Abducting oil workers for ransom has become so common in Nigeria that beer mats in expatriate bars read, “Eat a lot — fat people are harder to kidnap”.
But for the four foreign hostages released unharmed earlier this week, the ordeal was no laughing matter. The group succumbed to malaria and was held for three weeks, far longer than the few days it usually takes to negotiate a ransom payment.
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend), which abducted the men, promised more attacks. “We intend to destroy the ability of Nigeria to export oil. This is to ensure that the oil remains underground for the use of our children someday,” it said in part.
The group’s complaints — of pollution, government persecution and underdevelopment — are familiar in a region where, despite the billions of dollars in oil wealth underneath their feet, most citizens scrape by on less than one dollar a day. The Nigerian government, rated as the third most corrupt in the world by Transparency International, rarely invests in schools, hospitals or infrastructure in the Delta.
In an attempt to head off potentially costly unrest, many oil companies try to set up their own social projects. But with contractors skimming off the top and no budget for maintenance, these often fail within the first few years.
Oil companies often accuse locals of sabotaging pipelines for the chance of a clean-up contract. While they wrangle over the cost of a clean up, pollution kills fish and contaminates farmland, further reducing the opportunities for traditional employment. But high-tech oil extraction provides few jobs for the unskilled and poverty-stricken communities that often end up fighting over a contract to trim the grass from around a well-head for a few days a month.
Failed by both the government and oil companies, frustrated youths often turn to the militants as the last resort. Chief Bill Knight, a development worker with decades of experience in the region, remembers his own kidnapping as “frightening, but we were treated well — and sent on our way with the request that we tell the world how miserable they are.
“So long as the root cause of the problems, lack of effective development, is not addressed properly violence will continue when opportunities appear,” he said.
One remaining chance to draw the militants into the political process is the 2007 presidential elections. So far, the signs are not promising.
The current incumbent, southerner Olusegun Obasanjo, is rumoured to want to change the Constitution to allow himself a third term; a majority of the 36 state governors gave their approval this week. The situation has caused a bitter feud with his deputy, northerner Atiku Abubaker. Many southern politicians fear a return to the era when the northern elite dominated the country’s politics; both sides have been demanding that the next president hail from their territory.
The north-south divide has been accompanied by a crackdown on ethnically based nationalist groups seeking greater independence.
According to Human Rights Watch, hundreds of people were murdered during Nigeria’s last presidential election. Thousands have been killed since. Many of the killers use weapons paid for by stealing crude oil, a lucrative trade carried out by armed gangs with the complicity of local politicians and security forces.