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BBC News: Elections highlight Delta woes

By Alex Last
Niger Delta  

In a poor village of sandy streets in southern Nigeria, Nedan Abanwika stands in front of his house looking at the oil installation just yards away.

“Look at this – this flow station is on my land, by my door. Yet look at me, look at me, look at my compound and family. We have not fed, we are not even half fed.”

He hopes elections will make things better: “If democracy is given a place to prevail, if Nigeria wants to make changes, if our leaders allow the prevalence of democracy – if that is on board then things will change.”

States in the oil-producing Niger Delta get huge budgets, swelled because they get a percentage of the oil revenues generated on their land. Yet most people live in poverty, the consequence of endemic government corruption.

Rivers State got $1.3bn (£684m) last year, more than many African nations get. So it is a rich prize for the political parties.

But last week’s state elections do not inspire confidence that the region’s oil wealth will finally be used to raise living standards for local people.

Ballot boxes stuffed

In the run-down state capital of Port Harcourt, people waited and waited for election materials, ballots and officials to turn up – polling stations remained deserted as people got fed up waiting or were intimated by the threat of violence.

In most areas we visited turnout was low, often simply because of the late start.

In some areas foreign journalists saw ballot boxes being stolen, others witnessed ballot boxes being stuffed and intimidation of voters by young men who said they were with the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP).

In many areas there were confrontations when people realised that the result sheets were not at the polling stations, but had disappeared to somewhere else – making any voting redundant.

At some collating centres, journalists saw ballots left strewn on the floor with no-one seeming to bother to count them.

Similar complaints came from nearby Bayelsa and Delta states.

And yet the electoral commission said turnout was 80%, with the PDP winning more than 90% of the vote.
 
Lobby group Human Rights Watch has called for elections to be cancelled and re-run in several parts of the Niger Delta, including Rivers.

This has happened in the states of Imo and Enugu because of irregularities.

While in the neighbouring state of Abia, Theodore Orji was elected as governor despite being in prison awaiting charges of corruption.

‘No fish’

In farmland not far away from Nedan Abanwika’s house, a fine spray of crude oil hisses out of a broken disused oil well. Below it lies a thick black puddle of crude oil held back by a low wall dug from the oily soil.

A local villager says that when the rainy season comes, the oil flows into the local farmland and rivers. “We are all farmers and fisherman – yet the land is polluted. If you go to the rivers there’s no fish,” he explains.
 
Some have used this anger at the poverty and pollution and picked up guns.

Accessible only by boat, the maze of creeks provides a safe haven for a number of the armed gangs and militants, who have carried out kidnappings and attacks on the oil industry, which have cut Nigeria’s oil output by up to 25%.

Some gangs are criminal, some are more political. Often the line is blurred.

The main militant group, Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend) said it was not interested in the elections because they would be a sham.

Ironically many of the armed groups were first made powerful by politicians, who armed and hired them to rig elections.

Failed promises

Ateke Tom, a well-known gang leader, sits under a canopy of trees in one of his bases cut into the bush by a narrow creek.

He is unhappy.
 
He says he was hired to rig the last elections in 2003 but once in office, the politicians failed to live up to his promise of cash and jobs for the boys.

One of his group, posing with a machine gun, with a hat pulled over his face, nods in agreement.

“We are not happy to be in such condition. We are citizens of Nigeria. So we are not happy with the government.

“If the president and his people will settle [pay] us, we will leave this place. There will be peace. The elections will not change anything. If they want us to keep the peace, we will keep the peace. If they don’t want, we will destroy it.”

Local human rights activist Anyakwee Nsirimovu says the elections could make matters even worse in the Delta.

“Post this election, if it holds, you will have a more terrible, more criminalised Niger Delta,” he says.

“Because people have seen you cannot participate, you cannot elect your leaders. So you have self-help. And people are living witnesses that politicians turn public resources into their own and people also want a piece of the action.

“If that means using the guns that politicians have given to them, that is the way it is going to be. So we expect a state of anarchy after this election.”

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