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Nigeria: Delta Violence a Fight Over Oil Money

(New York) - The violence that has engulfed parts of Nigeria’s oil-producing Niger Delta this year is driven by disputes over both government resources and control of the theft of crude oil, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 29-page report, “The Warri Crisis: Fueling Violence,” documents how violence in Nigeria’s southern Delta State this year, especially during the state and federal elections in April and May, resulted in hundreds of deaths, the displacement of thousands of people, and the destruction of hundreds of homes. Among the dead were probably dozens killed by the government security forces. At the height of the violence, 40 percent of Nigeria’s oil production was closed down.

“The people of the Niger Delta have suffered horribly from living amid the source of Nigeria’s wealth,” said Bronwen Manby, deputy director of the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch and the author of the report. “And the perpetrators get away with these crimes without even the faintest chance of being brought to justice.”

The perpetrators of violence in Delta State are armed ethnic militias belonging to the three major ethnic groups in the state—the Ijaw, Itsekiri, and Urhobo—and also the state security forces. During the first half of 2003, Ijaw militia members were particularly well organized in attacking Itsekiri communities living in the creeks of the mangrove forest, where much of the oil is found.

Since the report was finalized, renewed violence has broken out once again in Delta State, with a score of civilians reportedly killed in fighting during the first week of December.

In Nigeria, individuals in government office often have virtually unchecked control over resources. Elections are therefore a focus for violence and fraud. Delta State produces 40 percent of Nigeria’s two million barrels a day of crude oil and is supposed to receive 13 percent of the revenue from production in the state—so control of government positions is a particularly large prize. In addition, the warring factions are fighting for control of the theft of crude oil, known as “illegal oil bunkering.” Illegally bunkered oil accounts for perhaps 10 percent of Nigeria’s oil production, bringing profits that are probably more than US$1 billion a year.

Both politicians and those who head the illegal bunkering rackets—sometimes the same people—employ armed militia to ensure their reelection or defend their operations. On November 24, three journalists at Lagos-based Insider magazine were arrested by the police, detained for two days and charged with sedition and defamation of character, in connection with an article alleging that the vice president of Nigeria and the national security adviser to the president were involved in large-scale theft of crude oil.

“Although the violence has both ethnic and political dimensions, it is essentially a fight over the oil money—both government revenue and the profits of stolen crude,” Manby said. “Efforts to halt the violence and end the civilian suffering that has accompanied it must therefore include steps both to improve government accountability and to end the theft of oil.”

Human Rights Watch suggested that one measure toward ending the violence might be an effort to create a system for “certifying” crude oil as coming from legitimate sources. The report urged that fresh elections be held in Delta State, as in other Nigerian states where national and international monitors found the level of fraud and violence surrounding this year’s elections to be so high that the minimum international standards for democratic elections were not met. A precondition for peace, Human Rights Watch said, is that those responsible for crime be brought to justice.

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