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The Financial Times: Nigeria hostage-taking raises fears over fresh attacks on oil facilities

By Dino Mahtani
Published: August 15 2006 03:00 | Last updated: August 15 2006 03:00

A rash of hostage takings in Nigeria’s turbulent oil producing delta region has sharpened fears among industry executives of fresh attacks on oil facilities, as security agencies fail to hold down militant activity.

This month alone gunmen have abducted more than a dozen expatriate oil workers in several incidents onshore and offshore, including attacks conducted late on Sunday. Analysts say the spike in abductions of foreign oil workers since June demonstrates a wider breakdown in law and order that could again affect the security of multinational oil facilities.

Militant attacks on oil facilities by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend) early this year cut output by about a quarter in the world’s eighth largest exporter.

The relatively new and clandestine movement launched commando style attacks on oil facilities in January and February, killing government security forces and knocking out a major export terminal operated by Shell, Nigeria’s largest oil producer. But Mend, which has kidnapped and released 18 hostages this year, has stepped back from further attacks on oil facilities since February, instead continually threatening “one huge crippling blow” to Nigeria’s oil industry.

While Mend’s tactics, including the detonation of two car bombs in the cities of Port Harcourt and Warri, have heightened security fears across the delta, those in the ascendancy for now are militia units engaged in kidnappings of oil workers for lucrative ransom payments.

They operate with the tacit support of Mend. “As long as [the] activities of these individuals or bands are in consonance with our general principles of conducting this conflict and does not adversely affect the lives of our civilians we will do nothing to stop them,” said Mend in an emailed response to the FT.

Mend has been agitating for a greater share of Nigeria’s oil wealth for the Ijaw, the delta’s majority tribe, many of whom say they have been marginalised by corrupt governments while multinationals profit from oil pumped through their tribal communities. Mend bills itself as a cohesive force, but in reality it often amounts to a loose collaboration of militant units who are otherwise engaged in criminal activities or are hired guns for aggrieved delta communities.

Delta militia have grown in strength over the year. Many were backed by political figures to act as strongmen in the run-up to national elections in 2003 that were widely seen as marred by rigging. To build up arsenals and influence, militia have used hostage takings, protection rackets with oil companies and the theft of crude oil from oil wells and pipelines in cahoots with industry and military officials.

The diverse interests of different groups can pose a multi-headed security problem for oil companies, but also fragments the loyalties of militants to a common cause. In the western delta, militant activity is dominated by one warlord instrumental in attacks on Shell this year and attacks – largely on US oil giant Chevron – which cut 40 per cent of Nigerian output in 2003.

The warlord, who has associates who receive work contracts from oil companies, has balanced his business interests with Mend’s objectives of inflicting damage to oil facilities and killing soldiers. In the eastern delta, where many groups operate in parallel, Mend seems happy to watch chaos evolve. The delta has seen a number of smaller sabotage incidents on facilities this year.

Analysts say the real danger is whether armed groups are set against each other as politicians collaborate with militia to vie for power in the run-up to national elections next year. In the worst case scenario, the government, which is heavily dependent on oil revenues, could face major unrest in the delta and be forced into declaring a state of emergency which in turn could halt the elections.

But security officials privately acknowledge that an attempt at a widespread crackdown would fail and would probably provoke critical damage to Nigeria’s oil industry. Thousands of troops were deployed to the delta after the 2003 uprising but the Nigerian military has been seriously hamstrung by corruption, a lack of equipment and ill discipline.

Meanwhile, armed militiamen are largely free to roam the maze of swamps and creeks of the delta.

“The Niger Delta is pregnant, and what it will deliver I do not know,” says Oronto Douglas, a well-known delta activist.

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