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Niger Delta Conflict and Lack of Infrastructure Major Issues in Nigeria Elections

Violence in the Niger Delta region and the lack of power and poor roads in many parts of Nigeria could influence the outcome of next month’s elections, scheduled to begin on April 14 in Africa’s most populous country, according to analysts. They say President Olusegun Obasanjo, whose first term in office began in 1999, has failed to quell the strife in the Delta, where rebel groups are fighting state forces for a share of the region’s oil wealth. The Obasanjo administration has also failed to significantly improve Nigeria’s dilapidated infrastructure, observers say. The 2007 polls are being hailed as the most important event in the country’s history since its independence from Britain in 1960 because they are expected to mark the first time in Nigeria that civilian administrations change through the ballot box. In the third of a five-part series, VOA’S Darren Taylor reports on the Niger Delta conflict and the lack of infrastructure in Nigeria as factors in the polls.

Prof. Rotimi Suberu, a political analyst at Nigeria’s University of Ibadan, says the violence in the Niger Delta, where rebels have been abducting foreign oil workers and destroying pipelines, is one of President Obasanjo’s “major failings.”

The president, according to Suberu, “has a mindset that really has not responded adequately to the problems of the Niger Delta. His own interpretation is that much of what is going on there is pure criminality.”

But Suberu was optimistic that either of two leading presidential candidates – Umaru Yar’Adua of the ruling People’s Progressive Party or General Muhammadu Buhari of the All Nigerian People’s Party – will act to address the “sense of deprivation, the sense of marginalization that is providing the excuse for some of the criminality that is going on in the Niger Delta.”

The people of the region feel alienated, he said.

“They say they provide about 90 percent of the wealth of this country, but yet they get so little in return. There’s just so much poverty in their environment, and the government does not seem concerned,” Suberu added.

Reuben Abati, the chairman of the country’s respected Guardian newspaper group, says Nigerians’ fear that the Delta militias would be recruited to disrupt the elections is justified.

He and Suberu agreed that the conflict in the Delta region was tinged with politics.

“The boys in the Niger Delta who are now militants are the same boys who function as agents for politicians. In fact, they are creations of the politicians. After the 2003 elections, there was no more (work for the militants) to do, so they had to create a new occupation. My assumption is that in the 2007 elections, they will find a new job: as party thugs.… They will be used to rig the elections,” Abati warned.

“The Nigerian government has said on many occasions that it knows the people that are behind the crisis in the Niger Delta. The question is: Why has government not done something about those big people that are responsible for the crisis?” Abati asked.

Observers said a further reason for disenchantment in Nigeria ahead of the polls was the government’s failure to repair the country’s crumbling infrastructure.

“Where I live in Lagos we have not had power supply, electricity, for one and a half months now! Not even for one minute! They (the authorities) say the reason is because boys in the Niger Delta are vandalizing gas pipelines,” Abati said.

“Government keeps promising that we will see the fruits of their reforms ‘later.’ But instead of infrastructure improving, it’s getting worse. It has taken them ten years and still we have no electricity! And how about roads! Do they need ten years to repair roads? Most of the roads are bad! Transportation is a big problem.”

A spokesman for the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Ojo Maduekwe, said: “These things take time,” and launched a scathing attack on his government’s detractors.

“The feeling that politicians are agents of Satan, and that the government – any government in Nigeria – is evil, seems to have pervaded the minds of a number of people who do not have the courage or commitment to enter formal politics and change the very thing they complain about. Even if tomorrow the government of Nigeria was handed over to our critics, their first duty would be to put down their own government,” he said.

But Abati was not swayed.

“The government at the level of infrastructure has failed,” he said. “I always tell people that, for a developing country like Nigeria, democracy is visual. People relate to what they can see, what they can feel! When you engage in abstractions, those abstractions mean nothing to the ordinary man, who just wants basic things.”

If the poll was free and fair, and fought purely on the basis of the crisis in the Niger Delta and the state’s failure to provide decent infrastructure, the PDP would be in “serious trouble,” said Nigerian social activist Dr. Jibrin Ibrahim.