For many of the fighters, who spent weeks or months at a time in camps deep in the creeks, it was a carnival atmosphere. High on whisky and locally-made gin, they rode the bonnets of cars and ran through Port Harcourt’s streets chanting.
But once the euphoria dies down, these youths hardened by years of living by the gun will need to be retrained and guaranteed a source of income if new militant leaders are not to emerge and use them to resume attacks on the oil industry.
“The government should do what it said now we’ve surrendered. I am a welder. I want to own a shop and do welding, but if not I can go back (to fighting). The temptation is there,” said Festus Agoa, a member of Ateke Tom’s gang
They may look like a rag-tag bunch of ill-disciplined thugs, but the youths who follow Tom and his ilk have shown they can hold Nigeria and global energy markets to ransom.
Pipeline bombings, attacks on flow stations and kidnapping of oil workers have forced foreign firms to evacuate staff and prevented Nigeria from pumping much above 2 million barrels per day of oil, just two thirds of its installed capacity.
The instability costs the country $1 billion (R7 billion) a month in lost revenue, according to the central bank, and last year helped push world oil prices to record highs near $150 a barrel.
The umbrella militant group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), has been seriously weakened by the amnesty, with commanders laying down arms.
But its spokesman, whose emails to media have in the past caused oil prices to spike, pledged the struggle goes on.
“The amnesty has not been offered in good faith and what was designed to break the ranks of freedom fighters has only helped in separating the wheat from the chaff.
The delta’s gangs attacked foreign oil firms such as Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron and ExxonMobil but their roots lie in the mafia-like world of Nigerian politics.
Tom’s group, the Niger Delta Vigilante (NDV), was originally one of several to enjoy strong backing from politicians who used them to help rig elections. With federal, state and local polls due again in 2011 some fear history will repeat itself.
Daddy Gigi an activist from the Ijaw ethnic group and head of Concerned South-South Youth, an organisation that has worked with former militants for years said the government needed to find the rebels jobs quickly.
“With (the build-up to) 2011 elections a few months away, it is frightening to leave these ex-fighters who have tasted the power of guns and money at the mercy of politicians,” he said.
“The more government delays, the more these ex-fighters become easy targets for politicians to recruit as their thugs.”
Hours after the weapons handover, some of the militants were already robbing motorists in Port Harcourt, Gigi said.
Tom is already at odds with Rivers state governor Rotimi Amaechi over local politics. He won cheers at the disarmament ceremony for interrupting a local government official’s speech to protest against the planned demolition of Waterfront, a Port Harcourt neighbourhood the authorities say is a den of crime.
“I beg the defence minister to please call on Amaechi not to demolish the Waterfront. If he continues with that goal the fight will continue as well,” Tom said, beer in hand.
Easy access to weapons
Defence Minister Godwin Abbe and other government officials promised a two-month process would begin straight away to document former fighters, helping those who want to go back to school and giving loans to those with skills to set up in trade.
“I plead with you and you must understand it is a process and it will take some time.
Critics say the fact that successive governments have squandered the oil wealth while most of the population lives in abject poverty gives little cause for optimism. With hostility towards foreign oil companies high, it is a race against time.
Security officials doubt the militants have handed over all their weapons and say it will be easy for them to get more.
“The government still does not know how to secure our porous coastal borders. The militants know the routes and will bring in weapons whenever they want,” said one senior military officer said.
“We need to do more constant aerial, sea and land surveillance. If not, the militancy will resurface again.”
Pic: MEND members