LAGOS, March 15 (Reuters) - Nigerian militants detonated two car bombs outside government talks on an amnesty programme in the oil-producing Niger Delta on Monday, raising the prospect of renewed unrest in Africa’s biggest oil and gas industry.
The attacks are a setback for Acting President Goodluck Jonathan, who has made peace in the region a top priority, but who is also having to deal with unrelated insecurity in the zone between the country’s Muslim north and Christian south.
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Following are some questions and answers about the implications of Monday’s attacks in the oil city of Warri:
Last year’s amnesty programme was the most comprehensive attempt yet to end years of unrest in the Niger Delta, where militant attacks have prevented the industry from pumping much above two thirds of its 3 million barrels per day capacity.
Thousands of gunmen laid down weapons under the programme, bringing six months of relative peace which enabled oil firms to begin to repair damaged infrastructure and start to restore production shut down by the insecurity.
The programme was driven by President Umaru Yar‘Adua, who returned from three months in a Saudi hospital last month but remains too sick to govern.
Former militants who handed over guns had long complained that promised stipends were going unpaid and pledges of re-training were not seeing the light of day. Yar‘Adua’s absence further slowed the programme’s implementation.
Jonathan -- the first person from the Niger Delta to hold Nigeria’s highest office -- has pledged to work to revive the amnesty and any failure to do so could be used by his political enemies to undermine his authority.
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), which claimed the Warri car bombs, warned of renewed attacks on oil installations in the coming days including those of firms so far largely unaffected, such as France’s Total (TOTF.PA).
MEND has made such claims in the past, but if it lives up to its threat, the amnesty programme could be derailed and Nigeria’s oil output could again fall, reducing government revenues and threatening economic growth.
Central Bank Governor Lamido Sanusi said last year growth in sub-Saharan Africa’s second biggest economy hinged largely on a solution being found to the unrest in the region, which has been costing around $1 billion a month in lost oil revenues.
The Niger Delta, a network of thousands of shallow creeks opening into the Gulf of Guinea, is the heartland of Africa’s biggest oil and gas industry.
Its light crude oil is popular among U.S. and European refiners as it can be easily processed into fuel products.
The United States, the world’s top energy consumer, has said it wants the Gulf of Guinea to supply a quarter of its crude oil imports by the middle of the next decade. China depends on Africa for some 30 percent of its oil imports.
Nigeria also holds the world’s seventh largest proven gas reserves and supplies 10 percent of global liquefied natural gas. Attacks on Nigeria’s oil and gas infrastructure last year helped lift oil prices to record highs near $150 a barrel.
U.S. oil majors Exxon Mobil (XOM.N) and Chevron (CVX.N), Royal Dutch Shell (RDSa.L), Italy’s Agip (ENI.MI), and France’s Total (TOTF.PA) run major oil and gas operations with Nigeria’s state-run NNPC in the Niger Delta.
MEND has warned it will also go on to target the firms’ contractors and suppliers in any new attacks.
MEND is a nebulous group which emerged in late 2005 and has been responsible for pipeline bombings and kidnapping both foreign and Nigerian oil workers. It says it is fighting for greater local control of oil resources.
MEND launched a series of attacks in September 2008, dubbed a six-day “oil war”, and carried out a raid on Royal Dutch Shell’s Bonga platform 120 km (75 miles) offshore in June 2008.
It has failed to carry out any attacks as spectacular as those of early 2006 when it knocked out almost a quarter of Nigerian output in a matter of weeks.
Its presumed leader, Henry Okah, accepted a presidential offer of amnesty in July after gun-running and treason charges against him were dropped and he was freed.
Most of the group’s other known top field commanders also accepted amnesty by the October deadline, and it is unclear what operational capacity it has left.
But security experts noted that the attacks in Warri appeared to have been a successful strike at what should be a well-protected government building rather than MEND's usual attacks on exposed oil pipelines. (For more Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: af.reuters.com/ ) (Editing by Giles Elgood)