ABUJA, Nigeria — The Nigerian government plans to offer an amnesty to Niger Delta militants in a bid to end the violence that has cut the country's vital oil production by 25 percent.
The new minister for Niger Delta affairs, in an interview with GlobalPost, said the government will open dialogue with the armed gangs and is putting in place a program to disarm them and reintegrate the fighters into society.
Violence in the Niger Delta has over the last three years killed hundreds of people and cost Nigeria billions of dollars in oil production.
In the latest incident on Monday, 18 small boats of armed gunmen attacked an oil facility in the southern oil state of Bayelsa, killing at least one Nigerian sailor and capturing a small naval craft. The strike did not affect oil production at the facility, which is operated by Royal Dutch Shell.
The volatile Niger Delta is the source of Nigeria’s vast oil wealth, but the government’s failure to develop the impoverished region has left the local population resentful and has fueled the growth of numerous armed protest groups.
The minister for Niger Delta affairs, Ufot Ekaette, said the Nigerian government is planning to engage with the militants and international organizations to draw up an amnesty for armed groups that would include weapons handovers similar to post-conflict programs run by the United Nations Development Program, UNDP.
“I had a word with UNDP in the first moments of my taking office and they were quite prepared to work with us to develop a program based on their experiences in other countries,” said Ekaette, in his new office in Abuja.
The armed gangs carried out numerous raids and attacks on oil infrastructure and personnel through 2007 and 2008. The attacks slashed Nigerian oil output from around 2.2 million barrels a day to 1.6 million barrels a day. The drop in production was blamed for helping to push up international oil prices to record highs near US $150 in 2008.
Nigerian oil production has yet to recover and the country’s woes are compounded by the dramatic collapse in world oil prices, now close to US $50 a barrel and linked to the global economic crisis.
“We are now facing double jeopardy, lower prices of oil….and a reduction in the quantity of barrels produced because of the crisis in the Niger Delta,” Ekaette said.
Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua launched the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs three months ago as part of his two-year-old commitment to bring peace to the oil-producing region, but so far it has failed to reap results.
The government's reference to working with the United Nations is interesting because in West Africa the U.N. has orchestrated a number of demobilization, disarmament and reintegration programs for former combatants in countries returning to peace after years of civil war. Though Nigeria maintains the instability in the delta is not a war, the government has deployed thousands of special military and police to control the region, which is awash with weapons.
Disarmament programs that ushered in peace in nearby Liberia and Sierra Leone involved payment of up to US $300 for each fighter handing in a gun or similar small arms.
Ekaette declined to say whether militants in Nigeria would be offered similar payments for their weapons, saying the full details of any amnesty are still to be agreed upon.
But the government's approach does not appear to satisfy the fighting groups. In an e-mail to GlobalPost, a spokesperson for the delta’s main militant group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), said the group wants to see the release of their imprisoned leader Henry Okah before considering any amnesty deal.
Okah, arrested and detained at an unknown location since 2007, is accused by the government of smuggling hundreds of thousands of small arms into the delta.
MEND says it is fighting for a greater share of the oil revenue to go to the people of the Niger Delta. The government counters that such armed gangs are purely criminal, sabotaging oil infrastructure to siphon oil from pipelines or extract cash from oil companies.
In the event of a future amnesty agreement, MEND fighters would expect payment for their weapons, said their spokesperson: “Of course the weapons will not be handed [in] free of charge.”
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