Tom Burgis Nigerian bombings provide a wake up call

After Friday’s deadly car-bombings in Nigeria’s capital, there can be no doubt that militants from the Niger delta retain a serious – even improved – capability to strike well beyond the uneasy oil region despite last year’s amnesty.

Even as the families of the seven dead begin to grieve, the government and oil groups will be worrying that the unprecedented strike in Abuja might herald a return to widespread assaults on the infrastructure of sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest oil and gas industry.

Tensions in the delta are certainly rising. Tit-for-tat attacks on rival political camps have hit Bayelsa, the home state of Goodluck Jonathan, the president and frontrunner for elections due by April.

Soboma George, a kingpin in the shadowy world where militant organisations, criminal rackets and political heavies converge, was assassinated in August near Port Harcourt, the main oil city, in an indication of divisions between rival groups.

Attacks on the facilities of Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobil and others have fallen since last year’s amnesty, allowing production that had at times fell by 40 per cent to recover.

But former militant camp commanders who spoke to the FT in late August complained that the stipend paid by the government as part of the amnesty deal is paltry compared with their previous illicit earning from “security contracts” for foreign oil groups and selling crude siphoned from pipelines. Some ex-militants privately concede they retained some arms caches as an insurance policy.

That Mr Jonathan is a son of the delta – becoming the first to hold the highest office when his predecessor’s death elevated him from vice president in May – only complicates matters further.

He faces pressure to pander to the delta’s demands for a greater share of oil revenues, potentially alienating the rest of the federation. Moreover, he has enemies on home soil who fear being displaced from the patronage network that under-girds Nigerian politics.

“A lot of people have a lot to lose from a Jonathan presidency,” says one western diplomat in the wake of the Abuja bombings.

The Movement for the Emancipation for the Niger Delta, which claimed responsibility for the attacks, was once an umbrella group that brought together the top militant commanders.

But many of the heavyweights accepted the amnesty, even if the emails from Jomo Gbomo, Mend’s pseudonymous spokesman, continue to serve as a kind of militant newswire.
Friday’s strike – like March’s explosions in the oil city of Warri – gives ballast to claims that new commanders are rising, their allegiances unclear.

An even more troubling scenario is that the delta’s internal power-struggles have gone national.

In its evacuation alert issued shortly before the explosion, Mend warned that explosives had been planted in the vicinity of the ceremony to mark 50 years of independence “by our operatives working inside the government security service”.

Nigerian security is not a well-oiled machine but it is hard to see how Mend could have blown up two cars five minutes’ walk from the entire political and military elite without such infiltration.

In a country with a long history of the military intervening in politics, the huge security breach is highly worrisome.

Mend apparently did not mean to kill anyone, blaming the deaths on the government’s failure to heed its evacuation warning.

But at least seven are dead, civilians possibly among them. Mr Jonathan has warned the perpetrators that they will “pay dearly for this heinous crime”.

If that means a showdown between Mr Jonathan and his rivals from his home base, the amnesty is likely to come under severe strain.