Nigeria: The Temporary Solution to Kidnappings in the Delta

3 MINS READSep 13, 2006 | 21:32 GMT
In response to an increase in kidnappings and other violence in Nigeria's oil-producing Niger Delta region, the Nigerian army razed the Aker Base shantytown on the outskirts of Port Harcourt on Aug. 24, leaving some 3,000 residents homeless. The action, based on information that Aker Base was an operating base for the militants and kidnap-for-ransom gangs that have been attacking Western oil companies in the Delta, has resulted in a halt in abductions around Port Harcourt. The solution, however, is likely to be temporary. Kidnapping cases in the Delta began increasing in May, reaching a peak in the first half of August with eight reported kidnapping cases involving 17 foreigners. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo threatened Aug. 18 to take drastic action against the militants and criminal gangs, and began moving troops into the Delta. He made good on his threat Aug. 24, a few hours after eight unidentified gunmen kidnapped an Italian oil worker employed by the petroleum service company Saipem from a bar in Aker Base, killing a Nigerian bodyguard and wounding another in the process. In response to the attack, Nigerian troops doused the ramshackle houses and tenements in Aker Base with gasoline and burned down the entire shantytown. The Italian worker was released five days later. Aker Base, located within the village of Rumuolumeni, primarily housed migrant workers and people from Nigeria's rural areas who come to the Delta in search of work, often fruitlessly. Unemployment was high in the shantytown, as were crime and disease. The Nigerian government believed the kidnapping gangs in the Delta also were operating from somewhere in Aker Base, but likely did not have accurate intelligence as to exactly where. Kidnapping is an infrastructure-intensive criminal activity because it requires the perpetrators to operate at least one safe-house to keep the hostages. Kidnappers in the Delta apparently had been moving their captives daily in order to prevent security forces from discovering their locations. To address the problem, the entire area was razed. The heavy-handed response also could have been influenced by the army's desire to redeem itself in light of criticism that it failed to prevent kidnappings and attacks against oil facilities. Since the attack against Aker Base, there has been no reported kidnapping of a foreign oil worker in the Niger Delta region. The raid, however, will be only a temporary solution to the security problem in the Delta. Once the kidnap-for-ransom gangs are able to re-establish their bases in other areas, the kidnappings will resume. The economic, political and social conditions that contribute to the high level of crime and violence in the region are unlikely to change. As long as poverty, corruption, crime and ethnic tensions remain, the threat to foreign oil companies operating in the Delta will persist. Moreover, Nigeria is set to hold a presidential election in April 2007. Political violence throughout the country can be expected to increase in the lead-up to the election. Against the backdrop of violence between rival private security forces, political and tribal militias, criminal gangs will be able to operate relatively freely.

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