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Page last updated at 23:19 GMT, Monday, 7 July 2008 00:19 UK

Elusive peace in Nigeria's oil Delta

By Andrew Walker
BBC News, Port Harcourt

Niger Delta gunman
Violence in the Niger Delta has cut oil production by about a quarter.
An effort by the Nigerian government to bring peace to the oil-rich Niger Delta region hangs in the balance even before it has officially begun.

The government of President Umaru Yar'Adua is trying to organise a giant peace summit to end violence by gangs of armed youths that have disrupted oil production and seen it cut by around a quarter.

But civil society leaders in the Delta doubt the attempt will work.

Last month, a government appointed mediator, UN Under-Secretary-General Ibrahim Gambari, said the peace summit needed to take place within a 90-day ceasefire by militants.

The government plans to announce the beginning of talks next week, but there is no sign that Mr Gambari's request has been heeded.

'Pre-emptive strike'

Last week, an attack by militants close to the Bonny Island Liquefied Natural Gas export terminal killed nine people, including a pregnant woman and four soldiers.

On Saturday, the military bombed what they said was a militant camp in the creeks of Rivers State.

Anyakwee Nsirimovu
Most of what is going on here is sheer criminality
Anyakwee Nsirimovu, human rights activist

The military said the bombing was a "pre-emptive strike" on militants planning to carry out more attacks on Bonny Island.

They added they were prepared to bomb more camps in the area if they thought it necessary.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend), the most publicly visible militant group, told journalists last month its fighters would observe a unilateral ceasefire.

But in the Delta, where unemployed youths and guns are in abundance, there are plenty of other groups who are prepared to attack the oil business, the military, and each other - as well as civilians, activists say.

Losing billions

The government plans to try and get thousands of key decision makers, including militants, to a summit where they hope a solution can be agreed to the problems of the Niger Delta.

Because oil prices are so high, the reduction in the country's oil production is costing it billions of dollars.

Top of the list of things the summit should achieve, organisers say, is an agreement from militants to put their weapons down.

Ledum Mitee

If... the head of a process I am supposed to take part in... called me a common criminal, what am I supposed to think?

Ledum Mitee, Ogoni rights activist

People in the Niger Delta should also be empowered to demand better results from their leaders, the organisers say.

But civil society leaders say the government cannot bring peace to the Delta without bringing significant infrastructural development and jobs to the region first.

Unemployment is rampant.

Those living in the swampy delta are struggling to make a living from farming or fishing, while every week more join those who have moved to Port Harcourt to find work in the chaotic informal economy of motorcycle taxis or petty traders.

Port Harcourt is full of young men looking for a way to make money.

Some will join gangs of armed robbers - known as cultists - whose violence regularly shuts parts of the city down.

Any young man on the streets will tell you, as oil militants also do, that oil companies and state governments have cheated the people of development and opportunities.

But civil society leaders say militants' demands for equity in the distribution of oil funds mask their real motivations.

The real problem, they say, is the connection between politics and violence.

Corrupt politicians and military officers use armed militants to steal oil and protect their lucrative positions in government.

"Most of what is going on here is sheer criminality," says Anyakwee Nsirimovu, a human rights activist based in Port Harcourt.

"If a state of emergency was declared and all the governors removed and independent-minded people put in, they could end this thing."

Without things like reliable power supplies, transport infrastructure and employment, people will remain dependent on the patronage of corrupt leaders and will be unable to speak out against them, he says.

"Not many people can speak the way I do, because they are afraid. Plenty of people spoke out in the day and were killed at night."

He says the government's intention to get militants to put their arms out of use is "absolute nonsense".

A better mediator?

Ledum Mitee, president of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (Mosop), is a colleague of Ken Saro Wiwa, who was executed in 1995 by the regime of military ruler, Sani Abacha.

He says the government's choice of mediator is causing problems.

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At the time of Mr Saro Wiwa's execution, Mr Gambari was the country's ambassador to the UN.

He defended the government's action and called the Ogoni activists - including Mr Mitee - "common criminals".

Questioned by journalists last month about his comments, Mr Gambari said he had been quoted out of context.

He says he was trying to prevent sanctions being placed on Nigeria, which would have been hard to remove.

More recently, he was a special UN envoy to Burma, where he was sent to put pressure on the military government after a crack- down on pro-democracy activists.

Mr Gambari's appointment has been universally rejected by Delta activists.

Mr Mitee says his selection as mediator in the talks is not a good start.

"If you were in my shoes and he is the head of a process I am supposed to participate in and he called me a common criminal, what am I supposed to think?"

Mr Mitee says there are plenty of other people the government could have chosen that would have better demonstrated their sincerity.


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