/ 11 September 2009

Niger Delta amnesty plan hangs in balance

An amnesty programme in Nigeria’s oil-producing Niger Delta risks failing if the government does not back up its offer with serious peace talks and concrete proposals to develop the impoverished region.

The unconditional pardon offered by President Umaru Yar’Adua to militants who give up arms by October 4 is the most serious attempt yet to resolve years of unrest which has prevented Nigeria from pumping more than two-thirds of its oil capacity.

But the success of the initiative hangs in the balance, with three key rebel leaders saying the offer is empty unless demands including a military withdrawal are discussed. The government says the amnesty must be accepted without conditions.

”They will not come out of the creeks if there is no assurance that the government will properly do something about the Niger Delta problem,” said Jonjon Oyeinfe, former leader of ethnic rights group the Ijaw Youth Council, who has been involved in peace efforts for years.

”If there are no talks, I don’t believe amnesty will work.”

Success could mean factions led by Ateke Tom, Farah Dagogo and Government Tompolo — the leaders of the two main militant groups in the eastern delta and the biggest in the west — persuading the thousands of men they command to lay down their weapons.

Failure could give the military the green light to take a tougher approach, radicalising militants into feeling they have nothing more to lose and provoking a new wave of violence which could further disrupt output, security analysts say.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend), the main militant group, has warned it will end its ceasefire on Tuesday after a two-month lull in fighting, although security sources expect it to give the amnesty a little more time.

Tom, Tompolo and Dagogo have held informal talks about accepting amnesty, but there have been no substantive negotiations about the issues underlying the instability.

Tompolo last week took out a full-page newspaper advert detailing demands that include a military withdrawal from much of the Niger Delta.

The army has dismissed similar demands in the past, saying it will only leave once law and order is established. ”They should not give conditions to the government. They should embrace the amnesty,” said Timiebi Koripamo-Agary, spokesperson for the presidential panel on amnesty.

”Once they come out, the government isn’t foreclosing anything, including discussion and dialogue,” she said.

Decades of neglect and corruption in the delta have fostered deep distrust between the government and militants, leaving gunmen wondering what incentive there is to hand over weapons.

The authorities want as many as 10 000 fighters to take part in the amnesty programme and have said those who do so will be given a living allowance. They have also talked of a ”demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration” (DDR) programme.

But all has not gone smoothly so far.

About 200 rebels in Bayelsa’s state capital Yenegoa took to the streets last week in protest after the government failed to pay them for handing over their weapons, marching from their small hotel to a sprawling state government compound where their leaders were being housed in mansions.

”They haven’t collected their money, that is what is bringing the problem now,” said one of the men, Paul Innocent, brandishing a photo ID showing he had accepted amnesty. Behind him, youths shouted warnings they would return to the creeks.

The concept of DDR has been used by peacekeepers in conflict zones around Africa, particularly where young gunmen need retraining for civilian life. But it is usually a programme run for years by specialist skills trainers and there is no evidence of such an organised scheme being planned for the Niger Delta.

”They seem to think the amnesty programme is just bringing the boys in, taking their fingerprints and photos and sending them back to the village,” said a private security source who asked not to be named.

”It is just a series of arms collection points … There is no talk, there is no negotiation on serious issues.”

Vicious circle
Agary said former gunmen were being paid and the government would soon begin rehabilitating and reintegrating them. But it was unclear how the initiative would be funded, who would train them and whether there would be any job prospects afterwards.

Critics say that even if militant leaders accept amnesty, winning a life of government-funded luxury for their compliance, there is little to stop their ”boys” taking up arms again.

”They could easily go back to their villages frustrated their leaders are living in government houses and pick up weapons again. They would go back and a new leader emerges and the process recycles itself. This is what I fear,” Oyeinfe said.

Yar’Adua’s predecessor Olusegun Obasanjo struck a similar amnesty deal in 2004 with militants including Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, whose Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force turned over thousands of weapons in return for amnesty.

The deal broke down when some factions accused others of not sharing money for disarmament. Asari was later arrested and charged with treason, though he has since been released and lives in a large mansion in the capital Abuja.

A year later, Mend burst on to the scene, knocking out a quarter of Nigerian oil output within a couple of weeks, a campaign from which the industry has still not recovered. — Reuters