Nigeria's leader challenged at home

Recent attacks on oil facilities and Christian-Muslim violence threaten the stability of the nation.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo has forged a reputation for himself abroad as a peacemaker, having played a key role in successfully resolving conflicts in other West African nations such as Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Last year, Britain's Coventry Cathedral awarded him its 2005 Peace Prize for his statesmanship. It was a sign of his popularity abroad, even if some observers wryly noted that the prize's sponsors included Royal Dutch Shell Petroleum Company, which produces most of the petroleum in this country, the fifth-largest exporter of oil to the US.

Back at home, however, it's another story for the 1970s military-ruler-turned-democratic-president.

Problems have flared here over the past week, with a series of violent religious riots, attacks on oil installations, and a poorly handled bird flu outbreak in the north.

For Amanze Obi, a columnist in Nigeria's Sun newspaper, the unrest shows that Nigeria "is a bomb waiting for detonation."

"It's an indication there's tension in the land - political tension about what will happen next year" when Nigeria's next presidential elections take place.

Many Nigerian observers say the unrest is stoked by political struggles between regional power brokers ahead of the 2007 polls. Heightening tensions are allegations that President Obasanjo has a "third-term agenda" - a secret plot to change the Constitution to allow him to stand for another term in office.

The country has been rocked by a series of political, religious, and health crises this month. On Feb. 8, Nigeria announced its first case of bird flu in the northern state of Kaduna. Despite warnings from world health agencies, the government decided to keep its poultry markets open. The disease has reportedly spread to five of Nigeria's 36 states - and the capital, Abuja.

On Saturday, Nigeria saw its second major hostage crisis this year. A group called the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) responded to alleged Nigerian air raids on villages by kidnapping nine foreign employees (including three Americans) of the Houston-based firm Willbros, who were working on a gas project for Shell. MEND also blew up important oil installations, cutting off one-fifth of Nigeria's oil output. Crude oil prices have climbed by more than $1.50 a barrel on the news.

The same day, riots hit two northern cities, killing at least 28. Muslims burned down shops and attacked Christians after police fired tear gas at a protest over Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Muslim riots erupted in other northern states over the following days. In the southeastern market town of Onitsha Tuesday, Christians launched deadly revenge attacks.

The government response in all the crises is similar: Committees are set up to discuss the issues and short-term fixes are found. But there is often the sense that underlying causes are not being addressed in the oil-rich Niger delta and other areas.

A common criticism of Mr. Obasanjo is that he travels too much to promote Nigeria abroad and make peace in other countries, but does not focus enough on Nigeria's own deep-seated problems.

"To be a peacemaker in other people's households is much easier because you do not have anything at stake ... but in the Niger delta [Obasanjo] does have a lot at stake," says rights campaigner Demieari Von Kemedi in the oil city of Port Harcourt. In the delta "he is not a disinterested onlooker, but is part of the problem."

Local human rights groups say powerful delta militias started out as creations of Obasanjo's ruling People's Democratic Party. They helped win the elections for the president and local governors in 1999 and 2003. Many of them have now turned against the government, buying arms with the proceeds of a lucrative trade in stolen crude, which brings in hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

The mostly ethnic Ijaw militias have capitalized on political discontent over rule by corrupt elites, demanding greater autonomy - even independence.

Mr. Kemedi commends the government for not reacting to the latest hostage crisis with more military action, but says it needs to go further toward meeting demands in the delta for greater control of oil resources.

"If there is a way that the militias can be assured of more serious and reasonable initiatives to discuss resource control" the situation could change for the better, argues Kemedi, who consults frequently with the president.

Obasanjo has reacted to the latest crisis by setting up a committee led by the governors of three delta states - but MEND has so far been refusing negotiations. His spokeswoman, Remi Oyo, insists the problem of underdevelopment in the delta is already being addressed by the Niger Delta Development Commission, an agency funded by government and oil industry revenues that many say is ineffective.

"Anywhere you have human beings in the world there are going to be problems. But what is important is that the president is dealing with these problems," Ms. Oyo. "Those who see themselves as militants should see the light and lay down their arms."

A national conference organized by Obasanjo last year to resolve Nigeria's most serious problems ended in a walkout by delta delegates, angry over the rejection of their demand for a minimum 25 percent share of oil revenues.

The issue has exacerbated tensions in a country that is home to over 250 ethnic groups and divided between a mainly Muslim north and a majority-Christian south.

With public hearings on constitutional reform taking place this week, analysts say the "third term agenda" could be the spark that would set those tensions alight.

Earlier this month, US intelligence chief John Negroponte told the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that there could be "major turmoil and conflict" if Obasanjo says he will run again.

"Such chaos," he said "could lead to disruption of oil supply, secessionist moves by regional governments, major refugee flows, and instability elsewhere in West Africa."

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