'Nigeria's leaders are locked in a bad marriage'

Hundreds of youths, many with faces daubed in war paint, run through this village in Nigeria’s oil-rich delta, rallying to commemorate the death of a secessionist leader killed in the 1960s whom they see as a hero for today.

Few had dared advocate the breakup of Nigeria—home to one in five of sub-Saharan Africa’s people—since 1970, when the three-year Biafran civil war ended after causing over one million deaths.

Now, voices calling for partition are growing stronger, emboldened by deadlock at a national conference called by President Olusegun Obasanjo to heal the nation’s divisions. Nigeria has over 250 ethnic groups and two major, often antagonistic religions—Islam in the north and Christianity in the south.

When the conference started in February to consider constitutional reforms, Obasanjo stressed it was “not designed to dismember or disintegrate Nigeria”.

But it seems to have brought matters to a head. The conference’s final session has now been postponed twice, mainly due to bitter disputes over oil riches, with the north resisting demands by delta delegates for much greater control over locally generated oil revenues.

The delta representatives have been boycotting the discussions since mid-June, demanding control of 50% of oil revenues within five years.
So far, the conference has only agreed they should get 17%, up from the current 13%.

At the grass roots, people are rallying behind the memory of the likes of Isaac Boro, whose 12-day 1967 revolt was staged in the hub of Opec member Nigeria’s oil industry. His small force was quickly crushed by the Nigerian army and he was later killed in mysterious circumstances, in what his ethnic Ijaw people claim was a

government assassination.

An image of the lean undergraduate-turned-revolutionary holding a rifle has become an icon for militants who argue secession is the only way of getting control of the delta’s oil. Top local government officials, while insisting on Nigeria’s unity, also celebrate Isaac Boro Day to keep in step with the times.

Boro “fought for equity and justice for the Niger delta people”, regional governor Diepreye Alamieyeseigha said at Boro’s home village of Kaiama in May.

“The time has come therefore for us to properly claim and celebrate our own.”

“Nigeria is Falling Apart,” screamed a recent cover of popular magazine The News.

A May report by the National Intelligence Council, a United States-government thinktank, said the “outright collapse of Nigeria” was possible within 15 years. The report, which caused a storm in Nigeria, made clear its views were those of a forum of experts, not official US thinking.

“Nigeria’s leaders are locked in a bad marriage that all dislike but dare not leave,” it said, speculating that a number of events including a junior officers’ coup could lead to civil war.

“If Nigeria were to become a failed state, it could drag down a large part of the West African region,” it added.

Obasanjo said the report’s authors had no appreciation of his reforms.

The oil dispute, if not handled well, “will affect the stability of Nigeria,” says Samson Agbaru, a Niger delta delegate at the constitutional conference.

If no agreement is reached, Agbaru said the delta would not go as far as declaring independence—as the southeast did in the 1960s—but militias would shut down major oil installations, triggering conflict with the Nigerian army.

Over 97% of Nigeria’s export revenues come from oil, and the bulk of that is produced in the delta. Poverty-stricken villagers in the delta’s network of rivers and creeks complain that Nigeria’s government has been dominated by other regions since independence.

The world has seen what can happen if Nigeria breaks apart. In 1967, massacres of ethnic Igbos pushed the southeast to declare an independent state of Biafra. Biafra was defeated by Nigeria’s federal army, but many Igbos still support independence for their homeland, feeling they continue to be marginalised.

A group called the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra, or Massob, is attracting growing support—and repression.

Over 100 Massob activists are facing treason charges in two trials, with the government;s lawyers demanding the death penalty. They were all arrested during peaceful meetings. One group of 53 was locked up after gathering for a football match.

In the delta, Ijaw militia leader Moujahid Dokubo-Asari has taken up the secessionist banner.

Hundreds died in violence involving Dokubo-Asari’s group last year, and oil prices rose to over $50 a barrel after he threatened “full-scale” war on oil multinationals.

He has since declared a cease-fire, but says violence can only be averted through a “sovereign national conference”—an alternative to the Obasanjo-organised discussions, which would claim full powers to implement its decisions.

Dokubo-Asari said that if they don’t get what they want, the militias will revolt again. - Sapa-AP

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