Wearing sunglasses, a gold necklace, and sitting outside his home in a village in the Niger Delta, ex-militant leader Ateke Tom is happy for the army to take over what were once training camps for his fighters.
Along with other former gang leaders who accepted a government amnesty last year, Tom now finds himself working with the security forces he long fought in Nigeria’s southern oil region, trying to persuade those still carrying arms to surrender.
“They are criminals and I heard that those boys that were disturbing (things) in Rivers state have been arrested,” Tom said, referring to a gang leader who had been holding 19 hostages until they were freed by the army last month, Reuters reports.
“I thank God they have been arrested. They were just criminals, nothing more,” he said.
Tom was a field commander for the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), the main militant group responsible for years of deadly attacks which at their peak shut down more than a quarter of Nigeria’s oil output.
Oil production has partially recovered as infrastructure remains damaged and Nigeria is now pumping more than 2 million barrels per day compared with lows of 1.5 million in early 2006 when MEND burst onto the scene. Crude output is still well below the 2.4 million bpd averaged in 2005.
Along with fellow MEND commanders Farah Dagogo and Boyloaf, who helped the armed forces secure the release of the 19 hostages last month, he accepted an amnesty brokered last year partly by President Goodluck Jonathan.
Security experts working to protect Africa’s biggest oil and gas industry say the involvement of former rebel leaders in the military efforts to flush out remaining armed gangs in the creeks of the delta could be a turning point.
But they also caution it is virtually impossible to secure hundreds of kilometres of exposed pipeline which criss-cross remote communities in the vast wetlands region, meaning supply disruptions are likely to persist.
Much is at stake.
Jonathan is the first head of state from the Niger Delta and resurgent unrest risks undermining his credibility ahead of elections next April. His administration is keen to show it has the security situation under control.
But disputes between international oil companies and local youths demanding security contracts, jobs, or simply trying to siphon off stolen oil, are common and it takes little more than home-made explosives to rupture a pipeline.
The Niger Delta Liberation Force (NDLF), a newly emerging faction run by gang leader John Togo, said on Monday it had sabotaged a pipeline belonging to state oil firm NNPC although there was no independent confirmation.
Royal Dutch Shell declared force majeure last month on its Bonny Light oil exports — freeing it from contractual deliveries due to actions beyond its control — after a pipeline was damaged by oil theft.
MEND has been weakened by the amnesty programme, which saw field commanders lay down weapons and thousands of their “boys” follow suit, but it has by no means been wiped out.
The group continues to send emails to the media warning of further attacks and security experts say its suspected leader, Henry Okah, is trying to establish links with new field commanders despite being in detention in South Africa.
The gang leader known as “Obese” who was responsible for holding the 19 hostages — including seven foreigners taken from an Afren oil rig and eight Nigerians seized from an Exxon Mobil platform — told reporters Okah had telephoned him not long before his arrest.
MEND was always made up of different factions rather than being one cohesive organisation, but arm bands bearing the group’s initials and logo were recovered from Obese’s camp along with weapons and other military equipment.
“I don’t know about MEND and I can’t speak for them. I don’t know if they are still in existence. I only know about my group, the Niger Delta Vigilante, which no longer exists,” Tom said.
A military taskforce comprising the army, navy and air force raided three camps believed to belong to John Togo last week. Several civilians were killed and hundreds displaced in some of the heaviest fighting since before the amnesty.
Tom and other former militant leaders are again working with the security forces to try to ensure Togo is dealt with.
“We are advising him that what he is doing is not really good; that he should let peace reign. We do not really know (understand) his anger,” Tom said
“He has said will surrender. We asked him to surrender now because we know he is keeping everybody uncomfortable. We are talking to him, he said he will calm down.”
The NDLF has sent out a different message, saying in a statement to the media it is ready to fight.
The amnesty had brought more than a year of relative peace, until the recent spate of kidnappings, but critics question whether it is sustainable, saying those who surrendered weapons are only happy while they are being paid.
Tom is a local hero — around 50 people were waiting for an audience with him at his compound — and his reinvention as an informal military adviser means he remains relevant for now.
He said he had agreed with the military that they could take over five of his former camps in the creeks.
“It is OK with me, I’m enjoying life,” Tom said.