“The location for today’s attack was deliberately chosen to remove any notion that offshore oil exploration is far from our reach”.
This was the warning issued to international oil companies following the June 19, 2008, attack 120km offshore in the Niger Delta.
The north-east Scottish business community has been directly affected before by acts of violence in the Niger Delta, and dealt with the omnipresent threat posed to operations by militants there, most prominently the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND).
Yet West Africa and Nigeria, in particular, remain important markets for many north-east companies, not least those involved in the subsea sector, for which West Africa has been identified as one of the largest areas of growth.
For those who thought the lull in expatriate kidnappings and reported security incidents in the delta in recent months were indicative of an improvement in security, the June 19 attack against Shell’s Bonga production ship was a rude awakening.
The incident clearly illustrates an evolution of MEND’s tactics and ability in what it sees as its struggle for a fairer share of the oil dividend for the Niger Delta’s communities and for the release of members held by the Nigerian authorities.
It also highlights the continued risk to both personnel and assets operational in the region.
Not only was the attack perpetrated in a co-ordinated fashion, it was also well planned and supported by an intelligence-gathering capacity illustrated by the group’s knowledge of the Bonga vessel and, in particular, its target, the computerised control room to which its “detonation engineers” had been unable to gain access.
This level of planning has also raised questions, not for the first time, of the involvement of (or lack of action by) the Nigerian navy.
Despite announcing a unilateral ceasefire, MEND has refused to participate in a planned peace summit and has warned that any offensive against its communities or camps would be considered a declaration of war. The Nigerian navy has deployed vessels to Bonga for deterrent value, but is inadequately equipped to challenge any future attacks by the well equipped militia.
While production resumed on June 24 – restoring 220,000 barrels per day of production (some 10% of Nigerian output) – the attack was costly to Nigeria and impacted the global price of oil.
Since 2005, offshore ventures have been favoured by international oil companies over onshore operations amid an array of armed attacks against the latter. While all eyes are on offshore facilities in the aftermath of the Bonga incident, onshore facilities remain at risk and are still easier targets than their deepwater counterparts.
That said, MEND has stated that this will not be the last attack against deepwater infrastructure, warning that it is in possession of “the map and chart of all the oil facilities in the Niger Delta”, and that “oil and gas tankers are also warned to avoid Nigerian waters. They stand the risk of laden crude oil or natural gas tankers being attacked”.
MEND has upped the stakes in the Niger Delta and has clearly demonstrated the importance of intelligence, planning and preparation to the success of its operations.
The same is required of you, the companies operational there. Success in hostile working environments is achievable, but only through the use of these same tools, something we at AKE have shown time and again in our training, intelligence and security solutions.
Claire Fleming is a senior analyst at security specialist AKE