- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 15, 2002

YENAGOA, Nigeria The unfinished shell of Niger Delta University rots in a mangrove swamp, its foundation sinking into the muck. Shoddily built schools and clinics rise, and crumble just as quickly.

This part of the Niger River Delta was declared a state six years ago in hopes of creating an oil utopia in a jungle region where people had long complained of not benefiting from the wealth of its oil fields.

But the state, Bayelsa, has become home to a bureaucracy bogged down by political infighting and corruption, and ethnic violence and attacks on foreign oil companies are worsening.

Three years after President Olusegun Obasanjo's election ended about 15 years of brutal military rule, analysts point to Bayelsa as a troubling sign of strains in the West African nation the fifth-biggest supplier of oil to the United States.

Nigeria's $20 billion in annual oil exports accounts for 80 percent of the government's revenue, and this wedge-shaped state on the southern tip of the Niger Delta marshlands produces a third of it. Five other delta states account for nearly all the rest.

That makes the delta an economic lifeline Nigeria can ill afford to jeopardize.

Despite an influx of millions of dollars from the national government, poverty remains widespread in Bayelsa. Half-finished building projects sit abandoned, teachers' salaries go unpaid and accusations of missing funds are widespread.

"There is no progress for us only for him," said Osubi George, operator of a canoe taxi, nodding his head at a pearly white luxury speedboat owned by state Gov. Diepriye Alamieyeseigha.

In Bayelsa, disillusionment has replaced hopes that statehood in 1996 and the presidential election in 1999 would reverse decades of misrule by Nigeria's military, which squandered and stole billions of dollars in oil profits.

These days, anger often turns to bloodshed.

Gangs of young men sabotage oil facilities and kidnap Western and Nigerian oil workers to extort payments for purported environmental damage and commandeered land.

Entire villages have been razed in ethnic rampages and by fighting among political factions. Dozens of villagers were reported to have been killed in late July during three days of clashes blamed on gangs supporting rival candidates in local elections. Wrangling about voter lists and the exclusion of some unregistered parties caused recent local elections to be postponed.

International oil companies, including Royal Dutch/Shell, ChevronTexaco and Exxon Mobil, are increasingly focusing on recently discovered offshore fields to avoid the unrest on land.

Bayelsa is not the only troubled place in Nigeria, a nation of 120 million people with a jumble of tribal, political and religious animosities that frequently flare into violence. Thousands have died nationwide since the 1999 elections.

In another part of the delta where the government failed to provide basics like clean water, electricity and other amenities, hundreds of unarmed village women took out their frustration on ChevronTexaco by seizing a string of its facilities in July, paralyzing the oil giant's Nigeria operations.

Ethnic-based activists are threatening to escalate attacks in support of a bid by state politicians to get the national government to increase the region's share of oil revenues. Mr. Obasanjo has doubled the allocation since his election, but Bayelsa officials argue that it is still less than half the 13 percent portion promised in Nigeria's constitution.

In Okoroba, a fishing village reachable only by canoe or motorboat, people complained that the state government had not provided them with the clean water, electricity, roads, education and medical care that Gov. Alamieyeseigha promised before his 1999 election.

"The big men are no big help to me," said Joseph Motto, a logger who says he illegally cuts trees in protected forests "to take what the government does not give to me."

Opposition groups accuse the governor of frittering away millions of dollars on extravagant projects like the unfinished Niger Delta University in the governor's home village, Amassoma.

Bayelsa state spends $30 million a month with little to show for it, opposition groups say. The governor, known for his white fedora and matching suit, rejects the accusations but declines to specify how much his administration takes in or spends.

Azibolanari Nelson, the state information commissioner, points to a residential complex luxurious by Nigerian standards for state officials in Yenagoa as one of the state's biggest accomplishments.

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