The amnesty albatross

The Amnesty Programme, initiated by the Federal Government in 2009 to provide vocational training and stipends to repentant militants in order to halt restiveness and persistent attacks on oil and gas facilities in the Niger Delta region, may soon be on the rocks, as the programme is battling with shortage of funds, the implication of lack of fund to the programme and the current peace in the region and how the possible rupturing of peace can be averted in the region.

AT a time things seem to be falling in place as earnestly expected by the Federal Government owing to the present relative peace in the Niger Delta region, frantic and genuine efforts must be made to prevent a relapse in the peace initiative.

Late 2016, the Federal Government presented the 2017 budget to the National Assembly and, in it, it earmarked N65 billion for the continued implementation of the Presidential Amnesty Programme for hitherto repentant militants in the Niger Delta region.

President Muhammadu Buhari had said that the allocation for the Amnesty Programme was increased, as against previous years’, to N65 billion in the 2017 budget to engender peace and promote rapid economic activities.

The budget estimate was made “for activities that will foster a safe and conducive atmosphere for the pursuit of economic and social activities,” buhari said.

However, three months into the 2017 fiscal year, Special Adviser to the President and Coordinator of the Presidential Amnesty Programme, Brigadier-General Paul Boroh, recently disclosed that the initiative might be heading for the rocks due to insolvency. He reportedly said that the Presidential Amnesty Office was struggling with a shortfall of funds to continue with the payment of monthly stipends and maintenance of vocational training of former militants.

Boroh, a retired military officer, did not mince words when he added that payment of tuition fees of the former militants, who are studying in local and international universities, had also suffered some setbacks.

However, curious stakeholders are not sure if this information actually emanated from the desk of the Presidential Amnesty Programme boss, given the advanced stage the ongoing negotiations have gone amid assurances by Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo during his fact-finding missions on the FG’s commitment to having peace reign in the region.

Such information could stir up another round of protests and agitations from the region if one could only recall that the oil production in the country just recently picked up from the abysmal production output of about 1.1 million barrels per day in 2016 to 2.2 million bpd, a situation, the vice-president claimed was the cause of the country’s recession.

 

IYC’s opposition to the 2017 amnesty budget

The Ijaw Youth Council (IYC),Worldwide had earlier kicked against the N65 billion budgeted for the Amnesty Programme, noting that it would not abate the crisis in the region. The then spokesman for the youth council (now a factional president), Mr. Eric Omare, asked people of the region not to rejoice over the increase from N20 billion to N65 billion.

His argument was that the leap in the provision would only enable the Federal Government to meet its targeted daily output of oil from the region, a strategy he described as exploitative.

Omare advised people of the region to shift their attention to the amount budgeted and released to the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), Ministry of the Niger Delta, and the Federal Ministry of Works, which are saddled with the responsibility of executing developmental projects in the oil-rich coastal areas.

 

Trappings of the Pre-Amnesty era

The situation that pervaded the pre-amnesty era of the Niger Delta region is not somewhat pleasant for an encore. The region was a “war” zone as militants, such as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF) and Niger Delta Vigilante, held sway venting their anger against injustice, marginalisation, squalor, longtime neglect and environmental degradation, among others.

These groups, which emerged around 2006 at the twilight of the Chief Olusegun Obasanjo-led administration, were notorious for their violent attacks on oil and gas installations and kidnapping of oil employees of oil companies, especially expatriates, for ransom. The hostility, besides violence, crippled the country’s production and exportation of crude oil to the international market.

 

Impacts of the Amnesty

The emergence of late Alhaji Umaru Yar’Adua as Nigeria’s president in 2007 prepared the ground for a possible respite, being a liberal and socialist democrat. He swiftly initiated a genuine process of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programme, which was locally christened the Presidential Amnesty Programme.

Designed to halt arms-bearing and destruction of oil and gas assets, and with its main objective as to disarm, demobilise and reintegrate armed militants back into their communities, the world thought an end had, come to the monster which had left the nation’s oil economy hemorrhaged. Under the programme, monthly stipend of N65,000 was paid to each militant and some others, who also gave up their weapons, got engaged in vocational trainings of choice and scholarships to study in higher institutions home and abroad.

Leaders of the militant groups, such as Alhaji Mujahideen Dokubo-Asari and Chief Government Ekpemupolo, also known as Tompolo, had unrestricted access to enormously sumptuous oil surveillance contracts in the oil industry and other sectors of the economy. With opulence at their beck and call, many of them gained unrestrained access to the corridors of power and commanded so much affluence and influence that they began to pontificate on who should occupy political positions.

Of a truth, many graduates from the vocational trainings and educational higher institutions are now either engaged in companies, given employments in government establishments or are self-employed. Of worthy mention was the recent disclosure by Brigadier General Boroh in Abuja that a total of 454 of militants, under the scheme, had graduated from British universities, with 20 of them bagging first class and 41 second class upper degrees.

