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Niger Delta crisis: The amnesty option and its rough edges

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IGNATIUS CHUKWU

The federal government has floated the amnesty option in its search for a solution to the Niger Delta crisis. IGNATIUS CHUKWU in Port Harcourt writes that the measure is in itself a big venture with several rough sides, especially in view of the defiant posturing of some of the militant leaders and their claim that the region deserves compensation having for long been on the receiving end.

President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua signed a historic agreement with his Russian counterpart Dimitriv Medvedev in Abuja on Wednesday June 24, 2009, for Gazprom to invest $2.5Bn to pipe gas from Nigeria to Europe via the Sahara Desert. The next day, the most dreaded militant group in the Niger Delta vowed to render the deal useless, except some conditions were met, thereby raising doubts on who has the final say on oil and gas decisions in Nigeria.
The federal government plans in the 2009 budget to spend N3.1 Trillion in the year (most of this from oil and gas) but less than 60 per cent of this will ever be realized; no thanks to the violent activities of the militants in the oil region who want certain fulfilments.
For five years, the federal government has tried to subdue the militants, from Warri to Yenagoa, Port Harcourt to Uyo, etc, but the more the Joint Task Force (JTF) tried to fight the war, the more oil is lost. Both military and political leaders in the region have said the situation needed political solution, meaning a form of dialogue.
Every dialogue leads to an agreement. The militants say they are fighting because of lack of economic and infrastructural developments in the region, but the FG says militancy has made it impossible to begin the much-needed development, a situation that has brought Nigeria to the dreaded vicious circle. The FG needs funds to meet the needs of Nigerians but the militants say they need the needs of the region met before they would allow the FG to get the oil funds.
To break the vicious circle, the Government floated the amnesty option. This is expected to persuade the militants to down tools and the Government to use the peace to earn quick income to begin economic development. This would have been simple, if not that amnesty itself is a big venture that has several rough sides.

Read Also: Niger Delta Ministry’s budget defence held in secret

When Yar’Adua entered into the seat of power on May 29, 2009, he made the Niger Delta crisis one of his key agenda for rapid response. He began by appointing a 45-man technical committee led by Ledum Mitee, the irrepressible lawyer and president of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). The committee was to simply fish out all the various reports on the Niger Delta from the 1957 Sir Henry Willinks Commission through the 2002 General Ogomudia Panel to the 2007 Niger Delta Peace and Conflict Resolution Committee. The president wanted the committee to harmonise the recommendations of the various committees for him to begin action.
This step raised much hope the way the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) did in 2000 but the announcement of the creation of a Niger Delta ministry seemed to confound the people of the region, who are wondering whether the journey to freedom is going forward or backward.
On April 2, 2009, Yar’Adua broke the news of the willingness to grant amnesty to the militants. He dropped the hint while speaking with chieftains of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in Abuja. “We will grant amnesty to all those who are ready to lay down their arms. It will also include rehabilitating and integrating them into the system”. After this, the Inspector-General of Police (IGP), Mike Okiro, who is also a Niger-Deltan from Rivers State, paid a surprise visit to Rivers State in connection with the policy.
The amnesty offer seemed to meet a pinch of salt as the people of the region immediately recalled the failed hopes of federal pardon during the Olusegun Obasanjo era, and how fiercer fighting rather resumed some months after the celebrated meeting of top militants in the state including Ateke Tom and Asari Dokubo with the president in Abuja.

Who needs amnesty?
Amnesty is a form of official general pardon, especially for those who have committed political crimes. Since freedom fighting is involved in the Niger Delta crisis, the FG seems to regard the crimes of the militants as political in order to apply the amnesty clause. Amnesty offers a prosecution-free period: a period during which crimes can be admitted or illegal weapons handed in without punishment.
Now, listening to those who represent and speak for the militants, it would be difficult to know who is offering the amnesty, between the federal government and the militants. The president of the Niger Delta Non-Violent Movement (NDNVM), Onengiya Erekosima, told newsmen on June 23, 2009, in Port Harcourt that the people of the Niger Delta should consider themselves as the ones offering amnesty to the FG in view of the “atrocities” so far committed in the oil region, economically and otherwise.
Ateke’s attorney and official spokesman, Ikenna Morgan Enekweizu of Juris Temple on Rumuola Road in the Garden City towed the same line when he appeared at the Correspondents Chapel of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) in Port Harcourt a week earlier. The activist lawyer said Ateke believes that both sides have made mistakes and that it is a war the FG cannot win.

