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By Felix Onuah
ABUJA, Nov 6 (Reuters) - The minister for Nigeria’s oil-producing Delta region said on Monday the government was ready to meet militants days after they called off a year-long ceasefire.
Usani Uguru Usani asked the Niger Delta Avengers to be patient and said the government was pushing through development schemes in the southern territory where rights groups have long complained about poverty and pollution.
The Avengers - whose attacks on energy facilities in the Niger Delta last year helped push Africa’s biggest economy into recession - called off the ceasefire on Friday.
The announcement threatened to push one of Nigeria’s economic heartlands further into turmoil and disrupt the country’s fragile recovery.
It also piled pressure onto President Muhammadu Buhari who is already facing the jihadist Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast and rising calls for secession in the southeast.
“If the Avengers wants to meet with us, we are ready to meet with them ... We are at all times ready to engage them and other groups and stakeholders,” Usani told reporters at the presidential villa in Abuja.
“My message to the Avengers is that they should be patient with the government. We have been doing what we can to ensure the development of the region. Everything has a phase of planning and a phase of execution so I will advise all stakeholders to remain calm,” he added.
The government has been in talks for more than a year to address grievances over poverty and oil pollution but local groups have complained that no progress has been made, despite Buhari receiving a list of demands at a meeting last November.
Attacks in 2016 cut oil production from a peak of 2.2 million barrels per day (mbpd) to near 1 mbpd, the lowest level in Africa’s top oil producer for at least 30 years.
The attacks, combined with low oil prices, caused the OPEC member’s first recession in 25 years. Crude sales make up two-thirds of government revenue and most of its foreign exchange.
Nigeria came out of recession in the second quarter of this year as prices strengthened, attacks ended and oil production rose. (Reporting by Felix Onuah; Additional reporting by Tife Owolabi in Yenagoa; Writing by Paul Carsten; Editing by Andrew Heavens)