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Yar'Adua, Militants Trade Feelers for Niger Delta Amnesty

In Nigeria, casualties are mounting from a Niger Delta offensive that began on May 13. During a press conference in Warri, Delta State’s major oil hub, over the weekend, unconfirmed estimates ran beyond 200 deaths registered in slightly more than two weeks of fighting. Since Friday, local militants and the federal government’s Joint Task Force (JTF) have started floating and trading hints of an amnesty for the oil-rich region.

Monday in Washington, the mediation group Niger Delta Professionals for Development (NIDPRODEV) will hold a panel discussion to pursue suggestions for lowering tensions. The group’s international director Mary Ella Keblusek admits that Delta residents aren’t convinced a settlement is near. But with both sides reeling from the impasse, she says it might be possible for an appointed honest broker to stop the fighting.

“It’s my belief that the best outcome would happen from the invitation to an outside third party that would be something along the lines of the (1998 Northern Ireland) Good Friday Peace Accord with (US Special Envoy) George Mitchell. I think a person of his stature who could step in and be respected by both sides and be able to sit them down at the table and help them see that there really are win-win outcomes where both sides can have their needs met would be very helpful. Right now, so much damage has been done to credibility that I would have a hard time seeing a long-term successful solution coming out of the situation without outside assistance,” she cautioned.

In the first amnesty trial balloon launched on Friday, President Umaru Yar’Adua invited the rebels to lay down their weapons. The rebels rejected the invitation as “ambiguous” and “dictatorial,” and subsequently responded with demands for international mediation, accompanied by federal aid for those displaced by the fighting. Then on Saturday, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) said it would consider the amnesty offer only if its jailed leader, Henry Okah, is freed.

One of MEND’s commanders, Farah Dagogo, is quoted as saying that Okah’s release would demonstrate that at least the federal government is being sincere about its intentions. NIDPRODEV’s Mary Ella Keblusek says she doubts the Okah offer will succeed. She suggests that Okah is only one of several MEND commanders, and that a workable amnesty and ceasefire will require more to be achieved.

“If the government understands the level of frustration in a lose-lose situation of further attacking in the area, then they will be very happy to see that the youths said that MEND would be willing to talk about amnesty. My sense is that both sides see that there were some regrets around how all this unfolded and that the outcome is not going to be a good one if the government continues to use a military solution for what really should be a political solution,” she concluded.

Another mediation avenue being pursued will begin next week when President Yar’Adua attends a meeting June 8 and 9 in the United Kingdom with the presidents of European Union countries. Keblusek says that EU leaders are anxious to reach a settlement of the Niger Delta crisis because of their awareness of the critical role Nigeria plays both as an oil supplier and as a high-profile leading state on the African continent.

“I think the EU recognizes that Nigeria is an essential, perhaps most important country from a global political economy perspective, the most important country in Africa. And the recent attacks and fighting really threaten the stability in a potentially very deep way of what was already an unstable situation. So I think the EU is wanting to understand what’s going on and maybe try to help the Nigerian government understand that the global community is watching very closely and will hold them accountable,” she noted.

With recent attacks on Niger Delta pipelines and platforms manned by Shell and Chevron corporations, it is estimated that Nigeria has been losing as much as 115,000 barrels of its light and easy-to-refine “sweet crude” every day, scrapping some six percent of its total production. NIDPRODEV’s Keblusek acknowledges that this production shortfall is significant enough to impact global oil prices, particularly in the US market, which has recently demonstrated so much of a preference for the Delta’s “sweet crude” that the African supply is reportedly capable of overtaking Middle East oil in US imports.

“We know that the oil that comes out of Nigeria provides a large amount of the oil that’s used in the eastern seaboard of the United States because it is of the type very useful to the industry that we have in the US. Therefore, we’re of a particular vulnerability in the reduction in the amount of oil that’s available from the Niger Delta. It’s also easy to transport that oil from Nigeria straight up the Atlantic to the US. So it’s definitely in the US interests to make sure that the supply of oil remains constant. Otherwise, as the prices go up and the availability goes down, it will become an increasing problem for those of us in this country,” she warned.

The documentary film entitled “Sweet Crude,” by filmmaker Sandy Cioffi debuted in April. Filmed in 2007-08, it chronicles the struggles of local residents and oil industry workers in Nigeria’s turbulent Niger Delta region.

Mary Ella Keblusek, who served as an associate producer on the project, says that on April 12 of last year, members of the crew who were filming "Sweet Crude" were detained by the Nigerian military Joint Task Force (JTF) while traveling by boat in the Niger Delta. Director Sandy Cioffi and several photojournalists and a consultant were taken into custody and subsequently handed over to Nigerian State Security Services.

They were detained for seven days without being charged and without access to legal counsel. U.S. lawmakers and many individuals and groups from around the world worked with the U.S. State Department and the Nigerian government to win their release. The film is currently touring at various film festivals across the United States.