Nigeria starts talks with rebel leader as fears over oil grow

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The Independent Online

Threats against foreign oil workers have brought the Nigerian government to the negotiating table with the self-styled Nigerian warlord Alhaji Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, whose band of 2,000 poorly armed fighters in the mangroves of the Niger Delta sent shockwaves through international oil markets this week.

Threats against foreign oil workers have brought the Nigerian government to the negotiating table with the self-styled Nigerian warlord Alhaji Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, whose band of 2,000 poorly armed fighters in the mangroves of the Niger Delta sent shockwaves through international oil markets this week.

The Nigerian administration in Lagos has conceded to talks over the rebels' demands for self-determination and control of resources. Negotiations began yesterday.

It was Mr Dokubo-Asari's threats to Nigerian crude oil production and his warning to foreign workers to leave the oil-rich delta or face an offensive called Operation Locust that drove oil prices above $50 a barrel for the first time.

Operation Locust had been due to start today, but the warlord put it on ice as the government agreed to talks.

A Muslim convert and trained guerrilla fighter, Mr Dokubo-Asari has demanded more autonomy for the delta's predominant ethnic group, the Ijaw, who live in abject poverty despite the huge oil wealth being pumped from their lands.

Mr Dokubo-Asari eschews the tactics of the Nigerian ethnic rights campaigner Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was hanged in 1995 after years of non-violent protest, instead modelling himself on Chechen separatists and preaching a doctrine of armed struggle to deliver justice for his people.

His rebel Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force has attracted thousands of armed Ijaw youths who fight sporadic gun battles against the forces of President Olusegun Obasanjo's government.

"I believe the only path to self-determination and resource control is the path followed by people in South Africa, in Chechnya, in Kosovo - the path of armed struggle," Mr Dokubo-Asari told Reuters at a rebel base. "It is only violence that brings tyrants to their senses because tyrants survive by violence."

The son of a high court judge and a direct descendant of the founding monarch of the Kalabari clan, a sub-set of the Ijaw tribe, Mr Dokubo-Asari initially followed in his father's footsteps before abandoning his law studies to get involved in ethnic activism.

A fellow Ijaw activist remembered Mr Dokubo-Asari advocating armed struggle in the late 1990s, his revolutionary fervour undimmed by the death in 1998 of the dictator Sami Abacha. "He said what we were doing - non-violence - would not work because Ken [Saro-Wiwa] and others had tried it and were killed," the activist said.

This history of ideological campaigning is rejected by the government of the delta's Rivers State, which has dismissed him as an oil thief and gangster.

"The idea that Asari is some kind of liberation fighter is rubbish," Magnus Abe, the information commissioner for Rivers State, said. "This is an economic thing - criminals fighting for prized bunkering routes," he added, using the local term for oil theft.

The prize is huge. Nigeria produces nearly 2.5 million barrels of oil a day and accounts for 10 per cent of US crude imports. Local government officials estimate that the smuggling racket in oil illegally siphoned from the area's pipelines is worth £2bn annually.

Mr Dokubo-Asari rejects the tag of oil thief and maintains it would be no crime for Ijaw people to take the oil they believe to be theirs from a corrupt and illegitimate government.

The former law student's emergence as a significant player in the murky and often violent politics of the Delta is linked strongly to controversial national elections last year. The poll gave the incumbent Mr Obasanjo 90 per cent of the vote in the capital of Lagos but drew angry accusations of ballot-rigging from many quarters. Among those crying foul was Mr Dokubo-Asari, then president of the Ijaw Youth Council, who was driven underground after attacking Mr Obasanjo.

Opinions are split on whether the resistance leader is an opportunistic gangster-politician or an idealistic freedom fighter, but his growing status underlines the dysfunctional way in which the massive oil wealth of the Niger Delta continues to be managed.

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