May 12, 2021

Africa

NIGERIA: Armed secessionists may target the Niger Delta, but obstacles remain

BY Malte Liewerscheidt

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Over the weekend, 12 police officers were killed in a string of attacks targeting police stations in Akwa Ibom and Rivers states. If it can be substantiated that these attacks were indeed perpetrated by the Eastern Security Network (ESN), the paramilitary wing of the secessionist Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), this would add to concerns discussed previously that the group may encroach upon key oil-producing states outside its core area of operations. However, for the time being, the ESN does not appear strong enough to target oil and gas installations. Going forward, resistance from established Niger Delta militant groups may prove a bigger obstacle to further ESN expansion than the Nigerian security apparatus.

For now, the perpetrators remain unidentified. However, the latest incidents add to a pattern of attacks on police stations across south-eastern Nigeria that emerged with the formation of the ESN in December 2020. As analyzed previously, the focus of – suspected and confirmed – ESN attacks on mostly rural police stations would suggest that the group is still in a formative phase and preoccupied with obtaining weapons and ammunition. If the ESN follows a textbook approach to armed secession, a logical next step would be hitting the state where it hurts the most, i.e. by targeting oil and gas installations, Nigeria’s main source of government revenue and foreign exchange.

However, oil production in Imo state, traditionally the center of IPOB’s activism, is marginal, and while it may be within the group’s operational reach to hit targets there already, it would do little to disrupt crude production in a meaningful way. Against this background, the most recent attacks in Akwa Ibom and Rivers, two of the most important oil producing states, should concern the authorities. Nevertheless, battle-hardened Niger Delta militant groups eager to protect their lucrative, decade-old business model – receiving government funds in exchange for holding the peace – may prove a more formidable obstacle to IPOB’s potential southern incursion than overwhelmed security agencies. For now, there are no signs that regional militant groups would be supporting an armed secessionist movement.

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