PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria, Feb. 4 (UPI) -- A 10-week-old leadership crisis that has paralyzed government lies behind a threat by southern rebels to not only resume their war against Africa's largest oil industry but expand it with an "all-out onslaught" in which "nothing will be spared."
Worse, the power vacuum caused by the absence of President Uramu Yar'Adua, who has been hospitalized in Saudi Arabia with heart problems since Nov. 23, threatens to rekindle the traditional rivalry between the Muslim-dominated north and the mainly Christian south.
The absence of Yar'Adua has caused a constitutional crisis since he has not formally handed power to his vice president, Goodluck Jonathan.
This has stirred up feuding between the powerful political barons who control the two regions and who agreed when military rule ended a decade ago to take turns holding the presidency.
Yar'Adua is a northerner, Jonathan is from the south. While technically he should assume presidential powers in the absence of the head of state, northerners will not accept him doing so under a northern term.
This dispute has exacerbated the problems in the south, where Nigeria's oil-producing zone lies in the swampy delta of the Niger River.
In August 2009 Yar'Adua declared a general amnesty in a bid to end an insurgency by militants in the impoverished south seeking a greater share of Nigeria's oil wealth.
An estimated 15,000 militants surrendered their arms and their main organization the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta declared a cease-fire Oct. 25.
But since then the rebels claim the government failed to keep pledges to steer oil revenue into the region, where much of the population ekes out a living on $1 a day, and provide job training and allowances for former militants.
The absence of Yar'Adua, who had personally headed the initiative to end the southern rebellion, which over five years had seriously hit the oil industry, meant the whole peace process ground to a halt.
On Jan. 30, amid a growing sense of betrayal by the federal government among MEND's rank and file, the leadership called off its unilateral cease-fire and resumed attacks on oil installations.
"It is sufficiently clear that the government of Nigeria has no intention of considering the demands made by this group for the control of the resources and land of the Niger Delta to be reverted to their rightful owners, the people of the Niger Delta," MEND declared.
"All companies related to the oil industry in the Niger Delta should be prepared for an all-out onslaught against their installations and personnel. … Nothing will be spared."
The conflict has the potential to inflict immense damage on Nigeria's oil industry, the backbone of its economy.
When fighting was halted in the summer of 2009, production had been slashed by almost one-third, from 2.5 million barrels per day in June 2005 to just over 1 million. The violence, and the wholesale theft of oil from pipelines and tank farms, cost the nation $1 billion a month in lost oil revenue.
Renewed attacks would also jolt the oil markets. Nigeria is the United States' fifth-largest supplier of oil. That had been expected to increase as the Americans lessened their dependence on Middle Eastern oil.
But if MEND does go on the offensive again, there will be an added wrinkle this time around that could widen the north-south rift and possibly threaten the cohesion of Africa's most populous state.
There are concerns that southern politicians, who have often found it useful to ally themselves with MEND in the past to bolster their finances with profits from oil theft, are now pushing the militants back on the warpath to fill their coffers in the run-up to national elections in April 2011.
"With party primaries due by the end of 2010, it was almost inevitable that MEND would break its cease-fire and resume attacks … regardless of national political tensions generated by Yar'Adua's absence," U.S. security consultancy Stratfor said in a report.
"If MEND is now to be used to propel Jonathan into the presidency (as opposed to being used to further the careers of politicians of lesser stature), the militant group will attack intensely until Jonathan is secured as president.
"If MEND is to be used for its more traditional cause of campaign financing purposes, it will likely still attack throughout the year, but with less ferocity and frequency than under the previous scenario."