NIGERIA: IRIN Background Report on kidnappings [19990713]

NIGERIA: IRIN Background Report on kidnappings [19990713]

NIGERIA: IRIN Background report on kidnappings

LAGOS, 13 July (IRIN) - For five years, Austin Soku roamed the streets of Lagos without finding a job, but since his return about a year ago to his coastal hometown of Brass in the Niger Delta, he has been profitably engaged.

Soku, 29, now belongs to one of the many bands of youths leading protests for a greater share of oil wealth and more say in government in the Niger Delta. These protests often entail hostage-taking and disruption of oil operations for ransom.

"For decades our people watched helplessly as the oil wealth obtained from our land was taken away to develop other parts of country, building cities like Lagos and Abuja," Soku told IRIN.

"We have decided that now is the time to act to reclaim what belongs to us," he said.

The campaigns of disparate groups of militant youths in the region, often united only by their restiveness, are beginning to have a crippling effect on oil production. The worry now appears to be that criminal elements are taking advantage of the situation to engage in kidnapping and ransom, threatening the Delta with chaos.

On Friday, Shell, which produces about half of Nigeria's total output of about two million barrels per day, declared force majeure, saying that it was unable to meet export commitments until the end of July on account of community disturbances.

No fewer than 16 employees of the oil giant taken hostage by armed militants on Thursday counted themselves lucky when they were freed only a few hours later. A helicopter and two foreign crew of Bristol Helicopters, an aviation firm working on contract with Shell, are yet to be freed almost two weeks after they were seized by a group demanding a 10-million-naira ransom.

(One US dollar is equivalent to about 102 naira.)

In a recent incident, three people died when armed youths from the village of Peremabiri who disapproved of hostage-taking invaded neighbouring Oporoma to free two oil company workers being held there.

At least three other abductions involving oil workers and two Indian engineers working for a rubber company remain unresolved.

"Daily the situation in the Niger Delta appears to be getting out of hand, and now we're close to a state of insurrection and it's quite worrying," a senior oil company official said.

While the region has seen an upsurge of violent protests in recent years, the latest series of incidents appear to signal the rejection of President Olusegun Obasanjo's oil-region policy.

They also represent a veritable threat to the economy: most of the oil that is the lifeblood of the Nigerian economy - accounting for over 90 percent of Nigeria's export income and most of government revenue - is produced in the Delta.

Obasanjo, who in February won elections to end over 15 years of military rule in Africa's biggest oil producer, promised to end the decades of neglect to which successive governments had subjected the Delta by implementing a development master plan for the region.

But the bill he sent to the national assembly on the establishment of a Niger Delta Development Commission appears to fall short of a key demand by the ethnic minorities who inhabit the area. They want more power, more control over the oil wealth of the region.

"The present political order is not what we crave," said a statement by the Ijaw Youth Council, the umbrella body for several radical Ijaw youth groups. Ijaws make up four million of the Delta's seven million people and they occupy most of the region.

"We reject a Niger Delta Commission that is premised on an acceptance of the present Nigerian state, which does not recognise the need for a genuine federalism that will allow ethnic nationalities the right to self-determination ... to determine and control their destiny," the Council said.

Last December, the Ijaw Youths Council issued an ultimatum to oil companies to leave Ijaw areas of the Niger Delta pending the "determination of the issue of resource ownership and control", leading then military ruler General Abdulsalami Abubakar to send in troops.

Over 30 people died in confrontations with soldiers, and the ripples persist with the seizure of the Bristol helicopter and its pilots linked to demands for treatment for activists injured in the clashes.

Will Obasanjo send in the troops to protect oil operations - a difficult task in a swampy region criss-crossed by a maze of rivers and creeks? Few in the oil industry think a confrontation with the militants unlikely if the current trend continues.


[IRIN-WA: Tel: +225 217366 Fax: +225 216335 e-mail: ]

Item: irin-english-1218

[This item is delivered in the "irin-english" service of the UN's IRIN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. For further information or free subscriptions, or to change your keywords, contact e-mail: or fax: +254 2 622129 or Web: . If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post this item, please retain this credit and disclaimer.]

Copyright (c) UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 1999

Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar

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