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Niger Delta Hopeful as Rebels Accept Amnesty

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Thousands of militants surrendered their weapons under the just-concluded amnesty program after years of fighting in the oil-producing Niger Delta. Government officials have hailed the amnesty as a huge success. It may be too early to say whether the initiative will translate into lasting peace.

It was all drumming and dancing as the last prominent militant leader in Nigeria to take a government amnesty disarmed with thousands of his fighters at a well-attended ceremony Sunday at Oporozar.

Tom Polo is a local hero in his hometown and stronghold Gbaramatu Kingdom. Thousands gathered to cheer his last-minute acceptance of the amnesty. The local chief, Alfred Dubor, described the event as a tribute to the region's foremost 'freedom fighter.'

"Today, we are celebrating the freedom fighters. That Tom Polo, who is the leader of the freedom fighters in the Niger Delta, has agreed for amnesty, for peace to reign in the region, for development to reign in the region. So today you see people here are all happy for the fact that Tom Polo has agreed for amnesty with the federal government," he said.

But amid the euphoria, concerns about the future of the region remains on the minds of its residents. Nearly all of Nigeria's oil comes from the Niger Delta, one the world's largest wetlands. A recent report by Amnesty International described the Niger Delta as a human-rights tragedy.

"In the Niger Delta, in the oil-producing areas, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people depend on fishing and farming for their food and livelihoods. Oil spills, waste dumping, gas flaring, dredging of rivers, seismic operations; all these activities of the oil industry have seriously damaged agricultural lands and waterways of the Niger Delta, thereby damaging peoples ability to catch fish, peoples ability to grown food and have a livelihood," said Audrey Gaughram, the co-author of the report.

Several high-profile militia leaders accepted the pardon, even meeting with President Umaru Yar'Adua at ceremonies in the capital, Abuja.

But the people of the Niger Delta have seen many promises of development go unfulfilled. A Niger Delta rights activist Ankio Briggs says now is the time for the government to deliver on its pledge to speedily develop the region.

"We will continue to complain, we will continue to call the attention of the world and the nation to see that the government has not kept its promise, if it actually fails to begin the developmental processes; employment, infrastructural processes and so many, many things. Everything we need in the Niger Delta," Briggs said.

In a bid to end unrest that has cost Africa's top oil exporter billions of dollars in lost revenue, President Yar'Adua granted amnesty to Niger Delta militants between August 6 and October 4.

Defense Minister Godwin Abbe says the president had directed a meeting to quickly work out a plan to rehabilitate and reintegrate the former militants.

"Mr. President has given us an undertaking that very quickly all the militant leaders, across the board, will meet very quickly to with the members of the presidential committee on amnesty, to discuss how to be able to rehabilitate and reintegrate all of you who had reasons to take up weapons," he said.

The government says the amnesty is the first step to bring peace to the region, but some residents say the peace process risks failing if the government does not back up its offer with serious talks and concrete proposals to develop the impoverished region.

"Now, if the citizens of the Niger Delta are still hungry, there is no development in the region, the communities are suffering from oil spillage, how will peace return?" says Oghene Sampson, who lives in the delta city of Yenegoa.

Insecurity has long plagued Nigeria's oil industry, with local communities in the delta angry at their continued poverty despite five decades of oil extraction.