They came from nowhere.
Unlike previous militant groups in the embattled Niger Delta region, the latest and most deadly, have no prominent personalities among their ranks, nor obvious sources of funding.
Some deduce the Niger Delta Avengers aren’t even a militia force in their own right – but a proxy for rebel leader Government Ekpemupolo (aka ‘Tompolo’). Others say the NDA is funded by financial heavyweights with political motives they aim to achieve by crippling the nation’s oil revenue. Links are even mooted to former President Goodluck Jonathan or his allies, motivated by a desperate ploy to escape the current corruption investigations championed by President Muhammadu Buhari.
More likely is that the NDA is an amorphous, ad hoc group comprising of ex-militants who once had embraced an amnesty by Jonathan’s predecessor, Umaru Yar’adua, but now have returned to their old ways. Others are unrepentant hardline militants.
Sources in the Delta point to between 200 and 300 members, mostly of Ijaw and Urhobo ethnicity, who were previously part of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). The group has no structured leadership or known operational base, but operates in a guerrilla fashion.
Overtaken by Angola
What the NDA does have is a fixed agenda, and it has accomplished at least one of its goals with devastating efficiency. The organization wants to “cripple Nigeria’s economy,” NDA spokesman, Colonel Mudoch Agbinibo, has said.
Its attacks since January have achieved just that. In the space of six months, Nigeria’s oil production has plummeted to a 22-year low. The NDA has shut down 50% of crude production, having forced Chevron and Royal Dutch Shell to close sites since April. Oil exports have dropped from 2.2 million barrels per day to as little as 990,000 at the end of May. The net result: Nigeria has lost its title as Africa’s largest oil producer to Angola.
But economic devastation is only the first goal. The NDA has made a number of demands in order for peace to return to the region. All oil-polluted areas in the Niger Delta must be restored and compensation paid to the communities. The Niger Delta Amnesty program that pays militants to keep the peace must continue indefinitely and be allowed to function effectively.
More recently the demands have been escalated. The NDA announced in early May that it is fighting for a sovereign state of Niger Delta. The group intends to establish its own currency, flag and passports by October. It called on the United Nations to support its objective.
Other demands would appear to back the notion of links to the outgoing Jonathan administration and members of the PDP elite. The NDA has claimed that the Buhari administration’s anti-corruption crusade is skewed against the PDP. Members of Buhari’s ruling APC who have been indicted in corruption cases should also be made to face trial, it says. The NDA’s ultimate goal is to force the federal government to drop corruption charges against PDP leaders, allies and financiers, some conclude.
Affiliations are clearer with the pro-Biafra movement in southern Nigeria. The NDA has affirmed its support for Nnamdi Kanu, the head of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), who has been in detention since October and is awaiting trial on charges of treason.
Pro-Biafra activists are campaigning for Kanu’s release and the realisation of an independent state of Biafra, which was declared in southeast Nigeria in 1967 but was reintegrated into the country in 1970 after the civil war.
The alliance between the two is toxic. If the NDA were to gain IPOB’s support, its manpower could be dramatically increased into the thousands.
Ultimatum to Apologize
Ties to Tompolo, the former commander of MEND, are less clear cut. In January, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission arraigned the ex-warlord on a 40-count charge for allegedly appropriating $173 million from a public-private partnership agreement between the Nigerian Maritime Administration & Safety Agency (NIMASA) and his company, Global West Vessel Specialists Limited. A warrant for his arrest issued on Jan. 14 coincided with the first NDA attack.
But Tompolo – who remains in hiding – has denied any links to the NDA. In May, Tompolo publicly endorsed the continuation of repair works to Royal Dutch Shell’s Forcados Pipeline in Burutu, a 250,000 barrel-a-day export terminal that the NDA had attacked. Tompolo’s statement undermined the Niger Delta struggle, fumed the NDA. It issued Tompolo a three-day ultimatum to apologize for his comments. If he failed to do so, the NDA would blow up all oil installations in Tompolo’s hometown of Gbaramatu, Delta State.
Tompolo refused. Consequently, the NDA blew up the NNPC’s crude and gas lines, and Well D25 in Abiteye, a key gas well operated by Chevron Nigeria Limited (CNL) on May 4.
‘Operation Red Economy’
The NDA unleashed its string of attacks code-named “Operation Red Economy” in January, with the bombing the Escravos-Lagos pipeline, which is owned and operated by a subsidiary of the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). This led to a $400,000 daily loss to gas supplies and power generation.
A simultaneous attack breached the Bonny-Okrika pipeline on the other side of the Delta, in Port Harcourt. Then came a third attack, in February, targeting Royal Dutch Shell’s Forcados Pipeline.
According to diplomatic sources and security experts, the attack was carried out by divers with sophisticated equipment and knowledge of the area, displaying a level of skill and inside intelligence rarely seen since the Niger Delta insurgency that ended in 2009. The NDA followed with a statement announcing that its attacks would continue until the government addressed its grievances.
And continue they have. Last month, the NDA claimed responsibility for an attack on Chevron’s offshore Valve Platform near Escravos in the Warri South West Local Government Area of Delta State. It’s estimated that Nigeria will lose $5.3 million and 130,000 barrels of oil daily while the platform is offline. The facility is among Chevron’s most profitable platforms, representing a huge setback to the country’s oil production.
Attacks in late May included a pipeline supplying gas to Chevron’s Escravos tank farm in Delta State and a crude oil pipeline operated by Italy’s ENI S.p.A. in Bayelsa State.
This month, the NDA has reported blowing up the Ogboinbiri-Tebidaba and Clough Creek-Tebidaba pipelines in Bayelsa owned by ENI, along with Chevron oil wells RMP 23 and RMP 24.
The Buhari administration’s response to the attacks has been to treat the NDA in the same way as it has dealt with Boko Haram in the north of Nigeria. In late May, the President ordered a heightened military presence and instructed the Chief of Naval Staff to reorganize the military Joint Task Force. “Everything possible will be done to protect personnel and oil assets in the region,” said Buhari.
But a military confrontation could end in “disaster,” commentators including Britain’s Foreign Minister Philip Hammond have warned, urging Buhari to address the root causes of the conflict.
While Buhari has vowed to crush the militants, a wide-scale conflict could stretch security forces already battling Boko Haram, and drain increasingly limited resources as the lack of oil batters the economy.
NDA spokesman Agbinibo said this week that the group is ready to engage in talks if the government fosters a “genuine attitude and conducive atmosphere” and ensures “independent mediators” manage the dialogue. In the meantime, the NDA vowed to continue attacks.
In a menacing threat of escalation, the NDA also stated that it might renege on its previous declaration not to attack human targets should multinationals ignore its warnings and continue to repair damaged facilities and buy oil from the region.
Nigeria’s government could meet the NDA’s demands with relative ease. Given the unpredictability with which the NDA operates, its proposal represents the best hope of de-escalation. Buhari should move quickly to seize on this offer before it’s rescinded.
The author is Luke Doogan, Africa Analyst at West Sands Advisory Limited. After working in the energy industry in Ghana, Luke has focused on investigating the intricacies of how informal networks exert influence over political and commercial decision-making throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. West Sands is a business intelligence, investigations and political advisory firm that has, since 2006, helped clients identify opportunities and reduce risk in emerging and frontier markets.