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Villagers flee Niger Delta fighting as Saro-Wiwa settlement raises hopes

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  • The Observer, Sunday 14 June 2009

Tens of thousands of villagers in the Niger Delta are again picking up the pieces after the most intense violence in the oil-producing region for months, if not years.

Military attacks, targeted at the feared guerrilla army known as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend), came as the 14-year struggle by the families of writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other executed leaders of the Ogoni people of southern Nigeria was finally being resolved.

Royal Dutch Shell agreed to a $15.5m (£9.4m) settlement out of court last week in New York, although it rejected the plaintiffs’ case that Shell had been complicit in Saro-Wiwa’s killing.

In the Delta, the fighting goes on. Witnesses say the raids led to scores of deaths, while up to 10,000 people have been forced to abandon their villages. Women and children are living in makeshift refugee camps afraid to return to their villages. Men are living rough, fearing they will be killed if they enter the camps.

Conditions in the Delta, one of the world’s most important oil-producing regions, are causing concern in the Foreign Office and the White House. Oil production is at half capacity at about 1.6m barrels a day, say analysts. “It is enough to keep the lights on in the presidential palace and pay patronage obligations,” said an oil worker in the delta. Armed gangs siphon huge amounts of oil to sell on the international black market.

human rights observer said: “The opportunity given by the Saro-Wiwa settlement to explore alternatives and the current trouble in the Delta is a wake-up call. There is a risk that things could really spiral down.”

Saro-Wiwa led peaceful protests against the environmental damage caused by oil companies in the Delta. There was worldwide condemnation when, along with eight other activists, he was hanged by the Nigerian military government in 1995.

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