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Instability in Nigeria's Delta Region

Dr. Nivedita Ray was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • February 13, 2006

    In the last month tensions had mounted in Nigeria's oil rich Delta region due to the kidnapping of four expatriate oil workers and attacks by militant youths at two oil flow stations at Bayelsa state, owned by the energy giant Shell. The violence caused a shock in the Delta. Shell had to evacuate 326 staff and contract workers from four remote oil facilities and shut down production of 211, 000 barrels per day in the western Delta region. This move had led to price increase in the already jumpy oil market. There were also apprehensions that a bloody crackdown may spark a broader wave of violence in the restive region and could lead to a return to the dark days of 2003, when clashes between soldiers and rival ethnic groups left hundreds dead and thousands homeless.

    Though at the moment tensions have been relieved with the release of hostages by the militants, the situation still remains tense. The demands of the militants for the release of Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, a militia leader from the region facing treason charges, has not yet been met. The militant group Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, which claims to have 5,000 warriors, aims to cripple Shell's activities in the area and destroy the capacity of the Nigerian government to export. Given this situation one cannot dismiss the likelihood of further violent attacks in the Delta.

    Delta is an unstable area of Nigeria and often access to oil revenue is the trigger for the violence. Low-level conflict among security forces, militias and pirate gangs around the oil wells, swamps and creeks leave hundreds dead every year. The region is home to vast oil reserves, which makes the country one of the world's biggest oil exporters. But unfortunately, oil, which could potentially have allowed Nigeria to be one of the wealthiest countries in Africa, has instead led it to become one of the poorest. Communities in the region have seen little benefit from the revenue derived from the export of oil. The region remains poor and under-developed.

    The activities of large oil corporations such as Mobil, Chevron, Shell, Elf, Agip have raised many criticisms and concerns. Criticisms abound about the way the oil companies have neglected the surrounding environment and health of the local communities. Regular oil spills, blatant dumping of industrial wastes and promises of development projects that are not pursued through, have all contributed to the increasing environmental and health problems. The local populace has to suffer not only the adverse consequences of oil production and environmental degradation but also the deployment of abusive army and police units. They are locked in a cycle of extreme poverty, widespread unemployment, environmental pollution, and social injustice that has increasingly manifested itself in violent conflict. The Ogoni, Ijaw and other people in the Niger Delta, who have been the worst affected for decades, have been trying to stand up for themselves, their environment and their basic human and economic rights. And for decades the communities have been protesting against the injustices done by the federal Government and the oil multinationals, which in turn have responded by harshly cracking down on protesters.

    Little has changed at present and oil remains the region's curse. Pipelines are regularly attacked by impoverished communities, which risk lives to siphon off fuel. Oil installations are also frequently targeted, which is estimated to result in thousands of crude oil wastage each year. Though the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDCC), set up in 2001 to redress decades of neglect suffered by the oil-rich region is gearing up to make its impact felt, the government has been implementing a policy of strengthening its military presence in the region. Key oil installations in the Delta region are under the protection of troops, a move aimed at ending the disruption of oil exports by the militant youths who have been siphoning oil from pipelines and attacking pumping stations, pipelines, loading points, export tankers, tank farms, and refined petroleum depots. However, the presence of troops has not led to the restoration of order, given that they are often outgunned by the militias. The spiral of violence has in fact intensified with militants opting for kidnapping expatriate oil workers and stealing crude oil from the pipelines, which is later sold in the black market for buying weapons to sustain the struggle. Easy availability of weapons has worsened the situation.

    Analysts say the military can do little without parallel efforts to tackle the roots of the problem. Therefore, addressing the underlying causes of the conflict is more important than merely engaging in a confrontation by both the federal government and the oil multinationals. Even countries like India that have stakes in this region need to play a proactive role in restoring stability. Otherwise repeated attacks by aggrieved militant groups will disrupt oil production and oil supply.

    As far as India is concerned any kind of instability leading to disruption in oil supply will jeopardize its interest. India imports over 10 million tonnes of crude oil and depends on 20 per cent of its oil imports from Nigeria. For the world too stability in the delta region is crucial, since Nigeria is the world's sixth largest oil exporter, producing 2.5 million dollars per day. Any disruption will have global economic implications. The recent violence has cut Nigeria's daily oil exports of 2.5 million by nearly 10 per cent and has also claimed at least 23 lives. As things stand, the insurgent groups in Nigeria's Delta region are a real threat to oil markets. If they were to carry out their threats, it would mean stoppage to an oil machine that pumps 2.5 million barrels per day (bpd) of the world's production, which eventually may lead to increase in crude prices and the depressing of stocks around the world.