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Page last updated at 16:55 GMT, Friday, 18 July 2008 17:55 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 before it has even begun.

Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan announced that the government would no longer be holding a planned "summit" in order to bring together the government and militants who have cut Nigeria's oil production by around a quarter.

The head of the proposed summit was rejected by human rights activists in the Niger Delta, and a replacement has not been found.

The announcement that the summit had been shelved came just after the UK government said it would provide military training to the Joint Task Force in the Delta in order to secure oil production.

Mr Jonathan said the government would continue with a "dialogue" in its attempt to find peace in the Delta.

Weeks before the announcement, civil society leaders in the Delta told the BBC they doubted the attempt would work.

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

Mr Gambari's truce never emerged and he stepped down before the government could announce when the summit would take place.

Anyakwee Nsirimovu

Most of what is going on here is sheer criminality

Anyakwee Nsirimovu, human rights activist

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend), the most publicly visible militant group, told journalists in June 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.

And violent clashes between the security forces and militants have continued.

The government planned 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 wanted to achieve, organisers say, is an agreement from militants to put their weapons down.

Cultists

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

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.

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

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.

"Maybe one day there will be a line drawn between who is a real fighter for the Niger Delta cause and who is not, but what we see on a daily basis is people killing civilians and pocketing money."

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 was badly misjudged.

map
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 was universally rejected by Delta activists.

"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 said.

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

Now the summit has been called off, activists are still waiting to see what form the government's attempts to bring peace will take.

They have been very disturbed by President Umaru Yar'Adua's trip to London, where British Prime Minister Gordon Brown offered military training to help the government quell violence in the region.

"Everything in Yar'Adua's budget for the Delta has gone on security, not sustainable development," Mr Nsirimovu says.

"But this is not a military problem."


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