African business, politics and lifestyle
Managing anger in the Niger delta
Much of the news that comes out of the Niger Delta, the vast network of creeks home to Africa’s biggest oil and gas industry, is generated either by militant leaders claiming spectacular attacks on oil industry installations or by the military, keen to publicise its victories flushing out crude oil thieves from camps nestled deep in the mangroves.
Rarely heard are the voices of the “boys” who have taken up arms and make up the rank and file of the militant gangs. Oil theft on an industrial scale or kidnappings for ransom make some of their bosses rich. Peace negotiations see others rewarded with the veneer of political legitimacy and a comfortable new government-funded lifestyle. But the grunts tend to share little of the spoils.
So an initiative to take them out of the militant camps and send them abroad to be immersed in the teachings of non-violent activists from Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela raised – after the initial scepticism – a strong dose of curiosity. After the attempt to “reorientate their psyches”, the candidates would be schooled in skills meant to make them employable once they returned back home.
Would they be convinced that they could renounce violence and still fight for their rights? Did they really believe that theirs was a political struggle or were they simply interested in emulating some of their leaders and growing rich from stolen crude, ransom money and government pay-offs?
There are precedents in West Africa. Former child soldiers in Liberia and Sierra Leone who spent their formative years living by the gun have been reschooled and retrained, some integrated into the national army, others starting lives with newly-learned skills as carpenters or welders.
Negotiators trying to build peace in divided countries such as Ivory Coast or Democratic Republic of Congo have brought former rebels into the fold by making them stakeholders in the future of their countries, with varying degrees of success.
Could the same philosophy of constructive engagement work with the armed youths of the Niger Delta?
Some of the young men waiting in Lagos airport to begin the overseas part of their “reorientation training” reminded me of former child soldiers I had met in Liberia and Sierra Leone, or young Tuareg rebels in northern Mali and Niger. They had similar aspirations as young adults anywhere — to earn a decent living, be able to look after themselves and win respect from their peers.
“Anybody in violence wants out of violence, it’s just a question of finding a way,” one of them, Patrick, commented.
So could the programme work? If, with new skills, these former militants can return home and earn a living, could they persuade others in the community to lay down their weapons? Or is it an expensive waste of money, rewarding former criminals with the sort of opportunities that many in Nigeria can only dream of?