Fresh tension is now brewing in southern Nigeria following a spate of threats by the MEND militant group, amid fears the fighters have returned to the mangrove-choked creeks of the oil-rich Niger Delta.
After a period of relative calm, spiked only by sporadic incidents, the group on Tuesday claimed responsibility for the explosion that rocked the Warri oil refinery. It said the attack was part of a new campaign against the federal government’s “unsustainable and fraudulent” amnesty program.
It comes days after the group threatened Shell’s giant offshore Bonga field. “Offshore operations are not a safe haven. MEND has visited Bonga before and we will do it again when the time is right,” it said.
Shell in June 2008 was forced to shut the field, located about 120 kilometers (75 miles) off the coast, slashing output by 200,000 b/d, about 10% of the country’s crude production.
On Thursday the group said it was in contact with two Americans nabbed by pirates off Brass, the first reported kidnapping of US nationals in the Delta in at least two years.
The return of militancy, now at its greatest level in four years, spells trouble for Nigeria’s oil industry. Despite a production capacity of 3 million b/d, output has stubbornly hovered at 2 million b/d for most of this year, largely due to incessant crude oil theft and pipeline vandalism.
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The Movement for the Emancipation, or MEND, first emerged as an armed militant group in January 2006 when it launched a series of attacks on oil installation and held four oil workers hostage for 19 days.
The attacks forced oil companies to cut production by one-fifth in the world’s eight largest oil exporter and helped drive up oil prices.
Four years later, a government-sponsored amnesty program opened a door for stabilization in the delta but did not reduce the long-term potential for violence or deal with the many drivers of conflict.
Nigeria has earned more than $400 billion from the explosion of the oil wealth since independence, $200 billion in the last decade alone. Annual budgets for the four main producing oil states in the delta total $7 billion, roughly Ghana’s federal budget.
Yet, there is a consensus that 51% of the Niger Delta people still live on a $2 or less a day, and less than 50% have access to clean drinking water. The UN says devastating oil spills in the region over the past five decades will cost $1 billion and take 30 years to clean up.
Under the amnesty which is winding up in 2015, militants who handed in their weapons were pardoned for their crimes and offered training in trades in Nigeria and overseas. The violence declined but has not disappeared.
While ex-militant commanders enjoy luxury homes in the capital Abuja or benefit from generous government contracts, their foot soldiers have taken up arms. Frustrated by the lack of development, some have turned their skills to piracy while others have elbowed their way into the lucrative crude oil theft trade.
In his first speech after taking office in May 2010, President Goodluck Jonathan identified the conflict in the Niger Delta among his top three priorities. Yet the government has still not produced a credible work plan to address the conflict issues or the Niger Delta’s persisting economy of violence.
All signs suggest that the stability gained through the 2009 amnesty is unraveling, and given the increase in violence with each election is a cause for concern as Nigerians head toward the 2015 polls.