Nigeria’s military launched a co-ordinated air, naval and ground assault to free 19 hostages held in militant camps in the oil-rich southern delta, apparently routing the gunmen without causing any casualties.
Such an operation in the Opec-member nation has been unheard of in the four years since a low-level insurgency has targeted oil pipelines and expatriate workers in the creeks of Niger Delta.
Botched rescue missions have, in the past, killed hostages and left many private firms to negotiate through the murky back channels which run between criminal gangs, militants and local politicians in the region roughly the size of Portugal.
But the success of Wednesday night’s attack could prove to be a boon for President Goodluck Jonathan as he tries to hold off competitors in next year’s election.
“The way the Nigerian political game is being played, I think for the resolution of this issue alone, Jonathan will breathe a sigh of relief knowing that he has done well,” said Charles Dokubo, an analyst at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs.
The military raided the camp late on Wednesday, freeing hostages taken from oil rigs operating for London-based Afren plc and US firm Exxon Mobil. The seven kidnapped from the Afren platform included two US workers, one Canadian, two French and two Indonesians. Exxon Mobil’s Nigerian subsidiary said its eight hostages all were local workers. The remainder of those rescued were Nigerian workers for construction company Julius Berger Nigeria.
A statement from Mr Jonathan’s spokesman, Ima Niboro, praised the military for its decisive action. “While the federal government will continue to take all necessary steps to guarantee the safety of lives and property, as well as the security of oil workers and installations in the Niger Delta, President Jonathan assured all law-abiding citizens that they have nothing to fear,” the statement read.
For Mr Jonathan, the success of the operation grants him relief as well. Nigeria’s government coffers bleed black from oil revenues and ensuring the continuation of the country’s current production at 2.2 million barrels of oil a day.
He faces what could be a fiercely competitive battle within the ruling People’s Democratic Party to be anointed its presidential candidate in polls likely to be held by April. The party has secured the nation’s presidency since democracy took hold more than a decade ago using voter intimidation, fraud and ballot stuffing.
Among those challenging him are former military dictator Ibrahim Babangida, former vice president Atiku Abubakar and Aliyu Gusau, Mr Jonathan’s former national security adviser. All boast security experience in governing a nation with more than 100 ethnicities and fraught with religious tensions.