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« Nigeria confirms the release of nine Chinese workers by Joel Olatunde Agoi | Main | Nigeria militants claim to free leader »

February 05, 2007

Oil workers targeted as Nigeria violence grows

PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria (Reuters) - Lolo Oluchi has painted over the bullet holes in the ceiling of her karaoke bar in this Nigerian oil city, where gunmen seized seven foreign oil workers last August, but the regulars haven't come back.

By Tom Ashby
Mon Feb 5, 4:22 AM ET

Thousands of foreign workers and their families have left Africa's top oil producer since a faceless new militant group launched unprecedented attacks about a year ago on the places where they work, live and relax.

Those still left in the industry yards of Port Harcourt and on oilfields in the remote creeks of the surrounding Niger Delta are braving a surge in violence under a security clampdown.

"People are scared of coming out. Before, you couldn't move in here on a good night. Now we get five or six customers. Sometimes one or two. Sometimes none," said Oluchi, pointing to the empty seats in her Goodfellas club.

The rebel Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) has bombed oil export terminals, blown up pipelines, planted car bombs in oil company compounds and abducted foreign workers since it appeared in late 2005. Output from Nigeria, the world's eighth largest oil exporter, is down by a fifth.

The MEND has also triggered dozens of copy-cat kidnappings, armed robberies and oilfield invasions, mostly by militias seeking ransoms or benefits for their villages from oil firms.

Now there is a new abduction almost every week. There are 29 foreigners being held in remote camps in the delta, including three with the MEND.

ELECTIONS

Bar-owner Oluchi, like others who benefit from Africa's largest oil industry, sees the surge in kidnappings as partly linked to general elections in Nigeria in April and hopes things will settle down after that.

Local politicians normally arm thugs before elections to stake their claims to electoral wards, and these gangs often engage in "freelancing" of their own.

But MEND says it is not interested in politics -- it is preparing for all-out guerrilla war with Africa's largest army.

"The risks are to the downside," said Kevin Rosser of Control Risks, a security company working with several oil companies in Nigeria.

MEND argues that the people of the delta, most of whom live in poverty without access to clean water, schools, power and roads, have been cheated out of their oil wealth by the central government in league with Western multinationals.

They want to drive away the foreign workers who keep the oil flowing, halt exports and force the federal government in Abuja to renegotiate the terms of Nigeria's century-old union.

"Companies are definitely reassessing their whole posture toward Nigeria. There is real worry about the situation deteriorating and no obvious factors acting as a brake. The underlying issues are intractable," Rosser said, adding that companies were delaying investments because of uncertainty.

What happens after elections in April will be critical, analysts say.

"I think we are coming to a turning point," said Miabiye Kuromiema, director of non-government group Our Niger Delta.

"There is a chance we will survive elections without a major crisis and the next president will engage more fundamentally on the issues of the Niger Delta. If not, there will likely be a bigger challenge to oil production."

WAR

All the major political parties in Nigeria are fielding candidates from the predominantly Muslim north after eight years of rule by President Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian southerner.

The expected power shift rouses sectarian sensibilities in the south, where minority ethnic groups such as the delta's Ijaw see a history of domination by the northern ruling elite.

The spokesman for MEND, who uses the pseudonym Jomo Gbomo, said he expected the next government to get frustrated by fruitless talks and eventually declare a state of emergency.

"A state of emergency will be declared in the Niger Delta when the north believes they are well prepared for a final assault on militants in the delta," he said in an email.

The MEND foresees a long guerrilla war, a mass exodus from the delta, the killing of expatriate workers and a total halt in oil production.

Under this scenario, international pressure would force Nigeria to accept United Nations peacekeepers and make major concessions to the delta, he added.

Obasanjo has shied away from using full force against the militants to avoid turning the delta, which accounts for 90 percent of Nigeria's dollar revenues, into a battleground.

But Vice President Atiku Abubakar, who is now running for president on an opposition party ticket, has accused his estranged boss of stockpiling arms for a major military assault.

Oil executives are reluctant to paint such a gloomy picture, but foreign workers in Port Harcourt have an action plan already worked out. "If there is trouble we pack our bags and move to safe accommodation," said a British contractor, asking not to be named. "If it gets too bad, we will just arm up, get to the airport and get the hell out."

Posted by Publisher at February 5, 2007 02:34 PM

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