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Nigeria Launches New Development Plan for Niger Delta

Nigeria's President Olusegun Obasanjo has launched a Niger Delta development plan in an effort to ease widespread discontent in the oil-rich country. Gilbert da Costa in Abuja reports that the new measures are meant to discourage militancy in the unruly region.

A U.N. Development Program report in 2006 painted a picture of human misery in the Niger Delta, which has an estimated population of 30 million people.

A large majority of people live in abject poverty, even though the region is the source of all of Nigeria's oil.

Militants in the Niger Delta have chosen to disrupt oil exploitation in the area in an effort, they say, to draw attention to the plight of the area's poor. One of their primary tactics has been to kidnap foreigners working for oil comapanies in the delta. So far this year nearly 70 foreign workers have been taken hostage. At least three workers remain in captivity.

A miltiant recently told reporters the hostage-taking is a strategy is to draw world attention to the plight of Niger Delta inhabitants.

"Our interest lies in how to bring the attention of everybody to the issue of the Niger Delta," he says. "We want to see physical development, both from the oil companies and the federal government. How can we (be) producing oil and look at all these young men here, they do not have anything doing, they do not have jobs, they do not have good education. Let most of them speak; you will not even understand what they are saying. Is that what is obtainable in oil producing countries?"

Nigerian authorities acknowledge that poverty and neglect lie at the heart of the delta crisis. The master plan provides a framework to develop the region during the next 15 years.

President Obasanjo is optimistic the initiative will improve conditions in the impoverished region.

"As we launch the master plan today, it is my abiding belief that we are also launching the commencement of a voyage of hope that will sail the Niger Delta past a legacy of turbulence, neglect and poverty into an assured future as our nation's most peaceful, most prosperous and most ecologically regenerative region," Obasanjo says.

The Niger Delta Development Commission drew up the plan and is responsible for its implementation.

A senior commission official, Atei Beredugo, says quality education is the key to solving the unrest in the delta.

"In so far as all stakeholders embrace it and implement it, then we are going to see substantial improvement in the quality of education," Beredugo says. "This is very fundamental. A lot of things are tied around education, even unemployment is tied to quality education, conflict has some of its root in poor quality education, because people come out of school, they cannot get jobs and they cannot go back to farming, they find themselves in the middle of nowhere and they become ready recruits for militants.

Five decades of oil extraction has had a damaging effect on the environment. A panel of independent experts reported last October that up to 1.5 million tons of oil has been spilt in the past 50 years, making the delta one of the five most polluted spots on the planet.

Unrest in the delta has reduced oil exports and forced thousands of foreign workers to flee. The drop in oil production is blamed for a four-point-three-billion-dollar shortfall in government budget last year.