Niger Delta Crisis: Militants at Daggers Drawn over Amnesty


Although the leading militant group - Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) has welcome the unconditional amnesty offer of President Umaru Musa Yar'adua, and the release of its leader Henry Okah, the Niger Delta Peoples Salvation Front (NDPSF) headed by Alhaji Mujaheed Asari Dokubo rejected the amnesty arguing that since none of its members had been convicted of any criminal offence, there was no basis for them to accept the amnesty.

In a telling illustration of the deep fissures within the movement, the NDPSF condemned the criminality in the Niger Delta region for which they said the amnesty was offered. In an apparent reference to MEND, which has been blowing up pipelines in the Niger Delta, the NDPSF said they do not believe in destroying pipelines which negatively impacts the environment, adding that; “the amnesty will not usher in the expected peace since those who took guns for the protection of the region later turned them against the people they were supposed to protect.”

Under the offer of amnesty, the detained MEND leader, Henry Okah is expected to meet President Yar'Adua; sequel to his release. However, most of the militants, including MEND, for whom the amnesty package was configured, have been sending out mixed signals.

MEND Spokesman, Gbomo Jomo, in a statement via e-mail restated its lack of confidence in the amnesty “since it did not give room for dialogue especially to allow MEND ventilate on issues that led to the armed agitation in the first place…“MEND does not believe the current amnesty offer is directed at freedom fighters because there is no room for any form of dialogue and the issues that provoked armed agitation were never featured. “We support Henry Okah's decision to accept the deal… We consider his acceptance of whatever was presented to him as the first prescription towards his medical treatment. We will do the same in his circumstance… since he has no weapons to surrender, the deal should be a straight forward one except the government has another trick up its sleeve,” MEND said.

In their inconsistent reactions to the amnesty, most of the militants appear to be treating the amnesty with characteristic derision. No sooner did Yar'Adua announce the amnesty with presidential panache than the militants intensified their bombing campaigns against oil facilities. It's like the activists are telling Yar'Adua to take his amnesty offer and to go jump into the Warri creek. They don't believe the messenger, let alone the message.

For all its talk about its commitment to peace in the Niger Delta region, how could the government believe that the amnesty carrot would be so crunchy and tasty enough to lure the activists to disarm? The Niger Delta militants are no fools. Who, in their right mind, would abandon militancy that yields better income from kidnapping and blowing up of oil facilities, in exchange for an empty promise to return to society where nothing is guaranteed, not even the safety of the "reformed" militants, and not even the regular minimum wage?

The amnesty has opened a breach between former leaders of the Ijaw community and MEND who are mainly Ijaws. The historic Ijaw leader and former federal information minister, chief Edwin Clark, argued that the government's olive branch, which included Okah's release was generous and that the movement should accept it. MEND rejected the amnesty explaining that the conflict is now regional in scale rather than merely a matter for Ijaws. Since its first attacks in 2006, MEND's strategy has been to appear to defend a region and all of its inhabitants. MEND's differs with that of movements in the 1990's like the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) which defended a single ethnic community.

Attractive as the amnesty carrot appears, there are problems. Other than the man or woman who goes by the name of "Gbomo Jomo" who has carved out an image as the official MEND spokesperson, the government has no clear idea about the characteristics of the other disparate groups in the region. The ill-defined nature of the leadership of the various groups in the Niger Delta also implies there is no identifiable command structure on which the government can lean to push for negotiations.

In the past, some local community leaders had identified themselves as the authentic representatives of the groups in the Niger Delta only for the real warlords to emerge and scuttle official agreements made between the government and community leaders. So far, there seems to be no particular authority figure around whom all other interest groups could rally. There's Ateke Tom, Asari Dokubo and the rest but none commands the same authority and credibility of all the groups in the region as Ken Saro-Wiwa did when he was alive.

In the ensuing battle for recognition and leadership, it will not be easy to find one such leader in light of the countless objectives that drive the activities of the different groups. To pass the leadership test and untangle the Niger Delta crisis, unity is paramount in terms of unified leadership and common goals.

All the stakeholders in the Niger Delta have recommended that the Federal Government should confront the developmental and social security challenges that had plagued the region. The Chairman of the Technical Committee on Niger Delta, Ledum Mitee, who leads the Movement for Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), expressed concern that in as much as concerned citizens craved for peace in the Niger Delta and were desirous to help in the problem, there seemed to be a deliberate attempt to avoid the core issues that precipitated militancy in the first place.

As part of the confidence building process, the former President of the Ijaw Youth Council (IYC), Dr. Felix Tuodulo, urged the government to release all suspected militants currently in detention and/or standing trial to demonstrate its genuine commitment to the peace process. Tuodulo, now a lecturer at the University of Liverpool, insisted that Nigeria should get the UN involved in the disarmament process. He flawed the non-inclusion of the various ethnic nationality groups (of the Niger Delta) in the Presidential Committee on Amnesty Implementation.

On his part, former member; House of Representatives, Mr. Uche Onyeagocha, the lead legal counsel to the leader of the Niger Delta Vigilante, Ateke Tom, said while his client has indicated his willingness to disarm and embrace the amnesty, he was worried that the Joint Task Force (JTF) has continued to occupy his property in Okrika. Onyeagocha advised the committee to ensure it meets with the genuine insurgents in the Niger Delta and avoid a situation when those who were only interested in sharing the estimated N50 billion for amnesty would lead them to non-combatants.

The President of the Ijaw Youth Council, Dr. Chris Ekiyor, said for the amnesty to work and for the people involved to take government seriously, the Yar'Adua administration must rise above the temptation of destructive selfishness to a creative altruism. Ekiyor said forgiveness, in terms of amnesty, must not be a belated attempt by the government to save oil investment, rather than a genuine effort to redeem the environment and respect the rights of the Niger Delta people. He demanded that the JTF must be withdrawn to the barracks.

Nonetheless, Dokubo-Asari, faulted the blanket amnesty arguing that under Section 175 of the 1999 Constitution the President lacks the quo warranto and does not have the powers to expressly grant amnesty before the sentence and/or conviction of any of the militants.

But the National Association of Ijaw Female Students (NAIFS) applauded the gesture. NAIFS' president, Florence Kalio, commended the government for offering to grant amnesty to militants in the Niger Delta and prayed that it was genuine. She urged the militants, who she referred to as freedom fighters, to appreciate this gesture and embrace it so that the development of the region could commence in earnest.

For militants who have been repeatedly bombarded, hunted and shot at like feral animals fit for consumption as pepper soup, it will take more than just preaching from Yar'Adua's amnesty pulpit to get them to repent and return en masse.

Part of the reason why many people do not take seriously the government's talk about its commitment to resolve the conflict peacefully has to do with the constant shifts and turns by the government. The public has also lost count of the numerous times that Niger Delta activists pledged to disarm or observe a period of ceasefire which they never respected.

Exactly one year ago, the activists succeeded in provoking Yar'Adua to the point that he ordered the military to use force of any magnitude to deal with the rebels. This toughening of the government's position followed the successful blowing up (in June 2008) of the Bonga oil field operated by Shell Petroleum Development Company. The recent decision by the government to procure gun-battle manta boats, paid for by the NNPC is a telling indication that Yar'adua's patience might be running out.

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