NIGER DELTA AMNESTY: Too Costly To Politicise

Militants give up arms and ammunitions

Militants give up arms and ammunitions

SINCE President Muhammadu Buhari came on board on May 29, the Niger Delta has attempted to calibrate every step he has taken within the context of its interest. The loss of the Presidency in the March 28 election by a son of the Niger Delta, Goodluck Jonathan, undoubtedly, put the region in a somewhat awkward position with respect to how to respond to a Buhari Presidency. The bloc vote won by the former President in his home region, went a long way to show how much Jonathan’s kinsmen wanted him to remain at the helm.

The unprecedented defeat of the former President, the first time an incumbent Nigerian leader would be sent packing from the seat of power, has thrown up dynamics that actors across the board are struggling to come to terms with.

President Buhari’s meticulous scrutiny of the nation’s finances has, coincidentally, meant that a number of Nigerians of Niger Delta extraction, have had to be summoned to explain the financial decisions they took when they held sway in different positions of government. In a similar vein, signature policies of government, as they affect the Niger Delta have taken some of the heat from the change in the governance template since the arrival of the new Sherriff.

The most prominent of these policies is the Niger Delta Amnesty Programme, which was designed specifically to arrest the severe break down of law and order in the region between 2002 and 2009.

The eclipse of the state by the militants of the Niger Delta, substantially, crippled Nigeria’s oil dependent economy, thus, hobbling the nation’s ability to meet its short and long term developmental aspirations.

It is, however, pertinent to note that the militants of the Niger Delta, unlike the deranged Boko Haram terrorists of the Northeast keyed into a historic trajectory of demand for resource control and self-determination. First, there was the Roberts Willink’s Commission of 1958, which was set up to look into the very rife fears of ethnic minorities shortly before independence in 1960.

Then came the fortuitous Seven Day Republic, declared by Isaac Adaka Boro. Added to these were the valiant struggles of Kenule Beeson Saro-Wiwa and his Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP). Saro Wiwa paid the ultimate price, when he was extra judicially murdered by the sanguinary dictatorship of General Sani Abacha in November 1995.

The costly struggle between the corrupt oil dependent Nigerian State, and the people of the Niger Delta, further again, came to the fore with the advent of democratic rule in 1999. The famous Kaiama Declaration by the youths of the Niger Delta was a culmination of the marginalised region’s push for a fair treatment from an overbearing system that tended to emasculate the ethnic minorities.

These agitations gave birth to bodies like the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) and later the Ministry of Niger Delta. Like the proverbial icing on the cake, the Amnesty Programme proclaimed by the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua in June 2009 gave a blanket pardon to militants who had taken up arms against the State. In return, the militants were to be rehabilitated and integrated back to society.

To give fillip to the proclamation, prominent voices in the Niger Delta led by the then Vice President Jonathan, commenced a robust shuttle diplomacy to the creeks. Their mission was to persuade sceptical warlords to drop their arms and embrace peace.

Thereafter, the nation was stunned by pictures in national dailies and in the mass media of militants submitting mind-boggling cache of arms and munitions. Assorted weapons with which the militants held the Nigerian State by the jugular were recovered, and the process of rehabilitation began. Militants were quartered in rehabilitation camp in Obrubra, Cross River State. Experts in the philosophy of non-violence were brought in to put them through the process of transformation.

Nonviolence practitioners like Allen Onyema, Benard Lafayyete and Charles Alphin, coordinated the transformation component of the amnesty. In a number of cases, truly repentant militants broke down and cried their hearts out on realising the damage they had done to fellow human beings through kidnapping, the destruction of oil installation and attacks on operatives of the State.

The nonviolence debriefing was followed by the classification of the militants into trades and vocation of their choices. Hundreds were shipped to far flung parts of the world for skills acquisition in vocations of relevance to the Nigerian oil and gas economy. Some went into underwater welding, others choose shipbuilding, as well as a host of other fields.

From 2009, the Niger Delta experienced some calm, and Nigeria’s oil economy boomed again. Oil production, which had nosedived to around 400,000 Barrels Per Day (BPD) at the height of the militancy, climbed back to a peak of 1.9 million. Though, oil theft stood at an all-time high, the amnesty calmed major frayed nerves. However, beyond the economic boom spawned by the amnesty, the Nigerian State had to live with other implications. Experts in statecraft argued that by giving the militants such generous reward in spite of the crimes committed against the State, Nigeria had unwittingly strengthened the arm of other would be violent challengers of State authority.

The position of those who nursed these fears was further supported by the ostentatious and riotous lifestyles of many of the so-called ex-militants, who were seen as merely taking advantage of lax governance, to engage in acts of impunity. The amnesty, which was supposed to produce a repentant bunch of ex-agitators, became a production line for a triumphalist set of cantankerous characters that made those who were law-abiding look like cowards. So-called ex-militants strutted the cities of the Niger Delta and the nation’s capital with their SUVs, gold plated iphones, and in many cases disrupted public peace, to the chagrin of citizens.

On the other hand, the discussion about the future of the Niger Delta became so watered down that it dwelt exclusively only on the overseas training and perks of less than 40,000 ex-agitators.

The message that was subliminally passed across was that the interest and welfare of 40,000 young men, who took up arms against the Nigerian State, approximated the interest of the Niger Delta region.

Suddenly, the vocal voices that once screamed about resource control, self-determination and fiscal federalism found it convenient to suddenly embrace silence. The other far-reaching recommendations of the Niger-Delta Technical Committee led by the respected Leedum Mitee found their way into the cooler.

With the coming on board of the Jonathan Presidency in 2010, the Niger Delta intelligentsia got too busy scrambling to be a part of the gravy train that it forgot the age long demands of the people of the region.

It was no longer fashionable to talk of the Niger Delta environment, the Ogoni Oil Spill Reclamation, and the many ecological intervention projects that could have made life better for the long suffering ordinary people of the Niger Delta. None of the militants, for all the time they enjoyed generous largesse from the Nigerian State, talked of the damaging gas flares, and their destructive effects on the health of the people and the environment.

While it is true that some token, albeit accidental benefits fell on the lap of the region as a result of a Presidency led by a son of the area, placed on an evaluation scale, the region was worse off. In terms of infrastructure, the East West Road, a critical artery linking Bayelsa, Rivers and Delta has just a few portions completed.

This is in spite of the fact that the road was given to the Niger Delta Ministry then headed by Godsday Orubebe, as its core assignment. It was the classic case of a people residing by the bank of the river, yet miserably washing their hands with spittle. If so little could be achieved by the very people most affected by the problem, after they were put in charge, who will be better placed to solve it? Reality has now dawned with the emergence of Buhari.

The President, if his manifesto is anything to go by, sees the Niger Delta situation from a much more nuanced point of view. During his campaigns, he talked about implementing the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report on the devastating oil spill in Ogoni land. If he pulls that off, it would be remarkable because doing so would directly save the environment and the livelihoods of millions.

As for the fate of the Amnesty Programme, the President would have to ensure that beneficiaries are provided what is required to complete their trainings. The amnesty as it was in 2009 helped to stabiliSe Nigeria’s volatile oil production. However, like all such interventions, there is a terminal date. The appointment of Brigadier-General Paul Boroh (rtd), while staving of anti-Niger Delta tag that some are so ready to place on the President, also signals reform towards winding down the programme. Thereafter, the President’s policies on the region producing the nation’s oil wealth would have to be implemented, bearing in mind the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number of law abiding citizens.

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