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Nigeria hunts for militant, but a greater danger may lurk

20 may 2011, 17:46
0
Residents of the Niger Delta village of Ayakoromo, Nigeria. AFP©
Residents of the Niger Delta village of Ayakoromo, Nigeria. AFP©
The rumour was that the notorious militant being hunted by soldiers had been shot, sought treatment from a medicine man and later died, but the villagers here knew nothing of it, AFP reports.

"John Togo is our son and he is our brother," said a 22-year-old among those who fled to the desperately poor village of Gbekebor in the Niger Delta swamps when fighting re-erupted recently between the militant's men and soldiers.

The Nigerian military "should leave him alone so that we have peace," he said, with a raid several months ago targeting Togo having already devastated his nearby village of Ayakoromo and killed an unclear number of civilians.

This speck of the vast maze of creeks and swamps at the heart of one of the world's largest oil industries is once again the site of a manhunt for Togo, who has repeatedly slipped away from soldiers trying to kill him.

Rumours of his death are untrue, the military says.

But the larger threat in the Niger Delta, which has seen relative calm since a 2009 amnesty deal following years of unrest that caused deep cuts in oil production, may have less to do with Togo himself than what he represents.

His return to militancy has raised questions over the amnesty programme and how long such relative peace can last, observers say.

President Goodluck Jonathan, to be sworn in for his first true term of office on May 29, faces particular pressure to keep a lid on violence in the region and the oil flowing steadily.

The future of Africa's most populous nation and largest oil producer, a major supplier of US crude imports, likely depends on it.

Jonathan, who won last month's elections after having initially come to power following the death of his predecessor in 2010, is the first president from the Niger Delta, and expectations in his native region are high.

"There are a lot of people who are willing to give him a chance," said Niger Delta activist Ledum Mitee. "If there is no demonstrable, positive change in the next year, I believe you will start hearing some different voices."

Togo's reasons for abandoning the amnesty programme have never been made clear, but activists, villagers and a former local government official all say it seems to do with him being unsatisfied with his cut of the money.

It is one of the great fears of those who worry about the long-term prospects of the region, polluted from oil spills and rife with anger over what locals see as blatant exploitation by the world's major petroleum firms.

Many say peace has been maintained mostly through payments to former militants, raising the question of how much money will be enough.

It is believed that certain ex-militant leaders have increased their share through contracts for "surveillance."

The amnesty also seeks to put rank-and-file militants through non-violence and job training in exchange for turning in their guns.

But fundamental problems of poverty, corruption and unemployment have not been addressed, spurring warnings that a new crop of militants will emerge and that the amnesty has shown them they can cause trouble and get paid to stop.

As for Togo, he has built a following in his area of Delta state by claiming to be fighting against his community's exploitation at the hands of the oil industry.

"He used to call himself a freedom fighter," said Yerin E. Yerin, a former government official for the district that includes Ayakoromo.

"Some people say he's a sea pirate ... He means different things to different people."

Around the start of December, the military raided his camp as well as the village of Ayakoromo. When it was over, activist groups said more than 150 buildings were burnt and civilians were killed.

Death tolls varied widely and villagers even claimed that the area had been bombed by the military, which it denies. The military said 14 people were killed, including eight soldiers and six civilians.

Ayakoromo residents said they did not wait around when shooting broke out again this month. They fled to various places, including Gbekebor, where the influence of ex-militants is clear.

At a tiny community hall, plastic chairs sit with the words "Donated by Niger Delta Freedom Fighters" stamped on the back. A village official says they were donated by an ex-militant leader -- not Togo -- along with goats and rice.

It is difficult to know the extent of the damage in Ayakoromo.

A boat ride destined there travels past mangrove swamps with black stains on roots. What clearly appears to be illegal oil refineries come into view, soot covering metal containers and cans that serve an industry many say is at the base of so many of the region's troubles.

Powerful politicians, militants and the military itself have been accused of involvement.

A military checkpoint is some 15 minutes away from Ayakoromo, and soldiers say that safety further into the creeks cannot be guaranteed.

It may or may not have been a bluff, with the military hesitant to allow journalists to see the village after the previous raid, but the boat driver will not consider it. His boat, he says, will go no further.


By M.J. Smith

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