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Will Niger Delta amnesty work?
Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua has laid out the details of a 60-day amnesty programme for militants and criminals in the Niger Delta. Under the deal, all gunmen who lay down their weapons during a 60-day period ending in October will be immune from prosecution. The offer extends to those currently being prosecuted for militant-related activities, meaning Henry Okah – the suspected leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) – could also walk free if he agrees to renounce the notion of armed struggle.
Several factional leaders – including Ateke Tom, Farah Dagogo, Soboma George and Boyloaf – have said they accept the idea of amnesty in principle but want talks with President Yar’Adua to hammer out the details.
Advocates say such an amnesty would meet one of the key demands of militant groups and is the only way to bring an end to instability which costs Nigeria billions of dollars in lost oil revenues each year, prevents the development of the very communities the militants claim to represent and causes world energy prices to rise further, which ultimately falls back on the Nigerian consumer.
Critics say amnesty simply provides a get-out-of-jail free card to those responsible for kidnappings, acts of sabotage and banditry and that the promises to re-educate and reintegrate them into civilian society would require years of investment. The government has said it will not offer a “buy back” programme – money for surrendered weapons – but does the scheme reward those who have taken up the armed struggle while leaving peaceful protesters with nothing?
It is not the first time amnesty has been offered to armed gangs in the Niger Delta. Yar’Adua’s predecessor Olusegun Obasanjo struck such an agreement in 2004 with militants including Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, whose Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force turned over thousands of weapons in return for amnesty. But the deal later broke down when some factions accused others of profiting from disarmament at their expense, and Asari was later arrested and charged with treason.
Is Yar’Adua’s amnesty offer a serious attempt at resolving the crisis in the Niger Delta or will it suffer the same fate as the previous amnesty deal? Is it simply an attempt to win political currency for the ruling party in the Niger Delta ahead of elections in 2011? What happens after the amnesty? What hope is there that the resources and political will are there to ensure the longer-term development of the Niger Delta and prevent a resurgence of the cycle of the frustration, unemployment and violence that has characterised the region for so long?