Over the past six months, the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA) have managed to bring the primary source of income in Nigeria (oil and gas) to its knees through fairly consistent and planned attacks on pipelines other oil assets. It’s hard to contextualize in an abbreviated manner the blowback the destruction has caused – multi-national egress, fractioning of tribes, resurgence of dormant militant groups, political chaos, and finally the sharp drop in the Naira. Now, it’s not all doom and gloom, but it’s close. An already struggling economy has become more hamstrung than the days of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) – and all this without even mentioning Boko Haram, which is still alive and kicking in the northeast. To say that Nigeria needs a life raft would be an understatement.
I’ll attempt an analogy – imagine the New England area, where the fishing industry was/is a huge part of the state(s) economy. Now, what would happen if local and unemployed young people started sabotaging that industry? — Attacked the fishing boats at night, destroyed gear, and threatened the owners of those vessels? So badly in fact, that the state economy started to suffer, and because of the lack of fish available from the northeast, began importing it. The youth’s intent, you ask? Well – they think they should get a direct share of the profits from the fishing industry despite not actually working just because their family grew up in the area. As a short-term fix, the government brings in the California National Guard to community police in an attempt to identify the youth on limited resources. See the dilemma? Now add corrupt politicians into the mix.
Both oil and non-oil revenues are down sharply and the recent unrest in the Niger Delta (along with technical outages) have dampened production to about 1.5 million barrels per day—700,000 bpd shy of the budget benchmark. And while the NDA has preferred to attack soft targets — unmanned platforms, pipeline and valve stations – some say the tide could change with the more direct threats to energy personnel. Where is the government in all this?
Throughout this year, President Muhammadu Buhari has preached intervention both through military means and by way of negotiations, but it was not until June that more substantive military operations commenced in the ‘Delta’ – after many oil and gas majors claimed force majeure – Shell evacuated in May.
The Delta is comprised of mostly three states: Bayelsa State, Delta State, and Rivers State – much of these are mangrove forests, almost impossible for non-locals to navigate through, much less dismantle NDA operations. Imagine wetlands and water bodies with creeks and rivers in the entire region; flooding and river-bank or coastal erosion will forever be a challenge. The local forces even admit to riverine operations being very difficult to conduct due to the scope of operations. Current operations, Crocodile Smile and Delta Safe remain more surgical, targeting known offenders as opposed to an attempt to flush the groups out. Kidnappings of local nationals in the Delta also spiked in June.
Timing and opportunity
You might be wondering, why now? In January of this year, one month before the MEND amnesty program was officially suspended, President Buhari indicated that the program would at a minimum continue until 2017 – in February it ended abruptly – which is exactly when the attacks began.
Drawing the conclusion that the program ending and violence erupting is connected is an easy inference and that some of the previous MEND amnesty participants were upset their payments ending – some experts also believe that the core NDA members are ‘sons of MEND’ — what is difficult is determining who politically is backing who; because even as recent as this weekend, former President Goodluck Jonathan was rumored to be a backer of the NDA. Never underestimate the power of politics in Nigeria.
In a somewhat predictable move, Buhari restarted the payments to those in the former MEND amnesty program on August 1; this resumption of payments may help reduce attacks with those groups aligned with MEND, but will likely do little to halt attacks by the NDA.
Attacking your own economy and neighborhood takes me back to the days of growing up near Los Angeles and the riots – still doesn’t make sense to me. If you feel you’re being treated unfairly, and your objective is to get noticed, physically attacking local businesses is not exactly the way to reach hearts and minds.
To complicate things, NDA is not the only militant group launching attacks – many smaller militant groups, as many as 20, have latched onto the branding of ‘the Avengers’ in an attempt to get some financial support — all under the guise of wanting the federal government to address their local concerns of lack of employment, infrastructure problems, and desire for stronger education.
Although previously focusing on Bayelsa, Delta and Rivers states, NDA on June 16 launched an attack in Akwa Ibom, east of Rivers — the onshore home for many national and multi-national oil companies – this was a clear sign that they had longer operational reach than previously thought, even if through a proxy group.
Current state of affairs
Peace talks between the federal government and the militant groups ebb and flow weekly, with counter-claims to the negotiations with undetermine progression. NDA has stated, that they want zero percent production, among other demands. What is unfortunate is that Nigerian security forces remain ill-prepared to take on these militant groups – no matter how much money is thrown at the problem, the Nigerian government has proven time and time again to pilfer what they’re given – resources, assets, and military equipment. Conversely, MEND elements have retained and maintained their very large caches of weapons leaving the federal government the underdog.
These attacks on oil and gas infrastructure in the Niger delta are likely to continue, regardless of the August reinstatement of MEND amnesty. Although the government has stated numerous times it would scale down military operations in the Niger delta to allow for intensive dialogue with militant leaders, identifying leaders of the militant groups and persuading them to engage in dialogue is likely to remain challenging. Furthermore, it will likely be difficult to address the demands of the individual groups – up to this point, Delta operations have been mostly unproductive.
The NDA has reiterated its vow to continue attacks until the government addresses its grievances on a regular basis. Most harshly, the group has released several statements indicating it will attack personnel versus just structures – in July NDA issued two statements, one against ExxonMobil indicating maintenance / repair work will not allowed and secondly, instructing workers from the Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas (NUPENG) and the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN), as well as foreigners, to leave all oil fields and terminals in the Niger delta region.
There are many more complexities to the tribes, regions and claimed lands that obscure the matter at hand which I won’t go into – for the time being, compromise from both sides seems to be the way ahead since the capabilities of the security forces and federal government seem outgunned. Giving into militancy is obviously not a way to show your country is progressive and stable; however, how long can the government fight several fronts while their economy continues to dive.
SOFREP Readers- This is an article from an anonymous guest writer who has over ten years of experience in the intelligence community with the US Army and Department of Justice. He also has an undergraduate degree in business and a Masters in Criminal Justice. His regional assignments were domestic, Africa, Europe, and Middle East. Currently, he is working in private sector intelligence.
Desiree- Managing Editor
Image courtesy of Buzz Nigeria