Nigeria’s restive delta a threat to Jonathan

AT A disused military compound in Obubra, north of Nigeria’s south-eastern city of Calabar, hundreds of men in white baseball caps emblazoned with the word “amnesty” are taking an unusual exam. They are being tested on peace and love.

 

 

“If you dey [are] together for one place and you get food to eat, you must share it together,” explains Okotie Daniel, a student, to an oral examiner; though 29, he is unable to complete the written test. It is on the likes of Daniel that Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria’s president, depends for enhancing his reputation as a peacemaker, which could help him to clinch victory in the presidential election due on April 9th.

Daniel and his classmates are former militants from Nigeria’s Niger Delta, which lies above Africa’s biggest oil and gas reserves. In a campaign for a larger share of the vast revenues from these resources, local gangs in recent years have blown up foreign oil groups’ pipelines and kidnapped expatriate staff. The consequent drastic drop in oil output has hit energy giants such as Royal Dutch Shell and America’s ExxonMobil that operate in the region, as well as customers at petrol pumps around the world.

For most of 2010 an edgy calm prevailed. Thousands of insurgents agreed to a three-stage programme by laying down their arms, attending a “non-violence course” in Obubra, and doing vocational training as part of an amnesty that began 18 months ago. Yet, even as this batch of former fighters took their exams in December, Nigeria’s army was battling fresh militant camps in nearby Delta state.

Depressingly for Jonathan, new rebel leaders have been springing up to replace an old guard bought off in the amnesty of 2009. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend), one of the area’s main armed groups, was supposed to have been part of the deal.

But no sooner had its leaders signed up than new ones came to the fore who rejected the amnesty. Mend declared over Christmas that it would consider accepting a new amnesty in 2011, but it has a habit of changing its mind; factions within Mend often dissent from the leadership’s view.

One recalcitrant figure is Tamunotonye Kuna, known as Commander Obese. He is accused of masterminding the abduction of 19 oil and construction workers in separate attacks on offshore oil-rigs in November. He has since been arrested and the hostages released. But John Togo, another new rejectionist rebel, is proving harder to catch. He is the suspected leader of the Niger Delta Liberation Force, another gang, which has claimed responsibility for a rash of pipeline attacks in recent weeks.

Few Delta residents and observers have been optimistic about the amnesty. But some now think the peace deal may be making matters worse by creating a warped career path that rewards the insurgents without bringing real stability. Militants who catch the government’s attention and then agree to drop their guns get monthly stipends of 65 000 naira (US$423), nearly nine times the official minimum wage.

Commanders in charge of distributing these stipends often pocket the cash, earning even more for themselves while seeking to keep their hold over the fighters, who may be tempted to revert to robbery and violence in the creeks. “A crucial part of [the scheme] is breaking the militant groups’ structure,” says Austin Onuoha, a private consultant to the government. “But how has anything really changed?”

As the polls approach, jobless youths may be forced to reconsider their traditional role as hired thugs for local politicians, which often becomes a route back to lawless militancy. Allen Onyema, who runs the non-violence course, says a long-term plan for ex-militants is vital. “Politicians are ready to recruit them…election year is coming,” he says. “Even while at Obubra, the boys are receiving calls to do one thing or another. Sometimes they play it on speaker-phone for us to hear.” It is a message Jonathan could well heed too. –– Economist.

Top