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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News, I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Nigeria's army is fighting armed groups in one of the world's great oil producing regions. They fight them in the swamps and oil wells of the Niger River Delta. Yesterday, militants said they battled soldiers in a spot just up river, and down river from facilities run by Chevron and Shell. The militants are holding three foreign oil workers hostage and sabotaging oil exports.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton explains why, starting with the story of a hostage who was freed.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON reporting:

Armed militants released Texan oil worker Mason Hawkins into the hands of a group of foreign journalists last week. It was Hawkins' 69th birthday. Suffering from diabetes and high blood pressure, the construction manager who's a contractor for Shell Nigeria had been a hostage in the Niger Delta for two weeks. He had a message for Washington.

Mr. MASON HAWKINS (Shell Contractor): I think the U.S. needs to keep the pressure on the Nigerian government--to pay attention to these people and do something about their poor conditions. Because I honestly, truly believe, these people will fight 'til death, and there's going to be one behind every tree, from now on.

(Soundbite of militants chanting)

QUIST-ARCTON: These armed militants are part of the movement for the emancipation of the Niger Delta, brandishing assault rifles, and chanting: we are suffering, before they released Hawkins. They're behind the state of kidnappings and the latest on the rift in Nigeria's turbulent oil region. The group has warned it will drive foreign companies like Shell, Chevron, and Exxon-Mobil out of the delta. Before roaring off in a speedboat, one masked militant commando, who did not identify himself, reeled off a string of demands and threats.

Unidentified commando: Let the U.S. know that the Niger River Delta is not Iraq. But, we are (Unintelligible) of oil exploration. We are not getting anything from the oil. We are going to stop the oil from flowing.

QUIST-ARCTON: Almost, since Nigeria started pumping oil in the 1950s, the Niger Delta has been pushing for more resources and more money. Princeton Lyman, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, and currently director of Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, describes this as an evolution of anger.

Mr. PRINCETON LYMAN (Director of Africa Policy Studies, Council on Foreign Relations): What's happened recently is that unrest has morphed into a series of militias--and sometimes criminal gangs--who have benefited by stealing the oil and creating an outright challenge to the government. So this is an outgrowth of a situation that wasn't dealt with adequately in historical terms, and I mean over the last 50 years, and now has become almost out of control.

QUIST-ARCTON: This is Obioku, a remote village, nestling in the maze of lush mangrove creeks in the heart of the Delta, way down south on the River Niger. With its fragile huts made of thatched palm fronds and wood. Obioku is typical of many fishing villages in the Delta: small and dirt poor, despite the region's oil wealth.

(Sound of drumbeat)

QUIST-ARCTON: Children play homemade drums along the sandy paths of the village, as soldiers guard Obioku after deadly clashes over land rights when they neighboring Odioma town last year. Both communities have laid claim to an area that Shell is planning to explore for oil. More that a dozen Obioku people were killed, including the 18-year-old daughter of Chief Ayebanoa Stephen Debo, a fisherman. He said conflicts over oil in Nigeria were fuelled by poverty and greed in a nominally rich region. But, said Chief Debo, there is no trickle down.

Mr. Debo (Chief): That's right, we're looking for the Shell to help us so that we can be able to survive. We don't have enough things. We are trying to weave my net for fishing, provided if you have the tools, if you are having the net, engine, and the boats to move along, you can feed yourself.

QUIST-ARCTON: There are few jobs in Obioku and no grid electricity or pipe born water. The village women like Cordelia Bendick say their children get sick because the muddy brown water they draw from a pond and the river is dirty and polluted.

Ms. CORDELIA BENDICK (Village Woman): Yes, the water lies to drink with cocaine, everything, and the environment is very bad. Life is hard for all of us; very, very difficult for all.

QUIST-ARCTON: All oil revenues in Nigeria go to the central government, which hands back 13 percent to the oil producing states. Niger Delta villagers, like residents of Obioku criticize the Nigeria government and Shell, and say that's not enough.

Don Boham, the manager of corporate external affairs at Shell's Nigeria headquarters Port Harcourt.

DON BOHAM (Manager of Corporate External Affairs for Shell): Expectations have increased on the role that the oil companies have to play in providing basic amenities, whereas it is rightly the responsibility of government.

QUIST-ARCTON: Whoever is responsible, foreign oil workers are now bearing the brunt of local anger. Kidnapping has become an occupational hazard. The government claims it's doing what it can to protect all those living and working in the Delta. And the authorities have dismissed the militants as nothing more than criminals.

Femi Fani-Kayode, a Nigerian presidential spokesman:

Mr. FEMI FANI-KAYODE (Presidential Spokesman, Nigeria): It's a very unfortunate incident and where people with criminal intentions and the criminal mentality have basically taken the law into their own hands and have started kidnapping people for reasons in my view, in our view, that are far from being political even though they say they're political. The way not to do it surely is to start kidnapping people and blackmailing people because nobody wants that.

QUIST-ARCTON: Local people and militants may be focused on their own interests, but disquiet and unrest in Nigeria's Niger Delta impacts the world and stop/go output has a knock-on affect on energy and gas prices in the U.S., which gets one-fifth of its crude oil imports from Nigeria. President Bush has said he wants to see more supplies from this region. Neglecting the Delta communities could spell disaster warns Nalaguo Chris Alagoa, a Niger Delta activist working on conflict prevention and resolution.

Mr. NALAGUO CHRIS ALAGOA (Niger Delta Activist): In Niger Delta it's like a keg of gunpowder at the bottom of Nigeria. If nothing is done it has the capacity of exploding and when it explodes like dynamite, it will blow everything that above it to smithereens.

QUIST-ARCTON: Villagers in many poorly developed parts of the Niger Delta like Obioku say while they don't agree with the abduction of foreign oil workers because it's against the law, they do understand the motives behind the militant sabotage campaign--to make news and try to improve their lives. Obioku villager, Cordelia Bendick, again:

Ms. BENDICK: We are still begging the government and Shell people to help us, help us to do something to help ourselves with our family and husbands. Help us!

QUIST-ARCTON: Which brings us full circle. For development and peace in the Niger Delta, those who know the area say the Nigerian authorities and the foreign oil companies must listen to the people and negotiate a fairer way to distribute Nigeria's oil money. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News.

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