- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 23, 2005

PETERSIDE, Nigeria — Resentment is mounting among the poor and marginalized communities of Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta and could erupt in violence if the government does not act, regional leaders warned this week.

The delta is the heartland of Africa’s biggest oil and gas industry and will play a key role in the search by Western industrial nations for new supplies to bring down prices and fuel their economic recovery.

But as the delta’s elite gathered in the Niger River estuary last weekend for the funeral of one of their region’s best-loved champions, signs of trouble emerged.

Violence flared last month between the delta towns of Obioku and Odioma, which was razed by government forces, and militant leaders elsewhere say they will fight for a larger share of oil revenue.

Meanwhile, representatives from the region have gone to a national political reform conference in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, to demand greater autonomy and more control over the wealth that bubbles up from their land.

The delta’s elected leaders fear that — just as Odioma’s youth militia grew beyond the control of local chiefs and plunged the town into conflict — they could lose control of militant elements of the delta’s population.

“I think that the outcome of the conference will decide a lot of things,” said Adonye Wilcox, vice chairman of the Bonny local government area, after a service to honor the late nationalist leader Chief Harold Dappa-Biriye.

“I think people are getting very fed up. If we don’t get a better deal, it will be hard to hold back the youths,” he told reporters.

In the delta, the term “youths” has come to mean the unmarried and often unemployed young men whose militant organizations wield ever-increasing power in communities once ruled by local kings.

The gangs control access to the creeks, where oil thieves siphon off tens of thousands of barrels of crude oil every day to supply a multimillion-dollar smuggling industry. The proceeds often are spent on rifles and rocket launchers.

Some of the gangs have been armed by the government and co-opted as vigilantes, like Odioma’s Bayelsa Volunteers Anti-Piracy Squad.

Others, like notorious warlord Mujahid Dokubo Asari’s Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force, espouse a radical ethnic separatist agenda, vowing to free the delta from Nigerian rule and restore it to its native Ijaw people.

Some gang leaders, like Sunday Nyingife, a famous juju magician from the village of Oloibiri, admit using their powers of intimidation to help rig Nigeria’s 2003 elections in favor of ruling-party candidates.

The gangs recruit resentful youths with no prospect of employment in the capital-intensive but low-labor oil industry and who think the riches of their land are being stolen by foreign multinationals and corrupt politicians.

Against a backdrop of violence — oil-rig hijackings, kidnappings, ethnic clashes, assassinations and pirate raids — elected leaders hope to buy off the anger by persuading the federal government to allow the region a bigger slice of the cake.

The Nigerian Constitution stipulates that 13 percent of the government’s oil revenues should be given to the states from where the resource comes.

Delta politicians like Tonye Long John, who represents Bonny and Degema in the federal House of Representatives, say the ratio should be returned to the 50 percent level set when Nigeria won independence in 1963.

“We are using peaceful means to get a result, and we believe that Nigerians are reasonable people,” he said of the delta’s struggle in parliament and the national conference, which opened last month and is expected to last all year.

The implied threat is that if the delta’s impoverished villages — most of which lack electricity or clean water, despite 50 years of lucrative oil sales — do not get more oil revenue, unrest will grow.

“I think Niger Delta people are not yet ready for violence,” said Maxwell Akwe, a member of Bonny’s local council. But he added: “What people like [warlord] Asari do is to raise awareness of the need to fight for our rights.”

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