Oil inflames Nigeria's ethnic tensions

Representatives of the Niger Delta are boycotting reforms to the Constitution because they want half of oil revenues.

Dispute over the allocation of Nigeria's oil wealth has brought to the surface the country's many ethnic and religious differences and now threatens to spill over into streets and oil facilities.

Delegates of the oil-rich southern Niger Delta region, or "south-south," last week staged a walkout from the National Political Reforms Conference, called to rewrite the country's Constitution and ease ethnic and religious tensions. On Sunday, they continued their boycott by turning down an invitation to a presidential gala where recommendations from the conference were submitted, which included combatting electoral fraud and booting agriculture.

At issue is the country's oil wealth - and who gets it. Last year, Nigeria's revenue from oil exports totaled $27 billion, making it one of the world's Top 10 oil producers and the United States' fifth-largest supplier. Southern delegates want immediately to raise the region's cut to 25 percent of revenue, up from the current 13 percent, with a target of 50 percent within the next five years; the conference offered the region 17 percent. How this issue is resolved will go a long way to determining what drivers will pay at the pump.

The National Conference was started in February by President Olusegun Obasanjo to discuss the divisions in a country with more than 250 ethnic groups - in particular, reform of the Nigerian Constitution, which was drawn up under military rule in 1999. It appears the conference, however, simply exacerbated old grievances rather than settling them.

In protest against the stalemate over revenue sharing, an Ijaw community in the Niger Delta shut down oil facilities in the Billie area last Wednesday. A particularly vocal group - the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC) - has also staged various marches and threatens to take further action.

"When the right time comes, we will stop the oil flowing," says Ebiokpa Barle, the spokesman for the IYC, a group that claims to represent 18 million ethnic Ijaws. Oil is an issue that regularly divides the region, but Mr. Barle says, "We are conversing with every other Niger Delta ethnic group."

Oronto Douglas, a delegate for the southern Bayelsa state government, says: "The challenge for Ijaws is to talk with one voice, and so far they have been doing that."

Late last year, Dokubo Asari, a militia leader in the swamps of the Niger Delta and advocate for all oil proceeds to be kept by the region, threatened oil facilities and "all out war" on the Nigerian government. This made world energy traders jittery, pushing prices above $50 a barrel. (Oil now trades at nearly $60 a barrel.) Mr. Asari has long called for the "dismemberment" of Nigeria and was reportedly questioned last week by secret police about his campaign to break up the country.

In 2003, more than 1,000 people were killed in fighting between Ijaw militias, who traditionally are fishermen, and Itsekiri farmers throughout the region. During the worst of the violence in March and April, oil supply was cut by 40 percent. Oil installations up to 30 miles offshore were evacuated with an estimated loss of $20 million a day in revenue.

Some areas in the Warri region remain evacuated, and Chevron estimates the cost of repairing the damage to its facilities at $600 million. During the violence, the Pentagon provided the Nigerian government with four warships - refitted World War II patrol boats. Currently, the US military has the Coast Guard cutter USCG Bear based in the Gulf of Guinea to train Nigerian and other West African states to combat such threats as terrorism, drug trafficking, and petroleum theft.

Over the years, the majority of the Nigerian population has benefited little from the oil wealth. According to the World Bank, corruption has meant that 80 percent of Nigeria's oil and gas revenues goes to 1 percent of the population, while 70 percent of the country's 133 million people still live on less than $1 a day.

"We have not been given any money from this oil," says Barle.

The 19 northern states of Nigeria - an area with few such lucrative natural resources - have remained particularly adamant in their opposition to such an increase in revenue allocation, leading southern delegates in a press statement to describe the relationship as one of "internal colonial arrangements."

The debate has stirred memories of the Biafran war in the 1960s - a war of secession in the same Niger Delta region that led to the death of more than 1 million people. On the issue of secession, everyone publicly remains supportive of "One Nigeria."

"We are not talking about secession - we will remain in Nigeria and agitate for resource control," says Barle.

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