YENAGOA, Nigeria â€” A top militant leader and 1,000 fighters surrendered to the Nigerian government Saturday, turning in their weapons in the biggest hand_over since an amnesty began two weeks ago, but other fighters said attacks in the oil_rich Delta region will resume next month regardless.
The unrest has cut Nigeriaâ€™s production by a million barrels a day, allowing Angola to overtake it as the continentâ€™s top oil producer. Officials hope the amnesty will allow them to increase production but commanders in two of the Deltaâ€™s three main states have not surrendered and government control of the thousands of waterways remains tenuous. Major attacks in the Delta can make oil prices jump by more than a dollar a barrel.
Ebikabowei Victor Ben, the state commander for the regionâ€™s biggest armed group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, and 25 commanders under his leadership delivered weapons to police overnight. Ben is better known as Gen. Boyloaf.
â€œWe donâ€™t fight for money, we fight for development,â€ he told The Associated Press on Saturday, adding if the government fails this time, â€œthe next generation to come will do things more bloody than we have.â€
The militants formally handed over their weapons in torrential rains to police and officials in Yenagoa, the capital of Bayelsa state.
But a spokesman for MEND announced the group would not participate in the amnesty.
â€œThe charade witnessed in Bayelsa is not an indication of success but that of failure considering that the energy put into that event could have been better used in deliberating on the root issues,â€ Jomo Gbomo said in a statement.
â€œMany of the boys who have received money today will at best squander it on material things and what happens next can best be left to the imagination,â€ he said. â€œMEND will be compelled to resume with ferocious attacks on the oil industry at the end of our ceasefire on September 15, 2009 to prove that weapons being displayed are mostly government-owned.â€
At the government_sponsored event Saturday, the MEND generals entered the park one by one, surrounded by hundreds of cheering, dancing supporters. Some waved banners or wore matching T_shirts in red or yellow emblazoned with pictures of their commanders.
Two of the 16 speedboats reportedly handed over were on display beside boxes and buckets of bullets, more than 50 machine guns, some 13 rocket launchers, explosives and hundreds of mostly old but serviceable rifles. Piles of camouflage jackets and a couple of old radios sat nearby.In a speech, Gen. Boyloaf apologized to families that lost members in the struggle.
â€œWe have kept to our word to follow the part of peace,â€ he said. â€œThe government should on its own part keep to the bargain of promises made.â€
After his speech, Gen. Boyloaf walked over to the Bayelsa State governor and the two embraced. Gen. Boyloaf took off his camouflage jacket to reveal a white T_shirt with â€œPeace is goldenâ€ written on it.
Gov. Timipre Sylva told the crowd the Nigerian government was working with the World Bank and USAID to create a system for the state to publish its income and expenditures on the internet. Corruption and poverty are key causes of the conflict.
â€œThe conflict in the Niger Delta can only be sustainably solved by development,â€ Sylva said. â€œThe job begins now.â€
During a previous amnesty attempt in 2004, the government paid well over the market price for a collection of rusting assault rifles; the militants who handed in the arms used the cash to buy better weapons.
Timiebi Koripamo_Agary, a spokeswoman for the governmentâ€™s two_month amnesty campaign, insisted the administration had learned from past mistakes and was not paying for weapons this time.
â€œInstead, we are asking the boys what they want â€” to further their education, learn a trade, or take a microloan for a small business,â€ she said, adding that some senior militants had expressed an interest in joining the oil and gas sector.
John Oloye, 30, a former militant who lived in a camp in the creeks of the Delta for five years, said he wanted any kind of work, including welding.â€œThe government promised us and failed us before. The companies promised us and failed us. If they fail us again, we will go back to normal duty,â€ Oloye told The Associated Press.
He said that he and the other militants had survived on rice and fruit, getting sick from drinking the creek water. Oloye said he had not seen his four children in months.
The men will receive an allowance of $13 a day during the amnesty period. Then the costs of their education, new business or further training would be picked up by the government, which has set aside roughly $64 million for the payments â€” a fraction of the oil revenues lost due to militant attacks. Between 7,000 and 11,000 fighters are estimated to be in the creeks.
Militancy has its roots in community protests over pollution that ruined fishing grounds and farms. The protests were ignored by successive governments, or met with brutal violence. Communities began to arm themselves at the same time as payments by oil companies helped increase divisions between them, contributing to bloody interethnic battles.
With the advent of civilian rule in 1999, politicians fanned the flames by giving gangs cash and guns to help rig elections. When the polls closed, the weapons were turned on the oil industry.
These days the web of connections between politics, criminal gangs and militant protesters is more tangled and dirty than the roots in the Deltaâ€™s mangrove swamps. Some gangs tax the lucrative theft of crude oil â€” known as bunkering â€” in their territory. Campaigners say it is impossible for the large, slow oil barges to move around the creeks without military protection.
It is unclear how the government will account for the money spent on the amnesty or how long payments will continue. A Freedom of Information bill, which would give Nigerians the right to know how their taxes and oil revenues are spent, has been kicking around the national legislature since the end of military rule in 1999. The bill has been rejected twice this year already.