Ogoni: See Rare Peace Chance in Nigeria Oil Delta
Ledum Mitee, head of the ethnic nationalist Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), challenged authorities, militants and oil multinationals to pull the Niger Delta back from the edge of chaos.
Mitee said restraint shown by militias following the arrest of two prominent figures in September, and new signs the government was interested in dialogue with local groups, offered a rare chance of a breakthrough.
"Those within the Niger Delta with the capacity to respond to some arrests chose not to do so," he said, in an apparent reference to the arrests of militia leader Mujahid Dokubo-Asari and Bayelsa State Governor Diepreye Alamieyeseigha.
Militant groups in the delta initially responded to the arrests with threats of violence but did not carry them out.
"We have before us a moment, possibly brief, where choices are still available to those in the delta, in government, the oil companies and in the international community," he said in a speech to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Saro-Wiwa's death.
Nigeria's then military government hanged MOSOP founder Saro-Wiwa and eight other ethnic Ogoni activists on Nov. 10, 1995.
"The importance of such restraint at a time when the path to conflict is wide open should not be underestimated ... We urge you not to be provoked by those seeking a justification for a crackdown," Mitee told activists.
Arguing that neither armed struggle nor state repression had bought peace to the delta in the 10 years since Saro-Wiwa was hanged, he said wasting the current opportunity could be costly.
"We face a conflict which could easily become about ending oil production in the Niger Delta until such time as the local people feel that there will be justice associated with the costs of such exploitation."
Shell halted oil production in Ogoniland, a tiny area of the delta, a decade ago because of an international outcry over repression of the Ogoni struggle embodied by Saro-Wiwa.
In the rest of the delta oil extraction continues and accounts for almost all of Nigeria's 2.4 million barrels per day, but violence has killed thousands and repeatedly hit production since the country returned to civilian rule in 1999.
At the root of the problem lies the perception that oil extraction has enriched foreign oil firms and corrupt politicians while the majority in the delta remain poor.
Protests and sabotage against oil firms are frequent, and are sometimes met with violent repression by the Nigerian armed forces. Amnesty International said last week the army kills civilians and razes villages in the delta with impunity.
A breakdown of law and order in the vast region of mangrove swamps and creeks has allowed armed groups to thrive, often claiming to fight for the rights of the people while profiting from oil theft or getting paid off by politicians.