Sunday, 10th December 2023

Crisis looms over planned termination of amnesty programme

By Kelvin Ebiri (South-South Bureau Chief)
03 September 2020   |   3:37 am
As concerns grow among ex-militants that the federal government might be considering the termination of the Presidential Amnesty Programme (PAP), signs of a possible resistance are already building up in the Niger Delta region. Faced with existential reality back in 2009 that the oil industry was on the verge of collapse as crude oil production reduced…

As concerns grow among ex-militants that the federal government might be considering the termination of the Presidential Amnesty Programme (PAP), signs of a possible resistance are already building up in the Niger Delta region.

Faced with existential reality back in 2009 that the oil industry was on the verge of collapse as crude oil production reduced from 2.2 million barrels per day to 700,000 barrels per day due to sustained ferocious attacks on oil and gas installations by militants under the aegis of Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND), President Musa Umaru Yar’Adua, on June 25, 2009, declared a 60-day unconditional amnesty period for militants to end the protracted insecurity in the region.

The attacks by the militants led to drastic reduction in crude oil production that cost the country over $20 billion by 2008, just as the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG) lost over $2 billion in 2009. The militants were fighting against political and economic exclusion of the Niger Delta from enjoying the natural resource in their domain that feeds the entire country, environmental degradation and dire infrastructural deficit in the region occasion by sustained neglect by the federal government.

The amnesty programme announced by President Yar’Adua was based on distorted recommendations of the Technical Committee on the Niger Delta, chaired by Ledum Mitee. The committee had recommended for the militants to surrender their arms and renounce militancy. And in return, the government was to institute programmes to assist the disarmament, demobilization, rehabilitation and provision of reintegration programmes for almost 30,000 militants into society and to tackle human capital and infrastructural deficits of the Niger Delta.

At its inception, 20,192 ex-militants were disarmed and captured in the first phase of the amnesty programme while 6,166 were disarmed in the second phase and 3,642 others were disarmed in the third phase of the programme. However, thousands of ex-militants complained about their exclusion from the programme, as a lot of the people who benefited from the amnesty overseas scholarship scheme were never ex-combatants.

It is worthy to stress that with over N500 billion spent so far in the past 11 years on training almost 20,000 ex-militants in both formal education and vocational training programmes, enterprise development, apprenticeship scheme and job placement, including paying them N65,000 monthly allowance, the Niger Delta has witnessed some relative peace. This is despite the federal government apparently reneging on its pledge to aggressively develop the region through the vehicle of the hugely underfunded Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs.

Like other government interventionist agencies in the Niger Delta, the amnesty programme, with its office in Abuja, has been tainted with corruption. There have been numerous petitions and allegations of corruption against managers of the amnesty scheme. Two coordinators of the amnesty programme under the President Muhammadu Buhari administration have been sacked over alleged corruption cases prompting the federal government to consider scrapping the programme, which was originally intended to last from five to seven years.

It would be recalled that in February 2016, the then Special Adviser to the President on Niger Delta and Coordinator of the Presidential Amnesty Programme, General Paul Boroh, during a summit that has as theme: ‘Niger Delta Way Forward: From Stabilisation to Sustainable Development’, hinted that the federal government had embarked on an exit strategy to stop the amnesty programme by 2018. But, possibly because of the 2019 general elections, the government had delayed the plan.

A report published by Nextier SPD (Security, Peace and Development) on a review of the amnesty programme observed that the programme had derailed from its original objectives and had become too expensive to maintain, as well as being marred by corruption, nepotism, prebendal, and patrimonial acts. The report noted that between 2010 and 2014, the implementation of the amnesty programme gulped N243 billion (US$1.68 billion) making this homegrown DDR programme one of the world’s most expensive. Similarly, in 2017, the amnesty budget almost tripled, with an additional N30 billion ($98.47 million) being released and an extra N5 billion reportedly added at a later stage. It was further observed that until 2016, the annual budget was N20 billion.

Nextier SPD in its report had developed and proposed actionable recommendations on how to transition the agency into a vehicle that would be able to address the key issues of the Niger Delta region more effectively. But amid speculation that the federal government was resolved to end the amnesty scheme this year, Niger Delta ex-agitators have threatened to return to the creeks, a euphemism for the resumption of sabotage of the economy through coordinated attacks on critical oil and gas infrastructure in the region.

For instance, the leader of ex-agitators in Akwa Ibom State, Nico Sintei, recently said in Uyo that majority of the beneficiaries of the programme solely depended on the monthly allowance of N65,000 for survival. According to him, the programme needs to be sustained because it has helped to stem attacks on oil facilities.

According to him, “The federal government should not tamper with the amnesty programme if it really wants to continue to enjoy the oil production from the region. The programme is the only thing that has sustained peace in the Niger Delta region. It helped to stop militancy and youth restiveness in the region, and attack on oil installations.

