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Page last updated at 16:44 GMT, Wednesday, 30 May 2007 17:44 UK

Tackling Nigeria's violent oil swamps

By Senan Murray
BBC News, Abuja

Nigeria's oil-producing Niger Delta region may well be the country's biggest cash cow but it also looks set to provide new President Umaru Yar'Adua with one of his biggest headaches.

Woman walks along oil pipeline
Militants say they are tired of "plans in the pipeline"
"The biggest problem Nigeria faces today, in my humble opinion, is the problem with the militants in the Niger Delta area," former President Shehu Shagari, 83, told a gathering in Nigeria's oil capital Port Harcourt recently.

Although the Niger Delta has a long history of violence, the situation has gone from bad to worse to disastrous recently with the emergence of armed militant groups willing to kill as part of their campaign for a greater share of the region's oil wealth.

In the weeks leading up to the elections that brought Mr Yar'Adua to power, the militants stepped up their violence, although there was a lull during the actual voting.

The attacks resumed shortly after the polls with more kidnappings and bombing of oil pipelines, leading to a 25% cut in production and ultimately a spike in global oil prices.

The militants have made the swampy creeks of the delta a no-go area for state officials and even the military.

Scared

From a group of angry young men fighting with sticks and machetes, they have evolved into disciplined groups carrying out precise attacks on foreign oil installations in the region.

They kidnap foreign oil workers at will and keep them for as long as they want.

Vice-President-elect Goodluck Jonathan
Goodluck Jonathan has twice been attacked since being elected
They also blow up oil pipelines, burn down police stations and dare the government to go after them.

Under former President Olusegun Obasanjo, the central government never quite figured how to effectively deal with the militants who have recorded huge successes in disrupting oil production and scaring foreign workers out of the region.

Equally, Mr Yar'Adua does not appear to have a real plan for the region which produces about 90% of his budget. But he now speaks of coming up with one soon.

His most memorable campaign promise was to continue with President Obasanjo's economic reforms, which many Nigerians criticise as being too harsh, with subsidies removed, jobs cut and prices raised.

Lucky escapes

In his inauguration speech, Mr Yar'Adua said the Delta was one of his priorities.

"The crisis in the Niger Delta commands our urgent attention. Ending it is a matter of strategic importance to our country," he said.

"We are all in this together, and we will find a way to achieve peace and justice."

He has not spelt out a coherent plan for the Niger Delta but did recently say he would come up with one in his first 100 days as president.

Perhaps the new president has not heard of the militants' "plans in the pipelines" joke.

Niger Delta militant
Attacks by militants have cut oil production by some 25%
They often say - without smiling - that it is the government's never-ending claim that "plans are in the pipeline" to develop their region, that led them to start blowing up the pipes to look for these plans.

Already, the militants have demonstrated that Mr Yar'Adua's choice of a deputy from the region is not quite the solution he had hoped for.

Goodluck Jonathan, from the Ijaw community like many of the militants, has twice been the target of deadly attacks - and twice he has lived up to his name.

Analysts say the attacks on Mr Jonathan were a statement that a more creative and more genuine solution would be needed to free the region of violence.

HAVE YOUR SAY
Let us give Mr Yar'Adua a chance to prove himself
Luseni, Florida

"I'd suggest that Mr Yar'Adua should open conversation with these guys rather than shoot their way through the Delta to get them," Benjamin Akande, a US-based expert on Nigeria told the BBC News website.

"The truth of the matter is that Nigeria may need outside help to deal with this situation. The US, the EU, or the AU could come into this conversation and help resolve this issue," Mr Akande suggested.

In the twilight of his administration, Mr Obasanjo has launched what he calls the Niger Delta Master Plan after an earlier plan launched some seven years ago failed to produce the desired results.

Mr Yar'Adua inherits this elaborate and ambitious plan.

The new president appears to be striking the right chords with his calls for dialogue with the militants.

But actually getting the militants to surrender their new found power, having acquired huge arsenals of sophisticated weapons and money from ransom takings, it might be difficult to convince them to come out of the creeks.



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