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March 27, 2010

Nigeria's Former Oil Rebels Frustrated at Stalled Niger Delta Peace

by Gilbert da Costa

Nigeria's acting President Goodluck Jonathan and ex-militant leaders are to meet in the coming days amid threats of renewed violence in the oil-rich south.

Activists say the Nigerian government is not keeping the promises it made during an amnesty period last year and that the nation's southern region, which is home to Africa's biggest oil and gas industry, risks returning to violence.

More than 14,000 fighters accepted President Umaru Yar'Adua's unconditional pardon and disarmed.  But the government was overwhelmed, resulting in delays in processing them and paying benefits.  Now, disgruntled ex-militants are threatening to return to the creeks and resume attacks on the oil industry.

Acting President Goodluck Jonathan, a native of the Niger Delta, is planning a meeting with key militants soon.  But many in the delta region are calling for more action rather than talk.  Ignatius Onwuemeke is a lawyer based in the Niger Delta city of Warri.

"Federal government should de-emphasize the issue of talk, talk, talk. We discuss, we talk, but it is not enough," said Onwuemeke.  "Something practical should be done by way of being practical, being proactive. Let the things we have said before let them practicalize it."

Communities in the Niger Delta, a maze of creeks and rivers feeding into one of the world's biggest remaining areas of mangroves, are among Nigeria's poorest.

Experts say unless the real source of the problem is tackled, rebels will continue using the impoverished region as an excuse to continue their activities.  A youth leader in the Niger Delta, Akpomujaga Oghe, talks about the grievances in the delta, particularly the widespread demand for more local control of oil.

"People of the Niger Delta have suffered too long.  The youths of the Niger Delta want a change. We want true federalism.  We want economic independence and autonomy for our people. We want fiscal federalism, we want the resources that we produce to benefit us. We want NNPC [Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation] to relocate its headquarters and those of the oil companies to the creeks. Let development come in there. Jobs will come for our boys. That is exactly what we want," explained Oghe.

Violence in the Niger Delta has subsided after years of attacks that sharply reduced oil output, but the security situation remains fragile.

The economy of Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation of 140 million, is almost totally dependent on oil.