By Anayo Onukwugha, Port Harcourt, Kola Eke-Ogiugo, Asaba and Osa Okhomina, Yenagoa.
Since August, 2009 when the Niger Delta militants operating in Rivers State embraced the presidential amnesty offered by the late president, Umaru Musa Yar’adua, the subsequent setting up of the Presidential Amnesty Programme has impacted positively on the lives of the repentant militants and their families in the state.
Many of the youths of Rivers State extraction who embraced the amnesty programme have been empowered through various skill acquisition programmes sponsored by the federal government through the amnesty office, headed by the special adviser to the president on Niger Delta Affairs, Hon Kingsley Kuku.
Those who interested in acquiring higher education are being trained in some of the best schools in and outside Nigeria. The programme has fully paid the fees of national diploma students studying in the United Kingdom, Ukraine, Russia, South Africa and the United States. This kind gesture is to complement the various scholarship programmes embarked upon by the various states.
It is also good to note that some Niger Delta youths are undergoing their postgraduate courses in Russia, Ukraine, and the United States of America. A sizeable number of youths have been sent to South Africa.
A substantial number of youths were also sent to Israel for agricultural training; India, for information and communication technology (ICT) and to Poland, for crane operation and pipeline welding. These are skills that are of strategic economic interest of the nation and the oil-rich Niger Delta region.
It is not just about the conventional training that many people are used to; the scope of the training components is also unique. The entire gamut of skills acquired by the recipients range from ocean diving in Sri-Lanka, under-water welding in Ghana, boat building and sea-faring in the Philippines and piloting in South Africa.
According to a former commander of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) and leader of the Leadership, Peace and Cultural Development Initiatives (LPCDI), Gen Reuben Wilson, “the overriding objective of the amnesty programme is to train an army of middle and high calibre manpower to provide services in the various oil, gas and agro-allied industries. When these people are fortified with skills, the region will not depend on crude oil alone as a source of foreign exchange. Hon Kingsley Kuku was able to achieve this feat because he is generously endowed with a team-building spirit, the right organisational skills, the passion and above all, the right strategy to push the programme beyond traditional frontiers. The wide scope of the training components is also unique. The entire gamut of skills acquired by the recipients range from ocean diving in Sri-Lanka; under-water welding in Ghana, boat building and sea-faring in the Philippines and piloting in South Africa.
“Sure, a lot of people are aware of the wonders of the amnesty programme to the extent that there have been increased oil production and relative peace in the Niger Delta. There are some who may have known that Kuku’s amnesty office is also training the former freedom fighters in educational institutions as outlined above.”
Also, the reduction in violent crime in Rivers State since the militants embraced the presidential amnesty is seen as one of the benefits of the programme as most of the youths who were involved in such anti-social acts have been integrated into the programme, thereby making violence unattractive to them.
The leader of the Association for Non-Violence in the Niger Delta (ANND), Mr Kennedy West said, “let us understand the security situation in Rivers State before the amnesty programme and let us juxtapose it with what we have presently.
“Yes, there are still skeletal security issues; that you cannot take it out. As somebody who knows Rivers State and grew up here, there has been a lot of impact from the amnesty programme, if we had 100 cases of crime before, now we have only about five.
“The amnesty programme is one place where the federal government has made a very bold statement; very bold impression in terms of success record. Roughly now, I think they have about 30,000 ex-agitators that are in the amnesty programme. Out of that 30,000, they have been able to record about 14,000 ex-agitators have graduated from one vocational training and educational training or the other. We still have about 2,000 currently in training.”
However, it is not all former militants in the state that believe that the Presidential Amnesty Programme has impacted positively on them since its inception as the president, Foundation for Peace and Non-Violence in Nigeria (FOFPEN), Onongiye Erekosima, and the leader of Okoloma Igbangi, a defunct militant group based in Bonny, Rivers State, Orinaemi Hart, insisted that those who are supposed to benefit from the programme are not being carried along.
