Nigerian President Olusegin Obasanjo said he had set up a committee to work towards the release of four foreign oil workers seized by militants in the Niger Delta. The announcement came hours after militant leader Majahid Dokobu-Asari, whose release is being demanded by the hostage takers, appeared in court in Abuja. Dokobu-Asari is being held for treason.
The leader of the so-called Niger Delta Volunteer Force, Mujahid Dukobo-Asari, appeared in court late Tuesday escorted by armed prison guards and scores of heavily armed policemen. The stocky Niger Delta youth leader, who was wearing a black T-shirt, launched into a tirade, castigating the judge and Nigeria's political leadership.
"You're a stupid old man!" he lashed out at the judge, demanding that another judge be appointed to conduct the trial.
Dokubo-Asari's lawyer, Festus Keyamo, explained to VOA the reason for rejecting the trial judge.
"In fact the accused person had been arraigned before another judge altogether when all of sudden, without explanation, they brought a judge from Benin, flew him in," Keyamo explained. "He did not even dispute that fact, only to do a special case and go back. This is a situation where ordinary people will begin to think that there is something sinister happening."
Nevertheless, the trial judge, Olayiwola Peters ruled that he was competent to continue with the trial and fixed the next court session for March 14.
Outside the courtroom, Dokubo-Asari was able to speak before being taken back into custody.
"We will see, we will see whether I will not bring Obasanjo down," he said.
Dokubo-Asari was arrested last September for allegedly threatening to attack oil facilities in the Delta. Keyamo says the trial is politically motivated.
"There is no doubt it is a political trial. There is no doubt that it is a trial orchestrated by the federal government of Nigeria and it is a trial of vendetta," Mr. Keyamo said. "It is not a trial based on fact."
Back in the Niger Delta, militant youths are still holding hostage four foreign oil workers: an American, a Bulgarian, a British and a Honduran. The hostage takers have made the release of Dukobo-Asari one of their key demands.
Attacks by militants on oil facilities and personnel in the last week have led to a10 percent cut in Nigeria's daily oil production. Nigeria, Africa's leading oil producer, exports 2.5 million barrels of oil daily. It is the fifth biggest source of U.S. oil imports.