Nigeria's oil rebels end cease-fire

LAGOS, Nigeria — A militant group in Nigeria’s oil-rich delta region has called off a cease-fire that had held since July, threatening a fragile peace process in the U.S.’s fifth-largest oil supplier.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend), an armed group that demands a greater share of oil revenues for delta inhabitants, ended its temporary truce over the weekend. Mend heavily criticized the Nigerian government for what it sees as a continued failure to empower local communities, many of whom live in poverty despite their resource-rich land. The Mend rebels also demand that the oil companies stop the environmental degradation of the Niger Delta.

“All companies related to the oil industry in the Niger Delta should prepare for an all-out onslaught against their installations and personnel,” a Mend spokesman said in a statement released over the weekend. “Nothing will be spared.”

Militants’ attacks on pipelines and facilities in recent years have severely dented the output of Nigeria’s oil, which accounts for more than 85 percent of government revenues. Nigeria once comfortably held the title of Africa’s biggest oil producer, but the country now competes for that top spot with Angola.

Oil production had been rising again during the recent lull in violence by Mend and other groups. Last month, Citibank forecast that Nigeria would pump out an average of 2.25 million barrels a day in 2010, up from 1.83 million barrels a day in 2009. This would mark an upturn after four years of falling production. Foreign oil giants present in the delta include the U.S.’ ExxonMobil and Anglo-Dutch group Shell.

After the Mend rebels announced that they will resume their sabotage, Citibank told GlobalPost that it will not revise its optimistic forecast, reasoning that at least in the first half of this year attacks will not reach the levels seen in preceding years, even though it assumes sporadic attacks will resume.

The renewed call to arms thus threatens a promising period for the delta. Nigeria’s President Umaru Yar’Adua last August launched an amnesty that lured thousands of youths to give up their weapons in return for stipends and training. The scheme was seen by many as a positive step and Mend extended their cease-fire indefinitely in October.

But the peace process has since stalled, as cash handouts and training courses have in many cases not materialized.

“The post-amnesty program is not going well at all,” said Dimieari Von Kemedi, a state official in Bayelsa, one of Nigeria’s handful of oil-producing states. “There is no credible rehabilitation program and development spending in the delta has not sped up. We have not moved one inch since disarmament.”

Some top oil executives partly attribute the foundering peace process to the prolonged absence of Yar’Adua. Nigeria’s president left the country for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia more than two months ago and has not been seen since. Yar’Adua has also not formally handed over power to Goodluck Jonathan, vice president, creating a sense of limbo in Africa’s most populous country.

Problems are mounting in the president’s absence, from the international response to a Nigerian man’s attempted terrorist attack on the U.S. in December, to ethnic violence at home in January. The clashes in Jos, a city in central Nigeria, took place between the mainly Christian Berom tribe and the mainly Muslim Hausa group. More than 320 were killed, according to police figures, and thousands were displaced. Similar clashes in November 2008 left some 700 dead, according to Human Rights Watch.

“These things would have happened regardless of whether the president was there,” said Sebastian Spio-Garbrah, an Africa analyst at Eurasia, a political risk consultancy. “But his absence prevents the government from having a coherent response. Jonathan is being cautious as he does not know where he stands.”

Just hours after the official end of the Mend cease-fire, Shell workers discovered a sabotaged pipeline in the delta on Saturday. The energy giant would not disclose how much the damage would affect its daily production. Neither Mend nor any other rebel group has claimed responsibility for the sabotage, and it remains unclear whether the incident is linked to the end of the cease-fire.

Mend does not include all the militants of the Niger Delta. Many attacks are also carried out by criminals seeking a profit, rather than rebels with a cause. The practice of sabotaging pipelines to steal oil, or kidnapping oil companies’ expatriate workers to obtain ransoms, is not always linked to the activists' campaign.

Some local officials say the Mend statement must be viewed in context. “This is just one group. Many leaders and their boys remain committed to peace,” says Von Kemedi. “But this is a wake-up call to the government that it needs to start spending more and quickly on the delta. It is a time to be careful but not alarmed.”