Security and federal officials said a deal with Tompolo and two other senior militants, Ateke Tom and Farah Dagogo, could be reached within days.
In an open letter to President Umaru Yar’Adua published in The Nation newspaper today, Tompolo said the offer of amnesty to gunmen in the Niger Delta was seen as part of a wider peace process rather than an end in itself.
He said peace would only be achieved once there was dialogue with the government about core issues in the delta, home to Africa’s biggest oil and gas industry, including the withdrawal of the joint military taskforce (JTF) from the region.
“They may win this war against our just cause but they cannot win the peace in any guise,” Tompolo said.
“I urge you to authorise your government to commence dialogue with representatives of the people of the region, nominated from elders and leaders of youths,” he said.
A source close to Tompolo said the letter was authentic.
Yar’Adua in June offered amnesty to all gunmen in the Niger Delta 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.
The proposal appears to have exposed divisions within the militants’ ranks, with some factions ready to accept the offer but MEND’s spokesperson warning that attacks on oil infrastructure will resume again once a ceasefire ends later this month.
Industrial oil theft
Militants have demanded the military withdraw from the Niger Delta in the past, but the army has dismissed them, saying it will only leave once law and order is established.
Tompolo is accused of being behind the industrial-scale theft of crude oil. The security forces launched their biggest offensive in the region for years in May against him, destroying his camps and declaring him wanted dead or alive.
Nigeria is the world’s eighth biggest exporter of crude oil but thieves take a sizeable proportion of its output by drilling into pipelines or hijacking barges loaded with oil, a type of theft known locally as “bunkering”.
Some estimates say that at its peak, 100 000 barrels of crude were being stolen each day, about five percent of the country’s production and equivalent to around $7 million (R54 million) daily or $2.5 billion (R19.3 billion) a year at current prices.
Tompolo said the authorities used bunkering to malign the legitimate struggle of militants and called on Yar’Adua to take action against powerful members of the political and business elite who benefit from the illegal trade.
“Such expensive ventures requiring huge finances, power and contacts can only be carried out by the mighty in government and huge businesses. Who provides or buys the vessels and equipment? Who settles the military and has the connections with the foreigners and refineries,” Tompolo said.
“I urge Mr. President to show will and determination to stop bunkering in the region and see how the mighty in Lagos and Abuja will fall.”
Pic: Oil rig in Niger Delta