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ISN Security Watch: New hopes for peace in Niger Delta

By Dulue Mbachu in Lagos for ISN Security Watch (19/07/07)

When Umaru Yar’Adua assumed office as Nigeria’s new president at the end of May, he pledged that his top priorities would include bringing peace to the country’s troubled Niger Delta oil region, where violence has recently escalated as armed militants and criminals target the oil industry, deeply cutting into Nigeria’s lifeblood crude oil exports and causing jitters in the world oil markets.

At least a quarter of Nigeria’s oil exports of three million barrels per day have ceased in the past 18 months – a period that has also seen the kidnapping of more than 200 foreign oil workers. Most of the hostages have been freed unharmed after ransom payment. Militants fighting for greater local control of the oil wealth produced in the region say they will shut down the entire industry if their demands are not met.

Within two weeks of taking office, Yar’Adua freed Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, the top militia leader in the region who had been jailed by his predecessor Olusegun Obasanjo on charges of treason. Dokubo-Asari’s release was a key demand of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), the main militia group spearheading attacks on the oil industry for the past two years.

Working in Yar’Adua’s favor is his choice of vice president, Goodluck Jonathan, a former state governor in the Delta and an ethnic Ijaw, the dominant ethnic group in the oil region from which the militias draw most of their fighters. Jonathan has ventured into the winding creeks of the Delta without his security escorts to meet with Dokubo-Asari to persuade the militia leader and his followers to give the government a chance to deal with the impoverished region’s grievances.

“The emergence of Jonathan has put our struggle in a dilemma,” Dokubo-Asari told ISN Security Watch in Lagos during an interview. “The majority of the Ijaw people support Jonathan and want us to give him a chance. And we’re going to give him a chance.”

All-out war
Dokubo-Asari, who led the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF), declared an “all out war” in September 2004 against oil multinationals operating in the region – which produces more than 95 percent of Nigerian oil – including Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron and ENI subsidiary Agip. The threat helped lift world oil prices to over US$50 for the first time.

A worried then-president Obasanjo invited Dokubo-Asari for talks, pledging to address the Delta region’s demands for more local control of the oil wealth, which is mostly in the hands of the central government dominated by the bigger ethnic groups. Obasanjo granted the militia leader amnesty, but this truce unraveled when the government appeared slow in addressing the militants’ demands. When he announced that he would fight for the break up of Nigeria, Dokubo-Asari was arrested in September 2005.

However, his arrest and trial triggered a dramatic escalation of violence against the oil industry. With their commander in jail, many militia fighters took to banditry or joined MEND, which emerged as the vanguard of the Delta’s militia groups in place of the NDPVF. Militias and bandits alike attacked oil installations largely unimpeded due to the military being unfamiliar with the terrain.

“It was a serious error of judgment on the part of Obasanjo to have incarcerated Dokubo-Asari,” Johnson Ekong, a Nigerian oil industry security expert, told ISN Security Watch. “The consequence was that there was no known leader of the fighters to talk to and at the same time the military had no solution to the violent activities going on in the creeks.”

MEND, which claimed most of the attacks on oil installations, has no known leader. The group only communicates with the outside world through e-mails sent from a Yahoo account by a “Jomo Gbomo,” which is most likely a pseudonym. The group’s kidnappings have spawned copycat attacks by regional criminal gangs who seize hostages – recently including children- and release them in return for ransom, making the Niger Delta by number of incidents the most dangerous oil region in the world after Iraq.

With the release of Dokubo-Asari, who has pledged not to renew attacks on the oil industry, the government hopes he will help rein in the violence that currently rules in the region. Yar’Adua has also met with political and community leaders representing various aggrieved ethnic minorities in the area to discuss ways to accelerate the long-neglected region’s development.

“If the people can see that their leaders are honest, they will understand, but once they see that their leaders are in power to make money there will be a problem,” Yar’Adua told ISN Security Watch.

According to Dokubo-Asari, since his release from prison early in June, he has been in contact with key militia commanders active in the Delta in an attempt to convene “a central command meeting” to seek ways of ending the current banditry sweeping the region. Yet, he is quick to warn it will not be an easy task.

“We can’t stop this kidnapping immediately because those involved have enjoyed the money and will find it hard to give up,” he said. “It may take six months to another one year before it will begin to die down.”

Inalienable rights
In the meantime, the militants are holding on to their demands that the federal government cede more control over the oil wealth produced in the Delta to the region’s inhabitants and expect Yar’Adua’s government to propose concrete options about how to achieve this.

Outlining the militants’ position, Dokubo-Asari said the treaties signed between the Ijaw people of the Niger Delta and the former British colonial power never included forcing them into a country called Nigeria. According to the Ijaws, if they must belong to Nigeria, the terms of membership will have to be negotiated.

“The issues at stake are fundamental,” Dokubo-Asari told ISN Security Watch. “We have inalienable rights and it is our fundamental right to own our land and its oil.”

People close to Yar’Adua expect some form of compromise will be agreed upon. One such person, former president Shehu Shagari,says the crisis in the Delta is the biggest problem facing Nigeria. As he sees it, dialogue is the only solution.

“They [people in the delta] have been placed in a difficult terrain and they deserve the sympathy and support of their brothers and sisters in the hinterland,” Shagari told reporters recently.

“They should always bear in mind that it could be the other way round. All we need to do as Nigerians is to try and understand each other’s problems and join hands to tackle them sensibly as a team,” he added.

Dulue Mbachu is a correspondent for ISN Security Watch based in Nigeria. He has reported Nigeria for international media outlets including The Washington Post and the Associated Press.

http://www.isn.ethz.ch/news/sw/details.cfm?id=17867

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