16 February 2008
Nigeria's oil industry is bracing for renewed raids following the extradition to Nigeria of a man believed to be the leader of the country's key militant group. Gilbert da Costa in Abuja reports that peace talks to end the crisis could now be in serious doubt.
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), Nigeria's foremost militant group, says its leader Henry Okah had been illegally extradited from Angola, where he was arrested on gun-running charges last September.
Nigeria has no extradition treaty with Angola.
In an email message sent to journalists late Friday, MEND said it was monitoring the situation closely and did not rule out stepping up attacks on the oil industry to pressure the Nigerian government to release Okah.
Attacks by militants in the restive Delta region have crippled the oil industry since the beginning of 2006, reducing output by 25 percent in Nigeria. Nigeria is Africa's largest exporter of crude oil and the eighth largest supplier of oil in the world.
MEND had claimed responsibility for several raids on industry facilities and personnel in the region over the past few weeks, including an explosion on an oil tanker and the killing of a police bodyguard escorting a port manager.
Analysts say the group is capable of causing further disruptions in oil production, raising concerns about the possibility of widespread violence in the volatile oil-producing region.
The Nigerian authorities are expected to charge the militant with treason and terrorism-related offenses. This could undermine any chance of peace talks in the near future as MEND has made Okah's release a precondition for talks.
Lagos-based lawyer Festus Keyamo, who acted as defense attorney for militants charged in the past, says prosecuting those behind the Delta agitation is wrong.
"The posture of the federal government, to try and suppress the genuine agitations of the people of the Niger Delta region, either by trial for treasonable felony, either by way of armed combat, either by way of imprisonment, incarceration or detention, will not ultimately solve the problem of the region," he said. "So, I do not subscribe to that kind of modus operandi by the federal government, even though they have the might and the power to do so."
The Nigerian government has not offered any comment on Okah's extradition. Angolan officials claim he was arrested and deported at the request of Nigeria.