The Niger Delta Insurgency and its Threat to Energy Security

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 16

During the first half of 2006, Nigeria’s energy industry was crippled by guerrilla attacks from militants demanding a larger share of the country’s oil revenue. The guerrillas, primarily from Nigeria’s Ijaw ethnic community, live in the country’s Niger Delta region where the majority of its energy resources are extracted. The ethnic roots of the crisis and the terrain of the delta make government attempts to end the insurgency difficult since a military response could lead to the complete shutdown of the country’s oil exports. Given the significance of energy exports to the Nigerian economy, the roots of the current crisis and the reasons behind the government’s failure to stabilize the delta, it becomes clear that attacks on energy facilities in the delta will continue to be an irritant to Africa’s largest oil producer.

Background to a Crisis

Nigeria is Africa’s most populated country and is the fifth largest supplier of crude oil to the United States. When pumping at full capacity, it produces an output of approximately 2.5 million barrels per day, making it the world’s eighth-largest oil exporter. Its gas resources are just as extensive, with proven natural gas reserves at 184 trillion cubic feet, giving Nigeria the seventh-largest gas reserves worldwide. Ninety-five percent of the country’s export earnings, accounting for 40 percent of its GDP, come from the oil and gas trade. This dependence on the energy trade makes any disruption of exports especially threatening to the Nigerian economy (Angola Press, July 19). Nigeria’s oil and gas reserves are located in the south, in the Niger Delta region. As a result of this uneven resource distribution, there are regular disputes over the distribution of oil wealth; the Nigerian government controls the revenue from energy exports, and distributes this revenue throughout the country. The ethnic groups that live in the delta states believe that the majority of energy revenues derived from their territory and homelands should be controlled locally, rather than by the federal government.

The first significant recent militant stirrings among the residents of the delta began in the 1990s among the ethnic Ogoni community. As a result of the small size of the Ogoni population and the fact that Nigeria was ruled by the Abacha military junta at the time, government forces were able to suppress the Ogoni and they executed nine of their activists. The government’s aggressive response permanently weakened the Ogoni resistance. Since this initial outbreak of conflict, much more serious ethnic resistance in the delta has arisen, stemming from a far more threatening community. The latest guerrilla attacks against the government and international oil interests are being led by the Ijaw, the largest ethnic group in the Niger Delta region.

Out of Nigeria’s 137 million people, the Ijaw number approximately 14 million, making them the country’s fourth-largest ethnic group. They live primarily in the Niger Delta region. The Ijaw are generally Catholic Christians, although they incorporate traditional tribal religious practices into their beliefs. The major grievances of the Ijaw are the wealth distribution policies of the government. For instance, while most of the energy wealth emanates from the Niger Delta region, the Ijaw live in poverty and suffer from extensive environmental degradation as a result of frequent oil spills and gas flaring operations (the burning of unwanted natural gas that rises when drilling for oil; the fumes are a contributor to air pollution and acid rain). The Ijaw demand that a larger proportion of Nigeria’s energy wealth be spent on their communities, rather than distributed throughout the country. For example, under the 1960 and 1963 Nigerian constitution, 50 percent of oil revenue was returned to the states in which the resources were derived. Currently, under the 1999 constitution, this “derivation formula” stands at 13 percent and much of that money never trickles down to the community level due to massive corruption. While the federal government has offered to slightly increase the revenue allocation to the states, the Ijaw community is calling for the derivation formula to reach 20-25 percent. They are also demanding ownership and management of the resources located on their land, including offshore oil fields.

Partly as a result of these disagreements, the Ijaw formed militant groups to launch operations against energy infrastructure and energy workers in the delta, as well as against government authorities. They receive support from the local populations, making it difficult for the government to isolate and eliminate them. Their success in damaging oil infrastructure and terrorizing international oil workers resulted in Nigeria’s oil exports being cut by approximately 500,000 barrels per day through much of 2006.

Profile of the Ijaw Militant Groups

One of the major initial Ijaw militant groups in the Niger Delta was the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF). The group was headed by Alhaji Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, who was apprehended by authorities on September 20, 2005. Asari claims to be fighting on behalf of the Ijaw community, demanding that more energy wealth be distributed to Niger Delta residents. Additionally, he has called for greater political autonomy for Ijaw-majority areas. While the head of the NDPVF, Asari and his men siphoned oil from pipelines—a regular occurrence in the Niger Delta, called “bunkering”—in order to fund the group’s operations. His guerrilla operations consisted of laying siege to international oil facilities and kidnapping oil workers in order to extract concessions from oil companies and from the government.

