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Activists, Opponents Scorn Niger Delta Talks - 2004-10-07

As a new round of talks between Nigeria's government and rival militias from the oil-rich Niger Delta approaches, activists and government opponents dismiss the talks as misguided.

Three days of talks last week in Nigeria between the government and what it calls "rascals" ended with a tentative agreement for disarmament of militias and promises of renewed talks on increased regional autonomy and local access to oil wealth.

But activists such as Chima Ubani, from the Lagos-based Civil Liberties Organization, say local people should be brought into the talks and are calling for a general conference on the development of the Niger Delta region.

He says these talks were brought about not by the legitimate demands of the population, but because of militia threats of more violence that caused a rise in world oil prices.

"The current approach is all about managing the crisis so that oil prices are not affected," he said. "But we should be looking at managing the crisis in such a way that the people get what they have been demanding, which is equity and justice in terms of access to the resources emanating from their region, in terms of controlling their lives, in terms of improving their environment, which has been polluted by oil."

Mr. Ubani says those invited to the talks are not adequate negotiating partners.

The head of the anti-government militia, Mujahid Dokubo Asari, is a supporter of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. As he told VOA last week, he considers government-backed Western oil companies enemies.

"Western countries are evil collaborators in the committal of genocide against the people of the Niger Delta. You have to come and see what is happening - environmental degradation, there is no standard that meets international safety requirements," he said.

Mr. Asari, now waiting to resume talks in Abuja, claims to be fighting for the Niger Delta's majority ethnic Ijaw group. But researcher Carina Tertsakian, from the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, says many Ijaws do not like his methods.

"We have certainly been in touch with several people and organizations from the Ijaw ethnic group who really disagree in particular with his messages of using violence," he said. "His group has been extremely violent, killed a lot, and the majority simply do not agree with the methods and do not consider him to be particularly representative. I think what has happened he has capitalized on widespread feelings of frustration and dissatisfaction and anger among the population."

Mrs. Tertsakian says the talks should involve non-violent civic groups as well as local elected officials from Rivers State, the scene of the recent violence.

"Local sources allege that Asari's group, as well as his main rival led by somebody called Ateke Tom, that both these groups were actually paid and armed by the Rivers State government so the weapons that they are now using are weapons that may have been put in their hands by state government officials or by ruling party officials," she said. "What happened is the situation then got out of control and Asari's group, at least, has ended up fighting the government. There is a political dynamic there that should not be overlooked."

Rivers State governor Peter Odili, elected in 2003 with more than 90 percent of the vote, denies any involvement. He says the militias are thieves who tap crude oil from pipelines. A charge the militias do not deny.

Despite the criticism from human rights activists, an adviser to the government on oil-related policy, Tunde Martins, says the talks could achieve a breakthrough.

"For the first time, the government in Nigeria will be discussing and negotiating with the rebels or those who are causing destruction and threatening the peace of the country," he noted. "In the past, we have always seen the governments handling this with high handedness but for the government of Olusegun Obasanjo to decide to discuss with those who are aggrieved with the Nigerian state, it is a step forward. It means this can be achieved peacefully."

In announcing the talks, President Obasanjo said he was confident reason and law will prevail.

Management of oil companies operating in the Niger Delta refused to comment on the record for this report.

The companies have denied they are ruining the environment and are not giving anything back to the region. As an example, the top producing oil company, Anglo-Dutch Royal Shell, cites a $20 million aid program initiated this year to develop large-scale cassava fields in the region.

Royal Shell, which pumps about 10 percent of its global output from the Niger Delta's river channels, has been advised by independent consultants to pull out because of continuing violence, but rejected the recommendation.