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Friday, November 6, 1998 Published at 23:18 GMT

World: Africa

Fighting the oil firms

Youths have been turning to ancient rituals

By Nigeria Correspondent Hilary Andersson

"The Delta's vast riches are its curse" - Hilary Andersson reports
The sun flickered through the trees, the water shimmered, as our boat churned its way through the channels of the Niger Delta.

The Delta is stunningly beautiful. The entire oil wealth of Nigeria lies beneath its surface.

But in the town of Akassa, as in the rest of the Delta, you would never know that you were in the home of Nigeria's vast oil wealth.

[ image:
"Things are moving backwards"
The place has been severely neglected in every respect. The school has been taken over by weeds and tall grass. Its roof has long since collapsed.

There has been no electricity in the town at all since the only generator broke down five years ago. And there are no roads, only footpaths.

"Nothing seems to work in this region. I think that things are moving backwards," says Chris Alagwa, a community worker in Akassa, once a thriving colonial port.

Poverty and neglect

Today its fishermen are discussing the latest oil spill, the fourth this year. Wisden Franklin, 73, is one of the town's elders and a fisherman. He says it never used to be like this.

"The oil pipelines run straight through our villages. When they burst and the oil goes everywhere, it ruins everything. The fish die, and our nets are ruined. We're fishermen, but we cannot live any more."

[ image: The oil industry is also blamed for environmental damage]
The oil industry is also blamed for environmental damage
With great effort, Wisden Franklin paddled his dug-out canoe to show me his ricefield - it was bare. He surveyed his failed crop in disgust at the oily mud of his land.

He said: "We're suffering from this and the oil companies never compensate us. It's not fair."

Now the youths of the Niger Delta are fed up, and they have declared a people's war on the oil companies. For the past month they have taken over more than 15 oil flow stations, putting a stop to around a quarter of Nigeria's 2 million barrels-a-day oil production and crippling the backbone of the country's economy.

Ancient cult

The youths are turning their regression into the past to their own advantage.

In the heat of the sun, between the small houses, a band of youths were fighting, their faces striped with the masks of an ancient Delta cult, Egbesu.

Named after the god of war, the Egbesu ritual was supposed to give them supernatural powers. Djoke Munday, an Egbesu member, believes he is immune to bullets.

[ image: The white mask of the Egbesu ritual]
The white mask of the Egbesu ritual
"I'm not afraid [of government soldiers]. If they use a gun to shoot me, I am not afraid of them. What I believe is that a gunshot will not kill me," he says.

In the Niger Delta, ancient beliefs are being used to fight a modern battle. And the youths are demanding a share of the oil wealth if they are to call off their revolution.

The government may be hoping that elections next year will help appease tensions. But Mofia Akobo, a campaigner for the rights of the Delta people, says nothing but giving them some control over the wealth of their land will work.

"I do not really think that the slogan in the Delta is 'democracy'. I think the slogan in the Delta is 'self-determination', 'self-rule', 'control of our resources'," he said.

[ image: Youths have taken over entire flow-stations]
Youths have taken over entire flow-stations
"They want to control their resources. They want jobs. They want training. They want to be part of the world, really. They are not even part of Nigeria," he said.

"If you take what is mine you will be cursed," go the words of Nigerian song - a parable about justice.

And it is also a message to the oil companies and the government of Nigeria. The curse has already been laid. For, if the siege of the Niger Delta continues, the economy of Africa's most populous nation will crumble.

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