Anger Rising In Nigeria's Oil-Rich South

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Anger Rising In Nigeria's Oil-rich South at Poverty, Marginalisation


By Dave Clark
AFP
PETERSIDE, Nigeria
Petroleumworld,  March, 24, 2005


Popular resentment is mounting among the poor and marginalised communities of Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta and may erupt in violence if government does not act, local leaders warned this week.

The delta is the heartland of Africa's biggest oil and gas industry and will play a key role in the western industrialised countries' search for new supplies to bring down prices and fuel their shaky economic recovery.

But as the delta's local elite gathered at the weekend on Peterside Island in the Niger estuary to pay their respects at the funeral of one of their region's best-loved champions, there were ominous signs of trouble ahead.

Violence flared last month between the delta towns of Obioku and Odioma, which was razed to the grounds by government forces, and elsewhere militant leaders are warning they will fight for a greater share of oil revenue.

Meanwhile, representatives from the region have gone to a national political reform conference in the federal capital to demand greater autonomy and more control over the wealth that bubbles up from under their land.

The delta's elected leaders fear that -- just as Odioma's youth militia grew out of the control of local chiefs and plunged their town into bloody conflict -- they may lose control of the more militant sections of the population.

"I think that the outcome of the conference will decide a lot of things," warned Adonye Wilcox, vice chairman of the Bonny local government area, after a service to honour the late nationalist leader Chief Harold Dappa-Biriye.

"I think people are getting very fed up. If we don't get a better deal it will be hard to hold back the youths," he told reporters.

In the delta the term "youths" has come to mean the unmarried and often unemployed young men whose cult and militant organisations wield an ever increasing amount of power in communities once ruled by traditional monarchs.

The gangs control access to the creeks where oil thieves siphon off tens of thousands of barrels of crude every day to supply a multi-million-dollar smuggling racket. Often, the proceeds are spent on rifles and rocket launchers.

Some of the gangs have been armed by the government and co-opted into vigilante services like Odioma's "Bayelsa Volunteers Anti-Piracy Squad".

Others, like notorious warlord Dokubo Asari's Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force (NDPVF), affect a radical ethnic separatist agenda, vowing to free the delta from Nigerian rule and restore it to its native Ijaw people.

Some gang leaders, like Sunday Nyingife, a famous juju magician from the village of Oloibiri, openly admit to having used their powers of intimidation to help rig Nigeria's 2003 elections in favour of ruling party candidates.

The gangs recruit resentful youths with no prospect of employment in the capital intensive but low-labour oil industry and believe that the riches of their land are being stolen by foreign multinationals and corrupt politicians.

Against a backdrop of violence -- rig hijacks, kidnaps, ethnic clashes, assassinations, and pirate raids -- elected leaders hope to buy off the anger by persuading the federal government to hand back a bigger slice of the cake.

Presently, the Nigerian constitution stipulates that 13 percent of the government's take from oil should be handed back to the states it comes from.

Delta politicians like Tonye Long John, who represents Bonny and Degema in the federal House of Representatives, feel that the ratio should be returned to the 50 percent level laid down at Nigeria's independence in 1963.

"We are using peaceful means to get a result and we believe that Nigerians are reasonable people," he said of the delta's struggle in parliament and the national conference, which opened last month and is expected to last all year.

The implied threat is that if the delta's impoverished villages, most of them without electricity or clean water despite 50 years of lucrative oil sales, do not see a massive influx of investment, then unrest will spiral.

"I think Niger Delta people are not yet ready for violence," said Maxwell Akwe, a member of Bonny's local council. But he warned: "What people like Asari do is to raise awareness of the need to fight for our rights."

 

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