Shooting heightens tensions in Nigerian oil delta

Nigerian militants accused the army of threatening a ceasefire in the oil-producing Niger Delta by raiding a former rebel commander’s home, but the military said it was just responding to reports of shooting.
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) said the military joint taskforce (JTF) had raided the Kula community in Rivers state in search of weapons and targeted the home of one of its former commanders, Christian don Pedro.
A military spokesperson denied the taskforce had gone on the offensive, saying it had been alerted to several hours of shooting overnight and had gone to investigate. He denied MEND’s claims that don Pedro’s home had been destroyed.
The disturbance is the first reported unrest in the Niger Delta since an amnesty offer ended six weeks ago. Leading militant commanders, including don Pedro, and thousands of their followers handed over weapons under the programme.
“It was dark and the people shooting escaped under the cover of darkness through the creeks. Later our men went to search the area where the shooting was coming from but we did not recover anything,” Lieutenant-Colonel Timothy Antigha told Reuters.
“No-one was arrested, no building was destroyed. We are a bit concerned that after people said they had surrendered their weapons we are still hearing of shooting in and around communities in the creeks,” he said.
Delays to the retraining programmes and the payment of stipends promised to those who laid down their guns under the amnesty programme have fuelled frustration.
Hundreds of former gunmen looted shops, firebombed a police vehicle and assaulted dozens of people in the oil hub of Port Harcourt on Monday in protest against what they said was the non-payment of their October allowance.
The security forces intervened and forced them back to their amnesty camps without making any arrests.
The amnesty programme is the most serious effort yet to end unrest at the heart of the OPEC member’s mainstay oil industry and President Umaru Yar’Adua’s administration — accused of slow progress on everything from fighting corruption to electoral reform — is keen for it to be seen as a success.
A team of representatives for MEND, including Nobel Prize-winning writer Wole Soyinka, met Yar’Adua last week Saturday for the start of formal peace talks. But behind the positive spin, the peace drive is fragile a MEND spokesperson later said the meeting was “more like a sparring match”.
MEND, whose attacks on oil installations over the past three years have prevented Nigeria from pumping above two thirds of its capacity, warned in a statement emailed to media that Tuesday’s unrest at Kula threatened a ceasefire agreement.
“MEND will not tolerate the continued harassment of communities by the Nigerian military and will take appropriate retaliatory actions the next time any community within the Niger Delta is attacked by the Nigerian military,” the email said.
The group’s most prominent field commanders have all accepted the amnesty offer and it is not clear how much operational capacity it has left. But military officials privately acknowledge that not all weapons were handed over.
MEND has said it believes the JTF is building up troop numbers again in the Niger Delta, a charge Antigha denied.
“The JTF is not building up arms in the Niger Delta; there is no such thing and neither is there any increase in our troop level. We are not at war,” he said.
“The JTF has not been and is not searching for weapons now in the Niger Delta.

We are maintaining the status quo. We are here on (government) authority and waiting for further directives on the next line of action to take.”

Pic: MEND rebel