Street protest over oil plight

November 13, 1998

Forty-eight hours after Nigeria was hit by violent demonstrations by Rivers State government workers, university students from the length and breadth of the south-eastern region of the country poured into the streets of Port Harcourt, Nigeria's biggest oil city.

Students with clenched fists chanted slogans attacking the military regime, demanding fairer distribution of the region's oil wealth and commemorating executed human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, were joined by hundreds of school children and unemployed youths. They were applauded by market women and workers as they marched peacefully in the pouring rain.

Despite fears that the demonstration would be violently dispersed by armed soldiers but instead the local authorities allowed the protests to go on so as to avoid the worsening of an already-tense atmosphere.

After marching for about three hours along Port Harcourt's main streets, the protesters headed towards the official seat of the state's military administrator, Group Captain Sam Ewang, who ordered his security agents to open the gates to allow the students in. His aide-de-camp approached the shouting protesters and called on a deputation, including leader David Akpan, to speak with Group Captain Ewang.

The students argued that the oil-producing communities, which are responsible for more than 80 per cent of Nigeria's external revenue, have not been adequately compensated. They are also angry at the appointment of Bukar Ali as the sole administrator of the development commission of oil-rich and mineral areas.

His predecessor, Emmanuel Opia, was recently sacked after the discovery of apparent misappropriation of funds worth more than $200,000.

His removal was welcomed as a step in the right direction, but the students demanded further reforms. "What we cannot accept is the appointment of Bukar Ali," Mr Akpan said. "He is not from our oil-producing communities. We have very competent sons and daughters who can properly manage the commission.

"Imposing Bukar Ali is simply more evidence of internal colonisation and internal slavery. We will not accept this situation."

The students also complained at the refusal of compensation to victims of the fire that recently claimed 1,000 lives in the Delta State. "Even before the outcome of a government inquiry to establish the origin of the disaster, the victims have been pronounced guilty. We demand as a matter of urgency that these impoverished inhabitants should be adequately compensated," Mr Akpan said.

He quoted Tam David-West, a virology professor at the University of Ibadan and former oil minister, who has said: "All the country's four refineries have broken down. To repair them would cost the government $2 billion. Right now, the same government has spent $12 billion importing refined petroleum products."

The students demanded a dialogue between the government and armed youths who have seized oil rigs and pumping stations belonging to major European and North American oil companies.

The students also want compensation for the family of Ken Saro-Wiwa, hanged on November 10, 1995. "His body should be removed from a mass grave and handed over to his people for decent burial," Mr Akpan said.

In a brief response, the military administrator promised that the government would examine student demands and find a lasting solution to the problems they raised. He urged them not to resort to violence as a means of redressing their grievances.

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