June 14, 2017 / 1:02 PM / a month ago

New militant group threatens Niger Delta oil war - in Latin

5 Min Read

FILE PHOTO - Nigerian militant leader Henry Okah (L) gestures as he is escorted by police after his sentencing was postponed at a Johannesburg court February 28, 2013.Siphiwe Sibeko/File

YENAGOA, Nigeria (Reuters) - Striking self-assurance, a penchant for hyperbole and a working knowledge of Latin - these are the hallmarks of the latest group of militants to emerge in Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta.

The New Delta Avengers are named in a nod to the Niger Delta Avengers who last year crippled Nigeria's oil production in a fight for a greater share of the proceeds for the region, impoverished, like much of the country, by endemic corruption.

The new group's inaugural statement was signed by a Corporal Oleum Bellum, a Latin phrase that loosely means "oil war".

It and others, like the Niger Delta Marine Force led by one General Benikeme Hitler, have formed even as the government holds peace talks with Niger Delta communities to try to end violence that has brought the economy to its knees.

"By this declaration, we are resurrecting the spirit of insurgency to demand for a better deal for our people," the New Delta Avengers' statement said.

"We are going to do this through bloody attacks and destruction of oil assets in the creeks and upland areas so as to disrupt and eventually cripple oil prospecting and production operations in the state."

Many groups issue similar statements and never act on their words. But some, like the original Niger Delta Avengers and the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), did so to devastating effect.

At the height of violence last year, Niger Delta militants' attacks cut Nigeria's oil production by as much as a third.

That set the economy reeling, as lower crude exports meant less money in government coffers, especially the U.S. dollars Nigeria needs to import essential products and keep businesses running.

"Devilish, Hardened Heart"

The New Delta Avengers say their main grievance is with the governor of Delta state, Ifeanyi Okowa, who they accuse of diverting funds from programmes meant to benefit Delta state.

"Like the biblical Pharaoh, only extraordinary undertakings can soften his devilish and hardened heart towards the oil producing areas of the state," they said of Okowa.

A spokesman for the governor denied the group's accusation that he was "showing nepotism and favouritism in the sharing of government resources". The state government was not in a position to ascertain the credibility of the New Delta Avengers' threats, the spokesman said.

The old Avengers suspended their campaign last year to give peace talks a chance after a string of attacks on oil facilities, blowing up even an underwater Shell pipeline.

MEND fought an insurgency until 2009, when it agreed with the previous federal government on a ceasefire and amnesty offering salaries and job training for its fighters. Some of its commanders became millionaires with contracts to protect the same pipelines they had been blowing up.

Many of the militants have a taste for the dramatic. There was General Busta Rhymes, named for the New York rapper known for his frenetic flow, before Corporal Oleum Bellum and General Benikeme Hitler, who issued an inaugural statement in January.

Oil facilities belonging to major international oil companies would be destroyed after March, Hitler's group said, although Reuters has been unable to confirm the destruction of any facilities by the Niger Delta Marine Force.

The New Delta Avengers warned the Delta state government that "Operation Cripple Oil and Gas Production" would start on 30 June unless it held talks to ensure funding for infrastructure and other development reaches the region.

"This campaign shall be BLOODY, DESTRUCTIVE AND VENGEFUL against the enemies of our people," the group said. "Like a goat pushed to the wall we have grown teeth and we will prove our ability to bite."

Oil companies' rule of thumb is not to comment on militant threats to facilities in Nigeria.

The security forces say they have no idea who is behind the latest threats, but with Nigeria about to bring back its oil exports to full capacity for the first time in 16 months following pipeline repairs, they will not take any chances.

"We are not aware of such a group but are on the ground to do our job," said Abubakar Abdullahi, spokesman for the joint military task force (JTF) which polices the Niger Delta.

Additional reporting by Anamesere Igboeroteonwu in Onitsha; Writing by Paul Carsten; Editing by Philippa Fletcher

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