May 28th 2009 | LAGOS
From The Economist print edition
Will the government’s latest effort to bash the militants get more oil flowing?
A SPECIAL federal task-force set up to help restore peace in Nigeria’s oil-rich but troubled Delta region has launched a wave of attacks on a militants’ camp, ending months of relative calm in the region. It is too soon to say whether it will squash the armed gangs and let the battered oil industry reassert itself in the area. In the short run, it may even have made things worse. Without a doubt, a lot of people have been killed.
After the government made overtures towards the Delta militants nearly a year ago, about eight months of relative peace ensued. As oil prices fell, so did the rate of oil theft and pipeline sabotage. But local human-rights campaigners say that since May 15th helicopters and naval gunships have killed hundreds of civilians and displaced thousands more. Government forces, they say, have shown scant regard for civilians.
The fighting is mainly in an area in the southern Delta state near the Escravos oil terminal, run by an American oil company, Chevron, where much of the crude that makes Nigeria Africa’s largest exporter is processed. With few roads or modern connections and plenty of swamps, government forces can hammer the militants—and the civilians among whom they live—with little scrutiny from outside.
The area’s main militant group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, known as MEND, said it would move a British hostage, whom they have held since September, to the battle zone as a human shield. Echoing threats it made at the height of violence two years ago, MEND also told all foreign oil workers to leave the region for their own safety. Its additional threat to block the Delta’s waterways, which would disrupt oil exports even more, helped nudge world prices back up to $63 a barrel. On May 25th, MEND said it had blown up one of Chevron’s biggest pipelines in retaliation for the army’s offensive. The company had to shut off part of its output.
The militant camp the government is smashing is run by a local man known as Government Tompolo, who had been aligned with MEND but fell out with it after he was rumoured to be negotiating with state officials trying to persuade him to close his camp in return for handsome pay-offs for him and his friends. But the army comes under federal authority and is removed from decisions by officials of the state. No one is sure what sparked the latest wave of attacks but it seems likely that Mr Tompolo’s “boys” engaged the army in a series of skirmishes, provoking it to hit back as hard as it could.
MEND says it is fighting for a fairer share of the country’s oil revenue to go to the dirt-poor people who live in the area. But the Nigerian government says that MEND and other armed groups in the region are just criminals who sow chaos in order to steal vast amounts of the country’s crude oil, about a tenth of which is reckoned to be stolen before it reaches the export terminals. Aerial photographs of the Delta show dozens of tankers illegally linked to pipelines, siphoning off millions of barrels of crude for sale abroad. According to security experts, theft on such a scale requires the co-operation of large numbers of senior people in Nigeria’s navy.
In any event, banditry and insurrection in the Delta, which got out of hand in 2006 and worsened in 2007 with the emergence of MEND, have reduced Nigeria’s oil output by as much as a quarter. When Umaru Yar’Adua won the presidency two years ago, he promised to restore stability in the area. He has failed to do so. Oil monitors say Nigeria has been producing about 1.6m barrels a day, barely two-thirds of its quota set by OPEC, the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.