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Okah and the amnesty walk

By Edmond Enaibe

WITH the Monday July 13, 2009 release of MEND leader Henry Okah, the amnesty jet can be said to be in full flight. Just hours before the declaration of amnesty for all militants by President Umaru Yar’Adua, the Ijaw Elders and Leaders Forum made a one page advertisement on page 49 of the Vanguard Newspapers of Thursday June 25, 2009.

They made some thoughtful points such as the need to recognise the under-development and neglect of the Niger Delta as the main causes of agitation, the necessity of separating the genuine protagonists of the struggle from criminal elements and the need to study the terms of the amnesty.

But the Forum also made a point, which with all due respect, does not reflect the full picture of the amnesty offer.

It argued that “… there has been no conviction against any of the alleged militants to warrant the grant of amnesty.  The Forum does not see every youth in the struggle against decades of oppression and neglect in Ijaw land as criminals”.

The offer of amnesty which has been on the cards for months was never predicated on the assumption that the alleged militants are criminals and you don’t need to be found guilty of a crime to be granted amnesty.

An amnesty according to the Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary is “a period of time during which people can admit to a crime or give up weapons without being punished”.

In this case, the amnesty is essentially a period of possible cessation of hostilities and disarmament.  It is neither a declaration by a victor nor an acceptance by the defeated.

To me, it is providing an opportunity for reassessment of tactics after recognition that there is a genuine basis for the agitations in the Niger Delta.  It is also a veiled recognition of the fact that contrary to what was assumed, the Niger Delta question cannot be militarily resolved.

As expected, the amnesty has sparked off controversies.  There are those who accept it and hope it would bring peace to the region.  Also amongst those who accept it are people who see it as a necessary appeasement to ensure peace in the area and the country as a whole.

Conversely there are those who reject it not because they do not agree with the terms of the amnesty, but because they doubt the sincerity of the government.  There are also those who reject it for private reasons.
There are two primary points in the amnesty declaration: These are the “… grant of amnesty and unconditional pardon to all persons who have directly or indirectly participated in the commission of offences associated with militant activities in the Niger Delta” and the extension of this “… to all persons presently being prosecuted for offences associated with militant activities”. This ordinarily means freedom for all involved in the Niger Delta struggle.

For those who oppose amnesty, it is necessary to invite them to examine the main goals of the Niger Delta struggle. It is to protest the neglect of the Delta area, draw attention to the abject poverty and lack of development and cause positive steps to be taken to address these, for the provision of mass employment for the teeming youths and check the environmental devastation of the area due to oil production.

My analysis is that we have achieved some of these goals and shown our capacity to enforce our rights.

Once secession is not the goal, then there must be period of dialogue, cessation of armed conflict and political agitations.These can and should include the demand for higher derivation.

Perhaps the point needs to be made that the current war is being fought not in Abuja,  Kano, Enugu or Jos, but right in the creeks, land and skies of the Niger Delta.  The massive destruction of property, loss of lives and insecurity are all taking place in the Niger Delta.

The people being displaced and who have to flee their farms, schools, work and homes are Niger Deltans.  It therefore makes a lot of sense to stop the conflict having made some basic gains.

A main contributory factor to the defeat of Biafra, and more recently the Tamils in Sri Lanka is the fact that their  lands and homes were the theatre of war.

We should also realise that due to the armed conflict, the Niger Delta is awash with arms, some in the hands of the fighters for liberations and the balance in those of criminals and their gangs.

Also the waterways which is the main means of transportation in the area have become quite dangerous as users can be confronted by militants, kidnappers or the military.

Again, ordinary community disputes whether about land or chieftaincy titles which used to be amicably settled, is now settled in many cases by the use of arms.

Beyond the amnesty and armed conflict, the Niger Delta groups like the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) should think of transforming into a political movement or parties with the aim of gaining political power through the ballot box.

If some of them had helped to install governors and other political office holders, then they should think of getting themselves elected and make a difference in the governance of that area.

The fighters should learn from the Irish Republican Army (IRA) which after 80 years of armed struggle accepted amnesty, de-commissioned and fought for power through their political party, the Sein Feinn.  There is also the recent example of the Maoists in Nepal who after years of struggle, agreed to transform into a political party which won the general elections.

Here in Africa, there have been fighters like Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Louis Cabral in Guinea Bissau, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Samora Machel in Mozambique who transformed their armed organisations into full political movements and won the post-conflict elections.

Essentially there is no stigma in agreeing to amnesty, after all Chief Olusegun Obasanjo literaly walked from prison to Aso Rock.

The Niger Delta will not lose by accepting amnesty,  but has a lot to gain if anything.

Mr. Enaibe,an actor and director, is the former National Secretary of the National Association  of Nigerian Theatre Arts Practitioners


Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.