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Pipeline Blasts Raise Tension in Nigeria’s Oil-Rich Delta

FILE - Attack on oil pipeline in Andoni, Rivers State, Nigeria, December 2005.

The attack last week on a major pipeline in Nigeria’s Niger Delta region is raising fears that a long-dormant insurgency could reignite and put the country’s oil industry in its crosshairs.

There was no claim of responsibility for the attack, but it came days after a court in Lagos ordered the arrest of former insurgent leader Government Ekpemupolo, better known as Tompolo.

Tompolo was once a major player among the insurgents who demanded that ordinary Nigerians get a greater share of the wealth in the oil-producing region. The rebellion was more or less quelled in 2009 when the government started an amnesty program that paid off the militants and offered them training programs in exchange for peace.

Tompolo and nine others have been charged with money laundering and conspiracy related to a public-private partnership with the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, according to Nigeria's anti-corruption agency.

The announcement of the charges against Tompolo comes amid a wave of arrests and indictments of politicians and businessmen on corruption-related charges.

Former military ruler Muhamadu Buhari was elected president last year on promises to reduce corruption. Graft is widely seen as one of the reasons that two-thirds of Nigeria's 177 million people live in poverty.

Pipeline Feeds Refineries

The attack in the Niger Delta targeted a gas pipeline that feeds into the critical Escravos Lagos Pipeline System. A crude oil pipeline was also damaged in the attack, forcing the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation to shut down two refineries.

The attack jeopardizes another priority of the Buhari administration: getting the people of Africa’s largest producer of crude oil to start filling up their gas tanks with locally refined gasoline and diesel.

While Nigeria has four refineries, the country mainly relies on imports of refined products to keep gas stations stocked.

Since taking office, the Buhari administration has announced progress at getting the refineries running properly. But Dolapo Oni, head of energy research for Ecobank, says the importation of refined products won’t stop if the pipelines aren’t protected.

“We haven’t resolved a major issue with the refinery segment in Nigeria which is … protecting the network of pipelines that supply them crude oil,” Oni said.

The attack comes at a bad time for Nigeria’s economy. The government is heavily dependent on crude oil for its revenues, but the price for a barrel of oil has dipped below $30.

A return to conflict in the Niger Delta could harm Nigeria’s economy further. The insurgency reduced Nigeria's oil production significantly.

In the Niger Delta town of Ughelli, journalist Atuyebe Oyebe says the new government has no choice but to go forward with its prosecution of Tompolo.

“If the government does not take Tompolo in time, Tompolo will become the law. And when a man is the law, the state is in trouble,” he said.

Hilary Uguru contributed reporting from Ughelli, Nigeria.

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