Nigeria’s main militant group said it was extending a two-month-old ceasefire in the oil-producing Niger Delta by 30 days but warned the government an amnesty programme had not yet tackled key issues.
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) said it would allow more time for talks but threatened renewed strikes on the oil industry if substantive negotiations were not held. The truce had been due to end at midnight yesterday.
“(We do) not recognise an amnesty that has not made any provision for meaningful dialogue on the root issues that gave birth to the Niger Delta unrest,” MEND said in a statement.
“The government should use this extension of time to do the right thing instead of pretending to talk peace while arming the military for a war it cannot win,” said the emailed statement.
MEND, responsible for attacks that have wrought havoc on Africa’s biggest energy industry over the last three years, declared a 60-day ceasefire on July 15 to allow for peace talks after the release of its leader Henry Okah.
President Umaru Yar’Adua has offered an unconditional pardon to militants who give up arms by October 4, the most serious attempt yet to resolve years of unrest which has prevented Nigeria from pumping above two-thirds of its oil capacity.
Last week, a government delegation urged key rebel leaders with links to MEND to convince the militant coalition to extend the ceasefire for at least another month to allow the amnesty programme and peace talks to continue.
Okah agreed in July to accept amnesty after gun-running and treason charges against him were dropped and he was freed.
Ateke Tom and Government Tompolo, core commanders of MEND, have urged the government to push back its October amnesty deadline by three months to allow for dialogue on a series of demands including a military withdrawal from much of the region.
The government has said the amnesty must be accepted without conditions and that its deadline will not be extended.
A top Nigerian presidential aide told Reuters yesterday 6000 militants had already taken part in the amnesty programme and said he was confident Tompolo and Ateke Tom would also lay down their weapons.
Timi Alaibe, presidential adviser on the Niger Delta, met the two militant leaders on Sunday and said he had held “very fruitful” discussions.
“Tompolo and Ateke Tom have indicated they were 100 percent for the amnesty programme. That they wholly accept amnesty, but they have also made some requests to the president,” he said.
Others who attended the meeting were less optimistic, saying talks were deadlocked with the militants refusing to disarm until their main demands were discussed and the government unwilling to negotiate until weapons were surrendered.
Success could mean factions led by Ateke Tom, Farah Dagogo and Tompolo the leaders of the two main militant groups in the eastern delta and the biggest in the west persuading the thousands of men they command to lay down their weapons.
Failure could give the military the green light to take a tougher approach, radicalising militants into feeling they have nothing more to lose and provoking a new wave of violence which could further disrupt output, security analysts say.
“The oil and gas industry, which will bear the brunt of renewed hostilities, should not be deceived by the amnesty charade or the recent military hardware purchases as this is only leading to another cycle of violence,” MEND said.
Alaibe said he believed the army would return to barracks once militants began surrendering their weapons and rebel camps were abandoned. He said he was not aware of any military option being discussed should the amnesty fail.
Pic: Nigerian militant group member