In Nigeria's Oil Patch, an Unsung Ethnic Voice

A potentially strong minority sprang a prisoner at dawn in July, but it still lacks political clout.

Prisoner T.K. Ogoriba awoke before dawn to what he called "a most unusual noise." From his cell in Yenagoa - a hamlet in Nigeria's oil-producing south - Mr. Ogoriba saw a dozen men come running in his direction.

"People I didn't even know," he recalls, unable to repress a smile. "They were calling my name."

Ogoriba had been jailed for exposing the corruption of his local military government. Now, on that Monday in July, he was freed by unarmed supporters of the Izon Youth Organization, a movement comprising the more radical elements of the Ijaw tribe in the Niger Delta.

Nothing like the raid had occurred in Nigeria's long history of military rule. But in Lagos, the financial capital, there were only vague rumors about undisciplined Ijaw elements vandalizing private property.

Attention remained obstinately focused on the federal capital, Abuja, where Nigeria's latest military ruler, Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar, was preparing for civilian elections he scheduled for May next year.

"If this happened in Yorubaland, it would be all over the papers," says Olawale Fapohunda, a Lagos-based human rights lawyer.

The Yorubas, with the Ibos in the east and the Hausa-Fulani in the north, have long dominated Nigeria's political scene. Power stays in the hands of the Hausa military establishment. Yorubas and Ibos have gained at least partial access to most governmental and financial institutions. But minorities like the Ijaw are shut out.

Leaders of the Izon Youth Organization candidly admit they don't have the resources or the desire to engage the military in a protracted conflict. After "disruptive mass action" was threatened by The Rivers States Coalition, an Ijaw-dominated group, one of its leaders tried to prevent the statement from reaching the local press.

"I said we should not be making those kinds of statements without anything to back them up," says Felix Tuodolo, who is also an environmentalist with Oil Watch, a delta-based monitoring group. What the Ijaw should do instead, he adds, is find a political voice: "We have been excluded from everything because we have never spoken in one voice."

The delta produces 90 percent of Nigeria's wealth. Under the swamps and mangroves of one of the world's richest ecosystems lie vast reserves: 40 more years of crude and a century of natural gas.

The first oil was produced here in 1956. After 40 years of production, there are no roads and no conduits for running water. There are, however, oil spills - more than 10 in the past six months - and some 100 gas flares spewing carbon dioxide 24 hours a day.

Unlike the tiny Ogoni minority - whose campaign against environmental abuse ended with the execution of writer Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995 - the Ijaw have tremendous political potential. They cut across five states of the delta and, with an estimated population of 12 million, constitute the fourth-largest ethnic group in Nigeria.

"We Ijaw provide 30 to 40 percent of the wealth of this nation, and we have nothing," says Mr. Tuodolo of Oil Watch.

Before the raid in Yenagoa, the capital of Bayelsa - one of six states newly created in anticipation of return to civilian rule - the Ijaw had focused on oil operators. Installations were attacked, flow stations forced to shut down, and expatriate workers taken hostage.

Out of 40 cases scheduled to go to trial in the Federal High Court at Port Harcourt, the oil capital of Nigeria, three-fourths are lawsuits against oil companies.

"We are doing everything we can," says one oil worker on condition of anonymity. "but it is never enough. They want a road built, so we build them a road. They say they want light, and we give them light. Still they take our boats, attack our work stations, and kidnap our employees."

During the recent World Cup soccer competition in France, one company went so far as to provide Ijaw fans with television sets.

"For years the military and the oil companies have implemented the principle of divide and rule," says Mr. Fapohunda, the human rights lawyer. He says the Ijaw's demand to control 50 percent of the oil in their land will keep them outside any political forum.

"The Yorubas and the Ibos will disagree on a million things, even among themselves," he says. "But one thing they will be in complete agreement over is oil. They will never let any of the minorities have 50 percent, or even 25 percent."

The question is whether the deprived Ijaw will break with a past of often violent internal dissent and succeed in articulating a unified platform for political progress.

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