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While the Niger Delta amnesty could be seen as a ‘modest success’, writes Uche Igwe, it is now time to direct resources towards the pursuit of ‘verifiable physical development in the region’.

The sky was very cloudy that Thursday morning. I decided to go to Lagos after postponing the journey for one week. It has become my habit to take an amateurish look at the weather before heading towards the airport. I have a phobia for flying and so making any journey in country is usually a big task for me. I had arrived the airport with a disposition to spend five hours waiting – no thanks to delays which are now part of the routine of air travels in Nigeria. As I sat absentmindedly by the newspapers vendor, I dozed off. A kind of stampede woke me up an hour later when a certain man arrived in the company of seven uniformed men of the Nigerian police. The rifle-carrying policeman displayed as though he was one of the governors or at least a minister. However, his look did not in any way convey the slightest civility. He had this dirty dark complexion that made me curious. I made a move to inquire about who he was as he worked carelessly into the VIP lounge at the airport of the Nigeria’s capital city, Abuja. He is one of the ex militants, someone whispered. I cannot recall his name but is sounded like one of the south-western states. While I stood wrapped in the wonder of the display, a co-passenger explained to me that it was normal for them to move with an entourage. ‘This one na small, if you go to some states in the Niger Delta you will hardly differentiate the governors’ convoy from that of the militants because they have the same number of exotic cars and they all live in government house,’ he murmured in a very low tone.

The Niger Delta amnesty has been successful, more or less. At least since the federal government granted the unconditional amnesty to the fiery former combatants, there has been relative peace in the area. The incidences of disruption of oil production have reduced considerably and crude oil production figures have been quite impressive. Government revenue has improved and there has been a drastic reduction in the incidences of kidnapping and insecurity in the region. It is still there.

Many businesses that relocated due to security challenges have started returning slowly. Nightlife is coming back in a city like Port Harcourt which was once completely asleep at nightfall. Another indirect benefit of the amnesty is that the just-concluded elections were at least more peaceful than they would have been if there was no amnesty. Many arms (maybe not all) have been mopped up from the region and so there were fewer ‘items’ to use as instruments to cause mayhem. For the first time in many years, elections actually held in some states. Some politicians campaigned and some voting took place. I monitored the elections in some parts of Rivers State and I saw for myself. Before now the militants would decide on behalf of the people. Politicians simply handed cash to them and they took over all the polling stations with their boys and that was it.

Therefore, there are many other reasons to justify the modest success of the amnesty, but a time has come to think beyond the first layer of success and begin to imagine how long this will last. Granted, the deteriorating security situation in the Niger Delta necessitated the urgency to which the amnesty programme was hastily put together in an ad hoc fashion. There is now a need to comprehensively review the programme. Official figures indicate that more that 15,000 ex-militants have been trained. Where will they fit in terms of long-term employment? Is there a provision to get them a job in their area of training or will they be given start-up capital to start their own businesses? Will some of them get scholarships to go back to the universities?

There is this thing about the allowances the ex-militants are collecting, which is fuelling discontent and now makes it seem like an incentive for militancy. So when can we draw a line between militancy and criminality? This has become necessary because no one can rule out the future possibility of a few rag-tag individuals invading the creeks in the name of Niger Delta agitation and starting to ask for another amnesty. What are the incentives for other young people who have not yet taken to militancy but who are also unemployed, desperate and vulnerable? When will the government make a statement that amnesty cannot be a cover for criminality and lawlessness? Where do we draw the line? Is the Nigerian state covertly encouraging the use of violence to register any form of discontent? Are we not heading ominously into a vicious circle?

The Niger Delta agitation was anchored on the issues of marginalisation, environmental despoliation and infrastructural decay and poverty amidst plenty. As far as these conditions still persist, there can never be sustainable peace in the Niger Delta region. The reports of the Niger Delta Technical (Ledum Mitee) Committee must be gathering dust somewhere now. Part of the energy and resources that the government is spending to sustain the amnesty programme interminably can be redirected to pursue verifiable physical development in the region. It is inexcusable that even at a time when we have a president from the region, many of these promises still remain in the pipeline!


* Uche Igwe is based at the Africa Program at Johns Hopkins University (SAIS), Washington DC.
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