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The Times: A Swamp of Despair

Saturday July 7, 2007

Nigeria’s restive Delta threatens to destabilise the whole country

The threat to kill the three-year-old British girl kidnapped in Nigeria’s Delta region brings a dangerous new element to the violence and lawlessness endemic in this impoverished oil-producing region. Until now, the campaign to force the Government and international oil companies to return some of the wealth to the polluted and ravaged villages of the Delta has largely targeted foreign oil workers, regularly seized as hostages and exchanged for ransom.

This year more than 100 foreigners have been kidnapped, and the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend) has just called off its moratorium and resumed attacks on the oil workers. But in recent months dozens of splinter groups, most of them ordinary criminal gangs, have also resorted to hostage-taking. Margaret Hill, the daughter of a Nigerian mother and British father, is the latest victim of this downward spiral into lawlessness.

Local support for Mend and other militant groups is understandable. Although the Delta accounts for 90 per cent of Nigeria’s export income, the swampy region gets almost no return on the money. The infrastructure has collapsed, roads have become impassable, once-thriving businesses have moved away, farmlands have been destroyed and fishermen thrown out of work, while the miasma of oil pollution hangs over all. The federal Government in Abuja has regularly promised to revive the region, but corruption, tribal antagonism and conflicts in other parts of the vast country have thwarted all plans.

The international oil companies, long pilloried for their indifference, have made great efforts in recent years to clean up the pollution and spread the benefits of their activity. But they have been unable to prevent the theft of oil from pipelines (often with disastrous consequences), the corruption of local administrators and the growing number of attacks on their staff. Shell, by far the biggest foreign company, is now so constrained by violence and criminality that its operations have been affected severely. Oil production is down by 25 per cent this year and Nigerians fear that the multinationals will leave with catastrophic results for Africa’s most populous nation.

Before leaving office, former President Obasanjo drew up the Niger Delta Master Plan, replacing an earlier plan that failed to produce results. His successor, President Umaru Yar’Adua, has promised to tackle the problems of the Delta. But although he proved to be a competent governor, free of the stain of corruption, the flawed election that brought him to power has already constrained his authority. The problem for Abuja is that it cannot afford to return the oil profits to the Delta, as this would hurt the already cash-strapped federal Government and lead to increased unrest in other part of the country, especially the restive Muslim north.

The prospect of spreading violence in Nigeria, where tribal divisions undermine many federal attempts to fight corruption and improve local administration, is deeply disturbing. The country has suffered one devastating civil war and numerous coups since independence. It cannot be allowed to become Africa’s largest failed state. Multinationals must persist in attempts to improve conditions in the Delta, and Mr Yar’Adua must focus on this endemic dispute. The first step is to ensure the release a small, vulnerable girl, whose seizure is a symptom of all that is wrong.

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/leading_article/article2039488.ece

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