* Army deployed in May to hunt Niger Delta militants
* Military chiefs assessing state of militancy – presidency
* Oil output recovered to level before attacks – minister (Adds presidency comment)
By Felix Onuah
ABUJA, Nov 1 (Reuters) – Leaders from the Nigeria’s Niger Delta called on Tuesday on President Muhammadu Buhari to pull the army out from the oil hub, order oil firms to move headquarters there and spend more on development to end militancy in the region.
Buhari met leaders from the southern swampland for the first time since militants started a wave of attacks on oil pipelines in January to push for a greater share of oil revenues.
At the meeting in the presidential villa in Abuja, Niger Delta leaders, joined by representatives of militant groups, gave Buhari a list of 16 demands to pacify the impoverished region where many say they do not benefit from the oil wealth.
The list “includes the withdrawal of the military in oil producing communities in the region”, King Alfred Diete-Spiff, a Niger Delta leader leading the region’s delegation, said after the meeting, adding: “We don’t want the communities militarised.”
The president sent in army reinforcements in May to hunt down militants, a move that stoked anger as residents complained of rape, looting and arrests of youths unrelated to the militants, charges denied by the military.
Buhari said military chiefs were putting together their own assessment of the militancy, his office said in a statement late on Tuesday.
The president said he would “revisit the situation” in the Niger Delta once he had all of the reports from service chiefs, which would be added to the one provided by Niger Delta leaders.
The delegation leader said oil firms should move headquarters to the region so unemployed youths – who often work for militants – could get more jobs. Foreign firms active in Nigeria are often based in the commercial capital Lagos.
The Niger Delta leaders also asked for more funds for the development and an amnesty plan for former fighters which Buhari had planned to cut.
Oil Minister Emmanuel Ibe Kachikwu said on Tuesday that oil output had recovered to 2.1 million barrels a day, roughly back to levels before the attacks began in January.
The attacks, which put four key export streams under force majeure, had led production to plunge to just 1.37 million barrels per day in May, the lowest level since July 1988, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), from 2.2 million barrels in January 2016.
Nigeria has held months of talks to end the violence but no lasting ceasefire has been agreed in the oil hub, where many complain about poverty, even though the region provides much of Nigeria’s oil exports.
Nigeria agreed on a ceasefire with major militant groups in 2009 to end an earlier insurgency. But previously unknown groups have since taken up arms after authorities tried to arrest a former militant leader on corruption charges.
Under a 2009 amnesty, fighters who lay down their arms receive training and employment. However, of the $300 million annual funding set aside for this, much ends up in the pockets of “generals” or officials, analysts say – an endemic problem in a country famous for graft.
Any ceasefire would be difficult to enforce as the militants are splintered into small groups of angry, young unemployed men even their leaders struggle to control.
A major group, the Niger Delta Avengers, had initially declared a ceasefire in August but then claimed another attack last month.
The group has threatened to step up attacks on oil facilities in the Niger Delta if the president pursues a military campaign, its spokesman Mudoch Agbinibo told Reuters in written responses to questions. (Reporting by Felix Onuah; Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Alison Williams)
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