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Fragile strategies for a complex conflict

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Fragile strategies for a complex conflict

By Matthew Green

Published: June 24 2008 03:00 | Last updated: June 24 2008 03:00

The flyovers, skyscrapers, and – a rarity for Nigerian cities – relatively freely-flowing traffic of Abuja, the model capital, feel a long way from the creeks and villages lost in the muggy depths of the Niger Delta.

But it is in Abuja that Umaru Yar’Adua, the president, hopes to find the key to ending a conflict more complex than the network of pipelines and flow stations tapping the region’s billions of barrels of crude.

Mr Yar’Adua, from a powerful dynasty in Nigeria’s northern savannah, far from the nearest oil-well, plans to invite elders, leaders and militants from across the delta to a summit where, he hopes, they will come up with a plan to return their homeland to peace.

But after repeated delays – the meeting was first due to take place a year ago – initial optimism over Mr Yar’Adua’s conciliatory approach has given way to a growing scepticism among the delta’s 30m inhabitants.

“Like any other conference, people will just go and drink tea,” says Patrick Naagbanton, co-ordinator of the Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development in Port Harcourt, the hub of the oil industry. “It doesn’t have any credibility in terms of grass-roots mobilisation.”

While similar summits have turned out to be little more than costly jamborees, Mr Yar’Adua could perhaps be forgiven as he gropes for a means of marshalling the Niger Delta’s many actors and agendas.

The Ireland-sized swamp supplies more than 70 per cent of Nigeria’s daily oil production, but has been marked by unrest since the early 1990s. In more recent years, rival politicians have given weapons to gangs to rig elections, spawning a constantly-shifting kaleidoscope of armed groups. In 2006, militants launching tightly-choreographed attacks shut off a fifth of Nigeria’s output – about 500,000 b/d. Fears over Nigerian supply have contributed to this year’s surge in oil prices.

Long-standing grievances over the way oil revenues are shared with the central government, pollution and a failure by state authorities to deliver even basic services have fuelled the sense of alienation. But the large-scale theft of oil – by some estimates 200,000 b/d is stolen with the collusion of officials, military officers and militants – means many powerful people have a stake in prolonging the insecurity.

Mr Yar’Adua has dispatched Goodluck Jonathan, his vice-president and a member of the Ijaw community prominent in the Delta, to identify key interlocutors for the summit, but Mr Jonathan’s critics say he has failed to reach out to minorities beyond his home base.

With no date yet set, Mr Jonathan announced this month that Ibrahim Gambari, the senior Nigerian diplomat who is UN undersecretary general and experienced troubleshooter, will oversee preparations. Many in the Delta would prefer a non-Nigerian. One rebel group, the Movement for Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, wants George Clooney, a Hollywood actor and UN peace ambassador for Darfur, to mediate. Mr Clooney has not taken up the call.

On the surface, a general improvement in security in much of the region since Mr Yar’Adua took power in May last year looks encouraging. Kidnappings of expatriates have fallen to almost nil after reaching epidemic proportions before last April’s elections, when the victims were known as “white gold” or ATM – “Any Time Money” – after the cash dispensers banks were installing in Port Harcourt. Gunmen, perhaps seeking alternative sources of income, have, however, seized many well-to-do Nigerians.

Viewed from the perspective of the three main oil-producing states, where new governors, in power since the polls have adopted different strategies, the gains, such as they are, appear fragile. In Delta and Bayelsa States, security consultants say the governors are paying armed groups to act as semi-official protection forces for the waterways they would otherwise terrorise. “They are giving huge amounts of money to these militants to shut up,” says Anyakwee Nsirimovu, chairman of the Niger Delta Civil Society Coalition. “This is not how you run a region: by bribing people not to shoot guns.”

In Rivers State, Rotimi Amaechi, the governor, has taken a harder line, seeking to drive criminal gangs out of Port Harcourt where they once operated with impunity.

We will match them weapon for weapon,” he says. “We need peace to enable development to take place.”

But in the Delta, where all it takes is a few sticks of dynamite to hold Nigeria’s revenues to ransom, enforcing peace is almost impossible. The military was powerless to prevent MEND launching a spate of attacks on pipelines that forced Shell to close 164,000 b/d of oil production in April alone.

MEND has threatened more raids in protest at the secret trial of Henry Okah, a prominent figure in militant circles, who was arrested in Angola last year then extradited to Nigeria to face treason and gun-running charges. Clumsy handling of the case could reinforce an intense suspicion of the federal government, which will not play well if, and when, the summit opens.

Should the curtain finally rise, Mr Yar’Adua will have to prove that the idea is more than a gimmick dreamt up to mask a lack of new thinking. “They need to be able to tell us how this conference is going to help resolve the problem,” says one member of a state government in the delta. “My guess is that they themselves do not know.”

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