Fragile peace in Nigeria's oil region to face test of time

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Michael Logan, dpa

Nairobi/Abuja_(dpa) _ Nigeria's oil-producing Niger Delta has enjoyed a rare period of peace at the tail end of 2009 as a government amnesty for oil militants bears fruit.

Oil production in the West African nation is rising again after three years of decline - which allowed Angola to surpass it as Africa's top oil exporter - and there is growing optimism that the seemingly unsolvable conflict may be at an end.

But one swallow does not make a spring, and much remains to be done to address the grievances of the region's main militant group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), which is still suspicious of the government.

MEND said it was fighting for a share of oil revenue for Niger Delta residents, who complain that multinational oil companies have ruined their agriculture and fishing livelihoods and caused major environmental damage in the delta's creeks.

Attacks on oil production facilities by MEND and the syphoning off of oil by criminal gangs slashed the West African nation's oil production from 2.6 million barrels per day in early 2006 to around 1.7 million barrels prior to the amnesty.

However, MEND in late October responded to the amnesty with an indefinite ceasefire and Henry Okah - believed by many to be the leader of MEND, although he claims only to be a "concerned citizen with the ear of the militants" - believes peace should be given a chance.

"I think everyone should give as much time and energy to finding peace as was given to the fight against the Nigerian military and the oil companies," Okah, who was released from jail earlier this year as part of the amnesty, told the German Press Agency dpa.

"However, the government will act wisely in acting speedily to address the cause of agitation in the delta."

Many of MEND's commanders and troops took advantage of the amnesty, announced in June by President Umaru Yar'Adua, to lay down their arms in return for training and the promise of future employment.

The government claimed 15,000 fighters signed up for the training programmes, which have yet to start in earnest.

However, analysts believe that thousands of fighters have remained in the creek and have kept most of their weapons in case they need to return to battle.

"That number has to be taken with pinch of salt," Nnamdi Obasi, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, told dpa. "It is not exactly clear how many are ex-militants, how many are criminals trying to escape justice and how many are unemployed people looking for training and a job."

Regardless of the doubts, there are already clear results in terms of oil production, which in November was back up to 1.85 million barrels per day and is expected to reach 2 million in January.

But more money flowing into government coffers from increased production will not appease the militants. Obasi said the government must build on the amnesty by addressing the myriad problems afflicting the region, where most people live in abject poverty.

"They have to deal with economic development, infrastructure and employment," he said. "Then environmental issues, reducing corruption and ensuring better governance. The peace prospects depend on how quickly the government engages on these levels."

The European Union in November signed a 1-billion-dollar development deal with Nigeria, with a third of the money intended for the delta.

But corruption is rife in Africa's most populous nation, and there are concerns the money will not reach its intended recipients.

Millions of dollars have been released to develop the Niger Delta in the past. The money never got beyond the officials charged with distributing it.

Jomo Gbomo, spokesman for MEND, said there would be now consequences for those who try to steal public money.

"Our very presence will make everyone sit up and we will ensure by threat that officials who have in the past stolen public money will be held accountable," he told dpa.

The first few months of 2010 will give a better indication of whether the government can begin to meet its promises, and whether the militants will buy into peace long-term.

"If the government can give the right signals ... that will build confidence and allow it time to deliver," Obasi said.

But Okah is not optimistic.

"The government certainly desires to end the conflict in the delta," he said. "Are they willing to give justice to the people of the delta? I don't think so. Without a just resolution there can be no lasting peace."

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