The Reality Of Amnesty

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There was a reported rush by militants in the Niger Delta to surrender arms in the last few days preceding October 4, the expiry date of the amnesty granted them by the Federal Government. Not a few Nigerians were surprised by the development, considering the cynicisms that greeted the amnesty deal when it was first mooted. By the time arms surrendering was completed, some of the most ferocious influences in the creeks of the region, including Ateke Tom, Government Ekpemupolo, also known as “Tompolo” and Farah Dagogo had turned in their arms. Prominent in the amnesty process has been Amnesty Panel Media Coordinator, Timiebi Koripamo-Agary, and Bayelsa State Governor, Timipre Sylva. But, perhaps, the most remarkable figure, in the views of some observers, has been the former managing director of Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), Timi Alaibe, now special adviser to President Umaru Yar’Adua on Niger Delta  affairs. He had personally staked his reputation in his undertaken with the President as well as the militants to successfully oversee the conclusion of the amnesty deal. It appears that Alaibe has good reasons to celebrate except that, as former Petroleum Minister, Tam David-West, has warned, celebrating would be the most ill-advised thing to do at the moment. Reason: over 10, 000 restive young men are waiting to be reintegrated and profitably engaged by the Federal Government. As analysts have pointed out, this alone ought to make the government restless, considering that they may not have appropriated the required resources to accomplish the engagement of the ex-militants. If the resources are there, the government’s legendary snail-speed, some other Nigerians have remarked, would ensure there is wild-spread disenchantment before anything useful is done. If this turns out to be the outcome of the amnesty, Alaibe would truly be on the spot.

Alaibe became a media subject when he took charge of affairs at the NDDC, courtesy of the goodwill of former President Olusegun Obasanjo. He had served as vice president of Cosmopolitan Bancshares in 1994, and later as general manager, Corporate Banking and Investment at Societe Generale Bank (Nig.) Ltd. Coming straight from the financial sector, he brought to bear upon the highly politics-tinted administration of the NDDC a certain sense of accountability. According to reports, a major part of the success of the NDDC in addressing the daunting neglect of the Niger Delta region, as well as in reducing the agitation and violence prevalent in the region before the establishment of the NDDC, lies in Alaibe’s great compassion, brilliance, foresight, natural problem-solving and people-savvy skills.

Along with his colleagues on the board and management of the NDDC, he successfully set in motion a coordinated response mechanism to the short-term and long-term challenges of the Niger Delta comprising, as key ingredients, an integrated regional development master plan, interim action plan for key projects in the states as well as skill acquisition programmes, a re-orientation and empowerment of youths.

Not many Nigerians had expected much to come from Alaibe’s appointment as go-between for the Federal Government and the militants.

Alaibe is from Bayelsa State and was the third managing director of the NDDC, succeeding Emmanuel Agwariawvodo, the commission’s second managing director, from Delta State. Godwin Omene from Delta State had been the first to occupy the office, following the establishment of the commission in 2000.

Alaibe’s primary assignment was to work with the Presidential Committee on Amnesty and Disarmament of Militants in the Niger Delta to ensure that its overall objectives are speedily achieved in line with Yar’Adua administration’s agenda for peace, stability and rapid socio-economic development in the region.

Alaibe reports directly to the President and also serves as Special Presidential Negotiator on the Amnesty process. He has put the immense goodwill which he enjoys among stakeholders in the region to good use in driving the amnesty and disarmament process forward to a positive conclusion within a specified period.

So momentous was the acceptance of amnesty – signified by the big haul of surrendered arms from the militants, that Amnesty Declaration Panel Chairman, Lucky Ararile, declared the exercise a huge success, saying “a lot of arms have been evacuated from the region and this will pave the way for peace, security and development in the region.” Then he enthused: “I am happy for Nigeria; I am happy for the Niger Delta.”

Koripamo-Agary, acknowledged that there was a rush to surrender weapons between Saturday and Sunday and reiterated that the post amnesty programme has begun.

“We are still documenting the number of militants who surrendered and the size of weapons surrendered,” she confirmed. As for the post-amnesty plans, she had this to say: “We are documenting them but they are going to the reintegration camps to start the reorientation programme. They have the choice to make and that will be done at the reorientation camps. They will need to tell us what they want to do and they will be trained in that field.”

Koripamo-Agary described the disarmament as a huge success because militant leaders and their unknown underlings came out of the creeks and surrendered. “It was a huge success beyond my imagination. Big names like Tompolo, Ateke Tom, Fara Dagogo, Buster Rymes, Osama Bin Laden, and thousands of the small foot soldiers that we did not really know about, all came out and surrendered. With the quantity of arms turned in, we have a safer country. This atmosphere will lead to the development of the Niger Delta, not just by the federal and state governments, but by potential investors.”

