A surge of attacks by militants on oil and gas wells and pipelines in southern Nigeria is threatening to derail the army’s campaign to defeat the Islamist terror group Boko Haram in the north, as the government finds itself fighting separate insurgencies raging on opposite ends of Africa’s most-populous country.
The bombing of pipelines by a group calling itself the “Niger Delta Avengers” has cut Nigeria’s oil output by half in recent weeks and forced the government of President Muhammadu Buhari to begin shifting military assets — including some U.S.-trained forces — away from the fight against the brutal Boko Haram movement, which has declared its allegiance to Islamic State.
“There are signs that military resources are being diverted from the northeast to beef up the military presence in the Delta, because what’s going on in the Delta fundamentally affects the revenue of the nation,” said John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria.
Some 70 percent of the government’s annual revenues comes from oil and gas exports, and officials in Abuja are scrambling to contain the threat — deploying warships, gunboats and fighter jets to the Niger Delta during recent weeks.
“The fear,” said Mr. Campbell, now with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, “is that if you reduce the military pressure that’s being applied in the northeast on Boko Haram, which is on a backfoot but is not destroyed, the group will be able to revive itself quite quickly.”
The sobering assessment comes just weeks after national security sources made key gains in the field against Boko Haram — a jihadi group that has made headlines during recent years with its grisly use of female suicide bombers and its mass kidnapping of schoolgirls.
With a name that loosely translates as “Western education is sin,” the group controls a territory the size of Maryland along Nigeria’s northeastern borders with Niger, Chad and Cameroon. Intelligence officials say its leader is bent on establishing an Islamic State-style caliphate there.
A report last month by the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based think tank, maintained that Boko Haram had been “put on the defensive” by an expanded and coordinated military response that Nigeria and its neighbors have been engaging in since last year.
But a new report this week from the ICG highlighted widespread corruption in Nigeria’s armed services, and concluded that the military lacks the manpower to conduct a two-front war.
“Nigeria’s military is in distress,” the ICG said. “For a country of over 170 million people, facing several security challenges — from an Islamist insurgency in the north east to a resource-based conflict in the Niger Delta — a military numbering less than 120,000 personnel is clearly inadequate.”
Nonetheless, to secure oil infrastructure in the south, the army recently moved a group of U.S.-trained troops from the northeastern front against Boko Haram, according to The Wall Street Journal, which said the army has also used surveillance planes to try to peer into the thick mangrove forests and find the camps held by the so-called Niger Delta Avengers.
President Buhari, who has spent recent days receiving medical treatment in Britain, is hoping to find a negotiated solution to the attacks in the south. He ordered this week a two-week suspension of military attacks in the south to provide the insurgents with a window to begin negotiations.
Nigerian Oil Minister Emmanuel Ibe Kachikwu said Monday that the president had authorized the appointment of a high-level team “to begin the process of a very intensive dialogue with those caught in the middle of this.”
“I want to call on the militants to sheath their weapons and embrace dialogue with government,” Mr. Kachikwu said, according to Reuters. “We are making contacts with everybody who is involved, the ones that we can identify, [and] through them, the ones that we can’t identify, so that there is a lot more inclusiveness in this dialogue.”
‘Going to be bloody’
About 70 percent of Nigerians live on no more than $1.25 a day. Though the nation was, until recently, Africa’s leading oil producer, it must import gasoline because its own refineries have collapsed as a result of widespread corruption.
Simmering tension between Nigeria’s predominantly Christian south and mainly Muslim north add a layer of complexity to the current situation, although most analysts, including Mr. Campbell, say the recent oil pipeline attacks have nothing to do with religion.
But it still remains to be seen whether the Niger Delta Avengers may resist negotiating with representatives of the Buhari government. Mr. Buhari is himself a Muslim who last year defeated incumbent President Goodluck Johnson, a Christian, in a bitterly fought race for the presidency.
The recent wave of attacks, meanwhile, comes after years of relative calm in the Niger Delta, the nation’s main oil-producing region, where Christian residents have long voiced grievances about oil pollution and marginalization by the government.
“It is going to [be] bloody this time round,” said a statement attributed to the Niger Delta Avengers that circulated on May 30, according to Deutsche Welle, the German government’s international news service.
Mr. Campbell said little is known about the organization’s leadership and fighters, but that it appears to have been born out of the so-called Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). MEND was tied to a wave of attacks that rocked southern Nigeria during the mid-2000s, including the brazen, nighttime speedboat attack that resulted in the shutdown of an offshore Shell platform in 2008.
But such disruptions largely ended in 2009, when then-Nigerian President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua cut a deal that involved significant government payoffs and amnesty for captured MEND fighters.
The southern unrest tapered off under Mr. Jonathan, who continued the amnesty and payoff programs despite international criticism that it added to rampant corruption within Nigeria’s government and oil sector.
Mr. Buhari vowed during his campaign last year to engage in a major anti-corruption push if elected — a promise that may have played a role in the revived attacks under the Niger Delta Avengers’ banner during recent months.
“The area is impoverished [and] underdeveloped,” Mr. Campbell said. “Everybody knows that the way to get attention and to get money is to blow up infrastructure. So that’s what they’re doing, and, to a certain extent, it seems to be working.”
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