Revisiting the Niger Delta: Energy Infrastructure Threatened
While Nigeria has recently captured international headlines with terrorist attacks carried out by Boko Haram, it’s important to remember that it was not long ago when another security threat dominated the discourse. From 2005 to 2009, Nigeria’s Niger Delta region in the south was embroiled in an insurgency - fueled by decades of poor resource management - that nearly crippled oil production. Nigeria is a top oil producer, with 37.2 billion barrels in reserves and an average production rate of 2.17 to 2.4 million barrels per day (bbl/d). It is also a particularly important country for the global oil market, as it produces a light, easily refined variety of crude. Though politically motivated violence aimed at energy assets has been down since the 2009 amnesty, criminal attacks – in the form of onshore oil theft and sabotage, as well as (offshore) maritime criminality and piracy – have been on the rise. Such attacks can also cause large disruptions to the oil industry, as illustrated in Shell’s recent closure of the Bonny oil pipeline, affecting 150,000 barrels per day of production, due to a fire caused by pipeline sabotage.
Energy Assets Targeted: The Backstory
The targeting of energy infrastructure in the Niger Delta did not appear overnight. The current trends, which are characterized by large-scale oil theft operations (typically involving pipeline sabotage) and offshore attacks aimed at oil tankers, reflect not only how the conflict context is evolving but also the targeting behaviors of the non-state groups (many of which are comprised of criminal entrepreneurs) operating in this region. While manifestations of violence are grounded in community protests that emerged in the 1980s and 90s due to environmental damages caused by oil activities, it was not until the mid-1990s that arms were introduced into the region on a broad scale. Armed groups coalesced around political objectives, which then shape-shifted into criminal enterprises in the early 2000s. During this time the targeting of energy infrastructure occurred largely for criminal purposes, though politically motivated attacks and disruptions, mainly in the form of blockades, also occurred.
Looking at the open-source data captured in the Energy Infrastructure Attack Database (EIAD) – a dataset for reported attacks by non-state actors on EI since 1980, which was developed by the Center for Security Studies in partnership with the Paul Scherrer Institute – there is a clear shift in tactical and targeting behavior in 2005. Prior to this, EI attacks rarely reached the press and, when they did, many appeared to be merely criminal in nature (i.e., involving the sabotage of pipelines, or kidnappings). By 2005 the situation had changed considerably and attacks spiked from less than 20 per year between 2001 and 2005 to 61 attacks in 2006 and well over 100 in 2008. These numbers, however, are quite small when compared with data gathered by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), which recorded 500-900 pipeline attacks in 2001-05, 2200 in 2005, and over 3,000 in 2006-07. Both datasets – though different in scale – reveal a tremendous drop in attacks by June 2009 when the government reached an amnesty deal with the armed groups.
Accounting for this shift was the formation in 2005 of the umbrella militant group the Movement for the Emancipation of the People of the Niger Delta (MEND). The creation of MEND was a consequence of years of tactical development in the region in which armed actors learned how to leverage networks and terrain to achieve objectives. Fueled by the arrests of Ijaw militants and frustration with the political regime, MEND re-energized the political struggle and adopted a targeting strategy that sought to carry out frequent attacks on Nigeria’s EI with the aim of significantly affecting supplies (cutting production by 30%), and forcing the government – which depends on oil revenues – to address its political and economic grievances. Fear and damage became the goals. MEND also used EI attacks as a platform to air grievances, often sending statements to media outlets claiming responsibility for attacks. Consequently, the government introduced an amnesty agreement in June 2009 that led to the disarming of many groups and the creation of a post-amnesty program to offer ex-militants a pathway to rehabilitation and re-integration. It bears mentioning, however, that a key part of this strategy hinged on paying off rebel leaders – payments that continue today and make up a reported $40 million annually.
Context Transformation: Criminality Returns & the Coming Wave
Though EI attacks dropped considerably in 2009, the symptoms that allowed for the 2005-9 cluster to emerge remain. Thus it comes as no surprise that EI attacks in this region are again on the rise, with the NNPC recording nearly 3,000 pipeline attacks in 2011. The primary characteristic of the emerging cluster is the growing oil theft business, which according to Nigerian officials is costing the government $1 billion per month in lost revenue. Furthermore, community protests aimed at ONG operations are occurring regularly and aggrieved ex-militants have organized blockades at both a Journalist Union office in the Niger Delta and the Federal Secretariat building in Abuja to protest the lack of stipend payments.
Looking ahead, the picture looks far from rosy and indicates that another wave of attacks in this region may be imminent. Indeed, big questions surround what the next wave of attacks will look like and how targeting behaviors will evolve. Another important question is whether attacks will be confined to the shores of Nigeria or will ripple out across the Gulf of Guinea where maritime criminality and piracy aimed at energy carriers is on the rise – up from 25 reported incidents in 2011 to 35 so far this year. One thing, however, is certain: with Abuja dealing with a political crisis and the rise of Boko Haram in the north, one doubts whether the political will (and even the capacity) exists to anticipate and prevent the coming wave of attacks in the south. In other words, it feels like 2005 all over again.