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An amnesty dead on arrival

It was always going to be problematic. That much was certain- from the moment the Federal Government made its offer of ‘amnesty’ to those we’re now obliged to call former militants of the Niger Delta. How, some had asked, do you give amnesty to an individual never found guilty of a crime?

To say nothing of the various militant groups of the Niger Delta whose only link was their common agenda to rid the region of any state presence in the exploration of the crude oil resources in the place. How plausible is any talk of granting amnesty to a people with such aspiration as President Yar’Adua had proposed to do and had, indeed, since done?

That question, several weeks after the amnesty deal was believed sealed, is still blowing in the wind. In raising arms against the state as the militants did, their activities can be considered illegal, even treasonable. But that is in normal circumstances, when and where the state cannot be said to have been complicit in the environmental despoliation of one of its component parts, one as important as the Niger Delta.

Rather than see their action as treasonable as Abuja has over the years interpreted it, the militants of the Niger Delta have always described their activities as aimed at liberating their region from the clutches of the Nigerian state. In other words, they view themselves as liberation fighters, not venal terrorists out to corner a piece of the ‘national cake’ for themselves.

In spite of available evidence that their action had been diluted by criminal elements engaged in indiscriminate abductions of people, foreigners and Nigerians, oil workers or not- in spite of evidence such as this, the major militant groups of the Niger Delta were still able to say they were their people’s liberators.

It was with this understanding that one time warlord, Asari Dokubo, went to court to challenge the amnesty offer. This, however, did not stop Abuja from going ahead with her objective of giving presidential pardon to people never found guilty of a crime.

Perhaps following the avoidable misery that came with the sacking of Gbaramatu and other communities of the Niger Delta and the possible PR fiasco that the attack on Atlas Cove portended for the Niger Delta cause, government was able to get the cooperation of ‘elders’ and ‘leaders’ from the Niger Delta and, through them, win the support of leaders of the leading militant groups, with some of them even coming out to attack others yet to embrace the amnesty ‘peace’ offer.

The last-minute pressure piled on a couple of the militant groups and their leaders who’d asked for an extension of the deadline for the submission of arms- the pressure put on them to support the amnesty deal was indicative of the likely flashpoints of trouble.

These latter groups apparently supported the peace move against their better judgment and one didn’t need a soothsayer to know those who were likely to renounce the deal at the slightest provocation.

Which is what is happening now with the likes of Government Ekpemupolo aka Tompolo, Henry Okah and Ateke Tom variously issuing statements to express their exasperation with the ‘endless meetings’ with the Presidency that have resulted in little or nothing since they signed up for the amnesty deal. Even Chief Edwin Clark who has been representing the militants in the post-amnesty talks has had very harsh things to say about talks with the Presidency.

While each of these leaders acknowledges the ‘sincerity’ of President Yar’Adua, they have less flattering things to say about those they’ve had to work with. It’s not surprising that things are going in this direction.

The Federal Government couldn’t be said to have thought through the implications of its amnesty offer before the offer was made. Government had a buy-and-sell approach to the whole matter. For the government, all that was needed for the militants to give up their arms was to put a price on the deal: offer to pay for the stockpiled arms by way of a promised rehabilitation of the militants.

Rehabilitation here meant payment of a daily allowance and vocational training for the rank and file. There is no inventory of the arms in circulation and nobody could tell if what was submitted was all there was out there. This means that in the event any of these militants decided to return to the creeks to continue their campaign, there was no way to measure their firepower which was supposedly superior to what men of the Joint Task Force had sometimes paraded in past encounters with them. Yet government’s promise to retrain the militants cannot be faulted.

What other way to get them back into a system that had excluded them if not via some kind of empowerment- financial or professional? It was a shock to me, for instance, to discover that the leaders of two of these militant groups could only speak in garbled ‘broken English’, which was a measure of their level of literacy. What then is to be expected of their followers if the leaders were such basket case educationally?

Yet it is these poorly educated men whose militancy has turned them into multi-millionaires- men who are now invited to fly in presidential jets- it is they that are now expected to give up the same arms that brought them so much wealth under some nebulous arrangement.

To fully address the Niger Delta problem, government must devise a more holistic and egalitarian way of applying the somewhat deformed social security scheme that it’s put in place for retired militants to other parts of Nigeria while paying special attention to the Niger Delta.

If every Niger Deltan, indeed, Nigerian has a fair deal that guarantees qualitative education and unemployment allowance etc, there would be few willing to risk so much to take up arms. It’s almost too late in the day to extend presidential treatment to an excluded lot now conscious of its own power. A different strategy is called for.


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