Militant Group Targets Oil Producers in Nigeria

In Depth

A group called the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta has grabbed four oil workers and also attacked pipelines and platforms of Royal Dutch Shell. Shell is the biggest producer in the swamplands of the Niger River Delta. Financial Times reporter Dino Mahtani discusses developments with Steve Inskeep.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Just as in Iraq, kidnapping is a weapon in the arsenal of militants in Nigeria. A group in Nigeria has grabbed four oil workers, and also attacked the pipelines and platforms of Royal Dutch Shell. Shell is the biggest oil producer in the swamplands of the Niger River Delta. And Nigeria is one of the biggest suppliers of oil to the United States, which explains why the attacks by a group calling itself the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, has been blamed for rising oil prices around the world.

Financial Times reporter Dino Mahtani is covering the story from Lagos, Nigeria. And Mr. Mahtani, first off, we should point out that this area, the Niger River Delta, it's a desperately poor area. A lot of armed groups, there are a lot of attacks against oil companies. What makes this group and these attacks any different?

Mr. DINO MAHTANI (Reporter, Financial Times): Usually, in the Niger Delta, you have a series of armed groups who crawl the swamps and the rivers, tapping into pipelines, emptying well heads, and bunkering ships.

INSKEEP: They're stealing oil.

Mr. MAHTANI: They're stealing oil. This is, the practice is known in Nigeria as oil bunkering, and the proceeds of this are used to build up sophisticated arsenals. Many of these groups have been backed by political figures or ethnic figures in the Niger Delta, to vie for influence ahead of elections in 2007. The movement of the emancipation for the Niger Delta, their attacks seem to have been of a different nature. Normally, when oil workers are kidnapped, they are often released for a cash payment, and they're released on the day they've been captured.

This time, the hostages have been in captivity for something like a week, and this new movement, hitherto unknown, and who are keeping their identity very hidden, have actually put down political demands, which include the release of a former Nigerian governor who is the only ethnic Ijaw governor in Nigeria, and another Ijaw militant who has called for the breakup of Nigeria. And both men have been arrested by the Nigerian state.

INSKEEP: And when you're saying Ijaw, you're talking about a group that dominates this oil producing area, that the United States depends on, and a couple of their leaders have been arrested by the Nigerian government.

Mr. MAHTANI: That's right, the Ijaw are the dominant ethnic group in the Niger delta, and many Ijaw leaders and chiefs believe that, their people have been cheated out of Nigeria's oil by the greedy central government, by the greedy oil multinationals, as they term them. And this is one of the reasons why tensions are so high in the Delta.

INSKEEP: How have oil companies and the government responded to these attacks?

Mr. MAHTANI: It's been rather difficult for them. The government, on the one hand, you know, the Information Ministers have spoken that, you know, that they've been in touch with the kidnappers, and negotiating the hostage. The President, Olesugun Obasanjo, has called for the militants not to harm the kidnappees in any way. I think that if anything should happen to them that would really change the dimension of this scenario. But, on the other hand, the military, the joint task force, which is a military outfit based in the Delta to patrol the swamps and creeks, seems to be less sure about the whereabouts of these hostage takers.

INSKEEP: Could this seriously affect the supply of oil to the rest of the world?

Mr. MAHTANI: Well, Nigeria is the eighth biggest exporter in the world, and after these wave of attacks last week, which included the hostage taking and an explosion on a pipeline that fed a key export terminal, Nigeria had to shut down about 226,000 barrels per day, that's about 10% of Nigeria's total production, which are still down. If you think about the fact that these attacks were taken out by, seemingly, three boatloads of militiamen, then you might consider that as this group gains momentum and attracts more supporters, the damage that they could wreak if their demands are not met.

INSKEEP: Financial Times reporter Dino Mahtani is in Lagos, Nigeria, thanks very much.

Mr. MAHTANI: You're welcome.

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