At least 100 people have been killed and more than 6,000 displaced from their homes in Nigeria's oil city of Port Harcourt as a result of gang violence over the past month and attempts by the security forces to suppress it, a local human rights group said on Friday.
The Lagos-based Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR) said thousands of residents in Port Harcourt and nearby villages had been forced to flee their homes as a result of these clashes.
They involved at least two local militia groups which have political connections. The armed bands finance themselves by tapping oil illegally from pipelines in the Niger Delta and selling it to tankers waiting offshore.
CDHR said the worsening security situation around Port Harcourt raised questions about the legitimacy of the government of Rivers State, of which it is the capital.
According to official results, Governor Peter Odili and his People's Democratic Party (PDP) each won 98 percent of the vote in last year’s elections.
This is the party of President Olusegun Obasanjo, who was returned to power for a second four-year term in the April 2003 elections.
All the main opposition parties and many independent observers protested at what they said was widespread fraud.
Obasanjo's government blames the Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force, a group of armed Ijaw militants led by Asari Dokubo, for the recent spate of attacks on Port Harcourt.
Last week, the federal authorities sent in extra troops to start 24-hour street patrols in the city of three million people, which controls most of Nigeria's strategic oil production.
Nigeria is the biggest oil producer in Africa, pumping an estimated 2.5 million barrels per day from offshore oilfields and platforms in the troubled Niger Delta.
Dokubo says his group has recently launched a series of attacks on a rival militia force led by Ateke Tom, which he says is supported by the Rivers State government.
The worst fighting has taken place in the Port Harcourt suburbs of Marine Base, Njemanze and Nembe Waterside. These are now littered with charred buildings and the scattered belongings of victims of the violence.
Since military reinforcements arrived in the city last week, a combined force of army and navy troops has used patrol boats and helicopter gunships to carry out a series of raids on strongholds of Dokubo’s militia group in the Ogbakiri, Bukuma and Tombia districts, some 30 km south of Port Harcourt.
“The joint task force has a mandate to cleanse all forms of armed banditry and guarantee security of lives and property,” said Captain Ogbonna Kanu, the military spokesman in Rivers State.
However, thousands of civilians have been caught in the crossfire.
“I’m an exile, I can’t go home,” lamented 60-year-old Lawson Jack, a retired civil servant. Jack told IRIN that he was forced to flee fighting in Bukuma between government troops and militia gunmen, taking his family, but leaving all his valuables behind.
Dokubo, a former president of the Ijaw Youths Council activist group, has said he aims to capture Port Harcourt as a first step to “liberating” the Niger Delta’s estimated eight million Ijaws.
The Ijaws are the single biggest tribe in the oil-producing region, whose impoverished inhabitants receive very little of the oil wealth that swells federal government coffers and the profits of multinational oil companies.
Activist Oronto Douglas of Environmental Rights Action group, an affiliate of Friends of the Earth, has urged the United Nations to take an interest in the deteriorating situation in the region.
He argues that the Nigerian government as the "prime beneficiary" of oil exploitation is no longer a fair arbiter of the delta's problems.
"The Niger Delta is now slowly sliding into war," Douglas told IRIN.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions