocols of the 2009 amnesty officially expire in 2015.
To be sure, instability and criminal activity has not stopped and several significant incidents have occurred in recent months. On September 6, unknown gunmen kidnapped the nation’s second-most senior Anglican archbishop, Ignatius Kattey, and his wife near their residence in Port Harcourt. Similarly, on September 11, a traditional ruler in southeastern Edo state was kidnapped from his palace. Shell has likewise experienced significant disruptions in output due to criminal activity over the past several months. In mid-October, the firm decried the level of oil theft and claimed it had been forced to defer some 300,000 barrels of oil per day. A total of 189 crude theft points were repaired on the Trans-Niger Pipeline (TNP) and the Nembe Creek Trunk Line (NCTL) between January and September of this year, and the TNP line has been closed down at least five times since early July due to leaks from crude oil thefts. An official for the Nigerian branch of Shell called for a more concerted effort to protect the lines and lamented what was “turning out to be a dangerous development in the Niger Delta” (Daily Trust [Lagos], October 15). Criminal activity offshore has also reached dangerous levels. A report from early October noted that the amount of money stolen via piracy had reached $100 million since 2010 as the militants have streamlined their operations and tactics, leading to a highly successful attempt rate and many significant heists.  A recent report noted further that piracy attacks off Nigeria’s coast had increased by a third year-on-year.  MEND-affiliated criminals also claimed the high-profile kidnapping of two U.S. sailors off Nigeria’s coast in late October (Bloomberg, October 25).
Perhaps of greater importance is the transformation of the underlying motivation for these incidents. Prior to the amnesty, while profit was undeniably an aim, MEND-affiliated militants were primarily politically motivated. As a result, many of the attacks did not involve monetary gain and were direct assaults on personnel and energy installations with the goal of destroying output and forcing the government to address the needs of the local population. For the past several years, brazen theft has by-and-large supplanted the former political ideology of the pre-amnesty militants and the bunkering and distribution of oil became deeply engrained as a strategy for economic livelihood within the delta.
Currently, MEND and similarly motivated groups appear to be assuming an increasingly political stance in their activity. Always an attractive means of earning income, opportunistic criminal activity in the Delta (kidnapping, oil bunkering and piracy) may become a form of political protest once again. A few recent incidents demonstrate this trend:
- The kidnapper of Archbishop Kattey claimed that the kidnappings in the Delta and elsewhere were intended “to draw the attention of the Federal Government to the sufferings of the people of Kokori and Urhobo at large” and cited the “continuous cheating of our people by the Federal Government,” noting that “for over 50 years now, they have been drilling oil from our community… yet we have nothing to show for it.” He went on to threaten to shut down all well heads in the area if his demands for development were not met (The Guardian, September 19).
- MEND’s ultimately unfulfilled threat against Chevron’s Escravos plant on October 1, part of the militants’ so-called Hurricane Exodus operation, was a clear act of political protest, with no discernible monetary objective (see Terrorism Monitor, September 20).
- In early September, MEND offered to cease its campaign (launched in April) against the government and oil industry if the government addressed its political demands, i.e. development of the region and more influence in the oil sector (Platts.com, September 9).
- Purportedly part of Operations Hurricane Exodus, MEND spokesman Jomo Gbomo claimed responsibility for an explosion and fire at a refinery in Warri on October 22, saying the attack was retaliation for the “unsustainable and fraudulent Niger Delta amnesty program” (This Day [Lagos], October 23). There were conflicting reports regarding casualties and the nature of the incident. Some sources claimed at least ten were killed; the firm claimed an investigation was ongoing but claimed there were no casualties, indicated that the explosion was caused by a gas leak rather than an attack. (Nigerian Tribune [Ibadan], October 23; SpyGhana [Accra], October 22).
Some MEND statements indicate a more religious bent, a novel and potentially destabilizing development. Reportedly to “save Christianity in Nigeria from annihilation”, MEND threatened in April to launch attacks against mosques, hajj camps, Islamic institutions, gatherings of Muslims, and Islamic clerics in a campaign codenamed “Operation Barbarossa” (Leadership [Abuja], April 13). While this was not the first time MEND-related militants made threats in reaction to Boko Haram activity, their statements included more direct threats against Muslims and Islamic institutions than their previous rhetoric (see Terrorism Monitor, February 23, 2012). Although it was later rescinded, Operation Barbarossa raised concerns about the expansion of MEND interests to the activity of Boko Haram, the nation’s most pressing political and security problem. Though it is difficult to gauge the seriousness of these threats, MEND spokesman Jomo Gbomo said the movement’s decision to rescind the threats was due to “the intervention of well-meaning Nigerians, religious bodies and the Nigerian government’s recent show of sincerity with the order to release from detention women, children, relatives and suspected Boko Haram members, giving room for genuine dialogue (This Day [Lagos], May 23). In short, MEND was rewarding the government for making steps towards peaceful conflict resolution while showing genuine concern for innocent Nigerians – an approach MEND would similarly like to see directed towards the Delta.
Timing is compounding matters. The controversy surrounding President Jonathan’s expected 2015 presidential run is evoking hostility in the north, as expected, but also in the south, where it is feared that Jonathan, a Bayelsa southerner, may be ousted from office. Although the region perceives itself as marginalized by the state and federal government, some Delta youths have an even greater fear of a northern presidency and have threatened war should the presidency switch back to the north (This Day [Lagos], September 9). Separately, one of the original MEND leaders, Asari Dokubo, has likewise warned of bloodshed should Jonathan not retain the presidency (Premium Times [Abuja], September 9).
Despite these political issues and problems in the Delta, perspective needs to be kept. The capability of MEND and other disgruntled militants remains highly questionable, as evidenced by their inability to fulfill their threats against Chevron or perpetrate other violent acts as promised. Simply put, MEND is too weak and disjointed to conduct a focused campaign against energy installations for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, the situation should not be dismissed. Unaddressed, long-standing grievances in this volatile region could, with scant provocation, erupt into yet another cycle of deadly violence.
Nonetheless, the government’s response has been tacit dismissal of the problem. In an effective hand-washing of the matter, the Special Assistant to the President on the Amnesty Program, Kingsley Kuku, has on several occasions claimed to have successfully fulfilled the mandate of the amnesty, citing as success the return of oil production to pre-amnesty levels while ignoring the fundamental drivers of instability in the region (This Day [Abuja], February 17; July 17). Aside from the blatant disregard for one of the fundamental purposes of a government, i.e. the provision of law and order, such statements by the governing elite exemplify their continued abrogation of responsibility for the Niger Delta’s development as it concerns the center. As substantive improvements to the delta can only arise from the central federal government, this bodes ominous not only for the region, but also for the future of the nation.
Mark McNamee is an Intelligence Analyst for Sub-Saharan Africa at an international risk consulting firm in the Washington, D.C. region as well as a contract employee for the U.S. Army Combating Terrorism Center.
1. Risk Intelligence, Gulf of Guinea Tanker Hijacking Report, https://www.riskintelligence.eu/news/.
2. A summary of the main points is available at: International Maritime Bureau, October 17, 2013: https://www.icc-ccs.org/news/873-piracy-at-sea-falls-to-lowest-level-in-seven-years-reports-imb.