Erekosima said, “the amnesty programme has been hijacked and people are making a lot of money from it. Amnesty is not beneficial to those people who are supposed to benefit from it. Those people who the militants claimed to be representing are not even in the amnesty programme.
“The militants said they are representing their people and fighting for their people but the people that are benefiting are those militants, the people they are representing are not benefiting.”
On his part, Hart, whose fighters did not accept the presidential amnesty until October 2010, said although his group got 500 slots for the N65,000 monthly allowance being paid to ex-militants, officials of the amnesty office has continually paid for only 100 slots, using spurious names and fronts.
He said, “There is rot and massive fraud in the implementation of the amnesty programme. The federal government meant well by creating the office and using it to rehabilitate and empower former militants from the Niger Delta region. However, a lot have gone wrong in the implementation of the programme. That is why we are making this passionate appeal to President Goodluck Jonathan to investigate the operations and management of the amnesty office.
“My group, Okoloma Ikpangi, which was granted amnesty by President Goodluck Jonathan in October 2010, is a victim of some of the underhand tactics employed by some key officials of the amnesty office.”
In Delta State, though violence has diminished, and oil revenues – which dropped at the height of the conflict – have increased, analysts argue that the amnesty programme is flawed and will not lead to long-term peace. In the Delta, former fighters are picking up their guns again and resentment is brewing among those not included.
Under the amnesty, which ran from August to October 2009, militants who handed in their weapons were pardoned for their crimes, trained in non-violence activities and offered vocational training in trades such as welding, in Nigeria and overseas. After attending non-violence training, they are paid $410 per month until they find work. About 26,000 young people have taken the amnesty package.
Most of the participants had been directly or indirectly involved in crimes including attacking oil infrastructure, oil bunkering and kidnapping oil workers. Those in favour of the programme said the reduced violence and improved flow of oil is a clear sign of success but others viewed that the calm will not last. “Boys who accepted amnesty later went back to the creeks and carried guns again,” said Casely Omon-Irabor, a lawyer based in Warri, Delta State, who has represented militant groups for nearly six years.
His clients include leader of the militant Niger Delta Liberation Front, John Togo, who took amnesty but later returned to fighting.
Omon-Irabor said the precarious peace could crumble. “The militants are already back – they just don’t have enough arms yet.”
Violence has declined but has not disappeared. Three civil society leaders in the Niger Delta told LEADERSHIP Weekend they were aware of cases where militants who had taken the amnesty later returned to fighting.
Other former militants are turning their skills to piracy. “A lot of the militancy has simply moved offshore – piracy is the new site for
the armed militants’ activities,” Ben Amunwa, a researcher at Platform, an international human rights NGO, has said.
Root causes overlooked
By not addressing the root causes of the conflict, the amnesty programme could not lead to sustainable peace. “Why did they go to the creeks? Why did they carry guns? Because we believed there was a monumental neglect of the region that produced the oil.
“There is no infrastructure, no roads, development, schools, bridges or employment for the youth, and this is the region that produces the wealth of the nation,” Omon-Irabor pointed out. “When the government wanted to reconcile, we thought they would address the issues (but) they started paying the boys as if that was the issue in the first place,” he added.
Some said the generous cash hand-outs are “buying” peace. Kempare Ebipade, a former militant from Delta State, said he now helps turn thieves and kidnappers in his community over to the authorities, and is keen to find paid work. “Now is the time for peace but if the government stops the payments, (there will be) crisis.
“We have been able to buy peace (but) it is not sustainable – you can’t sustain paying that amount of money,” MOSOP’s Mittee said,
adding that armed resurgence is as “certain as daylight.”
While many youths were happy to take the amnesty with the benefits it offered, in Oporoza, a village in Delta State’s Gbramatu Kingdom, people said they were intimidated into accepting it through extensive military attacks on local communities in May 2009 which left thousands
The chairman of Oporoza community, Elekute Macaulay, said people were frightened of further military attacks if they declined amnesty.
Despite accepting the amnesty and stopping the violence, it did not mean people felt any of the issues had been resolved. “Everybody here is still a freedom fighter,” he stated.
