Africa News blog
African business, politics and lifestyle
Much of the news that comes out of the Niger Delta, the vast network of creeks home to Africa’s biggest oil and gas industry, is generated either by militant leaders claiming spectacular attacks on oil industry installations or by the military, keen to publicise its victories flushing out crude oil thieves from camps nestled deep in the mangroves.
Rarely heard are the voices of the “boys” who have taken up arms and make up the rank and file of the militant gangs. Oil theft on an industrial scale or kidnappings for ransom make some of their bosses rich. Peace negotiations see others rewarded with the veneer of political legitimacy and a comfortable new government-funded lifestyle. But the grunts tend to share little of the spoils.
So an initiative to take them out of the militant camps and send them abroad to be immersed in the teachings of non-violent activists from Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela raised – after the initial scepticism – a strong dose of curiosity. After the attempt to “reorientate their psyches”, the candidates would be schooled in skills meant to make them employable once they returned back home.
Would they be convinced that they could renounce violence and still fight for their rights? Did they really believe that theirs was a political struggle or were they simply interested in emulating some of their leaders and growing rich from stolen crude, ransom money and government pay-offs?
Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua moved quickly after taking office a year ago to try to address the causes of unrest in the Niger Delta, where a violent campaign of sabotage against the oil industry has cut production and contributed to an unprecedented rise in world oil prices.
Yar’Adua announced plans for formal talks and freed two jailed militant leaders when he took office, but the peace process has made little real progress since then, with the rebel Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) continuing to blow up oil pipelines and kidnap foreign workers.
The government has called a summit for July meant to involve all stakeholders, but MEND and another group — the Ijaw Youth Council — have said they will not take part. Yar’Adua has said the summit aims to address the frustrations of the Niger Delta communities, who have seen their land and water polluted by oil production, but he has also said his government will not tolerate the presence of armed militants in the region.