Africa's slippery oil patch

Oil and politics haven't mixed well in Africa's most populous country and its largest oil producer.

Corruption under 15 years of military rule has sapped Nigeria's petroleum wealth. In the oil-rich Niger River delta, resentment over poverty runs deep.

But now, following tomorrow's watershed election of a civilian president, Nigeria's new leaders may feel democratic and international pressure to tackle the tense and often violent situation in its southern petroleum patch.

Over the past year, dozens of oil installations have been seized, workers taken hostage, and a vast network of pipelines sabotaged by militant youths demanding a share of the oil wealth. A repressive response by the military has only embittered the struggle, says a report released this week by the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Nigeria produces 2 million barrels of oil a day and is the fifth-largest supplier of crude to the United States. Oil exports account for 90 percent of foreign-exchange earnings and 80 percent of federal revenue.

Yet, despite its oil wealth - $12 billion a year - Nigeria is among the 20 poorest countries in the world, and nowhere are people poorer than in the delta. The delta states want more roads, more running water, more electricity, and adequate compensation for three decades of oil spillage and gas flaring.

"They pollute our land and refuse to pay," Oronto Douglas, a leading environmental lawyer, says of the oil companies. "And when we protest, they shoot at us."

Human Rights Watch focuses on, among other things, the role it says the oil companies have played in the growing insurgency, accusing them of bringing in the military for repressive operations that resulted in the death of scores of people.

Chevron in particular is indirectly blamed for the death of six youths in incidents in January this year and May last year. None of the phone calls made to Chevron since the report's release were returned. Spokesmen have been quoted elsewhere as explaining denials of the charges.

Attempts to repress the delta insurgency are only likely to make matters worse, observers say. There are signs the struggle is becoming more organized and violence will become increasingly concerted among the Ijaw ethnic group.

Unlike the tiny Ogoni tribe which first started the protest in the delta, the Ijaws constitute Nigeria's fourth largest ethnic group, numbering around 12 million. Because they cut across five states of the delta, they represent a far greater threat to the stability of the oil producing areas. For six weeks last summer, militant Ijaw youths shut down some 20 oil stations, causing product levels to drop by a third.

For the new civilian administration to address the issue properly, Human Rights Watch argues, it will have to devolve control of the resources to the communities by repealing the Petroleum Act of 1969 and the Land Use Act of 1979, which establish government ownership of land and "all minerals, mineral oils and natural gas."

"Repeal those two acts, and the troubles in the delta will end tomorrow," says Doifie Ola of the Lagos-based Environment Rights Action.

The likelihood of the new civilian administration doing that in the near future, Nigerian experts point out, is slim.

Generally divided over every aspect of life in Nigeria, the three dominating tribes - the Hausa-Fulani in the north, the Yoruba in the southwest and the Ibo in the southeast - are in perfect agreement over oil, having often stated that only a fraction of the delta's mineral resources should be placed under the control of the minorities inhabiting the land.

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