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A farewell to arms?

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By Rotimi Fasan
PRESIDENT Umaru Yar’Adua has kept his word to spell out the details of the amnesty promised militants of the Niger Delta who renounce violence for a peaceful resolution of the crisis in the region.

The militants have come under increasing fire from the Joint Task Force of the military that had been locked in a supremacy battle with them in the last couple of years. The battle promised to go on for long, swinging between occasional victory and loss for both sides.

It didn’t look as if the military could overcome the militants to say nothing of ending the battle with them on the battlefield.

Or so many thought, until the latest onslaught that has brought misery to many who cannot by any stretch of the imagination be described as militants.

Matters came to this sorry pass after about a dozen military men, soldiers and officers, were ambushed and killed by persons believed to be militants.

The uniform of one of the officers would be found in a shrine, to be followed by the discovery of a mass grave in which the soldiers were said to have been buried.

That episode was a rude slap on the face of the military which, with the approval of Abuja, decided to take the battle to suspected strongholds of militancy in the Niger Delta. The military was able to re-establish its authority in the Delta, proving to a considerable extent that it is the undisputed custodian of violence in the country.

The indiscriminate and perhaps disproportionate response of the JTF to the loss of its men would lead to calls for a truce.

It was in response to these calls that the President made the unilateral offer of amnesty to the militants provided they were ready to give up their arms.

Details of the promised amnesty had to be spelt out after Ateke Tom, one of the militants’ leaders, took government up on it, questioning the nebulous nature of the promised amnesty.

In direct response to Tom, the Presidency promised to respond within a week and that promise was fulfilled on June 25.

With this it would appear that the government is ready to play ball with the militants. There had been questions as to the sincerity of government and these questions were not without justification.

The first time such an amnesty was promised militants was under the Obasanjo administration when Asari Dokubo’s name was synonymous with Niger Delta militancy.

The militant leader would accuse Obasanjo of playing a fast one on him, reneging on his promise after he, Dokubo, gave up his arms.

Not many Nigerians would disagree with Dokubo’s claim, knowing Obasanjo for the kind of wily fox he was. Dokubo has been, more or less, tamed so that the recent spat between him and the intelligence department during which he was detained (?) might be a baiting trick to see if there is any fire left in him.

Can the “old lion” still roar, the sleuths would seem to be asking? Which, to go back to the point I was making, is to say that there were grounds for the militants to doubt government’s sincerity.

That doubt couldn’t have been completely eliminated and it would be unfair to deny a person a tool that has stood him in good stead in times of great need.

But then it would also not be fair to judge a man by the conduct of another. This is to say that it would be playing fair for the genuine militants, not the mere treasure hunters among them, to give Yar’Adua a benefit of the doubt now he has tossed the ball back into their court by responding to their demands for clarification concerning the amnesty.

Above all-  being fair or not to Yar’Adua who is nowhere close to the Niger Delta, there is the imperative of ending the misery of the longsuffering people of the Niger Delta, neither militants nor government agents who have been fishing, literally, in the troubled waters of the region.

This more than anyone else deserves their peace and nothing should be done to further deny them this irreducible minimum of civilised humanity.

While the military might feel a sense of self-righteous justification in the manner it has taken on the militants, it must, rather than pushing this too far, recognise that not only is the Niger Delta a very critical part of Nigeria and its inhabitants brothers and sisters of other Nigerians, the very asymmetrical nature of the “war” in the Delta would ensure that the military fail to achieve full victory.

Watch this space! It does not require the entire Niger Delta to give Nigeria the image of an unstable polity with all the disadvantages that come with that.

All that is needed is a few determined groups. But now we have another opportunity for peace let everybody remember what is at stake and seize it.

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