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Nigerian Delta Unrest Continues With Different Pace


As the world remembers the anniversary of the execution of the environmental activist Ken Saro Wiwa, attention is once again being focused on the Nigeria's Niger Delta. A recent report from rights group Amnesty International says that the Delta people are being exploited by oil companies with the help of the government. Some are criticizing the report for not taking into account changes in the delta situation.

In 1994, Ken Saro-Wiwa was imprisoned by the Nigerian government for defending the rights of the Ogoni people and criticizing the government's oil policy with Royal Dutch/Shell.

Saro-Wiwa was arrested following a riot in Ogoni at which four prominent chiefs were murdered. Despite widespread international protests, Saro-Wiwa was hanged after a trial with eight Ogoni rights activists in1995.

The 10th anniversary of his death is a reminder that while the Delta remains one of the poorest areas in Nigeria, it is one of the world's 10 biggest oil exporters.

London-based Amnesty International recently published a report that renews criticism of the policies of oil companies and the Nigerian government in the Niger Delta. In 1999, a civilian government replaced the military regime that executed Saro-Wiwa, but the Amnesty report says that the civilian government led by Olusegun Obasanjo kills people in the Niger Delta with impunity, and that excessive force is used to protect the oil industry.

Nigerian analyst Olly Owen from the Global Insight research company says that the report, although justified in its critique of the government, does not give enough credit to corporate changes in some oil companies, which have occurred since Saro-Wiwa's death.

"I do not think anyone is following an ideal practice at the moment, but some are moving towards it faster than others," said Mr. Owen. "So leading that would be players like Statoil, Shell, Chevron-Texaco who have more or less taken on some of the criticisms of the way they worked in the past and tried to restructure it. There are also a lot of oil companies, including ones from the West but also new players from Asia, who basically do not see they need to take any notice of it."

Human rights activists say that oil companies support the human rights abuses carried out by the government in the Delta, but Mr. Owen says that the federal government and the state government need to take more responsibility for their actions, and consequent violence in the Delta.

The executive secretary of Nigeria's National Human Rights Commission, Buhari Bello, says the Amnesty Report was accurate. It describes in one incident how the army fired and killed a man during a protest at Chevron Nigeria's Escravos oil terminal.

Mr. Bello is trying to encourage the government to give the Niger Delta people a share of the oil wealth to be used for development, a key demand by activists.

"I support the comment and criticisms made by Amnesty International because it is really true," he said. "We believe that dialogue with the people of the Niger Delta is the key to the problem. You cannot just go and use force; force has been used before."

In June, delegates from oil producing states walked out of the National Political Reform Conference because the government was only willing to offer them 17 percent of oil revenues.

Although a Niger Delta Development Commission was created by the government in 2000, it lacks many of the funds promised to it.

A Nigerian journalist who has followed the developments in the Delta region, Gilbert da Costa, says that people in the Niger Delta are very skeptical of promises from the federal government and that under this current administration nothing has really changed.

"The oil communities have always complained that given the serious neglect that has happened over the years there is a need to commit far more resources than the authorities committed so far, and so they are not particularly pleased with what has been going on," he said.

The Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Human Rights Abdu Orah says that Obasanjo's government is in the process of making concrete changes which include educating the army on how to deal with civilian populations.

"People need to go though a new orientation," he said. "They are also re-training many of their staff in weapon handling and all that."

Since Ken Saro Wiwa's death many people have become activists trying to stand up for the rights of different delta ethnic groups.

Not all of them have used Saro Wiwa's peaceful means of protest. In September, the Niger Delta militant leader Alhaji Mujahid Asari was arrested after vowing to break up Nigeria. Last year, Asaris Niger Delta Peoples Volunteer Force contributed to a rise in oil prices when it threatened war against oil companies.