No End in Sight: Violence in the Niger Delta and Gulf of Guinea

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 5

Piracy is on the rise in the Gulf of Guinea (Source U.S. Navy)

A string of high-profile kidnapping incidents in recent months in combination with an increase and geographic expansion of pipeline attacks in the Lagos region (outside the traditional zone of militant activity in the Niger Delta) has raised questions about stability in Nigeria’s south and, by proxy, the effectiveness of the 2009 amnesty for militants affiliated with the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). While no specific group is claiming responsibility for the attacks, the activity appears to be related to the same underlying socio-economic problems in the area that spurred the ascension of MEND, which at one point in the late 2000s shut down half of Nigeria’s over 2 million-barrels-per-day oil production. As the country receives some 80% of its earnings from oil production, the trends are particularly threatening as no substantive reason exists that any of this activity should abate in the near future. More realistically, such incidents are only likely to continue to worsen and expand. 

Several incidents in February 2013 highlight this worsening trend. On February 7, pirates off the coast of Nigeria and Cameroon, in the Gulf of Guinea’s east, attacked a U.K.-flagged ship and kidnapped three sailors, all foreign nationals (AP, February 8). Days earlier, a French-owned diesel tanker was seized by Nigerian pirates in international waters in the Gulf of Guinea’s west, over 300 kilometers off of the coast of Côte d’Ivoire, from where the hijackers sailed the tanker back into Nigerian waters to unload its fuel (This Day [Lagos], February 4). The following day, back in the traditional area of maritime criminal activity, two soldiers guarding a vessel operated by an oil company were killed by unknown gunmen in a shootout in Bayelsa State in the Niger Delta (AP, February 5). Thus, in the course of a week, suspected disgruntled actors from the Niger Delta demonstrated their increased ability to disrupt economic activity across the region, conducting operations not only in their own backyard, but as far east as the Cameroonian border and as far west as Côte d’Ivoire. 

The Kidnapping Industry 

Perhaps more worrying, a recent spate of kidnapping incidents involving wealthy Nigerians and foreigners (a favorite MEND pastime) highlights the increase in criminal activity in the region. On December 10, 2012, the wife of retired Brigadier General Oluwole Rotimi, a former Nigerian ambassador to the United States (2007-2009), was kidnapped in Ibadan, the capital of southwestern Oyo state (Vanguard [Lagos], December 12, 2012). Less than a week later, a Nigerian actress-turned-government official, Nkiru Sylvanus, was kidnapped by unknown gunmen in broad daylight in southeastern Imo State (Vanguard, December 17, 2012). On December 17, 2012, gunmen in Bayelsa State kidnapped four South Koreans and two Nigerians employed by a South Korean construction firm (AP, December 18, 2012). In early January 2013, a senior executive of an energy marketing company was abducted on the outskirts of Port Harcourt in Rivers State (PM News [Lagos], January 4, 2013). 

In the most high-profile of these incidents, Kamene Okonjo, the mother of Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, was abducted from her home in Delta State on December 9, 2012. In response, soldiers arrested 63 people (including two policemen) during raids aimed at finding Okonjo in Delta State. Finance Minister Okonjo-Iweala is a former leading candidate to head the World Bank and is known in Nigeria for her campaign to end the controversial fuel subsidy program. Okonjo-Iweala blamed her mother’s kidnapping on those angered by the government’s decision to discontinue the controversial fuel subsidy program. The subsidy has benefited impoverished locals who enjoy artificially low prices on gas, but has also constituted a major drain on the government’s resources, leading Okonjo-Iweala to end the program. However, since Nigeria lacks adequate refining capacity and must export its oil abroad to be refined, the subsidy has also been a cash cow for smugglers and corrupt politicians who import refined fuel at inflated prices and then collect on the subsidy (This Day, December 12, 2012). While it remains unknown whether Niger Delta militants were directly involved in the kidnapping (Okonjo-Iweala blamed only the corrupt political elite of the ruling People’s Democratic Party for her mother’s abduction), the matter nonetheless demonstrates the growing instability of a region in which security and political officials are complicit in energy-related criminal activity, whether in alliance with administrators in Abuja, rebels in the Delta creeks, or both. 

