Armed militants disguised in police uniforms attacked the offices of Italian oil company Agip in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, on Jan. 24, killing eight police officers and a Nigerian civilian. Following the attack, Agip evacuated its staff from its Port Harcourt facilities, citing security concerns in the area. On Jan. 25, the Nigerian government encouraged foreigners to remain in the country, saying the security situation is under control. Although this attack and several others in the Niger Delta since Jan. 11 constitute a spike in the ongoing violence in the region — and hence are making world oil markets jittery — they are not cause for panic.
In the Jan. 24 attack against Agip — part of the Italian oil company Eni — militants stormed the compound and exchanged fire with police before briefly occupying and robbing a bank on the premises. The militants escaped, though several witnesses reported that many were wounded in the firefight. This attack, by unknown perpetrators, followed the Jan. 11 attack by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) against offshore oil platforms operated by Royal Dutch/Shell. MEND, a previously unknown group, says it is still holding the four foreign oil workers it kidnapped during the attack. In the week following the kidnappings, MEND staged at least three other attacks against Shell platforms and flow-stations in the area, decreasing Nigeria's total oil exports by nearly 10 percent. MEND has called on Royal Dutch/Shell to pay $1.5 billion to compensate local residents for environmental damages. The group also is demanding that the Nigerian government release two leaders of the Ijaw ethnic group: Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, leader of the Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force, and former Bayelsa state Gov. Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, who skipped bail in Britain while facing money laundering charges. Militant attacks against oil pipelines and platforms in the Niger Delta are a common problem for multinational companies doing business in the area. Although the Nigerian population is nearly 40 percent Muslim, the majority of Muslims in the country live in the north, rather than in the oil-producing south, and there is no indication that Islamist militancy is fueling attacks against oil companies in the Niger Delta. Instead, the militants who carry out these attacks typically are ethnic-based militias, brotherhood-type groups akin to street gangs. Because unemployment among the southern youths is high — some estimates say as high as 35 percent — many young people in the area have few options other than to join armed militias, which are able to provide some income based on the sale of fuel illegally siphoned from pipelines. Many of these militias demand that oil companies operating in their traditional ethnic territory pay for environmental damage and for the resources they are withdrawing from their land. To date, the vast majority of attacks against multinational companies operating in Nigeria have targeted Nigerian citizens, though some Westerners have been kidnapped. The four Shell workers kidnapped Jan. 11 are an American, a Bulgarian, a Briton and a Honduran. In June 2005, an ethnic militant group kidnapped two Germans employed by Louisiana-based B&B Oilfield Services, Inc., while the workers were en route from Nigeria's Delta state to Bayelsa state. The two were later freed. These groups typically kidnap victims to obtain a ransom payment — rather than to kill them for political gain — though holding and transporting hostages in the delta's rough terrain can cost lives. Additionally, militias often are hired for purposes of political thuggery. During the 2003 election campaign, local candidates hired militias to conduct such things as politically motivated killings and to intimidate voters and blockade polling places. With the presidential election scheduled for 2007, some militia groups indicate they already have been approached to provide such services ahead of party primaries. While the current period of violence is alarming world crude markets and investors, it is not a particularly unusual occurrence in the Niger Delta. Businesses that operate in the area are accustomed to the risk and anticipate that spikes in the level of violence will occur on a fairly regular basis. Likewise, they anticipate that such attacks will occasionally cause disruptions in oil production. The current uptick is similar to others that have occurred in the 20-year cycle of violence. In the run-up to the 2007 election, we can expect many similar violent occurrences.