ABUJA Nigeria's government will seek a lasting peace settlement with militants in the oil-producing southern Niger Delta region in 2017, President Muhammadu Buhari said in a New Year's message on Saturday.
Attacks on oil facilities in Nigeria's energy hub, coupled with low oil prices, helped push Africa's biggest economy into recession - the first in 25 years - in the second quarter. Crude oil sales account for two-thirds of government revenue in the OPEC member country.
Attacks by militants, who want a greater share of the country's energy wealth to go the impoverished oil-producing swampland, have been less frequent since November when Buhari held talks with community leaders from the region.
"We will continue to pursue peace initiatives in the Niger Delta as I, again, call on our brothers in that region who have taken to violent disruptions of economic infrastructure to come to the negotiating table," Buhari said in an emailed statement.
The attacks cut Nigeria's oil production, which stood at 2.1 million barrels per day (bpd) at the start of 2016, by more than a third in the summer.
Repairs to oil facilities have since lifted production, which reached nearly 1.8 million bpd in December, according to oil minister Emmanuel Ibe Kachikwu.
But sporadic attacks, most recently in late November, have been carried out by groups that are not taking part in peace talks.
"In this new year, I want to reassure all Nigerians that our defence and security forces are more than ever before ready to perform their constitutional role of protecting lives and property," Buhari said.
He listed other security concerns, including the threat posed by Islamist militant group Boko Haram which the president said last week had been pushed out of its stronghold in the remote northeastern Sambisa forest.
After pushing militants out of the forest, a move that Reuters has been unable to independently verify, Buhari said Nigerians should "watch out for strange figures settling in their communities".
He said authorities would help to resettle some of the two million people displaced by the jihadist group's seven-year insurgency aimed at creating an Islamic state in the northeast of Africa's most populous nation.
A man purporting to be Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau on Thursday denied the group had been pushed out of the Sambisa forest.
(Reporting by Felix Onuah; Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram; Editing by Adrian Croft)