Thousands of people gathered in the Nigerian oil city of Warri yesterday to witness the disarmament of militant leader Government Tompolo, the final prominent Niger Delta rebel to accept a presidential amnesty.
Tompolo arrived by presidential jet in Warri, the capital of Delta state, after signing an amnesty agreement with President Umaru Yar’Adua in Abuja. A second jet carrying Defence Minister Godwin Abbe arrived shortly afterwards, Reuters reports.
“Today is the greatest day for Nigeria,” Tompolo told reporters as he stepped off the plane, accompanied by Timi Alaibe, Yar’Adua’s adviser on Niger Delta matters.
He was expected to travel with the defence minister and other officials to one of his camps at Oporoza in the creeks for a formal surrendering of weapons later yesterday.
Tompolo is the final prominent militant to accept an amnesty offer which expires at midnight in the Niger Delta, home to Africa’s biggest oil and gas industry. Two commanders in the eastern delta laid down weapons last week.
“We came because we want peace,” said Chief Andrew Anegba, waiting with hundreds of other people at Warri airport.
“The last militant groups are giving up arms, and that means peace is coming back,” said Anegba, a traditional Ijaw ethnic community leader from Ogbe-Ijoh, close to where security forces used helicopters and gunboats to attack Tompolo’s camps in May.
Yar’Adua’s amnesty offer is the most concerted effort so far to bring peace to the Niger Delta.
Unrest in the region has prevented Nigeria, which vies with Angola as Africa’s biggest oil producer, from pumping much above two-thirds of its production capacity.
It also costs the country $1 billion (R7 billion) a month in lost revenues, according to the central bank, and has helped to push up global energy prices.
Tompolo, whose full name is Government Ekpemupolo, was one of the leaders of the Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities (FNDIC) based in Warri and responsible for shutting down a large chunk of oil output from the western delta in 2003.
He is believed to have been key to drawing together the factions which went on to form the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), the region’s main militant group.
Despite Nigeria’s oil riches, the vast majority of its 140 million people live on $2 (R15) a day or less and some of the most acute poverty is in the villages of the delta. The militants say they are fighting for a fairer share of the oil wealth.
But the line between militancy and criminality is blurred. Some militants have grown rich from a trade in stolen crude oil and extortion, with hundreds of expatriates and wealthy Nigerians kidnapped for ransom over the past three years.
Sceptics say that even if commanders disarm, there is little to stop fighters from finding new leaders and resuming attacks. Some residents fear they will return to the creeks unless those who hand over their weapons can quickly find work.
Pic: MEND members