- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 25, 2009

Militants in Nigeria’s Niger Delta have offered to negotiate their grievances, but chances of ending a two-decade-long struggle are still uncertain. Leaders from the area’s main militia group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, said last week they would cease fire if the federal government consents to both an international mediator and an agenda for the peace negotiations, said Stephen Davis, canon emeritus at the reconciliation ministry of Britain’s Coventry Cathedral.

“The militia said their message is they crave for peace,” Mr. Davis said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The Nigerian government has said it would welcome peace talks but refuses foreign mediators.

“National consensus will fray if we bring in the international community. We don’t want foreigners coming in to the Nigerian state,” Nigerian Foreign Minister Ojo Maduekwe said at the conference in Washington. “But we are not opposed to suggestions.”

Meanwhile, Reuters news agency, citing a senior government official, reported from the Nigerian capital, Abuja, Wednesday that Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua will propose a 60-day amnesty program for the Delta militants Thursday in an effort to end years of attacks on Africa’s biggest oil and gas industry.

The government estimates as many as 20,000 militants could participate in the program, the official said, but skeptics question whether an amnesty alone will be enough to halt widespread oil theft, pipeline bombings and kidnappings for ransom.

Mr. Yar’Adua is expected to present the proposal to the Council of State, composed of the country’s 36 state governors as well as former heads of state and chief justices, on Thursday, sources told Reuters.

Under the plan, the screening of gunmen and collecting of weapons will begin Aug. 6 at 15 amnesty camps in Delta, Bayelsa, Rivers and other southern states in the Niger Delta, the source said.

Since 1990, violence between government forces and heavily armed militia groups has disrupted oil production in the region and helped boost world oil prices.

In the past three years, the militants have kidnapped more than 250 expatriate oil workers. The theft of oil and lost production from sabotage have cost oil companies $19 billion in lost revenue this year alone, up from $6 billion in 2008, said J. Stephen Morrison, an Africa specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Mr. Morrison said the attacks and the offer to talk appeared to be part of a new strategy.

“We have a calculus that may be shifting,” he said “Is this most recent mobilization by militants part of a broader and sustained strategy that can be partnered with a political strategy at the federal level?”

The militants have been protesting poverty, human rights violations and environmental degradation caused by international oil companies in the Delta.

Royal Dutch Shell earlier this month agreed to pay a $15.5 million to settle a lawsuit over the 1995 deaths of Nigerian author and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and others. The lawsuit had been filed in a federal court in New York by family members and surviving activists. Shell has denied it played any role in the executions by the military government.

Nigeria is the world’s eighth-largest oil producer, with oil comprising more than 95 percent of the country’s total exports. However, most of this money does not reach Nigerians, the majority of whom live on $1 a day, Mr. Davis said.

“The incentives to join the grand theft scheme are profound and overwhelming,” Mr. Morrison said of the attacks and kidnappings used against oil companies.

Attacks on the pipelines lead to the loss of as much as a million barrels of oil per day.

“This is becoming an existential crisis for Nigeria,” said Peter Lewis, director of African Studies program at the Johns Hopkins University School of the Advanced International Studies.

The Nigerian government has responded to the attacks by assaulting militants from the land, air and sea, creating a situation of profound mistrust between them.

The central government recently appointed two ministers to the Delta. However, many analysts remain skeptical of the government’s commitment to peace.

There have been failed negotiations in the past that included an offer of amnesty for the militants in return for them giving up weapons.

Mr. Davis said a sustainable peace agreement would require a neutral third party to mediate and oversee implementation of an agreement.

“We have representatives from the major militia groups,” Mr. Davis said. “The question now is: Will the federal government be able to sit down in a mediated discussion?”

Nigerian officials say they have shown their good will by appointing federal ministers to the region.

“This is the first time this government has expressed genuine interest in solving the problems in the Niger Delta, so the international community should be patient and let the government take the needed steps,” said Timiebi Koripamo-Agary, executive director of Gender Rights Advancement and Development, a nonprofit group working for the rights of women and children in the Delta region, and a former official in the federal ministries of labor, information and communications.

Obong Ufot Ekaette, the federal minister for Niger Delta affairs, said his appointment and that of another minister for the region five months ago, was proof that the government is interested in a negotiated solution.

“Let me stress that I am convinced of the president’s commitment to tackling the problems in the Niger Delta,” he said.

Delta politicians have been accused of employing cult groups and street gangs against rival parties and candidates, Mr. Davis said. Nigerian administrations have also sponsored militants to conceal the government’s theft of oil, he said.

“Conflict in the Niger Delta is a sustainable bad equilibrium where everybody is profiting,” Mr. Lewis said. “There is mutual gains.”

Nigerian officials deny these accusations.

“The government is not involved in the destruction of people or property,” Mr. Ekaette said.

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