A rebel commander in Nigeria’s oil heartland accused the military of attacking one of his fellow militants with gunboats, underlining the fragility of an amnesty offer from President Umaru Yar’Adua.
Ateke Tom, who leads a militant faction in Rivers state in the eastern Niger Delta, said fellow rebel leader Soboma George had visited him at his camp in the creeks after returning from the capital Abuja to discuss Yar’Adua’s offer.
He said gunboats from the joint military taskforce (JTF) which polices the Niger Delta opened fire on George as he left the meeting around Dutch Island, located in the waterway between oil hub of Port Harcourt and the town of Bonny.
A JTF spokesman denied there had been an attack.
“I strongly suggest that the JTF should be removed from the creeks because with incidents like this the amnesty programme will be jeopardised,” Ateke Tom told Reuters by telephone.
“The president should prevail on the JTF to leave the creeks now so that militants can participate in the amnesty freely,” he said, adding that nobody had been injured but that he had made a formal complaint to the presidency.
Colonel Rabe Abubakar, spokesman for the JTF, said the taskforce was observing the terms of the amnesty offer.
“The JTF will not attack any militants or their camp. We are very responsible. No attack happened,” he told Reuters.
It was not possible to independently verify either version but the conflicting reports highlight the mistrust between militants in camps in the delta’s creeks and the authorities who are supposed to be implementing the amnesty scheme.
Jonjon Oyeinfe, former leader of ethnic rights group the Ijaw Youth Council who has been involved in negotiations for years, said such incidents showed the JTF must be disbanded.
“It is an army within an army. It is like Mr President is not the commander in chief … orders need to go to the lower ranks,” he told Reuters.
“We have said as part of our demands that amnesty should go along with the withdrawal of troops.”
Yar’Adua offered an unconditional pardon in June to all militant fighters who take part in the amnesty, to try to stem unrest which has prevented Nigeria from pumping much above two-thirds of its oil capacity in recent years.
The 60-day amnesty period, the most comprehensive of its kind attempted in the Niger Delta, began last week.
Thirty-two members of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) led by their leader in Bayelsa state, Boyloaf, met Yar’Adua after accepting the deal.
MEND is the main militant group behind three years of attacks on the oil industry. Henry Okah, its suspected leader, has also accepted the amnesty terms after gun-running and treason charges against him were dropped and he was freed.
But the group has denied Farah Dagogo, its commander in the east, was in Abuja and no mention has been made of hardliners including Ateke Tom or Government Tompolo, against whom the army launched its biggest campaign for years just months ago.
Sceptics question whether the amnesty scheme will buy anything more than a short-term lull in the violence, saying the government has done little to create employment or training opportunities for those who do hand over their guns.
A previous at attempt at disarmament under Yar’Adua’s predecessor Olusegun Obasanjo in 2004 broke down as factions argued over the money paid for their weapons. Thousands of guns were handed over but the subsequent five years were among the most violent in the history of the Niger Delta.
Pic: Nigerian Army forces