A former Nigerian rebel leader says he will abandon an amnesty programme with hundreds of his followers if the government did not quickly provide jobs and development in the Niger Delta oil region.
Ateke Tom, an ex-gang leader in the oil-producing Rivers state, told Reuters that life for his “boys” had yet to improve eight months after agreeing to surrender arms and participate in the government’s amnesty programme. “For now, there is no progress … we don’t like the way things are going,” Tom said outside one of his housing compounds near the oil hub of Port Harcourt. “If they refuse to give us what they promised, then our boys will not go to the training camps and we will go back to the creeks.”
Tom and hundreds of his fighters emerged from their hideouts in the mangroves of the Niger Delta to great fanfare last October, surrendering their rocket launchers, machine guns and grenades for the promise of stipends, training and employment. But the OPEC member’s post-amnesty programme has been plagued with delays.
President Goodluck Jonathan has made reviving the stalled programme begun by his late predecessor Umaru Yar’Adua one of his main priorities to ensure stability in the Niger Delta, home to Africa’s biggest oil and gas industry. Administration officials have urged patience and pledged there would be progress within two weeks, Tom said.
A rehabilitation programme to educate more than 20,000 ex-rebels is expected to be re-launched in the Niger Delta, with the first batch of 2,000 due to take part this month. But the delays have already erased much of the goodwill between the ex-militant commander and the government. “I am not happy,” Tom said dressed in matching gray sweatshirt and pants, a gold pendant bearing his name, and on his wrist a bracelet emblazoned with “godfather”. “They promised us there will be roads for us, there will be lights. They promised everything,” he said.
Tom, who still commands loyalty from more than 2,000 former gunmen in Rivers state, remained ambiguous on what could happen if he decided to go back into hiding. “We know what to do because we are not fools,” he said when asked. Militant attacks, which were particularly intense in 2006, significantly disrupted Nigeria’s oil industry, preventing it from pumping much more than two thirds of its 3 million barrel per day capacity. Output has never fully recovered.
Unrest has forced foreign oil companies in the Niger Delta such as Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron and ExxonMobil to spend millions of dollars on security and in the past led many firms to withdraw all but essential staff. But since the amnesty was launched, the Niger Delta has been relatively peaceful with no major militant attack against the oil industry for nearly a year.