Two years after the Nigerian government granted amnesty to militants fighting mainly for development and job opportunities in the oil-rich Niger River Delta, violence has diminished, and oil revenues – which dropped at the height of the conflict – have increased. But analysts argue that the amnesty programme is flawed and will not lead to long-term peace. In the delta, former fighters are picking up their guns again, and resentment brews among those not included.
Under the amnesty, which ran from August to October 2009, militants who handed in their weapons were pardoned for their crimes, trained in non-violence, and offered vocational training in trades such as welding, in Nigeria or overseas. After attending non-violence training they are paid US$410 per month until they find work. Just over 26,000 young people have taken the amnesty package.
Most of the participants had been directly or indirectly involved in crimes including attacking oil infrastructure, oil bunkering, and kidnapping oil workers.
Amnesty was granted after record levels of violence in the Delta in 2008: in the first nine months of the year, 1,000 people were killed, 300 were taken hostage and the government lost $23.7 billion to attacks, oil theft and sabotage.
Carrying guns again
Those in favour of the programme say the reduced violence and improved flow of oil is a clear sign of success, but others worry the calm will not last. “Boys who accepted amnesty later went back to the creeks and carried guns again,” said Casely Omon-Irabor, a lawyer based in Warri, a major city in Delta State, who has represented militants groups for nearly six years.
His clients include John Togo, leader of the militant Niger Delta Liberation Front, who took amnesty but later returned to fighting. Omon-Irabor said the precarious peace could crumble. “[The militants] are already back – they just don’t have enough arms yet.”
Recent local and international news reports also cite “ex”-militants who say they are preparing to fight again.
Violence has declined but has not disappeared. Three civil society leaders in the Niger Delta told IRIN they were aware of cases where militants who had taken the amnesty later returned to fighting.
Other former militants are turning their skills to piracy. “A lot of the militancy has simply moved offshore – piracy is the new site for the armed militants’ activities,” Ben Amunwa, a researcher at Platform, an international human rights NGO, told IRIN.
“We would kidnap white people to make the government listen to us”
An article in Africa Confidential magazine on 21 October supports this, saying many of the pirates in the maritime area off Nigeria and neighbouring Benin have links with militant groups in the Niger Delta. Other reports highlight the intricate knowledge of the oil industry some pirates appear to have, which could have been gained in the Niger Delta.
Root causes overlooked
By not addressing the root causes of the conflict the amnesty programme could not lead to sustainable peace. “Why did they go to the creeks? Why did they carry guns? Because we believed there was a monumental neglect of the region that produced the oil,“ said Delta lawyer Omon-Irabor.
“There was no infrastructure, no roads, development, schools, bridges or employment for the youth, and this was the region that produces the wealth of the nation,” he pointed out. “When the government wanted to reconcile, we thought they would address the issues [but] they started paying the boys as if that was the issue in the first place.”
Ledum Mittee, president of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), told IRIN: “There has been no improvement in livelihoods in the region.”
Amunwa added: “There is still a large number of unemployed and disenfranchised youth willing to take up arms… All the underlying issues remain active and stability could collapse quite easily.”
On the other hand, John Idumange, a lecturer in the department of education management at Niger Delta University who supports the amnesty and training programme, told IRIN: “The fundamental reason for fighting was lack of skills and unemployment… the youths were not fighting for clean-up of the environment…The majority of them have embraced peace.”
Some say the generous cash hand-outs are “buying” peace. Kempare Ebipade, a former militant from Delta State, said he now helps turn thieves and kidnappers in his community over to the authorities, and is keen to find paid work. “Now is the time for peace… but if the government stops the payments, [there will be] crisis.”
“We have been able to buy peace [but] it is not sustainable – you can’t sustain paying that amount of money,” MOSOP’s Mittee said, adding that armed resurgence is as “certain as daylight”.
While many youths were happy to take the amnesty with the benefits it offered, in Oporoza, a village in Delta State’s Gbramatu Kingdom, people say they were intimidated into accepting by extensive military attacks on local communities in May 2009, which left thousands homeless.
Elekute Macaulay, the Chairman of Oporoza community, said people were frightened of further military attacks if they declined amnesty. Despite accepting the amnesty and stopping the violence, it did not mean people felt any of the issues had been resolved. “Everybody here is still a freedom fighter,” he told IRIN.
Ex-militants receiving vocational training in Warri say they have embraced peace for now “In Nigeria conflicts don’t tend to get resolved, they get suppressed… Military human rights abuses take us deeper into cycle of violence,” Platform’s Amunwa said. “These villages were entirely flattened by military forces, and that was the introduction to the federal government’s attempt to establish peace.”
Resentment from those excluded
Many militants missed the window from August to October 2009 and were not included in the amnesty programme. According to Niger Delta University’s Idumange there was widespread suspicion that the offer of amnesty was a trap and those who came forward would be arrested or executed, but once the benefits of the programme became apparent they wanted to join.
The non-profit Stakeholder Democracy Network reported that “former militants” have claimed responsibility for recent attacks on oil facilities in Bayelsa State, saying they were a protest against being left out of the amnesty programme. The government has not given any indication they will consider extending the programme.
According to analysts, ex-militant frustration has been compounded by the many non-militants – some not even from the Delta – that have managed to access the $410 monthly payment, which is over three and half times the national minimum wage.
Besides improving development prospects in the Niger Delta region and cleaning up the environment, the government should do all it can to create employment opportunities for young people. Idumange suggested that partnerships be formed with oil companies and the private sector to create jobs.
MOSOP president Mittee says the amnesty should be just “one part” of a disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) strategy. DDR experts tend to be dubious about cash incentives and emphasise the need for jobs and long-term integration into civilian life.