LAGOS, Nigeria, Oct. 2 (UPI) — Hopes were raised Friday that the end of a five-year conflict that has ravaged one of Africa’s largest oil industries may be in sight after a senior rebel chieftain made a last-minute acceptance of a government amnesty.
At least two other key leaders of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, a coalition of tribal factions demanding a greater share of Nigeria’s oil wealth for the impoverished tribes of the delta, have yet to take up the amnesty that is due to expire Sunday.
But the formal acceptance of the amnesty by Tom Ateke, leader of one of MEND’s main groups, the Niger Delta Vigilante, is widely seen as a significant breakthrough for President Umaru Yar’Adua, who launched the amnesty Aug. 15.
Ateke’s acceptance of an unconditional pardon came only a few days after one of China’s top three oil companies was reported to be negotiating a massive investment deal with Yar’Adua’s government.
The China National Offshore Oil Corp. wants to buy up one-sixth of Nigeria’s known oil reserves, currently owned or operated by western oil giants, for a reputed $30 billion to $50 billion.
Ateke has operated independently of MEND for much of the time, but he has led anti-government action for more than a decade and is popular in the region.
His group is also heavily involved in large-scale theft of which is smuggled into the international market.
But at least two other top insurgent commanders have not yet accepted the amnesty, and until they do the violence is likely to continue despite the likely renewal of large-scale military operations.
The holdouts are Farah Dagogo of the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force, active since 2006, and Government Ekpemupolo, universally known by his nom de guerre of “Tompolo,” of the Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities. The Ijaw is the main tribal confederation in the delta.
Bringing the conflict to a close would restore an oil industry that has been badly hit by the violence centered in the oil-rich delta that provides 90 percent of the state’s revenues.
Nigeria’s oil production, largely in the hands of international oil giants such as Chevron of the United States, Total of France and the Anglo-Dutch Shell company, has been reduced by one-third since 2006.
At the same time, oil theft has become a multibillion-dollar industry in the delta, the center of Nigeria’s energy industry.
On Tuesday, MEND, which had called a 60-day truce on July 15 and extended it by a month after the government amnesty was declared, named a team of mediators who would negotiate with the federal government once the amnesty expires.
Mend said in a communique that the team would “have our mandate to oversee a transparent and proper MEND disarmament process that conforms with international standards as the current disarmament process is flawed and lacks integrity.”
It accused the government in Abuja, Nigeria’s administrative capital, of not showing “willingness to conduct a dialogue, preferring instead to make wild unrealistic threats, purchase more useless military hardware and dole out bribes to traitors to our noble cause.”
However, MEND leader Henry Okah has said that attacks on oil installations would continue once the amnesty expires because the root causes of the violence have yet to be addressed.
Copyright 2009 by United Press International