Boko Haram is a militant Islamist movement based primarily in northeast Nigeria and was classed as a terrorist organisation by the US in 2013. It was founded in 2002 as a Sunni Islamic fundamentalist sect advocating a strict form of Sharia law and its long term goal is the establishment of an Islamic state in Nigeria and the opposition of what it sees as the westernizing of Nigerian society that has concentrated the wealth of the country among a small military/political elite, mainly in the Christian south of the country. Currently the country has a religious demographic of around 46% mainly Sunni Muslim predominantly in the north of the country and roughly 53% Christian.
Up until 2011, the group was active chiefly in campaigns of small scale criminality such as kidnappings, bank robberies, extortion and low level insurgency, but all this changed with its first IED attack against the UN HQ in Abuja which killed 11 UN officials and 12 others. Since that incident, the group has raised its profile by the killing and abduction of foreigners, politicians, religious leaders, security forces and civilians and more recently by the abduction of over 200 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok, an event which thrust Boko Haram squarely into the international media spotlight.
At the end of 2013 they changed their hit and run tactics and concentrated on the occupation of swathes of territory in northeast Nigeria, areas the Nigerian military have been unable to evict them from. In addition, the group has also been reported as operating and being involved in skirmishes along the borders of Chad and Niger as well as conducting operations in Northern Cameroon.
Membership is roughly estimated at between 1000 and 3000 and growing, but calculating membership is an inexact science as the organisation does not appear to have any coherent or joined up command structure, a factor that makes it difficult for Western Intelligence Services to pin it down or collate intelligence data. What is known is that Boko Haram does have loose links with AQIM (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) which operates in Algeria and Mali and also with al-Shaabab in Somalia.More worryingly, the group has been reported as firming up its connection with ISIS in the Middle East by the formation of an information and materiel-support alliance, there has also been reports of communication between the leaders of both organisation.
Where Boko Haram obtains it’s funding is a matter of speculation. Initially it was from bank robberies, kidnapping ransoms and extortion payments from State Governors but there may be indications that additional external funding may now be coming in via their AQIM and ISIS connections.
As for weaponry, their arsenal has expanded not only in quantity but also in sophistication. The chaotic upheaval in Libya saw arsenals looted and vast amounts of military equipment being seized by rebels. It was from this source that AQIM benefitted hugely in terms of acquiring a large number of modern weaponry, some of which has found its way into Boko Haram’s arsenal. The Nigerian military have failed to stem this flow of weapons, mainly because the long porous borders are impossible to monitor and patrol with the manpower and resources at their disposal. Therefore the increasing smuggling of arms from Libya and Mali has continued apace and virtually unhindered.
So can Boko Haram really pose a credible threat to the Nigerian oil industry? Since the ascendancy of ISIS in the Middle east, Boko Haram has grown not only in numbers and equipment but also in confidence. Last week, abandoning their usual hide and seek tactics, they took on the Nigerian army and defeated it in Mubi, a city of some 129,000 inhabitants in Adamawa State forcing the army to retreat in haste and disorder.
Although as yet they have not advanced any further south from their heartlands, Boko Haram have recently issued threats against oil refineries and pipelines specifically in the Niger Delta, threats that should not be ignored. Of course, the Delta has had its own fair share of historical tensions starting in the early 1990′s up until the present day. The ethnic minority groups in the Delta feeling they had been exploited by “big oil” took up arms, forming militias and gangs and resorting to kidnapping foreigners (usually, but not uniquely oil workers), local ethnic infighting and indulging in the theft of crude oil from pipelines estimated conservatively to be more than 100,000 bpd.
However, it is a well known fact that resources, especially in the Niger Delta are depleting. According to a recent UK Daily Telegraph article, they quoted a 2011 report by 2 Nigerian scholars who found “there is an imminent decline in Nigeria’s oil reserves since peaking could have occurred or just about to occur” that report was over 3 years ago.
The same article also goes on to quote a senior Shell official in March of this year as saying that crude oil production decline rates are as high as 15 to 20% and that replacing this natural production decline rate requires more funds than is currently available. This has led to the Head of the Nigerian Petroleum Resources Department to call for more investment in exploration to offset rapid decline rates as the plateau of production has been reached in the Niger delta and is already declining.
To try and counter this decline, the Nigerian government has to date, pumped in more than $175 million into exploration and exploitation of the Lake Chad basin, where prospecting had yielded promising results and commercial exploration for oil and gas was expected to commence late 2013/early 2014. However, threats by Boko Haram of attacks on installations and personnel and the inability of the Nigerian military to protect the scheme has meant the project has stalled.
To try and combat the Boko Haram threat, a state of emergency in the country has been in force for some time and will remain in effect until the General Election in February 2015. The inability of the Government and the military to halt the expansion and influence of Boko Haram and the effect this may have on future oil revenues may well be a deciding factor in determining the outcome of the election.
In addition to this, the inability of the Government to safely prospect for new oil and gas sites outside the Niger Delta region in other areas of the country because of the Boko Haram threat is worrying. If the military are unable to combat this group, then just the perceived threat of possible attack and disruption by Boko Haram seems to be enough to bring about a paralysis of thought and action, a situation not unique to Nigeria as it, like many other countries, tries to effectively tackle the growing spread of radical Islamism.