Mending American fences

Embattled Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo will try to mend fences with the United States, but US politicians are fuming over the debacle with former Liberian president Charles Taylor. He disappeared just before he was due to be extradited to face trial for war crimes and then Nigeria recaptured him before their President was due to meet with President George W Bush.

Relations between Nigeria and the US have cooled recently, since the Nigerian president refused to rule out constitutional changes allowing him to run for a third term. A series of attacks in the oil-rich Niger delta, in which several Americans have been seized and released, has also contributed to tensions.

Following Taylor’s escape, representative Ed Royce, vice-chairperson of the Subcommittee on Africa, had urged Bush to cancel the meeting with Obasanjo.

“This issue has united many people in the House and Senate across both parties,” said Royce during a telephonic interview. A statement issued on Wednesday praised Bush for making sure “a clear and present danger” was removed, but made no mention of the Nigerian security forces who apprehended Taylor on the Nigerian-Cameroonian border.

“This is a grave situation. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has put a lot of emphasis on having Charles Taylor brought to justice,” said Princeton Lyman, the director of the Africa Programme at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations.

“It will add to a difficult agenda because of the third term issue and the trouble in the Delta,” said Lyman, who noted that the escape could have been arranged by political opponents in order to create maximum embarrassment for Obasanjo.

Weakening his position even further is a low-level insurgency in the oil-rich Delta region, which has shut down a quarter of all output. Two American hostages and a Briton who were seized more than five weeks ago were released on Monday.

Although he did not explicitly link the Obasanjo’s trip to the US to the release of the hostages, Delta state spokesperson Abel Oshevire acknowledged the timing was “a wonderful co-incidence”.

A spokesperson for the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend), the group responsible for most of the attacks, said in an e-mail that the hostages were released mainly to free up fighters who had been tied down by guarding them. Warning against a “false sense of relief”, the Mend spokesperson continued: “The release of the hostages is not an indication of a cessation of our attacks against the oil industry and its workers.”

Mend appears to have a connection with an older group in the area called the Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities (FNDIC). It has attacked oil installations before and was a key player in the 2003 disturbances in which hundreds of people died and tens of thousands were displaced. Some experts monitoring the situation have noted that when local subcontractors do not get paid for work by oil companies, FNDIC attacks. But whereas Chevron suffered the most attacks in 2003, so far Mend has targeted almost exclusively Shell installations. Analysts say this may be linked to recent attempts to reform the company, including a refusal to pay for “ghost workers” and a more thorough tendering process for service contracts.

So far this year, Mend has kidnapped 13 foreign oil employees working on contracts for Shell, blown up an oil export terminal and sabotaged several pipelines. The attacks have shut down more than 600 000 barrels of oil production a day, about a quarter of Nigeria’s output. Last week, Oil Minister Edmund Daukoru estimated that the disturbances had cost the country about $1-billion since February.

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