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Reuters AlertNet: ANALYSIS-Nigerian delta peace moves to unlock oil output

31 Jul 2007 12:01:58 GMT
Source: Reuters

Background
Nigeria violence
More  By Tom Ashby

LAGOS, July 31 (Reuters) – Nigeria’s new government and militant groups in the oil-producing Niger Delta are moving towards talks that could restore lost output from the world’s eighth-largest oil exporter.

An 18-month campaign of guerrilla attacks on Western oil facilities has prompted thousands of foreigners to leave Africa’s top producer, reduced output by a fifth and helped oil prices rise to record highs.

But since taking office two months ago, President Umaru Yar’Adua has moved swiftly to engage the militants. He has met two of their demands by freeing two jailed leaders of the Ijaw ethnic group, the most populous in the Niger Delta.

In response, 25 armed groups have joined into a united front for talks with the government. The two sides are now working on preconditions for formal talks to address militant demands for more regional control over the delta’s oil.

“I am very optimistic. The militias are ready to cease fire and give negotiations a chance,” said Dimieari Von Kemedi, an Ijaw activist involved in the talks.

A truce called by several armed groups has held since Yar’Adua’s inauguration on May 29. However, a crime wave continues to sweep the delta’s largest city of Port Harcourt, posing a threat to the peace drive, he added.

Armed groups protesting against neglect and poverty in the vast wetlands region have stepped up violence against oil workers and industry facilities since the 1990s.

But the line between militancy and crime is blurred and dozens of criminal gangs use militant rhetoric as a cover to kidnap foreigners for ransom or steal oil from pipelines.

BLIP?

Security consultants working for international oil companies are split over the significance of the peace moves. Some see them as a temporary respite in a long-term decline in the vast region of swamps and mangrove-lined creeks.

“Though violence has eased in the last few weeks, the perception of companies is still negative,” said one security consultant working for Western multinationals.

“Companies see a long-term deterioration in security. It may not be linear, but each cycle of violence is worse than before,” added the consultant, who is not allowed to talk to the media.

There are still good reasons to be worried.

One powerful militant who leads a faction of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta has so far refused to take part. His fighters have been responsible for some of the fiercest attacks over the past 18 months.

“The government is attempting to resolve the unrest in the delta through selective appeasement. This will secure a cease fire but how long this ‘peace’ will last, I cannot tell,” said the leader, who uses the pseudonym Jomo Gbomo, in an e-mail.

“They will attempt to stall and pacify dissenting voices financially. Let’s watch and see where things go. We will attack without further warning if there is a need to,” he said, adding that he saw no prospect of better use of resources in the delta.

Despite these concerns, some projects and investments that had been on hold because of a surge in attacks in the first half of the year are now going ahead.

Oil giant Royal Dutch Shell has moved some workers back to its western delta oilfields, where 500,000 barrels per day has been shut since they were evacuated in February 2006.

It has resumed pumping 36,000 barrels per day from one oilfield and two tankers are expected to load from the Forcados terminal in August, the first shipments in 18 months.

U.S. oil giant Chevron has lifted a ban imposed in May on non-essential staff in offshore operations, industry sources say. And construction workers have begun setting up work sites to start building a new $1.8 billion highway across the delta, which had previously been frozen by security concerns.

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