Initially, the programme brought much relief and invariably, a sharp reduction in the destruction of oil and gas assets, but in no distant time, cracks in the deal began to emerge under former President Goodluck Jonathan. There was a growing outrage for the inclusion of alleged leftover militants which they said should signal the third phase of the amnesty. Many of them, having seen the stupendous wealth their leaders had acquired, wanted to use some means to ascend the ladder of wealth.

 

Buhari’s body language and the amnesty albatross

The Amnesty Programme, even after the demise of President Yar’Adua in 2010, was continued by his deputy and successor, Dr Goodluck Jonathan, who incidentally hails from the Niger Delta region. As best as he could, he funded the programme, but could not move to the next phase of the programme, which included giving developmental uplift to the impoverished coastal region. As of May 2015, due to a sharp decline in oil prices at the international market, difficulty in funding the programme became glaring. It was during this period that monthly stipend suffered suspension, thereby reigniting tensions as a large number of  former militants remain unemployed and largely dependent on the monthly allowances.

It was at this period that President Buhari took over the reigns of power, just as the suspicion that he might scrap the programme became rife through his comments and reactions to issues relating to the region, where his main challenger at the 2015 presidential election, Dr Jonathan, came from. Buhari was quoted as saying during one of his visits to the United States at the instance of former President Barack Obama, that his attention would be focussed on parts of the country whose votes brought him to power. The perceived  unpleasant antecedents of President Buhari, and the attitude of some of his cabinet members, all clustered to make aggrieved militants and their sympathisers in the region, to conclude that the situation was back to the pre-amnesty era. The disparaging statement against the Ijaws of Gbaramatu as regards the embattled Nigeria Maritime University (NMU), Okerenkoko, by Minister of Transport, Mr Rotimi Amaechi, did not especially go down well with the people, who felt the new government was against the region.

 

Consequences

The consequences are better imagined as between January and August of 2016, new militants groups under the aegis of the Niger Delta Avengers (NDA), the Niger Delta Greenland Justice Movement (NDGJM), the Red Scorpions, among others, emerged with new recruitments of more aggrieved youths.

The groups attacked the region’s oil infrastructure, which led to a reduction of Nigeria’s oil production from 2.2 million to about 1.1 million barrels per day in 2016, and the subsequent economic recession. This further complicated the country’s growing financial and economic concerns and challenges, and all attempts made to use a violent, military option, to curtail the new militant groups proved abortive as the boys continued to evade direct confrontation with the military troops who are hardly familiar with the coastal terrains.

Worsening the case, elders and other stakeholders in the region could not come together to stand and speak formidably to the federal government on their grievances and the way forward. At a point, the militant groups were divided against themselves as hitherto proscribed groups such as MEND resurfaced to attempt to take the lead ahead of the NDA in negotiations with the FG.

Respite, however, came when Ijaw leader, Chief Edwin Clark, assembled stakeholders from every part of the region to deliberate and find a common front to negotiate peace between the FG and the militants. The stakeholders forum, comprising representatives of youths and all ethnic nationalities and traditional rulers from the region, metamorphosed into the Pan Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF) which eventually harmonised the grievances of all the militant groups and presented same to President Buhari on November 1, 2016. Top in the list of demands were the call for true federalism, de-proscription of the maritime university, de-escalation of the Niger Delta through the withdrawal of troops, and the relocation of administrative headquarters of oil companies to the Niger Delta region, among others.

 

Gains under Osinbajo as Acting President

Hope came to the Niger Delta towards the end of January and early March 2017 as Osinbajo, who, in acting capacity as president, embarked on a peace and fact-finding mission to states in the Niger Delta starting from the oil-rich Delta State. His visit, according to Alaowei Cleric, a lawyer and National a President of the Foundation for Human Rights and Anti-Corruption Crusade (FHRACC), “has not only built confidence in the mind of the people, but has also secured a means to achieve lasting peace in the region.”

Obviously, peace has returned to the region and dynamites are no longer rocking the oil and gas pipelines, as evidenced in the increase in crude oil production and exportation as attested to by the vice-president. Acting Secretary of the Gbaramatu Traditional Council, Chief Godspower Gbenekama, who expressed joy at the relative peace and improvement in oil production, however, enjoined government to do the needful. According to him, the region is now nervously waiting to see the Federal Government “walking the talk.”

Traditional monarch of Gbaramatu kingdom, HRM Oboro-Gbaraun II, Aketekpe, Agadagba, expressed similar feelings, but admonished FG not to take the prevailing peace for granted by acting swiftly to maintain it.

