Niger Delta insurgents escalate tactics

From Newsday, April 23:

LAGOS – A militant group that has been attacking Nigeria’s oil pipelines and helping to drive up world oil prices added a new tactic last week by detonating a car bomb in a major oil city to publicize its standing threat to shut down the country’s entire crude output.

The bomb, which exploded in a Mercedes-Benz parked at a military facility in Port Harcourt, killed two civilians and injured six, said Army spokesman Maj. Sagir Musa. It was the first such attack in an urban area and the first in the eastern Delta section of the country in five months.

Members of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta group, known by the acronym MEND, have kidnapped 13 expatriates since December – later releasing them unharmed – and attacked at least six oil installations in the Delta, focusing their actions so far almost exclusively on Royal Dutch Shell facilities.

The attacks have reduced this OPEC member’s output by more than a fifth. Nigeria is the fifth largest supplier of crude oil to the United States. The world’s eighth largest oil exporter, Nigeria last year produced 2.4 million barrels of oil a day.

The group says it wants the government to hand over control of oil resources to the people of the Delta. Wednesday’s bombing, the group said in an e-mailed statement to reporters, is a “warning to the Nigerian military, oil companies and those who are attempting to sell the birthright of the Niger Delta people for a bowl of porridge.” Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo has called on local governors to deal with the armed groups in their states.

MEND fighters dress in black balaclavas, armed with rocket-propelled grenade launchers and belt-fed machine guns. Diplomats say the group is clearly well-trained, and their spokesman, who goes by the nom-de-guerre of Jomo Gmobo, says fighters include former and serving military personnel.

The group often targets pipeline manifolds, points at which several pipelines merge into one, and have thus managed to shut off large amounts of oil in one blow.

The group also is demanding that the government released two jailed leaders from the Delta’s ethnic Ijaw peoples – one charged with treason for an alleged plot to overthrow the government and the other with money laundering.

The rebels have tapped into deep resentment in poor local communities against big oil and government neglect. Delta residents live in abject poverty and also suffer from the environmental effects of oil pumping, including the pollution of drinking water and rivers and damage to fishing. The oil gives rivers a rainbow gloss in some places.

In one village, Pepa Ama, residents say the pumping of oil has sunk their land. Villagers walk barefoot over thin rotting logs and wobbly planks to avoid getting oily feet.

“We are the owners of the oil,” said one village resident, Florence Komanda, 46, who lives in a small hut on stilts above the polluted mud with her husband and 12 children. “We don’t have water to drink, we don’t have fish to kill because of the water. Even money to buy things to eat, we don’t have.”

Towering gas flares light up the sky with an orange glow at night and cause acid rain, which pollutes drinking wells and damages crops. A report by the international network of environmental groups Friends of the Earth last year said oil companies are unlikely to meet a 2008 deadline to end flaring.

The Nigerian government has attempted to remedy the delta’s poverty with such projects as a computer training school and new roads. On Tuesday, Obasanjo chaired a televised meeting with government officials and Delta leaders, in which he promised 20,000 more jobs for people from the area, notably in the security forces and the national oil board. He also promised that the government would build a $1.8 billion highway through the Delta.

But MEND has not been impressed with the efforts. “We are determined to stop the oil from flowing,” a MEND spokesman said.

Nigeria’s Vanguard reports April 23 that both MEND and the (possibly linked) Coalition for Militant Action in the Niger Delta (COMA) claimed responsibility for the blast . Angola Press April 21 reported military denials of claims by unnamed “militants” that the military itself had carried out the blast as a provocation.

See ThreatsWatch page on the Niger Delta.

See our last post on Nigeria.