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ECONOMY-NIGERIA: Rebel Leader – Voice for the Masses, or Skilled Opportunist?

Sam Olukoya

PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria, Oct 18 2004 (IPS) - “The Nigerian government cannot protect all the oil pipelines in the Niger delta. If somebody says that they can protect all the pipelines that criss-cross the Niger delta, the person is a liar or maybe he does not know…the area,” says Alhaji Mujahid Dokubu-Asari, leader of the rebel Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force.

At the beginning of October, Dokubu-Asari reached a tentative agreement with government to disarm.

However, the situation in the delta remains volatile, and could easily descend into renewed violence. In this instance, says the rebel leader, the numerous mangrove swamps and creeks of the region will serve the rebels’ interests more than those of government: “If they are looking for us somewhere, we will be blowing up one pipeline in another place.”

Dokubu-Asari has threatened oil installations in the southern Niger delta in an alleged bid to get residents of the poverty-stricken area a bigger share of its oil revenues. In the process, he has also helped push the price of oil over the 50-dollar-a-barrel mark, causing alarm on world markets.

While government has not hesitated to act ruthlessly against delta dissidents in the past, the latest threats from Dokubu-Asari earned him an invitation to the capital, Abuja, where he met President Olusegun Obasanjo for negotiations. Nigeria is the world’s sixth largest oil exporter.

In exchange for disarmament on the part of the volunteer force, government agreed to pay more attention to the causes of unrest in the delta. Those living in the area accuse multinational oil companies of polluting their environment – and of having supported corrupt politicians who profited shamelessly from Nigeria’s oil wealth.

“If you pollute the land and atmosphere that people breathe, if the state apparatus and the oil companies live in opulence while the people live in servitude and penury, these are the conditions that make youths to be prepared to risk their lives to correct some of these anomalies,” says Isaac Asume of the Chikoko Movement, a group lobbying for peaceful change in the Niger delta.

Adds Raymond Princewill an unemployed youth who has taken up arms alongside Dokubu-Asari: “You see somebody like me, if I am working and earning a good salary you will not expect me to come into the bush and start to carry guns to fight.”

“Because we are poor, we are always annoyed. Right from our infancy, we experience poverty; till now, we are experiencing poverty. Nothing good is happening in our lives,” he notes.

Both the Nigerian government and oil companies say a substantial amount of money is in fact being spent to meet the needs of local communities. In many instances their arguments fall on deaf ears however, and it is Dokubu-Asari who receives accolades.

“(He) is a great and energetic freedom fighter for the Niger delta. We thank God for the victory because God is with him. What he is fighting for today is for the right of the Niger delta people,” Albert Akalogbo, one of several admirers, told IPS.

The rebel leader claims there are over 200,000 people in the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force.

Dokubu-Asari is not without his critics, however: some claim that he is nothing more than a creation of the very government he now opposes.

The volunteer force leader is accused of having being armed by state authorities in order to intimidate people into voting for the ruling People’s Democratic Party during last year’s elections.

“The politicians sponsored the militia groups operating in Rivers state. It is the elements that are in control of the state, specifically the government, that created these militias – armed them (and) allowed them to move about freely,” says Asume.

The Rivers state government denies these allegations. “Our position is that (you) do not threaten security, public peace and indeed the unity of Nigeria,” spokesman Emmah Okah told IPS.

The government also accuses Dokubu-Asari of stealing crude oil to purchase fire arms, although it has dropped criminal charges against him following the peace talks with Obasanjo.

While authorities say they are acting with sincerity in negotiations with the rebel leader, Asume remains pessimistic about whether common sense will prevail while billions of dollars in oil revenue are at stake.

“This so called Abuja agreement does not change anything. The Niger delta struggle can only get more violent, more groups will take up arms,” he says.

“There is no doubt about that because it is now clear that that is the only language that the Nigerian government understands."

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