“The visit of the vice-president was an eye opener, as it gave him the opportunity to see things for himself in the region. We are faced with many problems in the region as contained in various addresses presented to him during his visit. The government should not just celebrate the relative peace and the high crude oil production in the region right now, but also give attention to the numerous problems confronting the people.

“We encourage FG to fast-track the process by implementing the short and medium term goals as well as draw up plans to develop the region,” the Pere of Gbaramatu noted during his one-year anniversary held at Oporoza, headquarters of the Gbaramatu kingdom, on March 15.

 

Boroh’s concerns on 2017 budget on amnesty Programme

The fears expressed by the amnesty boss, Brigadier General Boroh, could be genuine and calls for concerns if the region will not relapse into chaos and anarchy again. If N65 billion has been budgeted for the Amnesty Programme in 2017, why shouldn’t the FG muster more efforts and prioritise its funding discreetly, knowing the importance of the beneficiary region to the nation’s economy?

According to Tarila Marclint Ebiede, a researcher at University of Leuven, in an article, there’s need for the FG to eschew a new amnesty overtures that emphasises on cash payment to former militants and “focus on underlying issues such as the development deficits and environmental pollution affecting communities.

“In the long run, the government should design transparent mechanisms which include local communities in the governance of oil production which reduce the tensions that provide justification for militancy in the region,” he stated.

 

Stakeholders speak on Boroh’s fears

Factional National President of the IYC, Comrade Eric Omare, in a chat with Sunday Tribune, said, although the economy has been down, the problem of the amnesty programme is not the budgetary provision, but releasing the amount of money budgeted for by the FG as and when due. He said being a security programme, the amnesty should be prioritised and the FG should stop saying that there’s no money.

Speaking on the 1,770 participants being engaged in vocational trainings, which Boroh said were being affected by the inadequate funding of the budget, Omare said the implications could not be far to seek.

“It has a far-reaching implication as their future ambitions are being frustrated. I’m aware of some students abroad who have been sent back home because they can’t pay. But I don’t want to believe that there’s no money. It’s a matter of priority.

“It’s possible that since Jonathan started the programme, the present crops of people are still thinking the programme is not their priority, but we would call on government not to sacrifice the future of young Niger Delta youths in the guise of ego,” he said, adding that, the fears expressed by Brig-Gen. Boroh is uncalled for.

“His fear is being expressed in bad light as there is nothing to fear about the paucity of funds in the Amnesty Programme. We view his comment to be incisive as some unscrupulous elements may use it as a bait to foment strife in the region should the government fail to pay the beneficiaries for some months. General Boroh’s demeanour smacks of a good administrator. The office he is occupying is too sensitive to be making these kind of comments,” he fumed.

“As far as the Federal Government is showing genuine commitment to address the demands of the region, what is happening in the amnesty office can never threaten peace. After all, the programme has an expiry date. Nobody will take the law into his hands because of the non-payment of the Amnesty benefits,” he averred.

Cleric appealed to leaders in the region to take some proactive steps to prevail on the youths not to take advantage of the financial crisis in the Amnesty Programme to kick-start another round of strife in the region.

“The youth should not do anything that can capable of truncating the existing peace in the region. PANDEF and other stakeholders who have the mandate to speak for the region should take responsibility in ensuring peace in the region while the Government is finding a way out to address the issues.”

Comrade Austin Ozobo, National President of Ijaw People’s Development Initiatve (IPDI), also decried the situation in which amnesty beneficiaries have suffered hardship due to non-payment of bills either as amnesty monthly stipend or students and apprentices in higher institutions and under vocational trainings.

“This is a bad omen and it is a bad signal, especially now that the country is in dire need of peace. If we are not careful, this may cripple the ongoing peace effort of the government in the region,” Ozobo warned.

He advised the FG to stop playing politics with the amnesty programme, if the tactical comment from Boroh, which he condemned, is anything to take serious.

 

FG’s recent commendable effort

The most recent development that gave a ray of hope to the sustenance of the already achieved peace in the Niger Delta region, however, was the directives issued to accelerate the implementation of FG’s  vision for the development of the Niger Delta.

Vice-President Osinbajo, in the statement, said, “to this end, the government has given all contractors including those handling Niger Delta Development Commission’s projects in the region a 30-day ultimatum from Tuesday March 21, to return to site or face prosecution.”

The statement specifically directed that the list of all contractors who defy the order of the stipulated period should be compiled and submitted to the Ministry of Justice and the Economic & Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) for investigation and prosecution.

Reports on the progress of the ongoing Ogoni Clean Up in Rivers State was also part of the instructions given to the Ministry of Environment to oversee.

If these new developments are anything to go by, a final moment of relief from upheavals and agitations in the Niger Delta may just be lurking around provided the FG shows sincerity and commitments to act as it has spoken.

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