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Hartford Courant (USA): Fighting For Nigeria's Oil Wealth

Poverty Amid Wellheads Spawns Militant Group Promising More Attacks
February 28, 2006
By EDWARD HARRIS, Associated Press
BIRIYA-AMA, Nigeria — This village of palm-frond huts in Nigeria's southern Niger Delta sits atop one of Africa's richest energy deposits, but has electricity only when one of its young men paddles a canoe to the nearest city to buy fuel for a generator.
School is held in a cement-block church, the black footboard of a bed used as a chalkboard. There's no health clinic, and the ladies' latrine is a copse of bushes on the outskirts of town.
Most of the crude in Africa's largest oil producer is pumped from beneath this region, but it remains mired in deep poverty. A new militant group behind a spate of attacks and kidnappings that have driven prices up worldwide says that combination makes anger and more violence inevitable. Even those who have not resorted to taking up arms agree.
“The people are angry. The oil belongs to the Niger Delta, but we get nothing. That oil belongs to us,” said Innocent Johnson, a 21-year-old Biriya-Ama fisherman. “We will fight, if possible. I want to fight the government.”
Petroleum companies discovered oil underneath southern Nigeria before the west African nation gained independence from Britain in 1960. Biriya-Ama, and countless villages like it in the vast region of creeks and mangrove swamps, see little benefit. And with the oil spills and pollution that has befouled the waters and killed the fish that is their economic mainstay, the region's people say they're now growing poorer.
A new militant group, the Movement for the Emancipation for the Niger Delta, sprang up in recent months and pulled off some of the more spectacular attacks in years of violence.
In a matter of weeks, they kidnapped more than a dozen foreign oil workers and blew up oil installations to shut down about 20 percent of Nigeria's daily production – about 455,000 barrels. Prices, already near historical highs, soared on international markets.
The MEND militants, who have released four hostages, then took nine more, met with reporters for the first time on Friday, inviting them to a mid-creek meeting where they reiterated their demands: the release of two of the region's leaders from prison, a greater cut of the oil revenue and $1.5 billion from Royal Dutch Shell, the largest foreign oil firm operating in the region.
“Before independence, Nigeria fought for its freedom. Now we're fighting for our own freedom,” shouted one militant, pointing a rocket-propelled grenade at reporters.
“If the federal government can't take care of us, we need independence. We want to control our own oil,” he said from behind his black mask.
The oil question only adds to the volatility of a nation of more than 250 ethnic groups. Religion also at times appears to be pulling Nigeria apart, with the latest clashes between Muslims who predominate in the north and Christians in the south breaking out last week. The last major secessionist push ended in 1970, when the three-year Biafran war subsided after more than 1 million died.
Hostage takings and attacks on oil installations have been common for decades in the delta, but MEND has shown unusual sophistication and determination. They showed off one hostage, 68-year old Texas oil worker Macon Hawkins, to reporters last week.
The government, which has launched a military campaign dubbed Operation Just Cause to quell the violence, says the militants are little more than criminals who steal oil and sell it on the black market. The militants say the same of the military.
The oil companies say they're meeting their contractual obligations with the federal government while performing many community outreach programs in the delta, such as building schools and health clinics.
Across the delta, the people and militants blame their poverty on the oil companies, the former kleptocratic military rulers often from Nigeria's north and now President Oluesgun Obasanjo, who has won two elections since the country's return to democracy.
The militants say Obasanjo, who's not from the delta region, can't be trusted as an honest broker and they're threatening more attacks in a campaign they say will be coordinated and devastating.
It's unclear how many fighters MEND has – only 35 in four boats were seen on a recent day – or whether they have much popular support.
At Biriya-Ama, some said they weren't interested in fighting and questioned how blowing up oil facilities and shutting down production would help them in their quest to gain a greater share of the oil revenue.
“This crisis is all about the government not helping us, not giving us our share.” said Soki Brown, at 22 one of a crowd of young men with little to do in their village. “But I don't want to fight. I'm a Christian.”

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