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Nigeria forced to diversify as oil drops

By Edward Harris
Associated Press / April 4, 2009
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ABUJA, Nigeria - The head of a new Nigerian ministry charged with calming the restive petroleum region of Africa's biggest crude oil producer said yesterday that the global economic meltdown may paradoxically be contributing to peace efforts.

Even as the oil region's main militant group rejected the government's offer of amnesty to fighters who lay down arms, Ufot Ekaette, the newly installed minister for Niger Delta affairs, said in an interview that the global slump in demand for crude oil had changed the dynamic on the ground.

Militants who fund their efforts with proceeds from oil stolen from pipelines and sold overseas had lost motivation as the price of a barrel of crude dropped about 70 percent from a historical high around $150 last year, Ekaette told AP.

With profit margins dropping, the crude oil theft is "less lucrative, less attractive," he said. "The risk is not worth it."

Ekaette, 70, also said the global crisis that has driven down overseas demand for Nigeria's crude oil - the country's economic mainstay and main export product - had also given new incentive to wean Nigeria off its dependence on oil exports.

His ministry, which was brought online late last year and is still operating from borrowed office space, is charged with boosting fitful development projects in the southern oil states - a core demand of militants who blow up pipelines and take hostages to force more oil funds to be sent to their impoverished region.

Ekaette said the new economic climate and falling oil prices he calls "double jeopardy," might finally force the country to diversify its economy, particularly in the lush southern oil region that could accommodate massive industrial farms. And that would mean jobs for young men who too frequently take up arms instead.

"We need to turn this weakness into strength," said Ekaette.

The minister plans to improve government spending on development projects, including a major thoroughfare through the swampy region, which will show the region's disaffected youth that their famously corrupt government will finally work for them. "I think we have a good chance for success," he said.