- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 13, 2004

PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria — “Eat a lot — fat people are harder to kidnap.”

The admonition, a common sight on restaurant place mats in Nigeria’s oil-rich Delta region, is one of the lighter reminders of a deep current of rage against Western oil companies.

The armed guards at the doors of expatriate bars and the 10-foot fences topped with barbed wire around the headquarters of ChevronTexaco and Shell are less amusing.

Earlier this month, rebel leader Alhaji Dokubo Asari threatened to “blow up pipelines and flow stations” around Port Harcourt, Nigeria’s premier oil-producing city.

“The safety of foreign workers cannot be guaranteed,” said Mr. Asari, advising oil companies to cease production before an “all-out war.”

The country supplies 10 percent of U.S. crude imports. Half of all Nigeria’s on-shore production runs through rebel-held territory, and the Delta unrest has contributed to record oil prices of more than $50 per barrel.

In a related development, labor unrest in Nigeria helped keep oil prices at record levels yesterday.

Adams Oshiomhole, leader of the Nigeria Labor Congress — spearheading a four-day strike to protest rising fuel prices — said it could be extended if serious violence erupts, if more union leaders are arrested or if the government refuses to discuss a decrease in fuel prices.

The rebels’ demands include self-determination for the Ijaw people, Nigeria’s fourth-largest ethnic group, and a conference to decide whether Nigeria, a country riven by religious and ethnic divisions, is a viable nation. Shell has evacuated more than 300 staff members because of the tensions.

“Don’t forget, these people are volunteers; Mr. Asari does not pay them. If they don’t like the deal, they can just walk away with their guns,” said one local analyst, shouting above the noisy celebration of a public appearance by Mr. Asari.

“What’s on paper so far isn’t very substantial. … They’ve had hints from [President Olusegun] Obasanjo, but they’ve had that before.” A much-publicized previous disarmament turned out to be little more than a public relations exercise.

Local newspapers reported in August that Mr. Asari had given up 147 rifles to the Rivers State government.

Mr. Asari’s weapons were on display for less than an hour before being “taken to Abuja,” the capital, reportedly after a journalist noticed the weapons had military serial numbers.

“The army bought them and displayed them,” said Mr. Asari, speaking from a camp hidden in the mangrove swamps.

Mr. Asari’s threats are part of a long tradition of attacks on oil installations and employees. A recent report commissioned by Shell said the company would have to shut down its operations in the Delta within five years. The International Maritime Bureau says the Niger Delta waterways are already the most deadly in the world.

Story Continues →