The oil giant Royal Dutch Shell was considering pulling out of the volatile Niger Delta region yesterday after heavily armed militants stormed one of its facilities and killed at least 17 people.
The attack early on Sunday, the latest during an upsurge of violence in the oil-rich swamp area, came only days after the kidnap of four foreign oil workers. Militant groups demanding local control of oil wealth warned Shell to withdraw immediately from the world's eighth largest oil exporter.
The Anglo-Dutch company has already pulled out 330 employees after gunmen in speedboats overran the Benisede flow station on Sunday. "The attackers invaded the flow-station in speed boats, burnt down two staff accommodations, damaged the processing facilities and left," Shell said in a statement yesterday.
At least 17 troops died in the attack as well as an unknown number of militants and Shell employees, said Brigadier General Elias Zamani, commander of a task force deployed by the government to try to contain spiralling violence in Nigeria's oil-rich southern delta.
A group calling itself the the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend) claimed responsibility for the recent spate of attacks in the region, including a raid on 11 January at Shell's EA offshore platform in which four foreigners were kidnapped, and a subsequent explosion that ruptured a major oil pipeline. The group advised oil workers to leave the delta, which produces almost all Nigeria's 2.5 million barrels a day of oil.
"It must be clear that the Nigerian government cannot protect your workers or assets. Leave our land while you can or die in it," the group said in an e-mail statement. "Our aim is to totally destroy the capacity of the Nigerian government to export oil."
Injured Shell workers were taken to hospital while workers in nearby facilities - Ogbotobo, Opukushi and Tunu - were evacuated on Sunday, the company said. Violence in the region has flared since the arrest in September of Moujahid Dokubo-Asari, a militant leader who is now in custody awaiting trial on treason charges.
Militants in the delta enjoy widespread support as 20 million people remain rooted in poverty despite the enormous wealth generated in the oil-rich area, putting Nigeria among the leading Opec nations.
The fate of the indigenous people of the delta was brought to global attention by Ken Saro-Wiwa, the human rights campaigner executed in 1995 after a vocal campaign against the practices of major oil companies in Nigeria.
Shell, which controls just under half of Nigeria's daily exports of 2.5 million barrels, has reduced operations by 106,000 barrels a day after the pipeline rupture.
Last month an attack on another key pipeline similarly forced the company to suspend export of large quantities of crude oil from its Bonny oil export terminal for two weeks.
Shell is the largest oil producer in Nigeria, which is key to US hopes of reducing dependence on supplies from the volatile Gulf region. A major staff pullout is likely to trigger more output cuts in the country, already hit by the attacks.
"I think [Shell will] have to evacuate the whole of the swamps around [the city of] Warri," said an oil industry source. A spokesman for Shell declined to comment. The company normally pumps 380,000 barrels a day from the Warri region - three-quarters of it from the swamps.
Ruled by military dictators for most of its history since independence from Britain in 1960, Nigeria returned to civilian government in 1999, but ethnic militia and organised thuggery remain a feature of political life. Much of the rhetoric of militant Niger Delta groups is echoed by regional politicians, who have demanded a greater share of Nigerian oil wealth and the right to pick the ruling party candidate for elections in 2007.
"This is a period when both sides who claim power in Nigeria are going to extremes," said Pini Jason, a newspaper columnist.
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