Nigeria’s defence minister has denied that an amnesty programme for former rebels in the Niger Delta oil region was failing, even though the main militant group has threatened “an all-out assault” on the energy industry.
Scores of gunmen surrendered their weapons last year under the amnesty offered by President Umaru Yar’Adua, but the programme has since stalled.
Ex-rebels and security sources say the amnesty efforts are being hindered by Yar’Adua’s absence of more than two months for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia.
Defence Minister Godwin Abbe sought to reassure the former rebels that the government would follow through on promises to provide them with education and job opportunities.
“It will be unfair for anyone to say the amnesty programme is failing. It is not failing, it is in progress,” he told reporters after a cabinet meeting. “It is just that it will take a while for it to fully mature because there are several stages.”
Yar’Adua’s failure to transfer power to Vice President Goodluck Jonathan has created confusion over who is in charge and how any succession will be handled.
Analysts say politicians, including those involved in the amnesty programme, are reluctant to take any decisions until the situation is clearer, bringing some government business and negotiations in the delta to a halt.
Under Yar’Adua’s programme, the government promised to provide a monthly stipend, training and job opportunities to former rebels responsible for attacks that have devastated Africa’s biggest oil and gas producer in the past few years.
But there have been frequents protests over delays.
The region’s main militant group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), ended a three-month ceasefire last Saturday and threatened to resume oil attacks.
Security sources said the industry was taking the threat “very seriously” and believed MEND could attack a vulnerable pipeline, flow station or other oil facility if the government did not quickly show willingness to negotiate.
Identify the militant
Abbe, who leads the presidential amnesty committee, said authorities were still at the stage of identifying which participants were former militants and which were impostors trying to receive government handouts.
The government was also making revisions to the amnesty programme after receiving recommendations last month from a coalition of former militants and Niger Delta community leaders.
He did not comment specifically on MEND’s demand for greater control over the Niger Delta’s oil resources and land.
“Those who are boasting to blow up pipelines should be declared by all Nigerians as enemies of Nigeria,” he said.
MEND, a loose coalition of militant groups, was severely weakened by several field commanders who accepted the amnesty. But experts believe the leaner rebel group still has the ability to disrupt much of Nigeria’s onshore oil operations.
Pic: MEND rebels