NIGERIA: Rival delta militia leaders agree peace amid security crackdown
Shacks in the Niger Delta Region
Warri, 1 June 2004 (IRIN) - The leaders of rival ethnic militias agreed to make peace in the Nigerian oil town of Warri on Tuesday, while government officials urged foreign oil companies to resume operations disrupted by fighting in the Niger Delta region during the last year.
In another part of the town, troops of a joint military task force demolished houses in three slum districts in an operation aimed at ridding Warri of the guns and criminals that have fuelled violence in the town.
The peace agreement struck between the Ijaw and Itsekiri militias crowned efforts by Delta State governor James Ibori to end fighting between the two communities over claims to land and oil-related benefits. More than 200 people have died in ethnic clashes in Delta State over the past year.
Abel Oshevire, the spokesman for Delta State government, said he believed the peace agreement would hold and would be widely respected.
He accused the elites of both ethnic groups of stirring up disputes that have killed several hundred people in the past seven years. At times the fighting has forced Nigeria to shut down up to a third of its two million barrels per day oil production.
“These people had always lived together in peace, that’s why they can easily embrace the opportunity for peace,” Oshevire told IRIN after the signing of the peace agreement.
“Peace will bring progress to Delta (State) and in the long run is in the interest of Nigeria because the delta produces the bulk of Nigeria’s oil,” he added.
The militia leaders gave assurances that word had been sent out to fighters hiding in the Delta's warren of thickly forested creeks to embrace the peace deal and give up their weapons.
“Enough is enough,” said Matthew Tsekure, an Itsekiri militia leader. “We’re tired of the crisis and apparently the Ijaws are also tired.”
He said it had become obvious to all sides that violence would never solve the problem. But he added that after the fighters had put down down their guns, political solutions would have to be found to satisfy all sides.
Ijaw militant leader Kingsley Otuaro said his own fighting groups were ready to stop the violence and that the peace message had been sent down through their ranks.
“The information has been passed on and as we speak there are men on the ground to enforce all that we say here,” he said.
Major Said Ahmed, the spokesman for Operation Restore Hope, the military operation mounted by President Olusegun Obasanjo to pacify the warring sides, said 42 rifles, 1,500 rounds of ammunition and several locally made mortar rounds had been recovered.
The arms were retrieved in “cordon-and-search operations” carried out in suspected strongholds of militia fighters and criminal gangs in Warri on Tuesday, he said.
An unspecified number of people were arrested in the operation, during which troops demolished three shanty town districts, according to Ahmed.
Witnesses said more than 2,000 people were also made homeless as the security forces destroyed houses in the Warri Corner, Orugbo and Ode Itsekiri shanty towns.
Ahmed said the military operation was a vital component of the peace moves by governor Ibori because it showed the authorities' determination to clamp down on violence and unrest in the region.
Several militants said the attack on a boat belonging to ChevronTexaco in late April, during which unidentified gunmen killed seven people, including two American oilmen, had proved a turning point in the violence.
“The death of those white men seemed to have taught everybody we had had enough,” Tsekure, the Itsekiri militia leader, said.
The government also brought heavy pressure on the militants to lay down their weapons by deploying extra troops to the area and leaning heavily on community leaders.
Several of those who signed the peace deal said they had been arrested and interrogated by the security forces and had been pressured into asking their followers to stop fighting.
However, some militants are already expressing doubts that the government's strong-arm tactics will be enough to quell the violence and stamp out the deep-seated resentment among people in the Delta’s poverty-stricken swamp villages at the way they have been treated by the government and the oil companies pumping the wealth out of their land.
“They’re just telling us there must be peace, peace - but there must be conditions for peace,” Ijaw militant leader Bello Oboko told IRIN.
He said the peace deal failed to address key demands of his Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities Group for improved political representation and better access to the region’s oil resources.
Oboko also accused the authorities of expelling Ijaws from Warri “under the guise of looking for criminals”.
ChevronTexaco, which has been forced to shut down 140,000 barrels of its daily production as a result of the violence, reacted cautiously to the much vaunted peace deal between Ijaws and Itsekiris and showed no immediate enthusiasm to reactivate its closed facilities.
“We’re are still studying the situation,” a company spokesman told IRIN, declining further comment.