David and Goliath in Africa

Nigeria's peoples are fighting to share their land's oil riches. Did an executed activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, start it all?

Under Africa's huge western shoulder the continent's most populous country faces civil war just as it nears the brink of democracy. Nigeria has twice the area of California and three times the population. It's the world's sixth-largest exporter of oil, America's fifth-largest supplier.

And oil drives the conflict in the delta of one of Africa's great rivers, the Niger. Ethnic minorities want to share in their land's riches of oil, which has brought Nigeria $12 billion a year with production of 2 million barrels a day.

The struggle is both among Nigeria's many ethnic groups and between their members and the oil companies. Under its impact, oil production levels have dropped by a third - and the delta has turned into a battleground.

Oil installations are being stormed, pumps shut down, and foreign workers taken hostage. Each act of sabotage by youths of various ethnic communities carries new demands: new roads, new schools, drinking water, employment, control of resources the people produce.

As the country slouches toward democracy after 15 years of military rule, analysts say the war in the delta has the capacity to disrupt the transition to civilian rule next May and destabilize Nigeria for decades to come.

It all began with Ken Saro-Wiwa of the tiny Ogoni ethnic minority, say many Nigerians, though his own campaign for the Ogonis was crushed when he was executed by Nigeria's military government three years ago this month.

Mr. Saro-Wiwa was both an environmental and political catalyst. He went after the giant oil corporations running a messy but lucrative business in the delta. He wrote and argued and clamored for compensation and environmental improvement for impoverished people living in the midst of polluting riches. Now a Western diplomat says: "The whole notion of the delta being the treasure chest of Nigeria and yet the poorest part of the country has sunk in. We are now looking at a localized civil war."

Arms have already found their way to the delta, some turned against oil company workers, others used in an escalating conflict of ethnic groups. Observers say the strife is not ethnic as much as economic.

"It's oil," says Oronto Douglas, an environmental activist. "When you look at the different clashes you will see that it inevitably involves ancestral ownership claims over oil-producing land."

In this crescendo of violence, the transition government of Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar is keeping a low profile, only occasionally raising the specter of "military action." But the area around Warri is already partly militarized, with Navy vessels patrolling the river. Nearby a fire from a leaking oil pipe killed more than 1,000 people last month, setting off ethnic violence that has displaced thousands.

As a gesture of goodwill, General Abubakar allowed this month's demonstrations in memory of Saro-Wiwa. He agreed to return Saro-Wiwa's remains - and those of the eight other activists executed the same day (Nov. 10, 1995) - to their families for proper burial. The concession came after a meeting with US presidential envoy Jesse Jackson, who met with representatives of delta minorities during a brief visit to Nigeria last week.

Saro-Wiwa gave a name to the delta's malaise, calling it environmental racism.

"It is true that we would have never dreamed of behaving in Scotland the way we behaved in Nigeria," a retired delta oil manager admits. Oil pipes that should have been buried were not, he says, and gas was flared continuously.

By the time of Saro-Wiwa's execution for the murder of four Ogoni elders - a charge that has since been refuted - the degree of political consciousness in the delta had increased 10-fold. "We don't understand why Shell is not listening to us. They don't listen," says a youth at a seized Shell installation in Benisede in Delta State.

Shell Petroleum Development Company Ltd. doesn't see why it should listen. The company line is that it is here on business, operating in joint venture with the government.

Almost 80 percent of each barrel it produces, Shell says, remains in government hands. That money, not its own, should go to building roads, the company argues.

The Benisede installation was evacuated by Shell on Aug. 2 after the threat to personnel became too severe. Three months of inactivity has cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars, and Benisede is only one of 20 rigs in the hands of angry youths barely past high school age.

"What they don't understand is that the oil companies are going to pull out," notes the Western diplomat.

"Let them go," answers Bello Orubebe, a leader of the Delta Volunteer Force, a loose federation of youths whose main activity is sabotage.

"We have the misfortune of having oil here. It could have been a blessing, but I say it's a misfortune."

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