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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Nigeria Risks Civil War in Oil Row

KAIAMA, Nigeria -- Hundreds of youths, many with faces daubed in war paint, run through this village in Nigeria's oil-rich delta, rallying to commemorate the death of a secessionist leader killed in the 1960s whom they see as a hero for today.

Few had dared advocate the breakup of Nigeria since 1970, when the three-year Biafran civil war ended after causing over 1 million deaths.

Now voices calling for partition are growing stronger, emboldened by deadlock at a national conference called by President Olusegun Obasanjo to heal the nation's divisions. Nigeria, a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and home to one in five of sub-Saharan Africa's people, has more than 250 ethnic groups and two major, often antagonistic religions -- Islam in the north and Christianity in the south.

When the conference started in February to consider constitutional reforms, Obasanjo stressed it was "not designed to dismember or disintegrate Nigeria." But it seems to have brought matters to a head. The conference's final session has now been postponed twice, mainly due to bitter disputes over oil riches, with the north resisting demands by delta delegates for much greater control over locally generated oil revenues.

The delta representatives have been boycotting the discussions since mid-June, demanding control of 50 percent of oil revenues within five years. So far, the conference has only agreed that they should get 17 percent, up from the current 13 percent.

At the grassroots, people are rallying behind the memory of the likes of Isaac Boro, whose 12-day 1967 revolt was staged in the hub of Nigeria's oil industry. His small force was quickly crushed by the Nigerian army, and he was later killed in mysterious circumstances, in what his ethnic Ijaw people claim was a government assassination.

An image of the lean undergraduate-turned-revolutionary holding a rifle has become an icon for militants who argue that secession is the only way of getting control of the delta's oil.

"Nigeria Is Falling Apart," screamed a recent cover of popular magazine The News. A May report by the National Intelligence Council, a U.S.-government think tank, said the "outright collapse of Nigeria" was possible within 15 years.

The report, which caused a storm in Nigeria, made clear its views were those of a forum of experts, not official U.S. thinking.

Obasanjo said the report's authors had no appreciation of his reforms.

The oil dispute, if not handled well, "will affect the stability of Nigeria," said Samson Agbaru, a Niger delta delegate at the constitutional conference. If no agreement is reached, Agbaru said the delta would not go as far as declaring independence -- as the southeast did in the 1960s -- but militias would shut down major oil installations, triggering conflict with the Nigerian army.

In the delta, Ijaw militia leader Moujahid Dokubo-Asari has taken up the secessionist banner. Hundreds died in violence involving Dokubo-Asari's group last year, and oil prices rose to over $50 per barrel after he threatened "full-scale" war on oil multinationals.

He has since declared a cease-fire, but says violence can only be averted through a "sovereign national conference" -- an alternative to the Obasanjo-organized discussions, which would claim full powers to implement its decisions. Dokubo-Asari said that if they did not get what they want, the militias would revolt again.