News / Africa

Nigerian Hostage Release Shows Military Shifting Approach

The 19 nineteen oil and construction workers taken hostage by Niger Delta militants and freed last week sit together in Port Harcourt, 18 Nov 2010
The 19 nineteen oil and construction workers taken hostage by Niger Delta militants and freed last week sit together in Port Harcourt, 18 Nov 2010

The rescue of 19 hostages in the Niger Delta represents a shifting approach by Nigeria's military who worked more closely with local groups to secure their release.

There is nothing new about hostage taking in the Niger Delta where militants regularly kidnap oil workers for ransom. But last week's release of 19 foreign and local hostages does show what appears to be a new strategy by Nigeria's military to address the insecurity.

Major General Charles Omoregie commands the Delta's military task force. He says the release followed raids on seven camps of the main militant group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND. There were no deaths and no ransoms paid after former MEND fighters helped negotiate the release of two Americans, two Frenchmen, two Indonesians, one Canadian and 12 Nigerians.

Local journalist Michael Ikeogwu covers hostage taking in the Niger Delta. He says this operation by the Joint Task Force - or JTF - is far different from its 2009 attack on the Gbaramatu Kingdom where civilians were killed and houses burned.

"Ex-militants gave information to JTF about the plans of MEND. I think the operation should be commended. I think that the military has taken a step to avoid civilian casualties," said Ikeogwu. "Their target is now those who are behind the crimes, who are behind MEND. Their target is MEND members."

Delta State council chairman Austin Ojde says the military's new approach will continue to help diminish local support for the militia.

"Nobody is supporting militants. They come from another place," said Ojde. "That is why you can see that there are no casualties because the people of the community will help to assist the JTF to make sure they carry out the job without injury of casualty."

President Goodluck Jonathan commended the military for resolving the hostage crisis without the loss of life and promised to continue retraining programs for former militants who accepted last year's amnesty program.

Niger Delta human rights activist Joseph Oke says the Jonathan administration deserves much of the credit for this new approach by the Joint Task Force.

"This is the first time JTF has entered the militant area, the violent area with guns and with all the weapons, yet there was no life lost. It is the cooperation of the people because the people  have bought into the amnesty and they have seen the positive response of government," said Oke. "The people of the Delta know this is just an act of criminality."

President Jonathan is from the Niger Delta. So resolving the violence there is central to his campaigning for next year's presidential election.

John Campbell is a senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations.

"People in the Niger Delta believe that their region is entitled to a larger percentage of the wealth that is produced by the oil than they presently receive," he said. "Residents are angry and disaffected from the government, and hence it is no surprise that there is an insurgency."

President Jonathan has the opportunity to capitalize on the amnesty program that he helped start as vice president to former president Umaru Musa Yar'Adua. But Mr. Jonathan also has the challenge of convincing voters that he is capable of containing Delta violence following October bombings in the capital Abuja that were claimed by MEND militants.

The president appears to have alienated some northern leaders by initially absolving MEND of responsibility for that violence, blaming instead a terrorist group from outside Nigeria that he said was being sponsored by "unpatriotic elements within the country." President Jonathan later sought to clarify those remarks by saying that it was not MEND alone and that some former MEND members were acting without the consent of the larger group.

The military's new approach to Delta kidnapping notwithstanding, the Council on Foreign Relation's John Campbell says it is a problem that can not be solved by force.

"The insurrection has considerable acquiescence, if not support, from the people who live in the Delta," he added. "Because of the nature of the Delta, a military solution is simply impossible."

Campbell says the military must be part of a political solution to end what he calls the alienation of the people of the Delta so the benefits of Nigeria's vast oil wealth are felt more equitably in the areas where that oil is produced. 

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