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Obasanjo Leads New Initiative on Oil Delta Crisis

  • Gilbert da Costa

The people of Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta appear divided over the latest initiative of the government to ease the violence in the region. President Olusegun Obasanjo met a cross-section of leaders and groups late Wednesday in Abuja. But, key figures in the troubled region were not present.

A leading member of the ethnic-Ijaw community in Niger Delta, Professor Turner Isoun, says Wednesday's meeting was a step in the right direction.

Professor Isoun, a long-serving Cabinet minister in the Obasanjo administration, says the latest initiative to resolve the Delta crisis reflects a new commitment by the Nigerian leadership.

"We have set up a committee, headed by the president himself, with members being drawn from the various states, at coastal level, Bayelsa, Delta, Rivers, these are the core states, then Ondo, Akwa Ibom and Cross River are going to be represented, plus the oil companies, plus other intervention agencies like the NDDC [Niger Delta Development Corporation]. So, we believe that for the first time, there is a strong political will to address the immediate, medium and long-term, and we believe that it is going to be something different, and we are going to do things differently," said Isoun.

The Delta in Southern Nigeria is the source of Nigeria's oil. The country has an output of 2.4 million barrels per day, but its 20 million inhabitants have seen very little of the benefits from years of oil exploitation.

President Obasanjo agrees that very little had been done to improve living conditions in the region.

"From the period of pre-independence till today, what we must admit is that efforts that have been made have not fully addressed the issues, or have not fully satisfied the challenges," he said.

About 200 delegates, including youth leaders, politicians, activists and traditional rulers attended the Abuja meeting.

The government called the meeting last week, a day after militants of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, released the last three of nine hostages seized five weeks ago from an oil company's operations in the Delta.

Ledum Mitee, a leading Delta activist, says only a practical demonstration of the government's resolve to tackle the problems in the Delta will make any difference.

"I do not know about political will, what people in the Delta will want to see is not statement," said Mitee. "There is nothing that has been said that we have not heard before. What people want to see is what actions on the ground show a difference from what has been happening. So, it is not so much what has been said."

A number of prominent leaders from the Ijaw ethnic community, as well as radical Ijaw groups like MEND, dismissed the forum as a waste of time and resources, and stayed away. Instead, they are calling for direct talks with the government.

A youth leader from the Delta, Andrew Ogenegboye, says those who stayed away from the meeting were the losers.

"If you do not sit down at the table to dialogue, then there could not be a way forward," he said. "If you sit at home, how could you marshal out your own points. I think, it is the wrong thing, sitting at home in a business like this. I want to enjoin, if the meeting is called, it has been slated for the 18th again, we should all try to be here, to marshal out our grievances to the federal government."

The idea behind Wednesday's meeting was to negotiate a truce that could allow oil multi-nationals to resume pumping more than 500,000 additional barrels of oil from the Delta.

Shell and other oil companies say they have no plans to return to abandoned oil fields in the Delta until the government reaches an agreement with the militants.

Analysts are hoping that, when the meeting reconvenes in two weeks, representatives of groups behind the recent violence in the Delta will attend. That could be the first step in what promises to be a long road to peace in the troubled region.

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