Militants based in the Niger Delta have taken credit for a series of attacks against Shell and Chevron pipelines in recent days, prompting Chevron to evacuate hundreds of its employees from the region.
The most organized of these militant groups, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), has also threatened to expand its war from the delta into northern parts of Nigeria. That region is home to President Umaru Yar'Adua, whom they blame for not doing more to resolve the conflict as he promised during the 2006-2007 election campaign.
"It [the renewed violence] is happening simply because we want to negotiate from a position of strength," writes MEND spokesman Jomo Gbomo in an email to the Monitor. "The government has simply refused to address the root issues even in its so called amnesty offer, and it is about time we confront 50 years of beating about the bush head on."
Ripple effects of the conflict
Instability in the Niger Delta reverberates far beyond the territory of Nigeria. A recent attack on the presidential palace in neighboring Equatorial Guinea – another major oil producer in the Gulf of Guinea region – has been blamed on Niger Delta rebels.
Oil prices have a tendency to spike upward whenever political instability threatens an area where oil is produced or transported, whether it's in Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, and even the pirate-ridden coastline of Somalia.
Land rights and environmental damage
Militancy in the Niger Delta region began as a protest over environmental damage to the fragile fishing communities of the delta, and also over who should control and benefit from the region's rich oil-resources: Nigeria's political class, or the residents of the Niger Delta itself.
Some Niger Delta protests have been largely peaceful and nonviolent, such as those of the Ogoni-speaking people, led by the late Nigerian writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. Royal Dutch Shell oil company recently agreed to a $15.5 million out-of-court settlement with the families of Mr. Saro-Wiwa and others who were executed by the Nigerian government in the 1990s for supposed treasonous activity.
Violent tactics grab headlines
But the violent tactics of MEND, including kidnappings of oil workers and the destruction of pipelines and oil platforms, have attracted more media attention, if not actual political results.
In recent days, MEND has taken credit for the bombing of a Shell-operated crude-oil trunk line in Bayelsa State, as well as bombing attacks on two separate Chevron-operated flow stations in Delta State. Chevron has taken the precautionary step of evacuating 350 oil workers from the region, after MEND issued threats against oil workers lest they face "Hurricane Piper Alpha."
"Shell should take a cue from Chevron and vacate the Niger Delta region to avoid collateral damage to their investment and death to staff," MEND said in a press statement. "We do not intend to waste time taking hostages. Hurricanes are no respecters of anyone."
Nigerian military spokesmen have called MEND's threats "propaganda," but Mr. Yar'adua has been reported in local newspapers to have begun a new round of talks with militant leaders in the region, offering amnesty to those who join the peace process.