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Guardian Unlimited: ‘A place of frustrated expectations’: Nigerian kidnappers threaten to kill British girl

Mark Tran
Friday July 6, 2007

Kidnapping has become a growth industry in the Niger delta, which remains an area of abject poverty despite being the source of the country’s oil wealth.

Since the start of last year, about 200 adult expatriates have been abducted in the delta. The region, which contains all of the country’s nine oil-producing states, covers an area of 46,000 square miles – roughly the size of Ireland. Most kidnappings end quickly and without incident once the ransom cash is handed over.

But not all of them end peacefully. Four foreigners and 20 Nigerians have been killed while 18 remain in captivity, including five workers seized on Wednesday from a Royal Dutch Shell oil rig.

The abduction of children is a new and nasty twist. Margaret Hill, the three-year-old British girl taken in the oil city of Port Harcourt, is the third child to be seized in six weeks and the first foreign child to be taken.

The kidnappings occur against a background of terrible deprivation in the Niger delta.

While oil fills Nigeria’s coffers, 70% of the 27 million people living in the oil-rich region live in poverty. They eke out a living in mud huts and travel through swamps using dug-out canoes to reach the outside world. Electricity, safe drinking water, roads and health facilities that are taken for granted in many other parts of Nigeria are lacking.

The difficult topography means people live in small communities that are hard for the government to reach. Of the estimated 13,329 settlements in the region, 94% have populations of less than 5,000. These rural communities, many of them isolated, offer very limited economic opportunities.

Oil extraction, which, despite the efforts of companies such as Shell, inflicts considerable damage on the environment, further feeds local resentment. The most visible signs of this damage to the ecosystem – the world’s third largest wetland – are the oil flares that burn night and day.

“The delta today is a place of frustrated expectations and deep-rooted mistrust,” a UN development report said last year. “Unprecedented restiveness at times erupts in violence. Long years of neglect and conflict have fostered a siege mentality, especially among youths who feel they are condemned to a future without hope, and see conflict as a strategy to escape deprivation.”

This frustration spills over into kidnappings and the sabotage of pipelines, either as a means of hitting back at what local people say is unfair exploitation, or in extremely dangerous attempts to tap oil. Hundreds have died in huge explosions, an ever-present hazard when people gather to siphon oil from damaged pipes.

The oil companies and the authorities are now locked in a destructive embrace with the criminal gangs. The cycle of sabotage and kidnappings has led the security forces to lash out, resulting in the destruction of whole villages and the displacement of thousands of people.

“Hostage-taking is not only a stress on foreign captives, their families and the companies they work for,” the UN said, “but also presents a challenge to international diplomacy and foreign direct investment.”

http://www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,,2120498,00.html

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