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ISN Security Watch: Niger Delta: Nowhere to hide

ISN Security Watch

Niger Delta: Nowhere to hide

As militants attack allegedly safe offshore oilfields, experts say the government should rise to the wake-up call and find a comprehensive solution for this complicated conflict.

By Dulue Mbachu in Lagos for ISN Security Watch (27/06/08)

Militants in Nigeria’s southern delta have destroyed the myth that offshore oilfields are safe by attacking, last week, Royal Dutch Shell Plc’s Bonga field, which lies some 120 kilometers into Atlantic waters.

With the Nigerian military apparently unable to stop the attacks, analysts believe the government should either reach a negotiated settlement to the conflict or risk the intervention of foreign powers keen to secure oil supplies.

As unrest in Nigeria’s southern oil-rich delta evolved to insurgency in the past decade, international oil companies operating in the country turned to deep offshore oilfields located far away from the region’s restive communities in an effort to compensate for their onshore losses.

Royal Dutch Shell’s Bonga field, the biggest deep offshore field in Africa and holding more than 1 billion barrels of crude reserves, thus became a showpiece of success in the Gulf of Guinea. Other oil majors such as Chevron Corp, Exxon Mobil Corp and Total also followed with huge offshore oil discoveries that helped make the waters offshore Nigeria a leading global oil exploration hotspot.

However, the aura of invincibility that surrounded the deep-water oilfields in Nigeria is no more. It was shattered on 19 June when the main guerrilla group in the oil region, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), launched an overnight raid on the Bonga oilfield’s floating, storage, production and offloading vessel, forcing it to shut down.

“The location for today’s attack was deliberately chosen to remove any notion that off-shore oil exploration is far from our reach,” Jomo Gbomo, spokesman for MEND, said in a statement emailed to reporters later that day. “The oil companies and their collaborators do not have any place to hide in conducting their nefarious activities.”

The attack knocked out Bonga’s daily capacity of 200,000 barrels, about 10 percent of Nigeria’s current output of about two million a day, helping drive global oil prices to current peaks of just under US$138 a barrel. It also created additional cause for worry for other oil majors such as Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Total and ENI Spa, who – though not spared the violent disruptions – have suffered less because they ran mostly offshore or smaller operations.

Shell, traditionally the biggest oil producer in Nigeria, has been the worst-hit by the unrest, having lost more than 400,000 barrels daily from its onshore operations since 2006, when MEND and other armed groups in the oil region intensified their attacks. Chevron has also shut some 140,000 barrels in the delta swamps since 2004, while Total abandoned some onshore oil fields.

“Going 120 kilometers offshore to attack and return suggests a greater reach and sophistication, and may embolden MEND and other armed groups to move further along that line,” Nnamdi Obasi, a West Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group, told ISN Security Watch. “It also shows a deepening of the conflict.”

Wake-up call

Militants in the southern region, which accounts for nearly all the oil that is the mainstay of Nigeria’s economy, accuse the oil companies of collaborating with successive Nigerian governments to deny them access to the oil wealth pumped from their land. The leading international oil companies operate joint ventures with the Nigerian state, splitting profits with the government.

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country of 140 million people is made up of more than 250 different ethnic groups, with the biggest of them – the Hausa-Fulani, the Yoruba and the Igbo – dominating government. The impoverished inhabitants of the oil region – mostly ethnic minorities – have had little or no influence on how the oil wealth is expended while having to cope with the pollution and environmental damage that have come along with its exploration. It is a situation that has fuelled decades of resentment that evolved into armed struggle in recent years.

President Umaru Yar’Adua’s response to the attack on the Bonga oilfield was to order more military action against the militants. But at the time he took office in May 2007, he pledged to seek a negotiated end to the conflict. Having chosen his Vice President Goodluck Jonathan from among the ethnic Ijaw, the delta’s majority group from which most of the armed groups are drawn, the government reached out to militant leaders and initiated talks.

