The Nigerian government plans to integrate 3,642 additional former Niger Delta fighters into its amnesty programme, but some ex-militia leaders have denounced the move, saying it excludes the bulk of their disarmed men and will create disagreements and crisis among them.
The plan will bring to 30,000 the total number of ex-combatants of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) participating in the two phases of the 2009 Presidential Amnesty Programme, said Daniel Alabrah, the programme’s spokesman.
The programme has drastically reduced militancy, gun battles among the rebel fighters, foreign oil worker kidnappings and insecurity in the Niger Delta region, where several multinational oil companies operate.
But some rebel chiefs claim that 30,000 other ex-fighters have been left out. Since 2010, the leaders have been demanding a third phase of the amnesty deal, which Alabrah said is not planned.
“We are not comfortable with the 3,642 slots allocated to us…We have agreed that we should mount more pressure on the federal government to increase the number of beneficiaries,” said Ramsey Umukoro, leader of the group of former fighters demanding a so-called ‘Third Phase Amnesty’.
“The number allocated to us cannot take all the ex-militant commanders and their followers in the region. When it happens in this manner, there will be a crisis within the group. It will cause misunderstanding among us,” Umukoro told IRIN.
Alagoa Morris, an activist in the Environmental Rights Action and Friends of the Earth conservation groups, argued that the amnesty programme was not designed to address Niger Delta’s socio-political and developmental problems, but was a method of buying relative peace with the aim of obtaining unhindered access to oil.
“The underlying political priorities driving the amnesty process were narrower than the comprehensive intentions would suggest. The emphasis seems to be more on the immediate objectives of disarmament and demobilization to ensure uninterrupted flow of oil than on a sustainable reintegration process,” Morris told IRIN.
He said that there is no infrastructure or other social development for local communities. Those who suffered injuries at the hands of the militants have not been compensated.
“The general feeling that violence is being rewarded more than those who apply peaceful means to issues is being fronted by some who have seen the amnesty programme as nothing but encouragement of Niger Delta youths to take to arms,” he explained.
A total of 26,358 former MEND fighters have benefitted from the amnesty programme; many have been trained to be welders, carpenters, electricians or other skilled workers for renouncing violence. Many former MEND fighters who downed weapons in the amnesty deal are able to afford a decent standard of living, and some ex-militia commanders are said to be close to senior state officials, even receiving police security and huge allowances.
But those who have not been integrated into the programme remain mired in deep poverty, and some are reported to have returned to oil theft, pipeline vandalism and piracy.
“Life is not easy. Times are hard. I had to travel to my village… to work on one of the building sites. It took me almost four months to have enough money to pay for my one-room apartment,” said former fighter Tamuno Yeri.
Meanwhile, those left out of the amnesty programmes movement into two competing factions. Umukoro, who worked for an ex-militia leader and was arrested in 2011 for blowing up an oil pipe, leads one faction. The other is headed by Kaithy Sese, who claims to have initiated has Third Phase Amnesty in 2010.
“Many groups have sprung up because the third phase of the amnesty will soon be actualized,” said Umukoro. “I’m the authentic leader of the Third Phase Amnesty [movement] for freedom fighters in Niger Delta.” He claimed that the government is behind the divisions in the movement.
But Sese said he was more worried about the plight of some 20,000 former fighters and 500 ex-militia leaders whom he said have been left out of the amnesty programme.
“We are not fighting each other, but fighting the federal government to integrate us in the amnesty programme. I don’t want to fight my brother [Umukoro]. Our condition is bad.”
There are worries that some disgruntled former militants could resume insurgency in the Niger Delta creeks, but amnesty spokesperson Alabrah said that the security forces in the region would remain vigilant.
“What we know is that security agencies in the Niger Delta are aware of the situation and will carry out their duty to check pipelines to ensure law and order in the Niger Delta. Any person who runs afoul of the law would be dealt with accordingly.
“If they clash with security agencies, it is not our business. If they... make threats, are we to start begging them not to go back to the creeks? We are not going to beg anybody if he feels like going back to the creeks,” he said.