The story was different in some parts of the region, especially among some ethnic groups, which had seen the fight of the militants in the light of the entire struggle of people of the region to get the attention of the world towards their struggle against the determination of the Nigerian state to drive them into extinction. These groups expressed disappointment at the capitulation of the militants, arguing that they had compromised the struggle for equity, fairness, and development. They had regarded the militants as heroes, but now they lament that the battle has been lost. An Ijaw youth leader was reported as saying “we now agree that these militants were fighting for their selfish interests and not for us.’’

Earlier in September, as the amnesty deadline drew close, Alaibe had assured the nation of fruitful negotiations with the militants against a groundswell of skepticisms.

“The consultations were fruitful, the Niger Delta militants as a whole, especially Tompolo and Ateke Tom, whom we met, indicated that they are 100 per cent for the amnesty programme and they accept the amnesty wholly, but they have also made some requests to the President,” Alaibe had said in an interview in Abuja.

He also identified the post-amnesty challenge: “Human capital development via capacity training; sustainable programme; provision of scholarships; genuine rehabilitation programme for freedom fighters; giving the youths the opportunity to manage the security of our region in order to avoid criminal elements sabotaging our sincere efforts; allowing slots for marine equipment and general supply for the companies which will create harmony among the community and the multi-nationals, thus stopping the art of vandalising oil pipelines and bunkering.”

A senior commander of the main armed group Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), Farah Dagogo, surrendered his weapons in the oil city of Port Harcourt, on the eve of the expiry date of the amnesty. In a typical manner, Dagogo had declared: “I Farah Dagogo, overall field commander for the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta accepts together with field commanders in Rivers State, the presidential offer of amnesty to militants who lay down their weapons. We are surrendering all weapons under our direct control.”

Ateke Tom and around 5,000 militants disarmed at a beach ceremony in the same city while Tompolo accepted the amnesty offer during a meeting with President Yar’Adua late Saturday. In accepting the amnesty, Tompolo promised Yar’Adua his support “to achieve the dreams of this country”. Tompolo was the third key militant leader linked to MEND who have taken up the government offer for unconditional pardon in a bid to end the unrest in the oil producing region.

Dagogo’s acceptance of amnesty not withstanding, some 232 members of the Niger Delta People’s Salvation Front (NDPSF) and the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF), under the leadership of Mujahideen Dokubo-Asari, have rejected the amnesty offered by President Umaru Yar’Adua which expired on Sunday. They also sued the Federal Government.

A suit filed at the Federal High Court in Abuja by their counsel, Festus Keyamo, asked the court to determine if Yar’Adua can grant pardon to a person under Section 175 of the Constitution without specifying the offence the person has committed.

The group also wants the court to decide: Whether it is not a violation of the principle of fair hearing as in Section 36 of the Constitution for Yar’Adua to unilaterally decide that someone is connected with an offence, refuse to state the pertaining Section of the law breached and grant pardon to such a person, and as such be the accuser and the judge.

The court was also to determine whether Yar’Adua can grant pardon to a person under Section 175 of the Constitution without the person concerned with or convicted of the offence applying for pardon to the President.

The group has claimed that members did not commit any offence known to law to warrant the grant of amnesty to them and insisted that they were freedom fighters and would continue their legitimate fight for freedom and self-determination in line with the United Nations Charter.

In a recent interview, David-West drew attention to the significance of this group of dissenting militants, including MEND’s announcement that it would fight on. He said: “I hope and pray that we’ve seen the end of the whole thing. Why I say this is that it will serve no useful purpose for everybody and the country if the fundamental issue raised is not addressed. And this is simple-justice. Without justice, what we’re doing will be empty. You cannot have peace without justice.”

He has raised what analysts consider very fundamental questions concerning the surrendered weapons. Hear him: “It is an indictment on the intelligence and security outfits of this country if after many months of surveillance and fighting in the territory they could not recover all these weapons and armoury by themselves. The big question is, are these all the guns in their (militants) possession? Is this really the end of it? Is it 100 per cent? They (security forces) don’t know, we don’t know, and that is the danger because they didn’t recover them by themselves!”

The don saw what appears like opportunism in the manner Bayelsa State Governor Timipreye Sylva and Alaibe had conducted themselves through the disarmament process. As he put it: “They (Sylva and Alaibe) are trying to please and impress Yar’Adua, like two wives in a polygamous family, to get him to support them for 2011 governorship. So, where is the soul of the amnesty? Americans would say: where is the meat in the hamburger?”

After the ceremony, what next? That is the question on the lips of the vocal majority of commentators who have continued to insist that the ceremony will not last long given the insinuations that the government might not be forthcoming on their promises just as the restive youths still have access to large depots of armoury buried in the creeks. One of their refrains during the disarmament was “we have dropped the arms, but not the struggle.” It is not yet clear, what new forms the struggle will take in the days ahead as there are no indications that the causes of the agitations are being or would be redressed.

Austin Oboh