Nigeria's 60-day amnesty program for militants and criminals in the Niger Delta is expected to come into effect early next month. But dozens of militants are already surrendering their weapons to the government as part of the amnesty.
Militants waiting to hand over their weapons in the Niger Delta city of Warri broke into songs signifying their acceptance of the government's amnesty offer, giving a boost to President Umaru Yar'Adua's efforts to end years of violence in Africa's biggest oil industry.
The Niger Delta is a region that has been marginalized, despite being the source of Nigeria's oil wealth.
A militant leader in the western Niger Delta, Austin Ochemodia, who claimed to have more than 200 fighters under his command, was one of the first militia commanders to surrender his weapons. He said he was driven into militancy by the insensitivity of the government and oil companies.
"We got into militancy because of annoyance, all because of failure of government that is why got into militancy. You know we do not have money, our parents are poor," he said. "Since our parents are poor we have to go into militancy so that we can eat and feed our parents. Because we have the oil, since the oil is with us we cannot relent when the government and other people are eating our money. So therefore we had to fight."
The main oil producing region has witnessed intensive proliferation of arms, sabotage, hostage-taking and the emergence of warlords and youth cults. And many have wondered about the source of arms for militants and criminals in the region.
A militant commander, who calls himself General Awey, told VOA in Pidgin English that he killed soldiers and collected their weapons.
"These arms? he asked. I collected my first gun from an army man. I used cutlass to cut his hand and collected it. Later, I started killing more soldiers and collecting their weapons. I did not buy any of them. I killed soldiers and collected their weapons. But now, I do not want to kill again. That is why I am dropping them for government," he said.
Security forces in May launched their biggest offensive in years against militants in Delta State, bombarding militant camps and sending soldiers to hunt down rebels in surrounding communities. Some militants have clearly grown tired of life in mosquito-infested swamps and endless clashes with troops as Ochemodia explained.
"I had no rest of mind, running the creeks everywhere running around. Even my house I built in Ogbeijor I cannot stay there because of the crisis. Today, since the government has given us amnesty, I am dropping our ammunition to [the] government. Let government too take care of us," Ochemodia said.
Nigeria's police chief Mike Okiro described the event as a success, despite the fact that only a few dozen militants showed up, bringing some automatic weapons and ammunition. He said more militants would hand over their weapons once they were convinced about the government's commitment and sincerity to the disarmament process.
"Some of these militants, some of them are doing 'sidon look' [sit down and look]. We might have two, three rifles, let us give one and see government reaction. So whatever you bring we accept. Others are waiting to see how government will take care of them," Okiro said.
Analysts say the fact that the government is not offering militants a payoff is a huge disincentive. At the weapons handover ceremony, militants repeatedly made it clear they expected the government to 'settle them' - a local term for payoff. There is also speculation that the amnesty covers only offenses related to militant activities, which means some of those who come forward to accept the amnesty could be liable for criminal offenses.
President Yar'Adua declared amnesty for armed groups in the Niger Delta last month, giving them until October 4th to surrender their weapons, renounce violence and accept rehabilitation or face tough action.
The main umbrella militant group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, has rejected the offer. The militant commander Awey says the insurgency would end only when concerns of injustice and under-development are tackled.
"My advice to the federal government is that let the federal government take care of the Niger Delta with the oil flow stations, the oil wells, do give them roads, give them development. Let us enjoy so that the crisis will stop everywhere," he said.
The government hopes as many as 20,000 gunmen could participate in the amnesty program. President Yar'Adua considers the initiative crucial in bringing stability to the heartland of Nigeria's oil and gas industry.