Nigerian Authorities Seek Release of Contractors
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Authorities in Nigeria are trying to negotiate the release of nine foreign oil workers. The group, which includes three Americans, was kidnapped by militants in Saturday in the oil rich Niger Delta. There have been a series of attacks on key oil installations there.
The militants are demanding more control of the region's oil wealth for local people in the Delta. NPR's West Africa correspondent, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, has just been on assignment in the region, and she joins us now from her base in Senegal. So, Ofeibea, the group that's holding the oil workers is called the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, and it's fairly new in Nigeria, but well organized, I gather. How strong is it?
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON reporting:
It seems to be fairly well organized and well coordinated. Friday night it gave foreign oil interests in Nigeria, especially Shell, which the main operator in Niger Delta, till midnight Friday to leave the area or face what one commander called total war. Within hours they had kidnapped these nine foreign oil workers. So it shows that they can strike at will. And this is the second time in as in many months that they have taken hostages. But this time they are setting up their political demands, saying that they want much more control of the Niger Delta's oil wealth. They want the government and the oil companies to negotiate with them and to make sure that local people do benefit. So it is pretty serious.
MONTAGNE: Nigeria is Africa's top oil exporter, but it also provides about a fifth of the U.S. crude oil imports. What can the Nigerian government or the oil companies do to release the hostages and keep the oil flowing?
QUIST-ARCTON: Well, the government has actually organized a team, assembled a team to negotiate. But as I said, this time the militants are saying they much want much more, and they have threatened not only total war, but they are going to specifically target international oil-tankers, in fact disrupt oil production. Already production is down by a fifth since this weekend. Shell and others have had to stop operating in some areas and oil prices have spiked on the international market. So it shows that in fact these people have to have to be taken seriously. And they say that they will not give up until they have much more control.
At the moment, the Delta area of Nigeria gets about 13 percent of the oil wealth. They've asked for at least 25 percent. And they have said that it's not good enough, that the government and the oil companies should be benefiting while local people are not. In response, the Nigeria government says these militants and others are using their political demands as a cover to steal crude oil in barges and tankers which are then spirited away from Nigeria. So there's also that aspect to be dealt with.
MONTAGNE: Of course the people in the Niger Delta are quite poor, even as that oil is being pumped out of there.
QUIST-ARCTON: That's exactly what they say. The oil is being pumped in our backyard. We can't fish anymore. But you have much more moderate people also saying this cannot go on. Nigeria has been independent now for 45 plus years, and we have not become rich as the country has become, and this must stop.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, speaking from Dakar, Senegal.