“And the only thing the Niger Delta ex-agitators have benefitted from the programme is the N65,000 Presidential Amnesty Programme (PAP) monthly allowance. Also, some of us were sent to school and some have been trained in various skills. Is that too much? Why is it that the paltry N65,000 allowance a few youths from the region that lays the golden egg are receiving from the programme has become a problem? And as far as I am concerned, it was the best thing that late President Yar’Adua did for Nigeria. Other solutions failed, but PAP worked. Let them understand that the amnesty programme can only stop when they stop drilling oil from this region, the day we stop feeding this country. We were not told that the programme has an expiry date. So, it cannot be scrapped. Therefore I advise that they should let sleeping dogs lie.”

Sentei advised the federal government to appreciate that those recommending that it should scrap the programme do not like the existing peace in the Niger Delta region and also do not mean well for Nigeria. As a leader of ex-agitators in Akwa Ibom, he warned that if the government should scrap the programme, it would serve, as an incentive for ex-militants to return to militancy and the consequences would be dire.

Scrapping the programme looks set to be a fiercely contested issue that could also trigger another potentially violent fallout between the government and militant groups in the region. This is particularly so at a time when relations between the Buhari administration and Niger Delta elders under the aegis of Pan-Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF) seems to have nose-dived over issues such as abandonment of the Export Processing Zone (EPZ) and Gas Revolution Industrial Park Project at Ogidigben in Delta State, in favour of the AKK Gas Pipeline from Ajaokuta to Abuja, Kaduna and Kano, the relocation of the Floating Dock, and the exclusion of oil-producing communities from participating in the ownership of marginal oil fields and blocks.

Chairman of the technical committee on Niger Delta, Ledum Mitee, has expressed concerns that there would be a threat to security in the region should there be an abrupt end to the amnesty programme. He stated that though the programme was not supposed to last forever, an exit strategy at this point was far important than the exit itself.

“An abrupt end to this amnesty programme might create some issues,” Mitee said. “And I think that instead of that, what we need is a review of the amnesty programme itself. We should be able to ask ourselves difficult questions. Where are these people (ex-militants)? What are they doing? Have they been integrated into society? Are they doing more work? How many of them still require this programme? And instead of paying people, we can go back to the drawing board, where people are given job placements.”

Mitee explained that the technical committee’s concept of the amnesty was different from the way the implementation was affected by the federal government. He stressed that after the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration, interested ex-militants would be trained and deployed to work through a job placement scheme.

“We did not recommend where people are paid stipend without work, because you know the consequences of that,” he said. “It creates that culture that people can earn money without work and there is no input into the economy because you will be producing nothing. The whole concept of the amnesty thing was to integrate those who otherwise were combatants into civil society. The people who otherwise were just sitting down will also get the culture of working and earning money.”

Mitee said the amnesty programme was not a stand-alone solution to the problems of the Niger Delta. He said the technical committee had recommended that government should employ 2,000 youth from every local government area in the Niger Delta because it was not only those who carried arms that were agitating for justice in the region. But instead, the government decided to appease the ex-militants by paying them monthly allowances and enriching their commanders.

“The people of the Niger Delta are crying for justice. Some people decided that they should carry arms, and agitate for our collective quest for justice. So, you don’t ignore all those fundamentals that the people were crying about. It is because the people are angry that it became a fertile ground for militancy. I am not one of those who say paying people without work is the best that will happen. It is not a sustainable means of livelihood.”

As a stakeholder with the understanding of the dynamics of the Niger Delta region, former Ijaw Youth Council (IYC) President, Eric Omare, has cautioned that if necessary things were not done before the programme was terminated, some people would want to take advantage of it to start another round of militancy in the region.

“Until the last person is trained, and engaged by way of empowerment, it will give a justification for a set of people to get together and go back to the creeks,” Omare cautioned. “Because as we speak today, the government of Nigeria has not been able to tell the people of the Niger Delta how many people have been trained, how they have been engaged, how many are remaining to be trained and engaged. So, these are things that need to be cleared so that everybody will be on the same page and there will be no justification to return back to militancy.”

Omare pointed out that the fierce attacks on oil installations launched by Niger Delta Avengers in 2016 clearly showed that the next wave of militancy might take another dimension compared to those of MEND. He stressed that the government could not afford to underestimate people who are determined to pursue a cause, particularly as it concerns the development of the marginalised Niger Delta region.

According to Omare, “I agree that the amnesty programme is not supposed to stay forever, but there are critical things we must note. When President Yar’Adua offered amnesty, his argument was very simple: ‘Gentlemen, you have a very good case, but you cannot develop in an atmosphere of insecurity. I want security to develop the region.’ The whole essence of the amnesty was to give the government the opportunity to develop the Niger Delta. The question is, has that been addressed? The answer is no. People can say terminate the amnesty programme, but they must also remember that there was a bargain to develop the Niger Delta. Even the East-West Road has been abandoned.”

Omare stated that people of the region had expected that after MEND’s revolt, there would have been a roadmap for the development of the Niger Delta. But that has not happened. Pessimistic about Buhari’s administration’s commitment to addressing the Niger Delta issue, Omare charged future governments not to ignore the challenges of the region.

On his part, Coordinator of Nigeria Tax Justice and Governance Platform (RTJGP), Rivers State, Kelechi Justin Amaechi, said the government needed to be a bit more circumspect and not take any hasty decision about terminating the amnesty programme. He stressed that it would be erroneous for the government to underestimate the incessant threats by ex-militants against abrupt scrapping of the programme.