However, talks with MEND broke down after Henry Okah, the group’s suspected leader, was put on trial for capital offences including treason and gun-running, following his arrest in Angola last September on gun-running suspicions and his deportation to Nigeria in February. MEND reacted by suspending its participation in the peace talks and promised to intensify attacks. Other armed groups in the region also accused the government of insincerity and of seeking to neutralize the militants instead of talking.

A Niger Delta summit planned by Yar’Adua for July to discuss ways of solving the region’s problems with the participation of “all stakeholders” has been denounced by militant groups and moderate political leaders as well.

A common grievance they have cited is the secret trial of Okah, whom they say must participate in the peace process, and retaliatory attacks launched by the military on Ijaw villages suspected of harboring militants. Armed groups hiding in the region’s warren of creeks and rivers have in turn blasted oil pipelines, attacked supply vessels and kidnapped oil workers, often for ransom.

Christophe de Margerie, chief executive of Total Group, told a French parliamentary committee early in June that his company was reconsidering its presence in Nigeria, but was concerned about the likely upward impact of its withdrawal on oil prices. Officials of other international oil companies in Nigeria, while declining comments on their security plans, privately acknowledged their companies were worried about the situation in the delta.

“The people moving with guns in boats in the delta are symptoms of a complicated problem requiring equally a complicated solution,” Antony Goldman, a London-based independent analyst specializing on the Gulf of Guinea, told ISN Security Watch. “It goes beyond holding a stakeholders’ conference.”

Armed groups in the Niger Delta, Goldman said, are closely linked to politicians in government who use them to intimidate opponents during political campaigns.

Elements in the military are also linked to criminal rings engaged in the multi-million-dollar illegal business of siphoning crude oil from pipelines for sale to vessels offshore and are keen to engender an atmosphere of insecurity favorable to the racket, he added.

Goldman cited prosecution allegations in court documents that Okah was supplied more than 6,000 rifles, machine guns and grenade launchers by a serving military officer from the Nigerian army armory based in the northern city of Kaduna.

“People use the militants for different reasons at different times,” he said.

Solving the oil region’s problems requires a comprehensive approach that will address not only political and economic issues but also social and environmental damage, he said.

Nigerian army chief Lieutenant-General Luka Yusuf recently declared that the Niger Delta crisis required a political solution rather than a military one. But some analysts fear the longer it takes to achieve a solution the greater the danger that local armed groups or outside forces may seek to fill the existing security vacuum.

The attack on Bonga “is a wake up call for the government, but I don’t think there is the energy to deal with it,” said Goldman.

The perceived harsh treatment of Okah, who alleged he was detained in an underground cell with a harsh spotlight on him around-the-clock, has not helped create the right atmosphere for negotiations, the ICG’s Obasi said, arguing that all the adversaries must be involved in the peace process.

If the security situation in the Gulf of Guinea fails to improve, the danger of the involvement of outside armies in the conflict is bound to grow, many analysts fear.

Already, the US, which buys nearly half of Nigeria’s oil exports, has increased its naval patrols in the Gulf of Guinea, an area it perceives as ungovernable, working to implement plans for its Africa Command. Recently, the US sponsored a UN resolution allowing outside powers to enter Somali waters in pursuit of pirates threatening shipping in the Indian Ocean, a measure that could be replicated in the Gulf of Guinea.

“If they can do that with shipping, they can also do that as well to protect the oil corridor in the Gulf of Guinea,” said Obasi. “It’s not an immediate possibility, but you can’t rule it out in the long run.”


Dulue Mbachu is a correspondent for ISN Security Watch based in Nigeria. He has reported for international media outlets including The Washington Post and the Associated Press.Related ISN Publishing House entries  

Strategic Resources, International Politics, and Domestic Governance in the Gulf of Guinea

Oil and Development in Africa: Some Lessons from the Oil Factor in Nigeria for the Sudan

Context, Path Dependency and Oil-Based Development in the Gulf of Guinea

This article: http://www.isn.ethz.ch/news/sw/details.cfm?id=19131

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