Sunday, September 27, 2009

This Amnesty Deal Must Not Fail !

Before President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua declared amnesty for all Niger Delta militants on June 25, 2009, Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND) and other disparate groups had made the Nigeria’s oil producing region near ungovernable due to the fierce armed struggle the militants engaged in against the Nigerian state. Not even the bombardment of Gbaramatu Kingdom in May 2009 in which about 53 communities were allegedly destroyed deterred the militants from avenging the attack on their communities. MEND on the night of July 12 struck with military precision on the Atlas Cove Jetty in Lagos killing about five security men on duty and reducing the jetty to rubbles. Before the attack in Lagos, oil pipelines had became a toy in the hands of the militants as they vandalise it at will while also taking oil workers hostage and institutionalising the culture of ransom kidnapping which has now spread to other parts of the country. Unrest in the oil-producing Niger Delta had reduced Nigeria’s crude production with daily output standing at about 1.7 million barrels, from the 2.6 million bpd in 2006.

In fairness to President Yar’Adua, he meant well for Niger Delta and seems to be taking the right steps in resolving the age-long neglect of the region. Not only did he make it one of his 7 Point Agenda; in his two years in office, the president has created a Niger Delta Ministry while also increasing funding for the Niger Delta Development Corporation (NDDC). A Presidential Panel on Amnesty and Disarmament of Militants in the Niger Delta was set up on May 5, 2009 to work out details of the amnesty programme which he later made public on June 25. Under the amnesty, the militants are to turn in their arms at designated centres and register for rehabilitation and reintegration programmes. The amnesty period is August 6 - October 4, 2009. About 10,000 militants are expected to take advantage of the amnesty. To demonstrate his genuine intention, the president through the Attorney General and Minister of Justice on July 13, 2009 discontinued the trial of MEND leader, Henry Okah who had been standing trial for alleged gun-running and treason.

However, since the announcement of the amnesty deal, some issues have cropped up which have threatened the success of the amnesty plan. The first was when South-South Governors’ Forum on July 23, 2009 threatened to pull out of the amnesty deal on the ground that the Petroleum Industry Bill, which seeks to reform the oil sector, does not take care of the interest of host communities. They also kicked against the reported movement of the proposed University of Petroleum from Effurun, Delta State, to Kaduna State while also alleging that the Federal Government does not have any concrete post-amnesty plan on the ground. President Yar’Adua met with the aggrieved governors and amicably resolved the issues with them.

The second major hiccup was when on September 4, 7, and 25, 2009 hundreds of militants took to the streets of Yenagoa, Bayelsa State to protest their alleged neglect by the state government and the Presidential Amnesty Committee. The ex-insurgents kicked against being housed in dilapidated building in rehabilitation centres and threatened to go back to the creeks to resume their 'struggle' if they are not paid their allowances. On August 7, 2009, Governor Timipre Sylva had shepherded about 32 militants to meet President Yar’Adua ahead of the formal submission of their arsenal at a well publicised event on August 22 in Yenagoa.

Perhaps, the greatest threat to the amnesty deal is the frosty relationship and muscle flexing between two Timis. The administration of Timipre Sylva, Governor of Bayelsa State has accused the Honourary Special Adviser to the President on Niger Delta Matters, Mr. Ndutimi Alaibe of undermining his authority. The Secretary to the Bayelsa State Government had in a reaction to the disarmament that took place at Azuzuma, Bayelsa State accused Alaibe of introducing politics into the amnesty exercise. The SSG also said the protest in Yenagoa is politically motivated to erode the gains recorded by his governor in the amnesty programme. It is an open secret that Timi Alaibe has his eyes fixed on the governorship of Bayelsa State and would want to make capital political gain of his present position. However, the issue at hand needs to be dispassionately tackled so that the amnesty deal does not get scuttled. There is need for the two Timis to sheath their swords and work together in the larger interest of Nigeria and their Niger Delta region.

It would be recalled that on September 6, 2009, thirty-year-old South Wing Commander of the MEND, Mr. Kile Selky Torughedi, a.k.a 'Young Shall Grow' submitted a large cache of weapons to Timi Alaibe. They included assorted guns and rifles, grenade launcher chargers, grenades, dynamites, bombs and gun boats. He claimed he had 350 fighters and that he speaks French and has soldiers from Liberia and Gabon. In footage of his village shown on Africa Independent Television (AIT) on September 17, I saw a Nursery school founded and funded by Kile as well as old women he engages on environmental sanitation on N10, 000 monthly salaries each. Talk of failure of governance!

With few days to the October 4 deadline for militants to embrace disarmament, the deal has recorded modest success in that less than a thousand of the expected 10,000 militants have so far laid down their arms as at the time of writing this piece. The reason behind this is not farfetched. With all sorts of complaints from those who were quick to accept the offer; the majority left in the creeks have their doubts about the sincerity of government on the amnesty programme. It is therefore high time the Presidential Committee on Amnesty became more proactive in resolving all outstanding challenges be it funding, logistics or political. This amnesty deal must not be allowed to fail for there may not be another chance for government to show sincerity of purpose in resolving the Niger Delta question. Now that MEND has extended its unilateral 60 days ceasefire which ended on September 15, 2009 by another 30 days, all hands must be on deck to ensure that the doubting militants are convinced to lay down their arms and embrace the amnesty deal. If need be the amnesty period should be extended. Above all, there must be immediate and sustained development of the Niger Delta region. This is the only way Nigeria can avoid a relapse into anarchy.