Since the bombings of October 1st 2010 that disrupted the 50th anniversary celebrations, many advocates of the Niger Delta amnesty program have found a reason to rethink their position. Critics have also turned to the interview aired on Aljazeera Channel a few weeks ago as a basis to insist that the claim by Nigerian government that the amnesty program is on course is doubtful and misleading. Instead, many were made to feel that the Niger Delta combatants were still active in the creeks and that there are stockpiles of new “equipment” for more attacks on oil installations. Tongues are already wagging. The renewed threat of the spokesperson of the Movement of Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) Mr. or is it Mrs. Gbomo Jomo in well circulated press releases can easily lead one to a hasty conclusion. But there is a diversity of views on this, just as there exist different narratives on how best to approach the eradication of the conflict itself.

A multi-dimensional conflict!

The complexities of the Niger Delta conflict, is something familiar to very many people. It has got multiple dimensions like an existential octopus - environmental, economic, and political developmental and even strategic. It took several years of denial and blame game before it now became an unavoidable monster. Many of us do recall how the agitations started in the 1990s and how the hostilities grew gradually and took a new astronomical phase in 2006-2008. The conflict escalated leading to massive destruction of oil installations, disruption of oil production, kidnapping of expatriate oil workers (and later indigenous ones), lawlessness and criminality. The national crude oil production figures dropped drastically from almost two million barrels per day to less than one million barrels per day. This was the lowest figure in many years. As a major oil supplier in the Gulf of Guinea, the disruptions in Niger Delta distorted global crude oil supplies. Naturally the prize of crude oil shot up within the period. As a country that depends on crude oil earnings for more than ninety percent of her foreign exchange, budgetary deficits were starring Nigeria straight on the face. Can we say that these combatants are freedom fighters, a bunch of criminals, and disgruntled members of the community or economic saboteurs?

A sub-regional dimension…

As the Niger Delta conflict flourished, it also led to very disturbing regional consequences. The regional waterways in the Gulf of Guinea were no longer considered safe for any form of business including fishing. Mercantile ship movement reduced considerably. Those who dared our regional territorial waters did so with a lot of trepidation. They had to get additional security crew in preparation for any eventuality. It was even alleged that some of the Nigerian combatants based in the Niger Delta creeks were procured in a failed attempt to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea in Malabo on the 17th of February 2009. And the story continues.

How is the amnesty program faring?

It took the decisive action by the Nigerian late President, Umaru Yar’ Adua to grant unconditional amnesty to Niger Delta combatants who renounced militancy and surrendered their arms late last summer. This at least provided a break and paved way for dialogue. Looking at the figures; one will say without equivocation and with a measure of statistical confidence that the amnesty program has been a modest success. Reports from government indicate that oil export figures have improved from 800,000 barrels per day that it was during the hostilities in 2006-2008 to 2.3 million barrels per day in 2010. An increment of 1.5 million barrels per day means that revenue to national coffers increased by a whooping 120.45 million dollars everyday. Majority of the militants have dropped their arms and embraced amnesty – at least if the last Abuja meetings with government were anything to go by. They are now held in training camps where they are being oriented preparatory to re-integration back into civilian society. Kidnapping and hostage taking has considerably reduced. At least, in the Niger Delta, though it is in a rapid increase in the south east zone and other parts of the country. It is my view that it is a remarkable achievement by the current administration in Abuja which has generated considerable goodwill for Nigeria among many international partners and friends. But many activists in the region still see it as a mere window dressing and at best a treatment of the symptoms without a comprehensive diagnosis and political will to decisively treat the systemic malady.

Overcoming present and future challenges

No one is under any illusion that all the arms in the Niger Delta region have all, been surrendered. This is far from the truth and it will be simply naïve to think so. At least if you look at the Aljazeera coverage even if it was a pre-arranged make-believe. The routes for oil theft from the Niger Delta are alleged to be the same through which small arms and light weapons are still being funneled into the creeks. An urgent and comprehensive mop up operation is essential to ensure that any residual stockpiles of arms in the Niger Delta communities are retrieved. Some pundits believe that a United Nations assisted strategy may help as it did in Sierra Leone and Liberia. It is on record that Nigerian peace keepers working under the auspices of ECOMOG assisted in restoring peace in these countries. Though contextual issues might be different, there is a lot to learn from those experiences. Nigerian government can tap into the expertise, neutrality and professionalism of the United Nations in future phases of the amnesty program. Such intervention must have a comprehensive road map and realistic timelines. No doubt that the collection of guns does not immediately restore peace but there is always a starting point. This program as a matter of urgency must be insulated as much as possible from the vagaries of politics and fortified with both official courage and sincerity of purpose.

The repented combatants who have undergone or currently undergoing training must be immediately re-absorbed in areas where they have capacity and competence. A special fund should be set aside as start-up capital for those who are willing to start small and medium enterprises in line with what was agreed ab-initio.

The amnesty program must be seen by this administration as a quick win and a recipe for long term institutional resolution of the conflict in the Delta. A coordinated approach in collaboration with the Niger Delta state governments and the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) will reduce duplication of efforts and maximize available resources for effectiveness. Civil society and community groups must be alert to report early warning signals of conflict or any sudden stock piles of new “equipment”. Residual conflict merchants and saboteurs must be fished out and punished accordingly. The looming eco-catastrophe in the Niger Delta region must be averted by a quick but comprehensive remedial strategy; where those who contributed to the pollution must be made to pay back as it is done in other parts of the world with similar challenges. There is a complex web of issues and we must adopt a listening culture to appreciate how and where their interconnectedness. We must generate comprehensive baseline data to tell us exactly where we are and enable us track progress. Constructive and periodic reports to the media and public are crucial. Pro-activeness must replace reactionary conducts which may be counter productive especially as the 2011 elections approach.

Finally there is consensus that the Niger Delta Technical Committee Report summarizes the yearnings and aspirations of the people of the Niger Delta region. The same government that set up that committee must have the courage to publish a White Paper on its findings and commence earnest implementation of its recommendations.Further inaction will threaten our national prosperity, regional stability and energy future. That is a luxury we cannot afford now. This amnesty program must not fail!

* Uche Igwe is an Africa Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and Visiting Scholar in the Africa Studies Program, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies Johns Hopkins University. He contributed this piece from Washington DC, USA.

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