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The Niger Delta Avengers are back — and they've got big oil in their crosshairs

Broken pipework sits at an abandoned oil flow station operated by Royal Dutch Shell Plc in K-Dare, Nigeria, Jan. 13, 2016.
George Osodi | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Broken pipework sits at an abandoned oil flow station operated by Royal Dutch Shell Plc in K-Dare, Nigeria, Jan. 13, 2016.

The Niger Delta Avengers resumed their campaign of sabotage on Tuesday, potentially kicking off a return to the serial bombings the militant group carried out earlier this year.

Those attacks sent Nigerian crude output to a more than decade-low and deepened an economic crisis in the Western African nation brought on by persistently low oil prices. Analysts say the government has been slow to advance a coherent response, and in the absence of an effective strategy, the conflict will likely escalate, putting Nigeria's recovery in question and global oil supply at risk.

The Avengers on Tuesday claimed responsibility for an attack on a pipeline that feeds the Escravos offshore terminal operated by Chevron's Nigerian subsidiary. Last spring, Chevron briefly closed the facility for the first time in its nearly 50-year history due to fighting in the area.

Chevron did not return a request for comment.

The strike showed the Avengers are willing to make good on their threats to launch a second wave of attacks on oil majors that defy its order to let sabotaged infrastructure lie until the government meets its demands.

"You can buy off fragmented groups. You just pay everyone. But to address the fundamental issues, the sense of alienation, the sense of unfairness, the consequence of years of poor governance, all that takes time." -John Campbell, former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria

"This action is to further warn all [international oil companies] that when we warn that there should be no repairs pending negotiation/dialogue with the people of the Niger Delta, it means there should be no repairs," the Avengers said in a statement on Tuesday.

The Avengers had already fired a warning shot in September, when they claimed an attack on an export line operated by a Royal Dutch Shell subsidiary carrying Bonny Light crude. That marked a "major blow" to Nigeria's efforts to restore crude exports as a ceasefire took hold, according to Teneo Intelligence.

"While the exact impact on production of the latest bombings is still unclear, the attack nevertheless reaffirms our earlier expectation that a sustained increase in domestic crude production is unlikely for the foreseeable future," wrote Manji Cheto, senior vice president at Teneo.

Overtures but no results

Attempts to hold talks with the government appear to have stalled, and analysts say President Muhammadu Buhari now seems categorically opposed to expanding the 2009 amnesty program that brought an end to a years-long Delta uprising by offering militants stipends and job training.

Just one day before the attack, the Eurasia Group's Ayso Van Eysinga told CNBC the failure to advance a solution had increased the risk of a strike on critical infrastructure such as Shell's Forcados terminal, which resumed exports this week following an eight-month outage due to an attack on an underwater pipeline claimed by the Avengers.

Both sides have made overtures, but they have done little except secure a brief pause in the conflict, which oil firms have exploited to restore some production.

On the one hand, communication is difficult because the Avengers leadership remains shrouded in mystery and a host of local leaders have sought to act as spokesmen, complicating efforts at making direct contact, said Van Eysinga, an associate in the Eurasia Group's Africa division.

"The government has come to the table, but often with the wrong people," he said.

On the other hand, no one government official appears to be spearheading outreach, perhaps signaling the state lacks either the chain of command or the will to tackle the problem,Van Eysinga said.

"It doesn't seem like they have a coordinated effort to try to figure out who they should speak to," he said. "It's many different people trying to get to the same end but without a concerted strategy."

No end in sight

The attacks could continue for six months to a year because a quick fix does not align with Buhari's broader campaign to fight corruption, in Van Eysinga's estimation. He believes Buhari is more disposed to advancing a peace-plan based on development initiatives for the Delta. That, however, would take considerable time to implement.

The Avengers are calling on the government to reform the method it uses to disperse oil revenue so the crude-producing Delta gets a larger share. Other economic activities like fishing and agriculture have been made untenable in parts of the Delta by widespread pollution caused by crude production, theft from pipelines that causes oil spills and illegal refining.

The government appears to be pushing ahead with efforts at economic diversification in a bid to ease the Delta's "stranglehold" on the economy, according to Teneo's Cheto.

Buhari has asked Nigeria's parliament to approve $30 billion in foreign borrowing to stimulate Nigeria's economy, which has fallen into recession for the first time in two decades. Crude oil accounts for about 80 percent of Nigeria's overall exports, according to Nigeria's National Bureau of Statistics.

But the only near-term solution able to buy Buhari time is another amnesty-style program, Cheto said. That prospect has fueled the growth of militant groups in the vein of the Niger Delta Avengers, she said.


"This is clearly an attempt on these groups' part to assert themselves as important stakeholders in any talks, ostensibly in the hopes that they too would benefit from any eventual government pay-outs," Cheto wrote.

In the past 17 months, 18 new militant groups have sprung up in Nigeria, according to the crisis-monitoring group Intersociety.

John Campbell, former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, said he strongly suspects but cannot prove members of these groups are not bound by a core mission, but are jumping from one organization to another based on who will best compensate them for carrying out raids on oil infrastructure. He also cautioned that the attacks are likely underreported because it's not in the government or international oil companies' interest to disclose them.

The highly decentralized type of insurgency blossoming today has been present in Nigeria since colonial times, and it is probably not going away any time soon, he said.

"You can buy off fragmented groups. You just pay everyone. But to address the fundamental issues, the sense of alienation, the sense of unfairness, the consequence of years of poor governance, all that takes time. It takes political will and resources," Campbell said.