Bunkering in the Niger Delta 

Pipeline attacks have likewise increased in frequency. While the 2009 amnesty helped end the general violence against the oil industry and its personnel in the Niger Delta, oil bunkering (oil theft by means of tapping pipelines) has reportedly doubled since the amnesty, costing the government some $7 billion annually in lost revenue and another $5 billion for pipeline repairs (, April 28, 2012; This Day, January 14). [3] Oil thieves reportedly steal up to 20% (or some 400,000 barrels per day) of the nation’s fuel in this dangerous practice (Reuters, January 15). Theft has become so pervasive that, in November 2012, Royal Dutch Shell, which produces roughly 40% of Nigeria’s oil, shut down a pipeline in the Niger Delta after finding six theft points on its Imo River trunk line. The firm claimed that sabotage was responsible for 25 of the 26 spills on the Imo River in 2012, which released nearly 3,000 barrels into the river and other waterways, destroying large swathes of the local environment (AP, November 11, 2012). 

In light of the deteriorating situation, Mutin Sunmonu, the managing director of Shell operations in Nigeria, has threatened to shut down the entire Nembe Creek Trunk Line, one of the most important in the delta. According to Sunmonu, the bunkering activities have overwhelmed the Joint Task Force (JTF), a multi-agency formation responsible for restoring security in areas of Nigeria plagued by militants: 

The volume being stolen is the highest in the last three years; over 60,000 barrels per day from Shell alone. So, that for me is a great concern. The other important point for me is the fact that over time, this whole crime has gotten a lot more sophisticated and you could see that the perpetrators are now setting up barge building yards, they are setting up storage facilities, they are setting up tank farms for storing the crude, prior to shipping out. So, if you look at all of these, it is very clear to me that this is not just an act by desperate individuals trying to make a living. This certainly is a well-funded criminal activity, probably involving international syndicates. I really want to put it to you that we are in a crisis. We are in a crisis as a country because this is something which I worry is beyond the capacity of any individual company or beyond the capacity of a country to solve. We really need concerted efforts nationally, locally and internationally to actually get this under control (This Day, March 4). 

A recent string of events further illustrates the gravity of the issue. On September 5th, a pipeline in the city of Arepo, Ogun State, near Lagos, was vandalized by suspected Ijaw youth from the Niger Delta; at least 30 people were killed in the fire that ensued when the thieves were drawing fuel illegally from the pipeline. The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) sent three engineers to repair the ruptured line, all of whom were murdered by Delta youth pilfering the fuel. Later, in early January 2013, after the line was fixed, the vandals caused another explosion while tapping into the line. On January 23, another bunkering fire and gun-battle with the thieves was reported on the Arepo line. With these events in mind, a leading Nigerian newspaper called the unceasing pipeline vandalism a “national threat” and further called the government “helpless” in finding a long-term solution (Leadership [Abuja], January 31). 

Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea 

Meanwhile, piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has continued unabated. 

  • Some 62 attacks were recorded in the Gulf in 2012, including 10 hijackings and 207 kidnappings.
  • While Nigeria accounted for 27 of these incidents, up from 10 in 2011, Togo saw an increase from 5 attacks in 2011 to 15 in 2012.
  • Côte d’Ivoire, which had just one attack in 2011, suffered five in 2012, including the first-ever hijacking of a tanker off its shores in October 2012. [2]
  • Armed hijackers from the Niger Delta also seized an oil tanker near Abidjan on January 16, 2013, stealing its 5,000 tons of oil (AP [Abidjan], January 21, 2013).
  • Back in the Niger Delta, three oil supply vessels were attacked and two hijacked in December 2012 alone.
  • In the first two weeks of February 2013, pirates attacked four vessels off Nigeria’s coast and one in the Delta, killing four and kidnapping eight.
  • In a separate attack days later, robbers boarded a ship anchored at the Lagos port and stole its cargo (Reuters, February 19).

Much of the problem of piracy in the Gulf can be attributed to the absence of any significant coast guard fleet operating between Lagos and the Togo border, thus allowing pirates to act with impunity in the Bight of Benin and farther west (Thinkafricapress; March 20, 2012). 

