Who are the militants attacking Nigeria’s oil industry?

Attacks on pipelines in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger River delta region have slashed crude output to the lowest level in 27 years and shut all but four of the country’s 23 gas-powered generators, leaving much of the West African nation without electricity. A group calling itself the Niger Delta Avengers has claimed responsibility. Here’s what the conflict is about:

What triggered the attacks?

The attacks started in February after President Muhammadu Buhari, who won an election last year on an anti-graft campaign, ended contracts to protect oil facilities with militant commanders and slashed monthly stipends paid to fighters that the previous government approved to end a similar uprising in 2009. The violence is “a response to the current policy position of the present government to fight corruption,” said Anyakwee Nsirimovu, who helped draft the terms of the amnesty and is the executive director of the Institute for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, a nonprofit group based in the southern oil center of Port Harcourt.

militants in Nigeria

Who are the Niger Delta Avengers?

The Avengers website, the authenticity of which Bloomberg was unable to verify, says the group comprises young activists from a range of ethnic groups. The only person it identifies is its spokesman, Mudoch Agbinibo. One suspected ringleader of the group is Government Ekpemupolo, the most prominent commander of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, which disarmed under the 2009 amnestyprogram. While Ekpemupolo is wanted for money laundering and has gone into hiding, he’s denounced the attacks and denied involvement. The Avengers website also says Ekpemupolo, who is widely known as Tompolo, isn’t involved in its campaign. The army said it had carried out a cordon-and-search operation in his home area and made several arrests. “It’s not a mere coincidence that these attacks started after Tompolo was declared wanted,” Nsirimovu said.

What do the they want?

Like previous insurgents in the area, the Avengers say they want greater control over the oil revenue flowing from the delta and some form of regional autonomy that will halt the domination of the Ijaw people and other ethnic minorities by bigger groups that control the national government. They’re also demanding the release of some political prisoners and an end to environmental degradation caused by decades of oil spills.

How has the government responded?

Buhari has followed up his administration’s success in weakening the Boko Haram Islamist group in the northeast by dispatching troops to the delta and pledging a crackdown. “Not responding to the recent attacks would send the negative signal that the government and security forces are impotent in stopping criminal activities in the region, further emboldening the Niger Delta Avengers or similar groups for carrying out more disruptive activities,” said Manji Cheto, vice president of risk advisers Teneo Intelligence in London. In a speech marking his first year in office on May 29, Buhari struck a more conciliatory tone, signaling that stipend payments for the ex-fighters may be resumed. Talks with the militants’ representatives have begun, according to Emmanuel Kachikwu, minister of state for petroleum.

What are the prospects for ending the insurgency?

Don’t expect the conflict to abate anytime soon. The Avengers have ruled out talks for now and vowed to bring Africa’s largest economy to a standstill. “The new insurgency seems to have legs,” said Francois Conradie, an analyst at Paarl, South Africa-based NKC African Economics. “The frequency of attacks has increased. This indicates that the Avengers have been successful in recruiting young militants to join their cause.” Attempts to defeat the group using conventional military tactics are likely to be futile because they aren’t looking for confrontation, and the pipelines that run through a warren of interconnected rivers and mangrove swamps in the 70,000-square-kilometer (27,027 square-mile) region are impossible to protect.