BY VICTOR AHIUMA-YOUNG
EVEN as the federal government is trying to re-train and rehabilitate ex-Niger Delta Militants as part of the amnesty programme, Nigerians are becoming very restive over increasing level of violent crimes in the country and the sophistication of perpetrators.
Coordinator of the Foundation for Ethnic Harmony in Nigeria, FEHN, currently handling the re-integration training programme for the ex-militants in the Niger Delta in Obubra, Cross River State, Mr. Allen Onyema, in this interview, gave insight into the proliferation of illegal arms, ongoing training of the the ex-militants and the challenges of reintegrating 20,192 ex-militants into the society among others.
How has the ongoing rehabilitation programmes for the ex-militants in Obubra in Cross River State been?
For sometimes now, the Presidential Amnesty Committee shut down the Obubra Camp for so many reasons, one of them was to allow the trainees to participate in elections and vote for candidates of their choice.
But we resumed again sometimes in March and we have done up to batch 14. Just like other ones we have done before them, it was a huge success. We discovered that some of these boys look forward to coming to Obubra to engage in non-violent training programmes beacuse they enjoy it, they like the message which canvasses change. They like it because every violent person wants to get out of violence.
No one is born violent. Most of them were elated on their graduation day because of the new experience. So, Obubra is still ongoing. As we speak, over 16,000 have passed through our non-violent training programmes in the Camp.
What role has your NGO played in the search for peace in the Niger Delta?
We in FEHN don’t like to blow our trumpet but I am sure someday, posterity will be on our side and history will come to be told the way it should be. I have to say that FEHN contributed immensely, let me say 40 per cent singularly to the peace we are enjoying in the Niger Delta. The Federal Government responded to the challenges in the Niger Delta by using the military to address the issues of crime and violence in the region.
Then in 2005, FEHN came with an idea that using the military against these people who are citizens of this country will be a no win situation at the end of the day. In fact, it will be all losers’ game at the end of the day, using the military to quell the insurgency in the Niger Delta region. So I led FEHN to bring non-violent education into the country for the first time.
Before FEHN brought non-violent agitation into the country, no other organization and government has ever done that. We brought in the best in the world, we brought in Dr. Bernard LaFeyette Jr, who is the Director of the Centre for Non-Violence and Peace Studies, University of Rhodes Island, USA and Chairman of the Global Non-Violent Board. We brought them because we have seen where non-violent was used to transform countries.
We then added training and transformation of the ex-militants. That was how we got the former President of IYC, Dr. Chris Ekiyor, Jonathan Lokpobiri and a whole lot of them. What we did was to train them and I got SHELL to sponsor the training. At a time, people like Timi Alaibe saw that the thing was working because he knew some of the militants were transformed, he even employed some of them to start working in the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC).
But mind you, when we were training those 600 in 2008, some of their leaders approached us asking to be trained too because they said they did not want to be left behind by their boys. That was the beginning of success and I think the late Yar’Adua was met and he gave a nod of approval. Today, I can say FEHN contributed 40 to 50% to the peace in the Niger Delta and even to the economy of this country indirectly through the amnesty.
What do you think government can do to encourage FEHN in the search for lasting peace in the Niger Delta and Nigeria as a whole?
I want the Federal Government to support FEHN in our efforts to institutionalize non-violence and civil behavior in this country. Everyday you turn over newspapers, all that you see is armed robbery, violence and killings all over the country.
If it is not ethnic riot, it is religious or political. We can overcome these like we have done in the Niger Delta region using the non-violent education. I want the Federal Government to institutionalize non-violence in this country. I want non-violence training inculcated into the curriculum of our schools, you can start from the primary to secondary schools and up to tertiary institutions like it is being done all over the world . It should be made a compulsory course for everybody passing through the university.
We are equal to the task because we have over two thousand staff. I tell you, the amount and sophistication of arms in wrong hands in Nigeria could destabilize the whole of Africa. We work closely with these militants and we know that. Talking about the Bokom Haram issue, we can handle it, if FEHN has the support of the government. Already, we want to go into what we call message to school programme using these ex-combatants in the Niger Delta region to teach children in primary and secondary schools lessons on non-violence. You nip it in the bud when you take it to the youths in their infancy.
What are the challenges facing NGOs such as yours in non-violent training for the ex-militants?
The challenges we face in the camps are enormous but at the same time they are all surmountable and by the special grace of God we have been facing them and getting results out of them. First of all, you have to manage the expectations of these boys because a lot of them come to Obubra with so much expectations.
Some come there with information, ranging from housing allowance to all manners of allowances and complain about their leaders. Most times, you are faced with dealing with issues that do not directly concern non-violent training that brought them there. Some come with family issues, some with bullet wounds and other kinds of issues. We have to manage the issues by showing compassion in our dealing with them.
Another challenge we faced was during election. One major challenge we faced was the night Sogboma George was killed because we have to manage the information properly. You know Sogboma George belonged to one of the cult groups and there was this suspicion that the rival cult group killed him and we have these people right there in Obubra. So, there was serious tension but luckily it happened at a time we had already taken these boys through the non-violent training programmes for two days, where they were constantly reminded about the six steps to non violence which entails how to resolve issues of conflict and how to manage information or rumors.
How do you mean?
There was a reason why the Federal Government granted amnesty to the fighters in the Niger Delta region. You just don’t bastardize amnesty. You don’t make it an all comer affair, that you can just instigate any crisis any day and expect to be rewarded. The Niger Delta has been marginalized over the years, with the region not having its fair deal.
The boys took to arms, thinking that was the only way to redress the anomalies. The late President Umaru Yar’Adua thought it wise to engage them by giving them pardon and re-train them. When you re-train them, you can the make good use of them. Today you have ex-militants in flying schools .
In the next few months you find some of them as underwater welders and other professions courtesy of the amnesty programme. The amnesty programme is a huge success and because of this , people want to key into that to bastardize amnesty.
How will you respond to those who see it as a double standard , claiming that the country is funding amnesty in the Niger Delta but not using same step for other parts of the country?
It is wrong to describe is as double standard. The Niger Delta issue is an issue that spans over 50 years. You cannot just wake up one morning and go into robbery or engage in serious crimes and you expect to be rewarded for that. In the Niger Delta even though criminals went into the fray at a time but the basics were there.
They had a reason for protesting, even the international community would tell you that there is a reason for what was happening in the Niger Delta. Because of the oil, the region has been polluted, with their water disco loured. For goodness sake, what is the reason for Bokom Haram and what is the reason for kidnapping in Abia State? People just started kidnapping innocent people, kidnapping children and aged people and you want to take money from the Federal Government to reward them. If any state is clamoring for amnesty because the ex-fighters in the Niger Delta were given amnesty let that state fund it from its resources and not the Federal Government’s.
What will FEHN be remembered for in the Niger Delta after the post-amnesty is completed and lasting peace returns to the region?
We want to be remembered for our passionate desire for peace in our country. We want to be remembered for our contributions which brought about the peace we are enjoying today. We want to be remembered as a Nigerian organization which people never gave any benefit of the doubts that we could do something.
What we are doing in Obubra, for instance the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) process, I am sure that some foreign consultants could not do it in other places. In other countries where you had DDR, especially when you have the ex-combatants in a camp, you experience death, in some places you have a morgue to receive dead bodies.