Three militant leaders in Nigeria’s oil heartland want concrete plans for fighters who disarm and a clearer government commitment to develop the region before they accept amnesty, sources close to the talks say.
Security and federal officials said last week Ateke Tom, Government Tompolo and Farah Dagogo, field commanders of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), had held informal talks about accepting an amnesty offer.
“They want concrete post-amnesty plans for their fighters when they disarm and the specific benefits for the communities,” one source close to the three militants told Reuters last week, asking not to be identified.
They also talked about the withdrawal of soldiers from the region and the need for the government to create local councils for the Ijaw-speaking people in several states, the source said.
The Ijaw are the predominant ethnic group in the Niger Delta, one of the world’s largest wetlands and home to Africa’s biggest oil and gas industry.
President Umaru Yar’Adua in June offered amnesty to gunmen in the region to try 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 revenues.
Attacks on oil installations and pipeline bombings by MEND have at times contributed to volatility in world oil prices, turned the Niger Delta into a virtual military zone and forced foreign oil firms such as Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron to pull out all but their most essential staff.
The militants say they are pushing for a fairer share of the wealth. Five decades of oil extraction have lined the pockets of a small elite in Nigeria but most of the population lives on $2 a day or less, with some of the acutest poverty in the delta.
Critics say they are simply criminal gangs using political struggle as a facade for the theft of industrial quantities of crude oil, kidnapping for ransom and robbery.
The amnesty programme has split militant factions, with hundreds of rebels, including some leaders, handing over weapons but others refusing to take part.
Some security experts say that even if militant leaders agree to amnesty terms, the young men who fought among their ranks will return to crime unless they are properly re-trained and guaranteed sustainable employment.
Followers of Ebikabowei Victor Ben, a militant known as Boyloaf who agreed to accept amnesty two weeks ago, barricaded roads in Yenegoa town, threatening to resume attacks unless they were paid for handing over their weapons.
Tompolo said in an open letter to Yar’Adua on Wednesday that the amnesty offer was being seen by militants as part of a wider peace process and urged the government to hold talks with a committee drawn from Niger Delta elders and youth leaders.
The sources close to the three militant leaders said they were in the process of drawing up a negotiating team and that Timi Alaibi, the presidential advisor on amnesty and chief government negotiator was in touch with them.
Besides the issues of military withdrawal, the creation of new local councils and guarantees that those who disarm would be fully integrated into society, the militants also want guarantees for their own personal safety, one source said.
The government amnesty committee has said it is aware that fears about security are preventing some militant factions from accepting the amnesty offer.
Pic: Nigerian militants