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Who are the Niger Delta Avengers?

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Nigeria has been hit by growing unrest in the country’s oil-producing south by a new militant group calling itself the Niger Delta Avengers.

Here is what is known about them:

– What’s the story so far? –

The Avengers describe themselves as young, well-educated “worthy outlaws” and have since early 2016 been attacking Nigeria’s oil and gas infrastructure, helping drag production to 20-year lows.

They demand an independent state and want international oil companies out of the region.

– Who are they? –

“Even the Nigerian security services are not 100 percent sure what they are up against,” Dirk Steffen, from the Denmark-based Risk Intelligence firm, told AFP.

Still, given their ability to execute attacks on critical oil and gas infrastructure, it’s likely some members were part of former militant organisations, he added.

But the group’s level of organisation is under debate.

“The Avengers may not be a defined group of people, except for a core of maybe 100-150 people or so,” said Steffen.

– Why now? –

In 2009, Nigeria reached a ceasefire with militant groups which previously disrupted oil production and introduced an amnesty programme.

That gave former rebels a monthly stipend and jobs training in the oil industry as welders, divers and technicians.

But after the economy took a nosedive following the crash in global oil prices, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari has struggled to pay for the amnesty programme.

He has even hinted at winding it down, making some 30,000 ex-militants on the payroll angry.

He has also ended lucrative security contracts with former militants to protect pipelines.

– What else?

Buhari, from the majority Muslim north, has charged prominent politicians and ex-militants from the oil-rich mostly Christian south with corruption.

That’s stoked longstanding animosity between the north and the south — an opposition stronghold — with some criticising his anti-graft fight as a “political witch-hunt”.

– What makes them different? –

Like previous militant groups, the Avengers want a greater share of oil revenue, amnesty payments, and clean-up and compensation for spills.

But they also have a series of political demands that culminate in the creation of an independent Niger Delta state.

They demand the release of pro-Biafra leader Nnamdi Kanu, who has been imprisoned on charges of “treasonable felony”, and say members of Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) should face corruption trials like the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP).

– Who supports them? –

“The Avengers and other groups that have popped up in recent months are likely getting some support from former and current PDP members,” Philippe de Pontet, Sub-Saharan Africa analyst at risk consultancy firm Eurasia Group, said in a recent report.

“It was always expected that there would be backlash to the Buhari administration in the region. If anything, the surprise is that the first 10 months of Buhari’s term were as quiet as they were.”

– What have they attacked? –

The Avengers’ attack on Shell’s Forcados underwater flow line in February used divers, showing they have the skills and knowledge of oil infrastructure to target areas that will significantly halt production.

Other attacks include the sabotage of Chevron’s offshore Okan gas valve platform, and bombings of Eni’s infrastructure and Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) pipelines, which provide gas to Lagos for power generation.

– Why does it matter? –

Nigeria has budgeted for production of 2.2 million barrels per day this year but the attacks have cut output to 1.4 million bpd, according to the country’s junior oil minister Emmanuel Kachikwu.

The sabotage couldn’t have come at a worse time, with Nigeria, which normally depends on oil export sales for 70 percent of government revenue, on the brink of a recession.

Internationally, Nigeria’s oil disruption — along with unrest in Libya and wildfires in Canada — has pushed up the price of the commodity around the world.

– What’s the government response?

Buhari said last weekend he is going to “re-engineer” the amnesty programme, which could be an olive branch to the militants.

At the same time, however, he is sending more troops to the creeks and swamps of the Niger delta region.

There are fears a heavy-handed response will breed more discontent and attract more people to join the Avengers.

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