Nigeria: Energy Infrastructure Firestorm

This story was originally posted 3/11/2007, here is a link to the original if you would like to see the old comment thread.

When a fire becomes sufficiently intense, its heat creates a rising column of air so strong that surrounding air is drawn into the void, creating a draft that sustains and intensifies the fire. It becomes a self-sustaining, self-intensifying organism: a firestorm. The violence in Nigeria’s delta region has become a firestorm, and the consequences of this transformation will fundamentally impact that nation’s ability to export oil. Recent events in the delta region have transitioned the violence there from a negative-feedback loop where there was a disincentive to militants to shut in too high a portion of Nigeria’s oil exports to a positive-feedback loop where militants will compete to completely destroy Nigeria’s capacity to export oil.

Figure 1: Nigerian Militants in a Speedboat

MEND & the Ijaw Insurgency: A Negative-Feedback Loop

A little background: Nigeria is a construct of post-colonial cartography. It is one of history’s foremost examples of the fiction of the Nation-State, a forced amalgamation of over 250 distinct ethnic groups and numerous religions (see illustration) to effect efficient British control of the region. In the post-colonial era, three dominant ethnic groups, the Hausa-Fulani, Igbo, and Yoruba, continue to joust for control of Nigeria’s huge oil revenues—and for control of Nigeria itself, though this is truly and ancillary concern to the oil. One thing has remained constant: the ethnic Ijaw, who inconveniently live where all the oil is, have been almost entirely excluded from sharing in the oil riches in their own backyard. As a result, the Ijaw resorted to violence to advance their political aims of representation in Nigeria’s government and a real share in the oil revenues.

Figure 2: Overview of Nigerian Ethnic Groups

Figure 3: Overview of Nigerian Oil Infrastructure

MEND, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, was the military branch of the Ijaw struggle. It was relatively easy for the government of Nigeria to reign in the violence in the Niger delta for two reasons: MEND had clearly defined political motivations, and a long-term interest in the viability of Nigeria as an oil exporting state. Further, as a coherent tribal society, the traditional system of tribal relations and leadership exerted effective control over the actions of MEND. Because the motivations of the Ijaw power structure were clearly defined (setting up transparent game rules), the Nigerian government and foreign oil companies operating in the Delta had two effective tools to reign in violence when it threatened their profits: offer talks on political issues, or buy peace with aid and development projects. The situation was violent yet stable—the slow diplomatic dance between parties with predictable motivations acted as a negative feedback loop preventing the violence from escalating out of control.

Free-Market Insurgency: A Positive-Feedback Loop

Over the past year this relatively stable system has rapidly broken down, and the result is the likelihood of a runaway escalation in violence. MEND fractioned amidst infighting among Ijaw tribal alliances. Various factions, with various political agendas, neutralized the ability to push for peace through negotiations—there was no single party, nor accession to a single set of demands, that could defuse the motivation to violence. In addition, the ransom money that foreign oil companies now routinely paid for the return of western employees spawned a market for guerrilla entrepreneurs—actors who were less motivated by traditional Ijaw political goals than by a return on investment. The lure of easy money has led to a proliferation of militant groups (now perhaps best characterized as criminal gangs) and a dramatic increase in attacks. This infusion of easy money to youthful militants broke down the traditional tribal structure of respect for leadership by elders—much as the infusion of easy drug money makes urban street gangs in the US less accountable to traditional cultural and familial restraints.

Figure 4: Grim Economic Reality Pushes Ijaw Youth to Crime

Finally, because of the shift from a political motivation to a profit motivation, militants are no longer invested in preserving the long-term viability of Nigeria as an oil exporter. As a result, the targeting strategy has shifted from the temporary sabotage of infrastructure for political ends to threats of permanent destruction of key infrastructure nodes—targets that can force higher protection payments and therefore higher returns on investment. All three of these factors are contributing to the rapid tipping of the violence in Nigeria’s delta from a stable, negative-feedback system to an escalating, positive-feedback system.

Figure 5: Heavily Armed Youth Gangs in Speedboats Rally in Permissive Terrain


The escalating violence in Nigeria has two important ramifications:

First, the tip from stable violence to perpetual escalation of violence represents a sea change in the level of disruption to Nigeria’s oil exports. The controlled Ijaw violence under a unified MEND had a strong disincentive to either shut-in excessive portions of Nigeria’s oil exports or to inflict long-term damage on that export capability. The new entrepreneurial violence is comprised of multiple actors, each competing to extort money from a limited target list of oil installations, foreign workers, and foreign oil companies. Because the actors are now militant youths seeking short-term financial gain, rather than careful elders seeking long-term political concessions, there is a strong market incentive to fill the available market space—in other words, to escalate kidnappings and infrastructure attacks until all Nigerian production is shut in. Admittedly, these militants will face diminishing marginal returns as the level of Nigeria production approaches 100%. But for the disaffected youths of the Niger delta, living amidst broken tribal structures, ballooning populations, and the environmental devastation of the local oil industry, a very small marginal return on investment in violence is still the best economic prospect available.

