Wednesday, 27th September 2023

Amnesty deal on trial

By Onajomo Orere (Lagos) and Kelvin Ebiri (Port Harcourt)
25 December 2009   |   5:53 am
Main "freedom fighters" in the Niger Delta, Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), and stakeholders dispute veracity of warning strike in Rivers State   CONTROVERSY is brewing if indeed, the self-styled freedom fighters in the Niger Delta, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), actually attacked a Shell/Chevron crude oil pipeline in River State at the weekend, which could put to test the amnesty and it's peace.

Spokesperson of MEND, Jomo Gbomo, which is yet to accept the Federal Government’s amnesty has repeatedly vowed to continue the arms struggle until government addresses the issues of ethnic domination, subjugation and dispossession of ethnic minorities in the Niger Delta of their natural resources including land, which have become the hallmark of the region


Last week, MEND in an online interview with The Guardian said that the absence of President Umaru Yar’Adua from the country for about one month, has made it impossible for its appointed negotiating Aaron Team comprising of Vice Admiral Mike Akhigbe, Prof. Wole Soyinka, Maj.-Gen. Luke Kakadu (rtd) and Prof. Sabella Ogbobode Abidde, to meet with the government after the first exploratory meeting last month.

Gbomo had said, “at this point in time, the fragile peace process is hanging on to the thin thread of a ceasefire. Our demands have not been addressed because there is dialogue on-going. We expect that when the President returns or if we find ourselves with another president, the process must continue with the current tempo and enthusiasm or else the peace talks may collapse and the unrest will resume.”

And barely a few days after, MEND alleged that 35 of its armed fighters on Saturday launched what it called a “warning strike” to protest delay in talks with the Federal Government.

Gbomo alleged that the attack was carried out because, while the Nigerian government has conveniently tied the advancement of talks on the demands of MEND to President Yar’Adua who is outside the country, but it has not tied the repair of pipelines, exploitation of oil and gas as well as the deployment and re-tooling of troops under the aegis of the Joint Task Force (JTF) in the region to the president’s ill health.

Gbomo said: “While wishing the president a speedy recovery, a situation where the future of the Niger Delta is tied to the health and well being of one man is unacceptable.”

But the veracity of MEND’s attack is yet to be proven by Shell/Chevron and security agencies. In fact, the Commander of the JTF’s Operation Restore Hope, Maj.-Gen. Sarki-Yarki Bello, in a text message to The Guardian said: “No confirmation yet.” While Shell’s spokesman, Mr. Precious Okolobo said: “We don’t have reports of our facility being attacked, and cannot comment”.

Government has directed security agencies to investigate the claim of a fresh attack.

In an online interview yesterday, Gbomo maintained that the reason no stakeholder has been able to spot the breeched pipeline might be because “they perceive it will expose the lie about the amnesty bringing peace to the region when the root issues are being swept under the carpet. Depending on the tide, that pipeline can remain submerged or visible”.

The group’s spokesman went on to describe the features of the pipeline:

“That pipeline runs behind the Abonemma community and has been cordoned off by soldiers who know where the breach occurred. The location is some few metres away from the JTF Headquarters in the area. The noise of the explosion shook the community and the JTF cannot say they had their ear plugs on at the time of the explosion”.

Why do you think it is difficult for oil workers/security agencies to locate the spot your group claimed to have sabotaged?

Gbomo replied: “The breach has been located. What you are witnessing is a cover-up”.

Former commanders of MEND and other militant elements doubt that an attack actually took place?

That is the beauty of the new MEND structure.

What exactly was this latest action of your group meant to achieve?

It is meant to discourage complacency on the part of the government and like our statement clearly explains, we cannot allow the talks on the region to be tied to one individual’s availability.

How do you feel President Yar’Adua who so much believe in MEND would feel when he learns of your latest action, if, in indeed, it is true?

He may be disappointed but not surprised. He should have known by now that we are not contract-seeking freedom fighters and as such the approach in dealing with our demands will have to be handled differently from the others. Besides, this is only a warning that talks must continue without being tied to his availability.

You claimed in the message announcing the sabotage last Saturday that the Federal Government is re-arming and re-tooling its armed forces. To do what?

To ensure the flow of oil and gas, and to occupy the land that has been taken from us by force while using dialogue as a convenient delay tactics.

Every Nigerian is happy that there is peace now in the Niger Delta. Do you think there would be public sympathy to your renewed cause?

There is a difference between genuine peace when issues have been resolved and peace that exists only by name. Maintaining the fake peace through bribery when the issues that brought about the unrest in the first place have not been resolved can only last for a period. It is important that we maintain the tempo or else everyone will fall asleep and be caught napping when tragedy befalls us all. It is this attitude that has put the nation in the sorry state of dysfunction today from poor road maintenance, power supply, fuel scarcity, healthcare etc. At this point in time, we are not looking for general public sympathy but realise we have a mission to complete. If (Jerry) Rawlings (former military ruler and later civilian President of Ghana) had sought public approval in sanitizing Ghana, the reforms and actions he took which have made Ghana what it is today would never have happened.

