A leading Nigerian militant leader agreed to halt fighting in the oil-producing Niger Delta and accept an unconditional pardon from President Umaru Yar’Adua.
Ateke Tom, whose 2000 fighters carried out attacks on oil installations, was one of three factional leaders with links to the militant group MEND who had yet to accept the amnesty offer.
“I hereby formally accept the amnesty offer and lay down my arms,” Tom told Yar’Adua at a media briefing in Nigeria’s capital Abuja.
The president has given gunmen in the Niger Delta until Sunday to surrender weapons in return for clemency, and has rejected requests by militants to push back the deadline to allow time for peace talks.
The offer was one of the most serious attempts yet to stem unrest which has prevented Nigeria from pumping much above two thirds of its oil capacity, costing it billions of dollars a year in lost revenue.
“I’m calling on others who have not yet embraced the amnesty offer to do so within the remaining three days so that we can both work together to ensure peace and security in the region,” Yar’Adua said.
It was unclear whether fellow militant hardliners Government Tompolo and Farah Dagogo would also take the amnesty before Sunday’s deadline.
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), responsible for attacks that have wreaked havoc on Africa’s biggest energy industry for the last three years, named a team of mediators earlier this week to negotiate with the government on disarmament but said the amnesty process “lacked integrity.”
Activists say that even if top rebel commanders decide to surrender, there is little to prevent their “boys” from finding new leaders and resuming their attacks.
“Even if all the known militants give up, it won’t bring lasting peace unless the issues of developing the Niger Delta are addressed,” said Jonjon Oyeinfe, former head of the Ijaaw Youth Council ethnic rights group, who has been involved in peace efforts for years.
Presidential adviser Timi Alaibe told Reuters last month that 6000 gunmen had signed up for the amnesty.
Under the programme, the government promises to provide ex-militants with a stipend, education and job training.
But hundreds have yet to receive any money and the government’s rehabilitation and reintegration programmes have yet to be fully launched.
Pic: Niger Delta river