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Nigeria returns to democratic government for the first time in 15 years with the intractable problem of ethnic conflicts threatening to destabilise the new giovernment. The latest worry for the new president ex-general Olusegun Obasanjo is the resurgence of the running conflict between the itshekiri and the Ijaw people in the oil-rich Delta region south of the country.

The conflict erupted in 1997 when the government relocated a local government headquarters from Ijaw to Itsekiri area. The location of the local government often have implications for the distribution of resources in the area and the Ijaw people, although sitting on some of the largest reserves of Nigeria's oil, remain largely impoverished. The problem was further compounded when the government's reorganisation of the region's boundary left Itshekiris with some of the land that had previously belonged to Ijaws.

Many people are known to have died since the onset of the hostilities and the renewed fighting this month has already claimed more than 20 lives. Most of the victims had been attacked with guns and machetes. More than 30 other people sustained injuries, including the captain of a passing boat who was shot in the eye.

The latest round of fighting began after Ijaw youths who had crossed over into Itshekiri territory to retrieve a broken down barge were attacked by Itshekiris. The Ijaws then retaliated by sending 18 riverboats of men armed with assault rifles into the Itshekiri villages. The rampaging Ijaws ran amock in the villages, burning buildings and killing the inhabitants. During the raid, about 25 federal soldiers who had been sent to patrol the area, in expectation of troubles were forced to abandon their barracks in the village of Madagho. Several were injured and five are believed to have been kidnapped by the Ijaws. The government has since deployed large ground and naval reinforcements to quell the disturbances and try to rescue their captured colleagues.

The deployment of the army has not deterred the Ijaw militants who have given oil workers and other non-citizens in the town of Warri and its environs seven days leave if their demands for a local government council are not met. They have also "advised" embassies to withdraw their nationals, claiming that the current violence would pale in comparison to what would follow when their ultimatum expires. Most of the oil operatives are still staying put and oil production is yet to be disrupted by the fighting.

The government is allegedly making moves to defuse the violence in the area by pledging that more of the monies generated form oil producing areas in the country would be ploughed back to help develop these communities. Most of the o producing areas of Nigeria have been left derelict by successive government, despite the fact that crude oil extracted from these regions account for most of the country's foreign wealth.
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