“The Nigerian state is quite vulnerable, and being that oil and gas pipelines transverse the length and breadth of this country, people can easily sabotage them because they are not properly guarded either with technology or even with people looking after them,” Amaechi said. “You don’t really need much capacity to sabotage those lines. A group of 20 to 30 young men who are serious can actually begin to create uncertainty and instability in the whole place.”

Amaechi acknowledged that continuing with the amnesty programme under the current structure that allows people to earn money without working was not sustainable. He advised that instead of scrapping it, the government should have absorbed some ex-militants as part of the 774,000 persons being employed across the country.

Meanwhile, the resource person to the Technical Committee on the Niger Delta, Dr. Sofiri Peterside, has warned those threatening mayhem if amnesty programme was scrapped to take cognisance of the fact that existential conditions that provided a fertile ground for groups like MEND to thrive no longer exist.

Peterside, who was the first Commandant of Rivers State’s Rehabilitation Institute from which the federal government came to learn how to implement the amnesty programme, explained that those who intellectualised the Niger Delta struggle provided the theoretical framework and background that generated international support for it would not be willing to give those kinds of support to any group(s) that might emerge now.

“The circumstances are quite different and they (ex-militants) threatening are going to get very serious opposition and onslaught by the military. I don’t see people like me coming out to address the press and raising issues again over them, or the way they should be treated because we have just seen that every person was a conflict entrepreneur in the system. And they will be shocked if they try that. That is where we are now and that is the reality on ground.

“The ex-commanders have been absorbed into the Nigerian state, not compromised. They have been absorbed and some of them commercialised the struggle and became millionaires and billionaires. They don’t have that kind of capacity anymore. I don’t see them returning to the trenches, leaving the comfort of their mansions and castles, which they have built and generated from the sweat and struggle of the people of the area, which they commercialised.”

Peterside stressed that the amnesty programme was merely part of the emergency measures recommended by the Mitee’s committee for the federal government to demonstrate to the people of the region that government was interested in addressing age-old Niger Delta problems.

“Amnesty should not be a programme in perpetuity,” Peterside stated. “It has timeframe and time limit, and we have actually exceeded that. Most of those who were combatants are today multi-billionaires, with total disregard for the objective of that struggle. I have heard people say the government should not discontinue the programme. They didn’t understand the circumstances and nuances that actually resulted in that programme. Those threatening to return to the creeks are what I call conflict entrepreneurs and we are not going to tolerate that in this region.”

Similarly, human and environmental rights activist, Mr. Ken Henshaw, acknowledged that issues like environmental problems, poverty, and destitution that provided the impetus for MEND and other militant groups prior to 2009 when the amnesty programme was granted are still prevalent, but said the ex-militants commercialisation of the people’s collective struggle has left many in the Niger Delta distraught.

“The amnesty programme was simply the use of cash benefit to buying off a legitimate struggle,” Henshaw stated. “That struggle was purchased. The former combatants now have schools abroad. Beyond amnesty, one of the things that demobilised the Niger Delta was the so-called Niger Delta presidency. It demobilised the region. There could have been another wave of militancy in the region after the Yar’Adua amnesty programme if Goodluck Jonathan had not emerged. If somebody from another region had emerged as president of Nigeria, if it was not an Ijaw man, there would have been another wave. But the amnesty programme and the so-called Goodluck Jonathan’s presidency eroded every foundation of a struggle and there are other genuine people who had gone to the creeks and fought and were also demoralised and demobilised just by thinking that we even had an Ijaw president for six years. But what did he do for us?”

Henshaw, who is the Executive Director, Centre for Social Studies and Development, said, “We the People regretted that the amnesty programme, which was a response to a genuine, somewhat legitimate agitation, was used to purchase the defence of the people and that dangerously weakened the struggle,” pointing out that when the government bought off the combatants, who had pro-Niger Delta agenda ideology, the elements that emerged afterwards in the Niger Delta were now the criminals.

According to him, “The elements that emerged in the space they (militants) created became the worst type of oil bunkers, selling crude oil and refining it. They initiated kidnapping along the East-West Road. They took over because an ungoverned space was created. And this is what is giving rise to criminal elements in the region. If the government scraps the amnesty programme, I don’t think anything would happen, honestly.”

Henshaw, however, suggested a holistic overhaul of the programme after a thorough reviewing of its achievements and lapses in the past 11 years. He maintained that a review was necessary because the historical issues that led to the conditions, which gave rise to militancy, such as environmental problems, poverty, destitution, and lack of infrastructure are still very much intact, and even worse now. Although the Niger Delta question remains unresolved, Henshaw ruled out the possibility of resumption of militancy in the region.

“I do not think that the so-called militants can go back to the creeks,” he said. “The people benefitting from PAP’s N65,000 are not in the creeks. They cannot go back. The creeks belong to criminals now. The criminal elements that emerged when the gap was created do not take N65,000. Those who take N65,000 live in the cities and not the creeks. Those who live in the creeks are the criminals, who are now pirates, kidnapping and maiming people.”