Nigeria militants step up oil attacks

One year after President Umaru Yar' Adua took power, vowing to bring stability to the oil-rich Niger Delta region, observers say little progress has been made.

Sarah Simpson
Niger Delta: Traders and villagers unload at the busy Bille Jetty in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Waterfront areas are regular flash points for violence as gunmen move by boat.

Militants in Africa's top oil producer are marking President Umaru Yar'Adua's first full year in power with fresh pipeline bombings, underscoring the difficulties that civilian rulers have had calming strife linked to Nigeria's notoriously weak and corrupt democratic system.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta's (MEND) latest attack – a nighttime bombing on a Royal Dutch Shell PLC operated pipeline – helped push global oil prices to $133 per barrel.

That explosion, the latest of nearly half a dozen in recent weeks, has raised fears of widening attacks on other oil facilities in Nigeria, the 4th-largest supplier of oil to the United States.

"This attack has passed a strong message to the government," said MEND in an e-mail to the Christian Science Monitor, "since the attack was dedicated to their failure" to bring stability and equality to the oil-rich but dirt-poor Niger Delta region.

Since their formation just over two years ago, MEND has repeatedly attacked oil infrastructure and kidnapped foreign oil workers, cutting Nigeria's crude exports by as much as 25 percent and helping push global oil prices to new highs.

The media-savvy group says it is fighting on behalf of the people of the Niger Delta for greater local control of Nigeria's crude export earnings, but most observers now say such militant groups are more interested in criminal extortion, competing – and sometime colluding – with government officials at all levels for personal profit.

"What is really new here is the element of criminality that has come into the struggle of the Niger Delta," says human rights activist Anyakwee Nsirimovu, based in Nigeria's oil capital Port Harcourt. "You can hardly hear anybody talking about the core issues of the delta, like underdevelopment, bad governance, and all that."

One year later, scant progress

When he took office one year ago, Yar'Adua promised to urgently tackle the crisis in the delta.

In a statement released this week, he said that "the Administration has reached an advanced stage in the discussions with political and community leaders, as well as the militants, in the efforts to find a lasting solution," adding that "the issue of criminality and bunkering has to be separated from the genuine political agitation."

But analysts in the delta throw cold water on such claims. They say that no new high-level talks have materialized, as promised under Yar'Adua, and that discussions undertaken in the last year have not included the most prominent armed group, MEND.

"We have seen these things before. So it is really annoying when I hear people who want to call a big conference to discuss the crisis in the delta, because what do they want to discuss? Everybody knows what needs to be done," says analyst Dimieari Von Kemedi, who says the people of the delta need to see more development come from the region's vast oil wealth..

With a generous supply of AK-47s, many so-called militants of the Niger Delta are learning the lessons of their leaders and using arms and violence to enrich themselves. Guns that last year were used to help rig elections and terrorize expatriate workers are now being used to kidnap school children, raid wedding receptions, and rob banks.

Mr. Nsirimovu says his organization has monitored every election in the delta since the return to civilian rule in 1999 and every one of those polls has been rigged, with violence and the conscription of poor, armed youths.

Public office in Nigeria and in the Niger Delta in particular, which gets a greater share of the federal purse, is an opportunity for self-enrichment on a vast scale, he adds.

Former militant leader Dokubo Asari used to be aligned with MEND and would preach to rag-tag youths a similar message for a greater share of the oil wealth to go to the region that produces the oil. But Asari and other militant leaders have been "settled" during the Yar'Adua years, paid off with undisclosed sums of cash to retire quietly from their campaign, analysts say.

Lucky Akaruese, professor of philosophy at the University of Port Harcourt, says that the lessons youths are learning is that arms and violence are rewarded with cash and status.

Armed youths learn crime pays

"Those who are peaceful are pushed to the background," says Mr. Akaruese. "But those who acquire arms – they are the ones who get respect."

But the rag-tag youths furnished with arms, whether by militants or politicians, are not sharing in the riches of their leaders. Armed gangs now kidnap wives and children of rich Nigerian businessmen and stage armed raids on the homes of the elite, even raiding their fridges and cupboards.

"It has become so difficult to know who is fighting for the Niger Delta cause here and who is just fighting for their stomach," said Nsirimovu.

The solution, many say, is strengthening democracy, investing in development, and creating jobs.

"If there were more jobs then everything would calm down," says Purity Kemmer, a trader at a waterfront market in Port Harcourt, which is a regular flash point for violence. "You know this crisis is because people are angry. They have no jobs – if the jobs were there, there would be no crisis."

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