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Financial Times: Nigeria’s oil delta crackdown heightens fear of attacks

By Dino Mahtani in Lagos

Published: August 22 2006 03:00 | Last updated: August 22 2006 03:00

A security crackdown in Nigeria’s oil producing delta region has heightened fears of further attacks against facilities as oil security analysts question the government’s methods.

At the weekend Nigerian security forces arrested about 100 people in operations in the country’s eastern delta oil hub of Port Harcourt. The operation, which a military spokesman said would be “the start of something bigger”, came in response to President Olusegun Obasanjo’s order to use “force for force” in response to a series of kidnappings of foreign oil workers during recent weeks.

Security sources said the order had been made to demonstrate government authority after Nigeria failed to stop militant attacks on facilities including an important export terminal early this year. The attacks cut by a quarter the output of the world’s eighth largest oil exporter. The series of kidnappings for ransom has since further highlighted deficiencies in the security apparatus.

Nigeria-based security analysts said the crackdown could simply lead to an escalation of conflict. “If it turns into a major military operation, we can expect more attacks on facilities. The oil industry is an Achilles’ heel for the government,” said one analyst.

On Sunday, a military patrol intercepted a militant boat in the southern delta as it prepared to release a Nigerian hostage – a Royal Dutch Shell employee who is now missing. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend), which has claimed responsibility for this year’s attacks on facilities, said 10 militants were killed in the ensuing gun battle. Security sources said at least one soldier was also killed.

The military said it had released about 50 people captured in Friday’s operation and was still questioning 50 others with a view to preparing further operations in the waterways of the east and southern delta. Security had been beefed up at strategic export terminals, but several oilfields remained vulnerable to attack, according to security sources.

The government and some oil multinationals have meanwhile negotiated with FNDIC, a western delta militant group seen as one of the delta’s most cohesive militant forces. FNDIC mobilised an onslaught on oil facilities in the western delta in advance of the 2003 elections. The action cut 40 per cent of Nigeria’s oil output. The group was instrumental in Mend’s attacks this year, and Mend says it still commands the loyalty of FNDIC’s top field commander.

The government’s negotiations with FNDIC could give the military more room to focus on the eastern delta where kidnapping by smaller groups has been increasing in recent weeks.

But Nigeria’s military – which is blighted by corruption, ill discipline and a lack of equipment – is often unable to operate efficiently in the swamps and creeks that serve as militant hideouts.

Previous military operations in the area have brought accusations of human rights violations against civilians and aggravated tensions.

Many delta militant groups have been backed by political figures to act as strongmen, extort money and build up influence by participating in the organised theft of crude oil in partnership with military and political figures.

Mend has been trying to draw on their loyalties to force the government to concede a greater share of oil revenue for the delta’s Ijaw people.

The debate over the distribution of oil revenue is taking place across Nigeria’s wider political arena in the run-up to elections. A security report by top service chiefs submitted to Mr Obasanjo in 2002 and now seen by the Financial Times recommended that delta states should control 50 per cent of their resources, as opposed to the 13 per cent at present.

The recommendations have not been implemented. Analysts point out that many of the delta’s top politicians are also to blame for squandered oil wealth.

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