Rebels Threaten Nigeria's Oil Industry

For the first time, Nigeria is making a transition from one elected government to another. But the fragile democracy faces a challenge from anti-government rebels who are trying to sabotage the oil industry.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

For all of the problems in its recent elections, Nigeria made history today. An elected president handed power to another elected president. In more than four decades since it became independent, Nigeria had never done that before because military coups prevented it.

We should mention that the new president was handpicked by the old president and he faces big challenges. One of them is a campaign of sabotage in the oil fields that support Nigeria, and not incidentally, may help fuel your car. Anti-government militants want local control of the energy reserves in the Niger River Delta.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton traveled to that region.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: Nigeria is an important player in the global petroleum industry. It's Africa's leading oil exporter and supplies the United States with a fifth of all its crude oil imports, yet this was the scene in the Nigerian oil capital, Port Harcourt, earlier this year.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

QUIST-ARCTON: Heavy gunfire ran through the streets of downtown Port Harcourt. Supporters of a jailed Niger Delta militant leader took over the city long enough to spring him from jail.

Mr. PATRICK NAAGBANTON (Activist): There is complete breakdown of law and order in this society. I am very, very afraid that the situation in the Delta will be deteriorating.

QUIST-ARCTON: Patrick Naagbanton is a campaigner for local people's rights, advocating peaceful change and a fairer distribution of Nigeria's oil riches.

Mr. NAAGBANTON: Well, one thing you have to understand is that there is a celebration of the (unintelligible) here. Not only in the Niger Delta. People associate those who carry arms as heroic and as great people.

QUIST-ARCTON: Naagbanton warns that this is a worrying trend with mounting violence and growing numbers of militants and gangs in the volatile Niger Delta. Militants continue to challenge the Nigerian government and oil companies making political demands and demanding ransom money.

Hostage taking has become a boom industry. This year alone more than 100 foreign oil workers, including some Americans, have been seized. Cassie(ph), not his full name, is a former senior member of one of the gang's operating in the region.

CASSIE (Former Gang Member): You look at somebody today that is a pauper, a very poor man, but while the man succeeded in one hostage-taking, he is a rich man. So the thing is motivating other people to go and take their own hostage just because of the ransom.

QUIST-ARCTON: Petroleum companies in the Niger Delta organize armed escorts for many of their employees. Thousands of oil workers have been shipped out of the region for security reasons. But the problems continue.

(Soundbite of chanting)

QUIST-ARCTON: Defiantly chanting freedom songs like this one, militants, including the main Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, blame the government and corrupt and manipulative politicians. The government calls them criminals. But many militants insist their oil-exporting region must take command of Nigeria's petroleum revenues.

The militants say the Niger Delta has only underdevelopment to show for the millions of oil dollars coming from the region. Local residents sympathize, says activist Patrick Naagbanton.

Mr. NAAGBANTON: The militants are treated with much respect amongst a greater population of residents in the Delta. That is the tragedy of the situation and that shows you that of the Niger Delta has collapsed.

(Soundbite of soldiers)

QUIST-ARCTON: Meanwhile, it's left to the ill-equipped in Nigerian military to try and to keep up with the militants operating in the Delta's maze of mangrove, creeks and rivers. It's a tough task. Well armed with speedboats and sophisticated weapons, the militants seem able to cripple major oil pipelines, installations and crude oil output at will, as well as abducting workers.

Major Sagir Musa is the spokesman for Operation Flush Out Three, the joint-government security task force based in Nigeria's oil capital, Port Harcourt.

Major SAGIR MUSA (Operation Flush Out Three): It's not that the security agencies have failed. We are not feeling outsmarted by the militants.

Efforts have been made by the security agencies, by the government, and other well-meaning Nigerians towards amicable resolution of the crisis in Niger Delta. Dialogue is one of the key elements required, and I'm telling you that we are going into dialogue with the militants.

QUIST-ARCTON: Nigeria's incoming president, Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, has pledged to make the Niger Delta crisis a priority for his new government.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Port Harcourt.

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