The Niger Delta has enjoyed a ten-day period of relative quiet since the tragic killing of David Hunt, a 58-year old British expatriate hostage as he and six others were being ferried away from the supply boat from which they were abducted. It really isn’t known whether the fact that a kidnap victim, who was highly prized as ransom-bait by the militants, died, shook the sensibilities of the hostage-takers or if this was a planned respite from a fairly busy month. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), had promised November would be a bloody month and it, unfortunately, was the bloodiest since the group began its assaults against oil company facilities in January.
Despite the current lull in activities, there is every indication that militant attacks will pick up, perhaps between Christmas and New Years. There are signs of reconciliation and agreements, that unfortunately seem to fall apart before they are able to be implemented.
Brigadier General Samuel Salihu, commander of the federal forces in Port Harcourt, the country’s second largest city and headquarters for much of the oil industry, said the situation cannot be solved militarily. He said neither the militants with their AK47s nor the Army with its helicopter gunships can decide this problem, it must be a political decision.
Ijaw youths in the Niger Delta had worked out an agreement with Shell Oil Company to accompany its workers back into the Delta facilities that the company had shut down earlier in the year. The idea was for the youth to be paid for providing protection to Shell workers, but the two sides couldn’t agree upon a price for the protection service.
MEND also voiced their opposition to the plan bu stating it would “stiffly” resist any attempts by Shell to reopen facilities the militants have forced to close. The daily flow and production of crude oil has been decreased by about 500,000 barrels for several months now.
The spector of continued and increased vandalism and further abductions of expatriate and local oil field workers through the April presidential election next year, multinational oil companies are prepared to take tougher security measures to protect workers and spend more money to compensate staff in the increasingly volatile region, according to security and energy analysts.
Already, violence and the threat of it have reduced total oil production by roughly 700,000 barrels a day, or about 39% of the country’s current total output. If the violence continues or increases, companies may be forced to curtail even more production and take more drastic steps to protect workers and infrastructure.
Onshore production has been mired repeatedly over the years in violent clashes with communities, but militants and criminal gangs have recently ventured further out to sea. That threatens multibillion dollar offshore projects that companies like Royal Dutch Shell PLC and Exxon Mobil Corp. are counting on to boost oil reserves and profits at a time of stiff competition with state-run energy firms in other parts of the world.
The offshore oil fields are also crucial for Nigeria if it is live up to its sharply higher oil output forecasts over the next few years. The killing of an expatriate oil worker caught in the crossfire a couple of weeks ago, during a military hostage-rescue effort sharply increased the threat level for international oil companies. Executives will have to convince their own employees and governments back home that they are doing everything they can to protect workers in Nigeria.
In many ways, the hands of the oil companies are tied, leaving them at the mercy of a so-far ineffectual military and police service. Many of the companies employ private security workers for added protection, but Nigerian law doesn’t permit those workers to carrying weapons. Armed Nigerian security personnel guard most installations on the ground. In addition, it is common for companies to have former and off-duty policemen with automatic weapons guarding facilities and staff.
Earlier this month, the U.S. consulate in Lagos warned about the possibility of coordinated attacks on oil installations in the Niger Delta, underscoring the perception among diplomats and outside observers that the violence is likely to increase ahead of Nigeria’s 2007 general election in April.
Wordworks2001 is a retired US Army master sergeant who lives in Indiana and works in NIgeria. He blogs at http://wordworks2001.blogspot.com