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International Herald Tribune: Nigerian militants emboldened by a democracy too flawed to help resolve grievances

The Associated Press
Wednesday, May 23, 2007

KOROKORO, Nigeria: Young boys scamper along weed-entangled pipes, transforming a flowstation marked “Not In Use” into a jungle gym in the heart of Nigeria’s lawless oil region. Nearby wells rust amid the palm trees and gas-flaring chimneys have gone cold.

Welcome to Ogoniland, 500 square miles (about 1,300 square kilometers) of oil-rich land where villagers ousted oil companies in the 1990s. Amid rising militancy in the region, tiny Ogoniland offers a glimpse of the oil industry’s worst-case scenario: an absolute shutdown of production across the wider Niger Delta, where strife has already cut production by a quarter.

Ridding themselves of the oil companies has brought relative peace to Ogoniland, as there are no oil company payments to fight over, but not prosperity. Similarly, the democratic experiment that has emboldened militants elsewhere in southern Nigeria opposed to big oil has brought new liberties, but no framework for peaceful resolution of grievances.

The end of military rule was meant to be a start. Civilian rulers took over from the military in 1999, and that trend was apparently cemented when deeply flawed elections set up the first civilian-to-civilian handover since independence from Britain in 1960.

“At least we have our freedom,” says Kelvin Agbam, a community development leader in the Niger Delta. “But that means freedom for everyone — even the militants.”

When oil first began flowing from Nigeria in 1958, the country had a growing industrial base, farms that produced vast crops, and some of the best universities in Africa.

Now, after years of disastrously corrupt military and civilian regimes, Nigeria — branded the “Open Sore of a Continent” by its Nobel Prize laureate, author Wole Soyinka — has seen its human and natural bounties squandered. Most of its 140 million people have grown poorer each year. Few Nigerians enjoy electricity or running water.

Nowhere is the decay more pitifully on display than in the Niger Delta, where all the west African nation’s crude is located. Hundreds of billions of dollars of oil has been drilled, but few villages have even basic schools or health clinics.

Children wander naked in dank alleys. Men and women of 30 show the wear of toil as subsistence farmers or fisherfolk — palms hardened into horn, faces haggard, eyes dulled by a poor diet of starchy root vegetables and the few fish remaining in their polluted lands.

Glory Ikolo, 20, is a high school graduate reduced to peddling peanuts and sharing a one-room shack with six others in a squalid settlement just outside the concertina-wire ringed walls of an oil company compound in the main oil city of Port Harcourt.

“I’m supposed to be a graduate,” Ikolo said. “But look at somebody like me, doing nothing. No jobs.”

Long before the region’s restless and underemployed began taking up arms, the tiny, 500,000-strong Ogoni ethnic community was protesting such conditions.

The primary focus was Royal Dutch Shell, which was operating most of the wells in their areas. Oil companies, which have sponsored some development projects, says chronic regional underdevelopment is a problem to be addressed by the government, which receives a majority of the oil revenues.

During the military period, when leaders were stealing much of the oil wealth, militants would likely have met with a brutal reaction by security forces. Ogoni leaders instead used massive, largely peaceful public protests, shutting down oil infrastructure beginning in the early 1990s. In late 1995, one of the region’s leaders, Ken Saro-Wiwa, was hanged along with eight others after being found guilty on murder charges widely believed to have been trumped up by then-military leader Gen. Sani Abacha.

President Olusegun Obasanjo’s 1999 election, which ended decades of near-constant military rule, was supposed to give Nigerians a voice and open up a political space. Instead, cronyism, corruption and electoral hanky-panky undermined Nigeria’s nascent democracy.

Delta residents say militancy began blossoming during elections in 2003, when rival politicians armed young men and set them against their rivals or used them to rig votes.

In this way, the militants are a direct product of democracy, the people of the Delta say.

Moses Siasia, a youth activist in the Niger Delta, said the solution for the entire region is “massive development.

“We want this place to be like Kuwait.”

But the glittering high-rise buildings of Kuwait are nowhere to be seen in the Niger Delta, where poverty as profound as anywhere in Africa can be seen. Since a new militant group arose in late 2005, violence has reached its worst levels ever, with nearly 200 foreign workers having been kidnapped and a quarter of the country’s normal 3 million daily barrel production cut.

That has sent prices of crude and related products, like automobile fuel, sharply higher and for the first time raised concerns that the entire region could go the way of Ogoniland. Last month’s elections haven’t helped calm the Delta, where large billboards thank residents for voting “massively” for the ruling party candidates, who are pictured from a low vantage point, their arms outstretched, as if deified.

The opposition rejects the vote as rigged and international observers said it wasn’t credible.

President-elect Umaru Yar’Adua is scheduled to take over from Obasanjo on May 29 — and militants are promising to press on with their campaign.

“I doubt if the incoming regime will have the weight to attend justly to our demands,” the spokesman of the biggest militant group, Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, told The Associated Press.

“There were no elections as you know. These people were installed by the outgoing regime and will not walk a radically different path,” he said by e-mail.

Yar’Adua’s deputy is from the Niger Delta, which many say shows the government will be serious about addressing poverty and corruption.

But others say it teaches the wrong lesson, arguing a southerner was elevated to vice president because of the militants’ tactics.

Ogoniland is at least free of the pipeline bombings, oil worker kidnappings and occasional firefights that are the main tactics of the militants elsewhere in the Delta who claim to be fighting for a greater share of oil wealth. It also is spared the pollution of oil flares and spills. But it has seen little development.

Obasanjo hasn’t been able to get the Ogonis to relent — he met boos last week when he traveled to the region. Ogonis demand promises of more oil resources before they allow the oil companies to return.

The oil is their sole bargaining chip, but distrust of the government runs deep.

“We have seen several military and civilian rulers. But since democracy came the last time, we’ve seen no change,” says Sunday Badon, a 45-year old Ogoni activist.

“The mentality is the same. The civilian rulers just use tricks,” he says. “They don’t carry the gun, but they control the gun.”

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