Over the next decade, a host of loosely-formed rebel groups, funded by kidnappings for money and “bunkering” (stealing oil from pipelines and selling it locally or taking it to tankers offshore to sell on the larger world market), came and went. The attacks were generally viewed by the oil and service companies as simply part of doing business in the Delta.
A new group emerged in early 2006 – the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) – that upped the ante and radically altered the operating climate. MEND was founded and led by Henry Okah, whose leadership showed a level of sophistication and innovation that had not been seen before in the Delta. For example, he coordinated operations and attacks from his home in South Africa via cell phone, and under his guidance, MEND became adept at using e-mail for press releases and orchestrating media campaigns to get the group’s message out. But Okah’s luck didn’t last long. He was arrested in September 2007 while trying to buy weapons in Angola, extradited to Nigeria, tried and convicted behind closed doors, and then incarcerated.
From the very beginning, MEND was better equipped and trained than the militant groups that came before (camouflage body armor, speedboats, shoulder-held rocket-propelled grenade launchers, Kalishnakov assault rifles, Czech machine guns), and the group consistently demonstrated superior tactical skills, fueling speculation that MEND had links to the Nigerian military. And while MEND gave the outward appearance of being a large, well-organized and coordinated group – an estimated 100,000 strong – it was in fact more of a loose, fluid, protean and almost virtual network of smaller groups, mercenaries and individuals that didn’t necessarily need Okah’s hands-on leadership to conduct operations. This actually worked to MEND’s advantage, for the group could continue with little drop in attacks when Okah landed in jail.
But what is perhaps most interesting and important about MEND is the way Okah and the group managed to shift the focus of the conflict.
The oil interests attacked were no longer simply targets of opportunity – they were strategic targets. MEND’s goal was to destroy the Nigerian government’s ability to produce and export oil, and to make it clear that the government could not protect oil company personnel or assets. Indeed, MEND warned in no uncertain terms that the oil companies and their personnel should leave the Niger Delta while they could – or else they were likely to die.
To that end, MEND proceeded to engage in every kind of attack at anything linked to oil in the Niger Delta, especially kidnappings, which markedly increased the fear factor, along with a few killings of oil company personnel. It even took the attacks offshore, targeting platforms, tankers and FPSOs – Floating Production, Storage and Offloading vessels – once considered out of reach.
There is even some evidence to suggest that MEND orchestrated attacks to coincide with oil market conditions and maximize the effect of shut-in Nigerian production and overall supply anxiety. At their peak, the MEND attacks cost the Nigerian government billions of dollars in lost oil earnings.
Over the last 10 years or so, the Nigerian government has attempted to quell the rebel attacks with a combination of military force and appeasement. The military actions have been generally ineffective. The Niger Delta terrain is dense and difficult, and it gives the rebels plenty of cover – as Henry Kissinger once remarked about the Vietcong during the Vietnam War, the Niger Delta rebels are “at once everywhere and nowhere.”