Nigerian oil delta under threat of new violence

The risk of renewed violence in Nigeria’s oil-producing Niger Delta is increasing because militants are frustrated by a lack of concrete results from peace talks, a key negotiator said on Wednesday.

Kingsley Kuku, a senior member of a government peace committee who also has close links with militants, said the government still had an opportunity to avert violence but it had to start delivering on promises of development for the delta.

”These are dangerous times. The possibility of the Niger Delta going back to higher levels of violence is 70%,” Kuku said in an interview in Lagos.

He said treason charges against detained rebel leader Henry Okah made public last week, and the leaking of a purported army memo advocating the use of force against delta militants, were among factors testing the rebels’ appetite for peace talks.

”The government still has a chance to avert a crisis, not by the military option but by faithfully implementing the peace process. It has to make policy statements on developing the Niger Delta and empowering the people, and it has to implement them,” he said.

The Niger Delta is home to the world’s eighth-biggest oil industry, exporting about 2,1-million barrels per day. But five decades of oil extraction have enriched corrupt politicians and foreign oil firms while bringing mostly trouble to residents.

Impoverished villagers have seen their water, air and lands polluted by frequent oil spills and the 24-hour burning of gas, while the proceeds of a lucrative trade in stolen crude have flooded the region with guns and crime has flourished.

Attacks

Rebels demanding greater local control over oil revenues launched a series of attacks in early 2006 that shut down a fifth of Nigerian oil output and pushed up world prices.

A new government led by President Umaru Yar’Adua and Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan, a native of the delta, took office on May 29 last year promising to address the root causes of the violence and to negotiate with militants.

Kuku is the secretary of a peace committee that was set up shortly after Yar’Adua came to power and he has been closely involved in contacts between rebel leaders and the government.

He said a new round of talks was beginning on Wednesday in the federal capital, Abuja, between Jonathan and prominent delta activists negotiating on behalf of militant leaders.

Kuku said he believed Yar’Adua and Jonathan were sincere in their peace efforts but the problem was that some in the military still wanted to subdue the militants by force.

He said one of the topics under discussion in Abuja on Wednesday would be the fate of Okah, who has been charged with treason for arms dealing and conspiring to wage war on the government. He faces the death penalty if convicted.

Kuku said that Okah had a wide following among young militants in the creeks. He said they had not yet decided how to react to his detention and much would depend on how his trial unfolded, but a violent response was a possibility.

”Our people feel that our son, our brother Henry, is innocent until proven guilty. He should be given a fair trial,” he said.

Okah is suspected of being the leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, which was responsible for most of the 2006 attacks on the oil industry. — Reuters

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