Monday, June 23, 2008

Will the Center Hold?

MEND launched an extraordinary and audacious attack on June 19th 2008.  Three speedboats and around 30 armed militants overran Shell's massive floating production storage and offloading vessel 75 miles offshore in the heart of the Bonga oil and gas field, the largest Nigerian field developed at a cost of over $3.6 billion.  This act meant that 10% of Nigerian oil was been shut-in, on top of the 350-400,00 barrels already shut in by previous attacks.  

Once again MEND have shown how they can live up to their threats - to close significant oil operations at will. Furthermore, this can only be seen as (another)  humiliation of the Nigerian security forces who allegedly protect such assets.  The Nigerian President Yar' Adua promised retaliation and further militarization. Yet on June 21st a Chevron pipe-line was detonated near Escravos and another 120,00 barrels have been compromised.   A proposed Niger delta summit led by a senior Nigerian diplomat is seriously foundering and a number of key activists, leaders and militants have refused to participate.  In short, things are looking very rocky.  Much of the enthusiasm and hope that attended the appointment of a Niger delta politician - Goodluck Jonathan - as Vice President last June has evaporated quickly.  Last summer's truce declared by MEND unravelled and the so-called Peace Committee deliberations had fallen apart by November 2007.  In response to a call for a ceasefire from Niger delta elders, MEND has now declared from June 24th yet another truce.  But what is the likelihood that the government will seriously negotiate and be able to meet many of the conditions tabled by MEND over the last 18 months?  With the attack on Bonga - a massive investment which has already received some protection from the American naval forces of the European command (see my piece with Paul Lubeck and Ronnie Lipschitz on the Center for International Policy website entitled "Convergent Interests") - the Nigerian government (currently providing 15% of US oil imports, almost wholly high quality 'sweet crude' for the gasoline market) will be under enormous pressure to further militarise the Niger delta (on and off shore) to ensure a regular flow of oil and gas at a moment of unprecedented tightness in global markets.   This would of course be a huge provocation to MEND (and a confirmation of what they have been saying about the American imperial search for oil) and the destabilizing effects in a region in which heavily armed militants number, according to some sources,  over 25,000,  would be disastrous.  There was a small window last summer for something productive to happen in the tense negotiations between government and militants, and in the struggle over who gets to control Nigerian oil.  That window is closing, and with it the prospects of any stability in the global oil market......and in the fractious community that is the Nigerian polity.

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