The 'Niger Delta Avengers' have a message for Big Oil

A Niger Delta fighter poses with a heavy machine-gun at his militia's creek camp.
Pius Utomi Ekpei | AFP | Getty Images

Militants operating in Nigeria's southern delta region appear to be sending Big Oil a message with a string of renewed attacks on the nation's energy infrastructure: Let sleeping dogs lie, or pay the price.

The Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. said Wednesday that militants bombed the country's second-largest pipeline system just two days after it resumed operations following an attack in July.

No one has yet claimed responsibility for the bombing, which followed other recent strikes that broke weeks of relative calm as the government and militants sought to hold talks. The attacks show the region's most prolific insurgent group, known as the Niger Delta Avengers, and other militants they've inspired, are willing to make good on threats to launch a second wave of attacks on foreign oil companies that defy the group's order to leave sabotaged infrastructure unrepaired until the government meets its demands.

The Avengers want the impoverished delta region of Nigeria to receive a greater share of the nation's oil revenue, and they've pushed their demands through a campaign of attacks that began earlier this year.

Just last week, the Avengers 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.

"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 last week.

Wednesday's target, a flow station along the Trans Forcados pipeline, which feeds Royal Dutch Shell's Forcados export terminal. That terminal itself just recently resumed exports following a sophisticated underwater attack carried out by the Avengers, which limited activity for eight months.

The big thing I'm watching is to what extent the proliferation of this group actually results in them turning against each other.
Manji Cheto
Teneo Intelligence senior vice president

Other militants have not displayed the same capabilities as the Avengers, but Wednesday's attack is nevertheless troubling because it targeted onshore infrastructure, which should be easier to defend than an offshore terminal, said Ayso van Eysinga, an associate in the Eurasia Group's Africa division.

"It shows some kind of capacity to get around the armed forces, which shows the limitations of how much you can defend the creeks," he told CNBC, referring to the intricate maze of waterways that make up much of the delta.

Splintering insurgency?

John Campbell, former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, told CNBC last week that he strongly suspects that individual members of the various militant groups are not bound by a core mission or even dedicated to any single group, but are instead jumping from one organization to another based on who will pay them the most for carrying out raids.

Manji Cheto, senior vice president at Teneo Intelligence, concurred with that assessment, and raised a troubling prospect: the growing number of militant groups may be the result of an emerging leadership struggle within the Avengers.

"The big thing I'm watching is to what extent the proliferation of this group actually results in them turning against each other," she told CNBC.

Among the groups following the Avengers' model is the Niger Delta Greenland Justice Mandate, which claimed an attack on a pipeline on Sunday to protest a meeting this week between President Muhammadu Buhari and regional leaders.

The gathering was a significant political development because it was Buhari's first meeting with leaders in the delta since the attacks began, Cheto said. But its impact was limited because it was not attended by militant leaders, who have at times expressed disdain for the very political elites who met with the president.

That reflects a larger question at the heart of the government's response: Who speaks for the delta? Buhari must distinguish among the militants, the political elite and the delta people, and that presents a complex problem for which there's no immediate solution, according to Cheto.

Buhari's billions are no quick fix

In a bid to quell unrest, Buhari this week also announced a $10 billion infrastructure plan for the delta. But analysts say the plan has little chance of stemming the insurgency.

"It's just another number that is a huge number that is not going to happen in the short run," said Eysinga.

"It's not going to be a quick fix," he added.

The government has lately sought to borrow billions, but the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are reluctant to lend until Nigeria reforms key aspects of its economic and monetary policy, according to Eysinga. The African Development Bank has put fewer conditions on lending, he said, but even that institution only lent Nigeria $600 million after the country earlier sought $1 billion to help plug its multibillion-dollar budget deficit.

Nigeria has recently managed to restore some sidelined oil supply, but a renewal of hostilities once again puts its output in question.

Cheto called the $10 billion infrastructure plan "clearly very unrealistic" in light of the fact that the government has not presented a blueprint or project timeline.

Further, Cheto is not ready to rule out the prospect that the Avengers and other militants are merely holding out to secure the same type of amnesty deal the previous government offered militants who waged a four-year campaign of oil infrastracture sabotage in the delta. That deal came with lucrative contracts for militant leaders, as well as job training and stipends for foot soldiers.

The current insurgency is less than a year old, so Cheto believes the attacks could continue for some time as militants seek to pressure the government with further assaults that cripple the country's oil exports, which account for 80 percent of Nigeria's overall trade outflows.

"I think what they want to do is continue to cause spectacular disruptions," she said.