A former Nigerian militant leader handed eight camps in the Niger Delta to the military over the weekend, part of efforts to prevent new gangs emerging in the oil region after last year’s amnesty.
Ateke Tom is the latest former militant leader to surrender his camps after accepting the amnesty, which was partly brokered by President Goodluck Jonathan last August and brought more than a year of relative peace in Africa’s biggest oil and gas industry.
But unrest has returned in recent months as new gang leaders emerge. A military raid on the camps of faction leader John Togo this month led to some of the heaviest fighting since before the amnesty, killing civilians and destroying homes, Reuters reports.
Along with other ex-gang leaders, Tom now finds himself working with the security forces he long fought, trying to persuade those still carrying arms to surrender. Handing over his camps is intended to stop new gangs using them.
“By following in the footsteps of former colleagues … Ateke has shown that he is indeed committed to ongoing efforts to achieve sustainable peace in the Niger Delta,” military taskforce (JTF) commander Charles Omoregie told reporters.
“The JTF calls on other undecided former militant leaders as well as renegade militants like John Togo … to tread the path of peace or face an unpleasant end which is around the corner.”
The army, navy and air force were deployed in the three-day assault on Togo’s camps at the start of the month. A civil rights group and aid workers said nine civilians were killed, but community leaders have put the death toll much higher.
Elders from the Ayakoromo community, which bore the brunt of the assault on Togo’s camp, said on Monday 51 people had been killed and that soldiers had forced villagers to dig mass graves before allowing access to rights groups.
“The massacre in Ayakoromo is a continuation of the campaign by the Nigerian state to suppress and intimidate the people of the Niger Delta,” said the statement, signed by community chairman Chief Owolo Onduku and other elders.
DEATH TOLL DISPUTED
The JTF has denied targeting civilians, saying Togo’s followers fled into Ayokoromo and engaged the military in a gun battle, catching innocent people in the cross fire.
The security forces have a tense relationship with some communities, and the military has at times sought to deny civilians casualties while activists have exaggerated the toll.
At its peak in early 2006, unrest shut down around a quarter of the OPEC member’s oil output. Although production has since partially recovered, infrastructure remains damaged and output is still below the 2.4 million barrels per day averaged in 2005.
Resurgent violence is not just a threat to the industry. It also risks undermining the credibility of Jonathan, the first Nigerian head of state from the oil region, in the run-up to nationwide elections next April.
Security experts say Togo’s continued presence in the western Niger Delta is hindering efforts to ensure the amnesty stays on track and keep a lid on the kidnapping and violent crime that make the region so insecure.
Police in Abia state, on the edge of the Niger Delta, said on Monday the JTF had killed a criminal gang leader responsible for kidnapping 15 schoolchildren in October. The children were freed after several days.
Police spokesman Geoffrey Ogbonna said the gang leader, known as Osisikanko, was killed in a gun fight with the security forces on Sunday.