In September 2005, the government arrested Asari and charged him with treason. After his arrest, Asari called on his supporters to halt attacks against the Nigerian government, and this resulted in the general cessation of NDPVF operations. Shortly after Asari’s arrest and his call for a cessation of hostilities, a new Ijaw militant group appeared on the scene, in what would mark the most aggressive campaign by Ijaw militants yet.

After Asari’s arrest, the Movement for the Emancipation of the People of the Niger Delta (MEND) stormed into the public spotlight. On January 11, in one of its first operations, the group raided Shell’s offshore EA oil rig and kidnapped oil workers. As part of their demands, they ordered Shell to pay $1.5 billion to local communities in compensation for Shell’s environmental damages, and they ordered the government to release Asari from jail. On January 30, MEND released the oil workers unharmed. Since then, the militant organization has been involved in regular operations against international oil interests and government authorities. They regularly raid both onshore and off-shore oil facilities, kidnap international oil workers and executives and then make excessive demands in exchange for the release of the hostages; once the oil companies, or the government, pays a small ransom (or a promise of community financial projects), the hostages have been released unharmed. The certainty of this equation is fueling these guerrilla attacks since the militants are guaranteed ransom and other payoffs for each operation.

Thus far, in 2006, more than 30 oil workers have been kidnapped, mostly by MEND militants, and all of them have been released unharmed. MEND plans to continue its debilitating campaign. In a recent e-mail sent to Reuters, MEND announced that “We are resuming an all-out war on the eastern sector [of the delta] with an aim to wiping out fields there and the export terminals. This we hope to achieve before the end of August” (Reuters, July 26). MEND has also executed more aggressive operations. On April 19, for example, MEND militants detonated a car bomb at the Bori Camp military base in Port Harcourt, killing two people.

Additional Ijaw militant organizations are undertaking terrorist operations against government forces and international oil interests in coordination with MEND, such as the Martyrs Brigade. Other groups, however, appear less sophisticated and more militant than MEND, such as the Coalition for Militant Action (COMA). According to a recent statement by the group published on July 23, COMA announced that they would resume hostage-taking operations and would target politicians and high-profile Nigerian citizens (Vanguard, July 23). In the statement, COMA said they disagreed with Asari’s call for a cessation of hostilities, advising that “in battle, you do not make peace with an unrepentant enemy” (Vanguard, July 23).

Shortly after COMA’s announcement, but not necessarily in response to it, Asari released his own statement from jail, arguing that his followers and the Ijaw community should continue their armed struggle against the government and against international oil firms since that was the only way to achieve political and economic rights. According to his statement, which was released on July 24, “How can we [the Ijaw] negotiate when we are in chains and dispossessed? The only noble and honorable path open to us is the glorious and time-tested path of armed struggle” (Daily Champion, July 24).

Government Failure to Stabilize the Niger Delta

There are a multitude of reasons why the Nigerian government has been unable to stabilize the Niger Delta. One of the most obvious explanations is the terrain of the delta. According to the Niger Delta Development Commission, the delta is the world’s third largest wetland and is composed of dense mangrove swamps and waterways, making it an ideal location for guerrilla operations. The various oil facilities and pipelines saturate the area and are easy targets for militants who are able to navigate the dense web of waterways in speedboats, lay siege to a facility, capture international oil workers and then disappear back into the swamps and mangroves. The speed and size of the guerrilla attacks often catch the security forces protecting the energy installations by surprise; these same security forces usually suffer from poor equipment, training and morale, placing their dedication in doubt. The weapons used by the militants are abundant in the country since small-arms filter into Nigeria from conflict zones like Liberia, Sudan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone.

Three recent examples of guerrilla operations demonstrate this security context. On June 7, MEND militants approached a Shell gas plant near Port Harcourt in a speedboat. The guerrillas were equipped with small-arms, including rocket launchers, and they killed at least three of the Nigerian soldiers and police protecting the installation. They then kidnapped five South Koreans who were working for Daewoo and Korea Gas Corp. The attack forced Shell to shut down the plant. On June 8, however, all of the South Korean hostages were released (AFP, June 8). Another recent attack, on July 12, demonstrates the size of some guerrilla contingents. In this incident, a convoy of boats carrying construction material for Chevron-Texaco was traveling through the delta under the armed guard of Nigerian naval troops. After passing near Chanomi Creek on the way to Chevron’s Escravos River installation, the convoy was overwhelmed by 20 speedboats loaded with heavily armed militants. A shootout occurred, resulting in the deaths of four naval soldiers. Several Chevron workers were taken captive, but were quickly released (AFP, July 14). Other incidents follow this pattern, and militants have even attacked off-shore oil rigs, such as on June 2 when Ijaw guerrillas captured eight foreign oil workers (six Britons, an American and a Canadian) on a rig 60 kilometers off the Nigerian coast of Bayelsa state; all hostages were, once again, released, allegedly after ransoms were paid (AFP, June 4).