The government says acts such as rioting (especially rape of women and willful damage to property) by repentant militants in Port Harcourt the other day are criminal offences that would be punished. How do you think government would view such grave action of your group?

They clearly understand our actions to be an insurgency from a group fighting for the rights of a region. A rapist’s action is purely criminal and such an individual cannot dialogue with the president over his actions.

Did the Aaron Team of MEND approve of this latest strike of yours?

The Aaron Team is negotiating on the demands of the group as it affects the region’s root issues. They volunteered their time to avoid a breakdown. We do not consult with them before taking such actions but they are in the position to broker peace between the group and the Federal Government.

If it is true that there was sabotage, are you not needlessly drawing the government forces that you claimed are being re-armed, into a renewed confrontation?

The government forces are impotent in this new phase. They will be dealing with a truly formless but highly efficient mobile force. All the newly purchased military hardware will be rendered useless because you cannot attack what you cannot see.

A group, the Niger Delta Forum has condemned the alleged attack by MEND.

The group which said it is yet to confirm the actual occurrence of the attack, has however, urged the various governors of the Niger Delta especially Rivers’ Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi and Edo’s Adams Oshiomhole to please take charge and correct the activities of “these wicked armed men whose only concern is not liberation of the Niger Delta but rather to continue in their business of arms trade”.

The Forum’s President, Anselm Bathurst Amabibi and secretary, Jude Kuruye, in a statement yesterday expressed worry why MEND would prefer to attack a pipeline in Abonemma, Rivers State and not in Bayelsa State.

“We call on all our governors to come together and salvage what remains of a disorganised and lawless Niger Delta”, the group prayed.

_ They accused certain purported MEND leaders of having successfully manipulated ignorant youths of the Niger Delta by supplying them with guns and telling them to find a way to pay for the supplied arms.

As a result of this, there used to be “daylight robbery of banks and oil companies” in Port Harcourt. According to them, “we witnessed the attack and murderous hostage taking of even our own Niger Delta people by these so-called hoodlums.

“We saw how Julius Berger workers were kidnapped and killed by the so-called over-all commanders of MEND after collecting money from another construction company to scare Julius Berger away. Now Julius Berger is no more in the Niger Delta”, the forum said.

MEND has repeatedly threatened to resume its hostilities against the oil industry because government has not touched the root issues in the Niger Delta.

Gbomo once said: “We want to ensure that our people are not deceived by diversionary tactics such as the disarmament and amnesty charade. The root issues must be addressed and this is one way to keep the matter warm. By believing that granting amnesty without addressing the root issues that started the unrest is a final solution. By offering bribes and playing a divide and rule are among areas they goofed”.

Just last month, MEND had threatened to end its ceasefire following the JTF raid on Kula community in Akuku Toru Local Council of Rivers State ostensibly in search of hidden weapons.

Gbomo then accused the JTF of specifically targeting the home of one of its former commanders and repentant freedom fighter, Christian don Pedro.

But the JTF Commander denied it ever raided any former militant’s home. He said they went there to restore law and order following sporadic shootings in the early hours of the day and cautioned MEND to stop fanning the embers of hatred when all hands should be on deck to ensure the success of the amnesty programme.

Another contentious issue between the militants and the government is the failure of the government to implement the recommendations of the Ledum Mitee-led Technical Committee on the Niger Delta.

Mitee said it has been immensely frustrating for the committee to watch as the Federal Government does almost exactly the opposite of what was recommended. On the issue of amnesty, he said instead of an integrated approach with step-by-step evidence that the Federal Government is committed to development, the government hastily arranged cash giveaway that is being given the name of “amnesty”.

According to him, “in so far as amnesty focuses exclusively on armed militancy without any pretence to reflect on the underlying concerns of the people of the region which gave rise to militancy, it would fail to bring about the desired sustainable peace in the area. On the other hand, if we are to actually believe the present stand-alone amnesty project to have serious intent at solution to the problem, then it would be an insult to those who attempt to pursue their grievances legitimately and peacefully.”

At best the Federal Government, he observed has purchased at great financial cost a few months – maybe even a year – of relative calm. At worst, they may have actually sped the country’s path to deeper conflict.

Mitee said, “as we have been told that the crisis has come to an end with amnesty and surrender of arms, the emerging consensus from former militants and the people alike would appear to be expectations of peace dividends from the channeling of resources away from war-making to productive uses. In order to avoid public disappointment with the immediate post-conflict peace process, a priority economic policy would, amongst others, be to support the development of our human capital that would provide the needed capacity to enable us reap our peace dividend. Delaying the settlement of these social debts would invariably be more expensive for the nation.”

He said that the implication of a resurgence of violence would mean additional resources to security and the beneficiaries are: The military, Police, State Security Services (SSS), international private security firms, expatriate workers whose allowances had tripled, international insurance companies, military hardware contractors, state governments (security budgets), government and oil company operatives, and even local councils that will not hesitate to lean on “security” to justify extra expenditure.