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In the last few weeks I have had course to follow up with the progress made by the federal government since it pronounced amnesty to the militants on the 25th of June 2009. I must say that the nation has known relative peace especially in the Niger Delta since amnesty was proclaimed. Indeed it has translated to a positive sign in our economy as our oil earnings have improved. At a time countries like Angola had displaced us as Africa’s largest producer of oil due to consequences of the disturbances in the delta. But I had to dig deeper into the implementation process especially after the surrendering of the arms in the context of sustainable peace and development in the region.

As I looked through all the pictures, I became very worried at the lopsided implementation which considered men only in the entire program. I was at a loss at what could have been the reason for this and so I had a course to look the text signed by our late former President on the day of the amnesty and used it to situate the kind of propositions and suggestions I intend to make in this piece. The text read thus " I hereby grant amnesty and unconditional pardon to all persons who have directly and indirectly participated in the commission of offences associated with militant activities in the Niger delta region."

Looking at this declaration, I was very shocked that those who read this declaration understood that the amnesty was granted to the men only. The word "people" seems to mean men and women. But for a long time we have interpreted it in a rather misleading and parochial manner. The program has therefore proceeded so far with only the men militants and completely excluding the female ones. I believe this is totally wrong and unacceptable. I am irreversibly convinced that there are female militants and without sounding legalistic, we ought have properly understood the word people in the amnesty text at the initial time of implementation. And so what is the reason for completely ignoring women even though the Presidential committee had a female spokesperson.

Is an omission or something very deliberate? I had confronted one of my respected Niger delta brothers with this question and he was quite dismissive sighting cultural reasons for non-inclusion of women. And may I ask which culture was he referring to? I was not lucky enough to visit the camps but I reckon that if there are twenty thousand men living there, there must be at least a hundred women or more in their midst either as conscripted or recruited wives, girl friends or concubines. There have been several incidents where the militants attached fisher women gang raped them and took them hostage. Those who visited the camp can confirm this. And so my question is "where are they?" And how come those women do not have a place in this whole exercise. This is very surprising and indeed unacceptable!

I believe that those who conceived and are implementing the amnesty program mean well for the region. I know that amongst them are trusted technocrats drawn from all over the world and so that is why I put this question to them. Is it possible to maintain sustainable peace at community level without involving the women who constitute the majority of the population in these communities? Let us take an excursion to history where we can find ready answers to these burning questions. The first historical fact I find interesting is that Niger delta women were the ones who started organized non violent resistance about the impact of the extractive industry on them. We will recall that between 2002 and 2003 organized women groups from Forcados besieged Chevron platform half naked chanting war songs.

Are these not freedom fighters? How come we forgot all of these so quickly? Is there anything wrong in their non violent approach? These women used a non violent approach to press for their demands and that was what was missing in the last days of what looked like a blend between militancy and criminality. Anyway, the fact remains that women loose more from the impact of oil exploration. While the oil and gas industry employs very few of them, it destroys their farmlands and fishing related livelihoods by pollution. If you look around the Niger delta today you see increasing incidences of breast cancer due to the effect if carcinogenic hydrocarbons. A recent report the Niger Delta University shows that the prevalence of HIV/AIDs among pregnant women attending antenatal at Amossaoma general hospital is approximate four percent.

The list is endless! Lest I forget, I stumbled unto this piece that shows that most of the militant leaders in the Niger delta are products of either single parents or broken homes. And so how else do you define militancy? Prostitution, single parentage, HIV/AIDs are all part of the problem "directly and indirectly". A program for sustainable peace in the Niger delta such as this must be integrated and inclusive. It must address the heterogeneity and peculiarities of community life. It cannot have any meaningful impact by excluding women. My position is that women must be integrated into the amnesty program as a matter of urgency. After all it takes two to tango!

Uche Igwe is a visiting scholar at the Africa Program at Johns Hopkins University contributed this piece from Washington DC, USA.

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