According to the chief of Nigeria’s Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Ganiyu Adekeye, the guerrillas operating in the delta have studied Nigerian naval operations and discovered the security forces’ weaknesses; additionally, according to Adekeye, the navy lacks proper equipment to combat these militants as many of its ships are in poor condition (This Day, July 27). This is one reason why in 2004 the United States provided special boats to Nigerian authorities to help fight piracy, arms and oil smuggling. The United States also conducted joint military exercises with Nigerian troops in Calabar in 2004 with a focus on water combat (IRIN, June 26). Stability in the delta is an important concern for the United States as a result of the current tight supplies of oil.

The sheer number of oil installations and pipelines also make protection of the infrastructure difficult. Shell, which is the largest foreign oil company in Nigeria, has more than 1,000 oil wells in the delta region, and these wells are linked to a 6,000-kilometer pipeline network (IRIN, July 26). Protection against attacks, in addition to preventing sabotage to the pipelines, which causes pipeline leaks and results in the loss of millions of dollars in oil revenue and the destruction of the local environment, is too much of a burden for the Nigerian authorities to handle. The government has already sent thousands of additional troops to the delta, but they have not been able to reestablish stability. Furthermore, the army and security forces are restrained from using overwhelming force against the militants because this would likely result in a larger conflagration with the Ijaw, resulting in a complete shutdown of oil and gas exports, crippling the economy.

In addition to the tactical difficulties in suppressing delta militants, there is also the problem of corruption. In a country where 37 percent of the population lives on less than $1 per day, corruption and crime are major concerns. With the price of oil peaking over $70 a barrel, oil theft (bunkering) is tempting and provides an important source of revenue for guerrillas, civilians and criminal elements. Even members of the navy are drawn into colluding with militant groups during bunkering operations. Yet, the process of siphoning oil from pipelines causes leaks, which not only causes supply disruptions, but also destroys the environment—guerrillas and other criminal elements then demand that the oil companies pay certain contractors to repair or clean up the leaks, creating a never-ending cycle of contracting work. Additionally, oil companies are known to funnel money to guerrilla groups covertly so that the group “protects” their installations. Companies consider these pay-offs more efficient than spending millions of dollars repairing the pipelines after they are damaged. Also, the money allocated to the delta states from the federal government often falls victim to cronyism since community leaders and elected officials filter the funds to contracts and firms that pad their own pockets. Much of the revenue never makes it back to the delta communities.


Nigeria’s future as a stable energy supplier remains in doubt. Already in the first half of 2006, the effects of guerrilla attacks and sabotage to the country’s oil infrastructure has reduced production levels by 20 percent. Attacks on oil infrastructure have completely shut down oil facilities in some parts of the delta. The attacks on oil infrastructure will continue in the future, as the government has not drafted an effective policy to end the guerrilla campaigns. President Obasanjo, recognizing the problem, released a report on the Niger Delta on July 18, confirming that the region is “suffering from administrative neglect, crumbling social infrastructure and service, high unemployment, abject poverty, filth and squalor and endemic neglect” (Daily Champion, July 27). Additionally, because the guerrillas are not solely criminal in nature and are part of an ethnic movement, heavy-handed tactics by the government against the Ijaw communities where the militants are sheltered could further enflame the crisis.

In the medium-term, one should expect the government to take some measures to respond to the latest uptick in violence. President Obasanjo has tried to negotiate a change in the derivation formula to appease the communities in the delta, and the Bayelsa state government has set up a committee to examine strategies to deal with hostage-taking and other terrorist acts in the region (Abuja Rhythm FM Radio, July 13). Record high oil prices have also offset the losses that the government has sustained as a result of its oil exports being down 20 percent for the year. Moreover, as a result of high energy prices, international oil firms continue to invest in Nigeria despite its chaotic environment. Nevertheless, in a country where 95 percent of export earnings come from the oil and gas trade, the stabilization of the delta should be a top priority.