ABUJA — A Niger Delta militant group that officially disbanded four years ago this week claimed responsibility for an attack on a major oil pipeline and an explosion at an oil refinery in Nigeria. A message said the group is stepping up operations against oil companies and the government. But former militants say the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, is dead and that common thieves committed the crimes. .
Gabriel Ebipadei used to be a gunman, fighting in the creeks of the Niger Delta for what militants said was the people’s fair share of Nigeria’s considerable oil wealth.
In 2009 he, like tens of thousands of other militants, turned in his weapon in exchange for job training and a stipend.
Now, he’s a welder. As he fixes a part for a motorcycle taxi driver, he says the 2009 amnesty was a success and that guys like him aren’t interested in fighting anymore.
"People who say they are MEND, one of the largest former militant groups, may be taking responsibility for attacks on pipelines and the massive refinery fire in the city of Warri this week. But I think that the new group is small, attempting to gain power by putting out statements that take credit for others’ crimes," said Ebipadei.
Tensions remain high in the Niger Delta, as oil spills continue to crush the farming and fishing industries and most people live in abject poverty despite residing in a region that has the largest oil output in Africa.
Many former militants also haven’t been as lucky as Gabriel, and say they now have training-but no jobs.
Oil companies say they lose $1 billion a month to thieves.
Ignatius Onwuemele, a lawyer in Warri, says even if the original MEND leaders are no longer involved, the Niger Delta is home to many unemployed and angry young men who may see a need for the return of “freedom fighters.”
“If they are claiming responsibility for this attack on the Warri refinery it’s very unfortunate. For the past two or three years now we have not heard anything rising from them by way of violent activities," said Onwuemele.
Renewed violence in the Niger Delta while security forces are occupied with fighting insurgents in the north would, in his opinion, “destroy” Nigeria.
The pipeline attacks that MEND claimed responsibility for prompted Shell Petroleum to close major oil pipelines earlier this month and declare that it will not be exporting as much as contracted for this year.
In statements released to the local press, MEND said the attacks were a part of an operation to sabotage the oil sector called “Hurricane Exodus.”
Outside the burnt refinery in Warri, a day after the fire, local merchants continue to sell black-market fuel openly. Seller Alex Onofere says Tuesday’s explosion and fire were terrifying.
“They were all running yesterday, seriously. Including the soldier-men, they were running too, running for their dear life. So it was really serious," said Onofere.
Officials have not yet offered a theory as to how the fire started, but the former leaders of MEND say they were not responsible.
Whether there is a new group of militants claiming the MEND banner remains to be seen.
Hilary Uguru contributed to this report from Warri in the Niger Delta.