Mysterious as it is, the group has proved a menace to production in the Niger Delta region, recalling the havoc that the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) wreaked less than a decade ago. The Niger Delta Avengers have demonstrated a level of prowess, executing well-planned attacks on strategic targets. For example, the explosion at Chevron's offshore facility, a major hub, forced the company to suspend 90,000 barrels per day in oil production. Meanwhile, Royal Dutch/Shell's Forcados pipeline has been out of commission since the Niger Delta Avengers assaulted the facility Feb. 14. During that attack, the militants apparently detonated explosives under water to damage the pipeline, perhaps employing divers. Repairing the pipeline has been a long and involved undertaking.
On May 12, the group issued a two-week ultimatum, promising further strikes if Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari did not accede to its political demands. The threat will only add to the Nigerian oil and natural gas industry's considerable woes, including low oil prices, accidental leaks and damaged pipelines. But since roughly one-third of Nigeria's oil production occurs far from shore in the Gulf of Guinea, most of the country's oil industry appears safe from peril, at least for now. Other parts of the delta provide the bulk of Nigeria's output, and the fields around Qua Iboe are now the country's most productive.
Despite the group's sophistication, the Niger Delta Avengers' militancy campaign has covered less ground than those of past groups in the region. Until the group can broaden its support base beyond Warri, the center of its activities, its attacks will likely stay focused in the area. Even though Shell has evacuated workers from its Bonga offshore deep-water field, the Niger Delta Avengers have yet to venture that far from the coast. (By contrast, MEND struck the Bonga field in 2008.) Even so, infrastructure in Warri, such as the Forcados and Escravos oil export terminals, and offshore fields in the surrounding shallow waters platform remain at risk.
Avenging Goodluck Jonathan
In hiding their identities, the Niger Delta Avengers have also obscured their political motives. Nonetheless, the group's location provides some insight into the aims — and support networks — that drive it. After all, given its advanced attacks, the group is likely more than a ragtag band of disgruntled individuals. And in the Niger Delta, militancy and politics are deeply intertwined.
Because of the fractures in Nigeria's socio-political system, any shift in economic support and political power is bound to leave some interest groups out in the cold: Not all stakeholders can maintain their prominence in a country with such strained resources. A year ago, the Niger Delta lost its claim to power when Buhari, a northerner, defeated former President Goodluck Jonathan in elections. To the rest of the country's dismay, Jonathan's administration gave the region political prestige: key ministerial positions, patronage and the spoils of the oil industry. Since assuming office, Buhari has endeavored to answer some of his constituents' demands by dismantling the system, rooting out corruption in the oil industry and reforming it to increase transparency. Many of the Niger Delta's politicians see this redistribution of power and revenue as a loss in a zero-sum game.
The last time the country's political system attempted such reform, MEND — backed by politicians from the south — waged a lengthy war that helped catapult Jonathan to the vice presidency (he then became president after Umaru Yaradua died in office). In light of this violent precedent, Buhari must proceed with caution not only in his efforts to abolish corruption and restore funds to diminished government coffers but also in his desire to go after his predecessor. Either initiative could set off another widespread militant movement with support from regional politicians.
Already, the Buhari government's pursuit of legal action against corrupt former officials has no doubt alarmed many from Jonathan's administration. Implication in a corruption case could end political careers, or worse. It is plausible that members of the previous administration may have encouraged the Niger Delta Avengers' militancy in an attempt to gain leverage over Buhari.
The president has taken a pragmatic approach to the situation so far. Amid fears that the amnesty program for former Niger Delta militants would be scrapped when its five-year mandate expired in 2015, Buhari extended it through at least 2017. In addition, he has honored key security contracts with former militants. Although he will almost certainly continue to dispatch security forces to the Niger Delta to try to limit the severity and frequency of attacks, the region's marshy terrain hinders travel and, in turn, military intervention.
Wrath of the Avengers
Whatever their underlying intentions, the Niger Delta Avengers have no real claim to legitimacy in the Niger Delta region, despite their lofty rhetoric. No former militants have publicly admitted any knowledge of the group. At the same time, former MEND members, who still receive many of same benefits they enjoyed under Jonathan's administration, have stayed out of the fray. In fact, MEND's well-known former leader, Government "Tompolo" Ekpemupolo, has publicly denounced the group. Though Tompolo has not hesitated to complain about his treatment under the Buhari administration — which has leveled fraud charges against him — he has roundly criticized the Niger Delta Avengers' actions. He even went so far as to endorse the reconstruction of the oil and natural gas infrastructure they damaged, prompting the group to give him 72 hours to retract his comments.
Still, the group's recent attacks have made clear that what they lack in political clout — and name recognition — they make up for in chaos.