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Nigeria moves to end oil conflict

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Nigeria moves to end oil conflict

By Matthew Green in Lagos

Published: June 13 2008 03:00 | Last updated: June 13 2008 03:00

Nigeria’s government has appointed a senior diplomat to push forward plans for a peace summit aimed at ending the insurgency in the oil-producing Niger Delta.

Ibrahim Gambari, a Nigerian United Nations official who serves as a UN special envoy to Burma, will oversee preparations for the planned conference in Abuja, the capital.

Nigeria’s President Umaru Yar’Adua has promised to hold the meeting as the centrepiece of his proposals for ending a conflict that has shut-in a fifth of Nigeria’s oil production and helped drive oil prices to record highs.

Mr Yar’Adua has said he will invite a wide range of participants, including representatives of various militant groups, to chart a way to addressing the root causes of the unrest. But the president’s failure to convene the summit – originally due to take place late last year – has contributed to growing uncertainty over the government’s strategy for tackling the crisis.

The appointment of Mr Gambari is likely to foster speculation that the process is gaining fresh momentum, though no date for the talks has been announced. Mr Yar’Adua told the Financial Times in mid-May that he hoped to convene the summit within eight weeks.

The office of Goodluck Jonathan, the vice-president, announced yesterday that Mr Gambari, a special adviser to Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, would chair a committee set up to prepare the meeting. Mr Jonathan, who belongs to the Ijaw community prevalent in the Niger Delta, has taken the lead in the government’s peace initiative, conducting various trips to the region to consult local leaders.

Tensions have increased in parts of the Niger Delta in the past few weeks following a series of attacks on pipelines belonging to Royal Dutch Shell conducted by a militant group known as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta.

The raids have renewed fears about oil supplies from Nigeria, one of the world’s top 10 crude exporters, helping drive the rally in oil prices to record highs.

Royal Dutch Shell, which bore the brunt of a wave of attacks by militants that shut in almost 500,000 b/d of Nigeria’s output in early 2006, says it is making “very good” progress in restoring the lost output.

But the recent attacks by Mend in another part of the delta have knocked back some of the company’s gains and revealed the fragility of the security situation outside Port Harcourt, the city that forms the hub of Africa’s biggest oil industry.

Mend says it has staged the attacks in protest at the secret detention of Henry Okah, a prominent figure in militant circles, who was arrested in Angola last year and extradited to Nigeria in February to face treason and gun-running charges. He has pleaded not guilty.

Security analysts say Mr Yar’Adua will have to tread carefully in his handling of the case to ensure it does not further inflame anti-government feeling in the delta, where many residents feel half a century of oil exploration has brought only pollution and poverty.

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