Corruption and Poverty Fuel Insecurity 

Exacerbating the matter are continued reports from Abuja of extreme levels of corruption in the oil industry. Mismanagement and corruption costs billions of dollars annually, according to a leaked investigative report into Nigeria’s oil and gas industry by the Chairman of the Petroleum Revenue Task Force, Mallam Nuhu Ribadu. Among numerous other allegations, nearly $30 billion was lost in the last decade in an apparent gas price-fixing scam involving government officials and foreign energy firms. Oil and gas companies owe the Nigerian treasury $3 billion in royalties. Between 2005 and 2011, another $566 million was owed by companies for the right to exploit an oil block, known as signature bonuses (This Day, October 25, 2012). In August 2012, the former World Bank Vice-President for Africa, Dr. Oby Ezekwesili, said that an estimated $400 billion of Nigeria’s oil revenue had been stolen or misspent since the country’s independence in 1960. She further claimed that while oil accounted for roughly 90% of the value of the nation’s exports, more than 80% of that money went to the pockets of the top 1% of the population (This Day, August 29, 2012). $6.8 billion was drained from Nigeria between 2009 and 2012 in the fuel subsidy scam, which ultimately benefited corrupt officials in Abuja; in 2011 alone, the government paid 900 times more in the subsidy than was budgeted, suggesting the complicity of the finance ministry and the central bank in the arrangement (Reuters, April 19, 2012). Likewise, much evidence exists confirming the collusion of oil thieves in the creeks of the Delta with members of the JTF security force and top government officials (, April 28, 2012). 

At the other end of the spectrum, poverty in the Delta and across the country continues to be endemic. Despite general economic growth, the Nigerian National Bureau of Statistics reported in February, 2012 that poverty had risen for the nation as a whole, with nearly 100 million people living on less than a dollar a day—a trend that is predicted to continue. Nearly 61% of Nigerians were living in "absolute poverty" in 2010, an increase from 54% in 2004; moreover, in 2010, more than 93% of respondents felt themselves to be poor compared to 75% six years earlier. In absolute terms, more than 112 million Nigerians were considered to be living in poverty in 2010, compared to 68.7 million in 2004. [3] Yet while these alarming trends have burgeoned, the government has made over $1.6 trillion (as of 2009) since the discovery of oil in the country in 1956 (BBC, March 17, 2009). Adding insult to injury, President Goodluck Jonathan recently removed $1 billion from the nation’s oil savings to distribute to Nigeria’s three dozen state governors in response to their demands (Reuters, January 30). With the lack of economic opportunity in the Niger Delta and constant reminders of the high-level fleecing of the region’s natural wealth by lawmakers, locals are left feeling they are not only forced into criminal activities such as bunkering or piracy, but morally justified in committing them. 

The poverty, corruption, and violence in the region can be traced back to the general failure of the amnesty of 2009, which was ostensibly intended to resolve these issues. Legitimate questions can be raised as to its actual objectives. Locals have long felt that the government was never genuinely interested in tackling the complicated task of addressing the poverty and corruption in the region and energy industry, but instead sought only to diminish the violence in order to increase oil production (Vanguard, December 19, 2012). In this way, the amnesty can be said to have been at least a short-term success, as oil production has returned to over two million barrels per day since 2009. However, the long-term situation was left in question by the amnesty. The training program for ex-militants, one of the central components of the amnesty meant to address the enduring issue of youth unemployment, has been widely criticized for its corruption, selection processes and the failure of its graduates to find employment (Daily Trust, February 8; Vanguard, December 19, 2012). 


As all forms of violence and criminal activity in relation to the energy industry have experienced an upward trajectory since the 2009 amnesty, there is little reason to suspect that the situation will improve itself naturally. Ordinary citizens in the Delta creeks repeatedly attest to the implausibility of achieving any material improvements in their livelihoods through licit means as compared to oil bunkering and other energy-related criminal activity (Reuters, January 15). As long as this remains the case and the government continues to fail to address the underlying grievances behind the lawlessness in the area, instability and illegal activity in the form of kidnappings, piracy and pipeline vandalism will degenerate further to a point eerily similar to that witnessed during the MEND insurgency only a few years ago. 


1. International Energy Agency (IEA) Oil Monthly Report for October 2012, released November 13, 2012,

2. The International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) International Maritime Bureau (IMB) Global Piracy Report, January 16, 2013,

3. Nigeria National Bureau of Statistics, “The Nigeria Poverty Profile 2010 Report,” released February 13, 2012,

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.