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Mounting Niger Delta Tensions Fuel Calls for Ceasefire

The operation by Nigerian military and police to root out militants from the Niger Delta who have kidnapped foreign and local oil industry workers entered its tenth day Monday without letup.The initiative, known as the Joint Task Force (JTF), has freed 17 hostages, but has also taken a high civilian death toll, according to human rights groups, and has forced thousands of bystanders to leave their homes and relocate in squalid refugee camps.

The founder and regional director of Niger Delta Professionals for Development, Joel Bisina, is a peace advocate based in the Delta’s capital hub city of Warri.During a visit to Washington, he suggests that the first thing the Yar’Adua administration should do to curb the violence is to allow access to the region by journalists and humanitarian groups.

“If the whole idea is to root out militants as they claim, then they should allow free access of the press, allow humanitarian agencies to move in, because as we speak, there are men and women, children and the elderly that are trapped in the muddle who are not able to have access to medication and access to food,” he observed.

Civil society groups around the United States also claim that Abuja’s crackdown on the region is overblown and are urging legislators and the Obama administration to intervene.They claim that driven by oil company preeminence, which has produced record profits in recent years, the Nigerian government is using the pretext of driving out criminal elements, which the government characterizes as militants and hooligans, to inflict undue force and destruction on an impoverished region that lacks adequate schools, health facilities and basic infrastructure.

“I am a firm believer that there is the means to effectively police the waterways, just as there is the need to police the urban (areas) and the cities is strong.But I don’t think that the policing that they need is up to the military. I think that a well-equipped police force, well trained and fully mobilized, will be able to deal with the crime and the situation in every part of the country,” said Bisina.

Since the beginning of May, militant members of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) have stepped up their seizure of oil company employees, and delivered a 48 hour ultimatum to the foreign oil companies to leave the area or face drastic consequences. Abuja’s response has been the heavily sustained Joint Task Force operation that has escalated into bombing and burning of villages and forced massive displacements and civilian deaths.

Often in the past, says Bisina, the kidnappings have served as human shields for the militants to forestall a strong government retaliation.Despite the severity of the kidnappers demands, many of the hostages have been released in relatively good health after a set period of time in detention.

Bisina points out that Nigerian crude drawn from Niger Delta waters constitutes 20 percent of US oil imports, so when kidnapping and criminality flare up beyond tolerable levels, prompted by local residents seeking to gain a larger share of resource revenues, the Nigerian federal governmentsees fit to crack down hard.

“The JTF has developed this strategy a long time ago on how they are going to take on the communities in the Niger Delta to quell any agitation from the region.So it is not surprising that what is happening is happening now,” he says.

A coalition of civil society groups called Justice in Nigeria Now (JINN) has asked the International Criminal Court (ICC) to launch an investigation of the Delta violence.It is also calling for an immediate ceasefire and monitored independent third-party negotiations to find a permanent solution to wealth inequities in the region.

Meanwhile, gasoline prices in the United States have risen sharply this month, by 32.9 cents per gallon for regular grade.Although the hike flies in the face of the current economic slowdown, which includes marked cutbacks in the summer vacation travel plans of American consumers, Bisina says that because of conditions in the Delta region, he is not surprised by the spike.

“Since the instability, the major pipeline that supplies oil in the region has been blown up arising from this conflict.I’m not surprised that the price of gas is beginning to go up.So it is directly related to the conflict that is going on there.It is unfortunate that the general US public is not paying so much attention to what is going on because a number of conflicts that are going on around the world,” he notes.

Noting the close alliance between Nigeria and its US trading partner, Joel Bisina suggests that if a larger share of Americans would take note of the crisis in the Niger Delta, lawmakers and the executive branch in Washington could be persuaded to bring greater pressure on Abuja to handle things differently to resolve the crisis.