Figure 6: A Hostage Surrounded by Ijaw Militants

Second, this transition from ideologically motivated violence to financially motivated violence portends problems for energy infrastructure throughout the world. As peak oil exacerbates already tight global energy markets, record energy prices will allow energy firms everywhere to accept the kind of ransoms and payoffs that are fuelling the escalation of violence in Nigeria’s delta region. There is good reason to believe that today’s sectarian or ideologically driven violence in Iraq and elsewhere may transition to financially motivated attacks on energy infrastructure. This transition will be accompanied by the same critical change observed in Nigeria: there will no longer be the motivation to keep the majority of production on-line, or to prevent long-term damage to production capacity. Instead, as long as marginal returns on investments in energy infrastructure attacks remain positive, there will be a strong incentive to escalate these attacks no matter how completely a region’s export capacity is destroyed. If one accepts the proposition that peak oil will lead to global economic hardships, then this incentive will be further increased. The ability to pay “protection” for oil infrastructure is a direct function of the profitability of producing oil, and as such the peaking of world oil production—to the extent that it increases prices faster than production costs—will perpetually increase the incentive to attack energy infrastructure targets.

Figure 7: Hyperspectral Satellite Image of Oil Installation in Nigeria—Note dense jungle in close proximity to facility perimeter, a result of economics-driven design.

Finally, it is worth considering that energy infrastructure was designed to optimize economic performance, not security and defensibility. Economic considerations force an infrastructure design methodology consisting of largely centralized structures with multiple single points of failure, and networks vulnerable to cascading failures. As a result, even in oil producing states with functional security services, there is a high vulnerability to financially motivated infrastructure attacks. While a Nigerian scenario may seem unthinkable in the United States, consider our nation’s success in interdicting the drug trade. The market for energy is significantly larger than the market for drugs—and so is the incentive to militants to conduct financially motivated attacks on energy infrastructure. If this analysis is correct, the increasing incentives to attack energy infrastructure will become yet another factor accelerating the rate of decline of global energy production.

Jeff Vail is an intelligence analyst working in energy infrastructure protection. He is a former US Air Force Intelligence Officer, and planned portions of the GOPLATS operation during the 2003 invasion of Iraq that prevented sabotage of Iraq's key southern oil infrastructure. He is also the author of the book "A Theory of Power" which can be purchased or downloaded for free at his website:

One has to wonder with oil so critical to industrialized nations, both west and east, at what point will one,some, many of those industrialized nations decide that genocide is justified to access that oil. I.e., at what point will/would an effort be made to wipe out the local population entirely in order to get reliable access to the oil?
It might sound crazy and mad now, but when oil gets in really short supply my guess is that the gloves will really come off. And not just in Nigeria, but in every country where there is a part of the local population that causes too much trouble in getting the oil flowing.
Our species has a history of somethmes wiping out every man, woman and child going back a few thousand years. I seriously doubt that we have changed all that much.
I am not advocating this course of action, just commenting on human nature and what we might expect to see when the real oil crunch starts to take effect.

at what point will one,some, many of those industrialized nations decide that genocide is justified to access that oil.

They already did, long ago. ¿Where does the money that pays for all the weapons that the Nigerian government uses on the local population come from? ¿Who sells them the weapons?

It has already happened - 41 years ago. Read about Biafra

Essentially, the Biafrans lost because the British Government and British mercenaries supported the Federal government. At least one million died - mostly from starvation.

I see a similar problem a little further down the road when we are past peak, where the same type of thing could happen to wind farms and the possibility of widespread theft of solar photovoltaic panels because if there are general industrial problems in an energy scare world then the production cost and hence value of these could rise very very quickly.

This could turn out to be one of the key problems with not preparing at least one if not two decades in advance of peak which is that alternative energies would not be widespread enough and because of the depth of the shortages and general chaos, it becomes impossible to build more. Essentially we would be in negative feedback terrority with regard to being able to add any capacity and instead the limited alternative energy capacity would be at risk.

What this implies is that right now, TODAY, every major industrial country should devise a plan and put it into action as quick as possible to rapidly increase the amount of wind and solar power, giving it the highest priority possible.

Turning energy centres into fortress will probably not work and will be very costly and perhaps more importantly cause a culture shift of the negative variety.

They are already stealing the wires in the electricity cables for scrap.

Sometimes it is impossible to not think that Duncan may not have a point and that we are on the down slope.

What this implies is that right now, TODAY, every major industrial country should devise a plan and put it into action as quick as possible to rapidly increase the amount of wind and solar power, giving it the highest priority possible.