Attack and counter attack
The JTF has truly fought the mounted war. At the creek, the task force men mount high towers with sand bags and point their guns at coming boats. Often, they have adopted aerial attacks to bomb the likes of Asari in Buguma or Government Ekpemupolo or Tompolo at Oporoza in Gbaramatu.
The JTF has killed about 10 militants in the recent crackdown in the Warri axis. In Bayelsa State, the task force traced the elusive Ken Niwegha, leader of the Odi Boys, and killed him. JTF also said they killed four others in Rivers State the following week.
The Army had said they were winning the war when they announced some successes especially in Rivers State where the fighting has been fiercest since the governorship battle in 2007 became serious.
On the other hand, the militants claim daily to have rather inflicted heavier injuries on the JTF and oil industry. As we write, the most dreaded group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), led by a Gbomo Jomo, claimed attacks on the Cawthorn Channel 1, 2 & 3 flow stations feeding the Bonny export terminal Precious Okolobo, spokesperson for Shell confirmed the attack, informing that the delivery line has been shutdown. Just on Monday, June 29, 2009, MEND claimed to have set ablaze Shell Forcados offshore platform, allegedly killing 23 soldiers in the process. The JTF however denied any soldier was killed and said it was a pipeline in “unmanned” areas that was set ablaze.
MEND, since the attack on Tompolo camp, has destroyed several oil installations in Bayelsa and Rivers States. Over 200 persons have been kidnapped requiring over N500m ransom to redeem them even as and more than 20 hostages have met death. From militants, security operatives to innocent persons especially in the communities, more than 10,000 persons may have died in the violence on all sides of the troubles.
It is estimated that about 500,000 barrels of oil per day have been shut in since the JTF military onslaught in Delta State, causing serious and devastating consequences on the oil industry.The national oil company, NNPC has said it has run out of crude to be refined at the country’s refineries at Warri,Kaduna and Port Harcourt. The NNPC managing director, Mohammed Barkindo said stocks left would only last for about 15 days.
Average daily loss was put at N7.5Bn by end of 2008, but now, it is far higher. Nigeria is said to have grossed over N84 Trillion in 45 years from oil and made N8.7Trn in 2008 alone. Now, this trend had gone down, helping Angola with 1.95 mbpd to run away as Africa’s number one. Analysts say those who think N50Bn for amnesty is too much should consider what the nation loses daily.
While many think the militants are pressed to the wall and need help, the militants think it is rather the FG that urgently needs respite especially space to produce oil and gas to sustain the economy and the large size of waste (corruption) in the system.

The politics of amnesty
The first rancour in the Niger Delta is who got the FG to consider amnesty. The moment Ateke spokesman spoke and claimed credit for the amnesty offer, mentioning their meetings with various FG teams including the IGP, the NDNVM came out quickly to contend that they first began the campaign for peace in the region, citing their various trips in the creeks to meet and reconcile most groups, including Asari and Ateke and Ateke and Soboma George. Yet, political leaders are insisting it was their quiet pressure on Aso Rock that won the offer.
Next, there is a disagreement on whether to pardon militants or kill them. Bayelsa and Delta took the dialogue approach and floated peace initiatives to lure back miscreants and militants. Rivers and later, Akwa Ibom said no pardon. Ateke’s case took even a drastic turn as all entreaties by his representatives to pardon him at the Eso panel failed. Many interpreted this to be due to fierce political differences between the state governor (Amaechi) and those such as Abiye Sekibo believed to have Ateke’s sympathy. Etekosima pleaded most profusely for Ateke and others at the panel but to no avail. The opportunity for peace was sorely missed at the Eso panel.
Now, Ateke’s agents turned to the FG late last year for amnesty, and soon got some green light. As soon as Ateke openly offered to surrender in exchange for amnesty and rehabilitation, the Rivers State government reacted, warning the FG against accepting Ateke. Now, Ateke seems to laugh last while it is not clear what next Governor Amaechi and his group would do, having lost the opportunity to be part of re-integrating Ateke and some other warlords in the state.
There have been allegations and warnings that there are those who just do not want amnesty and peace in the oil region. Enekweizu told BusinessDay in an interview on Wednesday: “Well, there are lots of factors and a lot of forces who are working against the peace in the Niger Delta. We have the militants, the FG people, the politicians, all kinds of interest groups not comfortable with peace and amnesty. We prefer to call them fifth columnists because if peace is restored, they would no longer be benefiting from the crisis as before”.
Some support amnesty but it should not be for all militants, regarded as their enemies. This is because some of the militants seem to know too much, and may pose a threat to some established interests in and out of government.
Now, MEND and JRC have said a vehement no to any form of amnesty deal, calling those accepting the deal criminal elements. MEND on Monday June 29, 2009, claimed that Innocent Iboroma and Cletus Arerebo who have been discussing with the Federal Government on behalf of their leaders Farah Dagogo and Boyloaf were not appointed by those leaders to talk with the federal government. This has brought a twist in the amnesty discussion because of the tendency to discredit persons regarded as duly appointed solicitors and representatives of warlords.

Ateke, Boy Loaf, Soboma, etc, have said yes with a proviso. They want to meet and speak with Mr President before surrendering any arms.