Resentment from those excluded Many militants missed the window from August to October 2009 and were not included in the amnesty programme. According to Niger Delta University’s Idumange, there was widespread suspicion that the offer of amnesty was a trap and those who came forward would be arrested or executed but once the benefits of the programme became apparent, they wanted to join.
The non-profit Stakeholder Democracy Network reported that “former militants” have claimed responsibility for recent attacks on oil facilities in Bayelsa State, saying they were a protest against being left out of the amnesty programme. The government has not given any indication they will consider extending the programme.
According to analysts, ex-militant frustration has been compounded by the many non-militants – some not even from the Delta – who have managed to access the $410 monthly payment, which is over three and half times the national minimum wage.
The way forward
Besides improving development prospects in the Niger Delta region and cleaning up the environment, the government should do all it can to create employment opportunities for young people. Idumange suggested that partnerships be formed with oil companies and the private sector to create jobs.
MOSOP president, Mittee said the amnesty should be just “one part” of a disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) strategy.
DDR experts tend to be dubious about cash incentives and emphasised the need for jobs and long-term integration into civilian life.
In Bayelsa State, former militants opined that unlike the dark days of militancy in the Niger Delta region, the implementation of the amnesty programme by the federal government has led to improved peace and security in the region. While the majority of the ex-militants have resolved to embrace peace and received training in various professional fields, the new crimes being committed along the waterways are sea piracy and illegal oil theft.
LEADERSHIP Weekend gathered that some of those involved in the violent crimes of sea piracy may be ex-militant youths. Police reports showed that such heinous crimes including the killing of 14 policemen at Lorbia community of Southern Ijaw local government of the state was caused by some ex-militant leaders.
But the presidential adviser on Niger Delta Affairs and chairman of the amnesty implementation committee, Hon Kingsley Kuku, during a meeting with ex-militant leaders in the South-South states alleged that some of the violent crimes committed outside the amnesty plan by some ex-militants were part of the plot by anti-Jonathan forces to break the ranks of ex-militants and provoke insecurity in the region ahead of the 2015 elections.
Hon Kingsley Kuku, who was represented at the meeting by the head of reintegration department, Mr Lawrence Pepple, at the official opening of the office of the peace advocacy group known as the Leadership, Peace and Cultural Development Initiative (LPCDI), set up by ex-militant leaders led by Pastor Reuben Wilson said the anti-Goodluck Jonathan forces have infiltrated everywhere including the fold of ex-militants and leadership of foreign oil countries.
According to Kuku, though the meeting of the amnesty committee and the ex-agitators was to inform them of the pattern being adopted by the committee to improve the welfare of ex-agitators, the worrisome report on the activities of the anti-Jonathan forces has been traced to the recent security situations in the region including the killing of some policemen in Bayelsa State.
But some ex-militants are still aggrieved and have dragged the amnesty implementation committee to court.
The suit filed at the Federal High Court, Yenagoa, has fixed November 18 for the commencement of hearing into the suit filed by 18 ex-militants from Bayelsa and Delta states seeking an order compelling Hon Kingsley Kuku and the amnesty committee to honour an agreement reached with the federal government on their inclusion in the amnesty programme.
The suit numbered FHC/YNG/CS/102/2013, filed before Justice I.E. Ekwo, claimed that the aggrieved ex-militants were former militants who had accepted amnesty under the third phase and surrendered their weapons to the federal government through the amnesty office in 2011 under the peace initiative of the federal government.
The aggrieved ex-militants, including Asenekir Oyile, Angiama-Owei Oyindoubra, John Government, John Sawyer, Trydy Okpeke, Dollor Motor, Selebi Ayowei, Bobra Angese, Richman Oyindoubra and Henry Gomeromo, claimed that the amnesty committee erred by refusing to include them in the on-going amnesty programme after series of resolutions from meetings with the past and present national security advisers to the president, the late General Owei Azazi and Col. Dasuki Sambo respectively.