It would be dumb to have an emergency plan for crash building the most capital intensive power sources since capital limitation for large scale projects essentially is the same as a resource limit.

rapidly increase the amount of wind and solar power,
It would be dumb to have an emergency plan for crash building the most capital intensive power sources

VS the ever worse idea of building even more capital intensive fission power ?

I think this means that we will see American or European troops in Nigeria in the near future. From reading the situation is now unstable and their is probably no practical way to defuse it without significant ground troops.

Whats missing is a discussion of the Nigerian Army from what I've read it the papers they seem fairly inept and not interested in risking their lives to protect oil installations.
They are capable of acting as bullies and terrorizing the population. I could be underestimating them.

I found this its more about MEND but quite interesting.

So can the Nigerian Army with a infusion of cash protect the
oil installations or will a more capable force be required ?
If this article is correct significant direct military intervention will soon be needed.

Next I cant seem to find any numbers for Nigerian production. How far are they away from peak ?

The US military has set up the Africa Command to more closely control resources there.

Various news sources have commented. Al Jazeera ran an article on February 7 quoting an African UN official to the effect that when China intervenes, it is called colonialism, so what is it when the US intervenes for its own benefit?

The resource war is globalized. How many more troops, mercenaries, and proxy fighters from "allies" will be drawn into battle?

The twisted narrative of the Christian Apocalypse is used well to garner support for the Kill-Off policies of our government.

Hello TODers,

The sad thing about the whole affair is that a wisely preplanned biosolar transition combined with Peakoil Outreach would have been much cheaper, less conflict generating, and more environmentally sound.

As mentioned before: if an exporting country trades FFs for only biosolar goods, they then enjoy far-reaching advantage.

Maybe someday we will wise up and rise above our lizard brain to use the higher brain function. Oh well, I remain a fast-crash realist until then.

Bob Shaw in Phx,Az Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

Google Marc Rich + Nigeria - how certain rulers spirited billions out of the country, just like Marc helped the Oligarchs in Russia move out mountains of zinc, aluminum, copper and other stockpiled strategic materials. Since Scooter, when managing partner at Dechert, Price & Rhodes, was Rich's personal attorney - and Clinton found it in his heart to pardon Rich (or was it the $$ Denise forked over to the Democrats and the Clinton Library?)- many spirals seem to end up in Zug, Switzerland.

I read that there was low-level Nigeria conflict beginning in the 1980's, more conflict in the 1990's, and conflict in the 2000's. In the third decade of conflict the oil is yet flowing. There is conflict in the United States, murders every day of the year. People went to work and carried on. Iraq was blowing up everywhere, the oil flows, people went to work, no work no pay. No oil flow, no money. More money not cry. If the war in Nigeria were to end, would there be celebration, or mourning?

I agree that solar is a great and lasting gift.

We need to lead with it in America and it will become fashionable in the world.

If ever there was any doubt that colonialism was all about exploiting other peoples resources, this post should put paid to that.

One point, every other ethnic group in Nigeria has a vested interest in keeping the Ijaw's oil flowing, including the Arab Muslim north who appear to have genocidal tendencies against Africans at the best of times. This is going to turn out long and bloody. A terrible tragedy in the making. Intervention will become inevitable in my view.

Is it only colonialism when white people do it?

To the Ijaw it sure feels like they are the butt end of their Nigerian colleagues' colonialism.

No it isn't. I was trying to make a point about resources rather than human nature which all humans share with the 'white man'.

All 'civilisations' before the industrial revolution were based on slavery or serfdom. It has been that way ever since the development of agriculture. The industrial 'civilisation' is different only because machines are better slaves than humans.

Frankly, human nature stinks but human behavior is predictable. In my view, the human subconscious calculates genetic distance. If resources are short then people try to take them from the people most genetically distant from themselves.

I'm not a great fan of the monkey but, there again, I don't go around tearing other live animals apart with my teeth as most carnivores do.

Am I the only one hoping the Ijaws blow everything up?

If I were Ijaw, that would be my plan B.

And yes, I expect plan A to fail. There is easily enough money to buy the Ijaw off, but the more money lying around, the greater the greed of those near it. Neither the Nigeerian "government" nor the oil companies will consent to seeing their profit margins crimped in the least.

The only plain course left will be to blow it all up.

As the logic of Peak Oil sets in, I expect this scenerio to be repeated around the world. The steepness of the post-peak downslope will be dictated by politics--not by the limits of geology and technology.

I realize both the Nigeerian government and the oil companies want tomaximize their profits, but they have to make a business decision. Is it cheaper to buy off the Ijaws or hire 10,000 Blackadders and Executive Options? Doing what they been doing isn't working anymore.


Thank you for this analysis.