Top Nigerian officials met with ex-militant commanders in Abuja on Tuesday to discuss plans for developing the infrastructure of the country's oil-producing region in a drive to end a long-running rebellion.
Defense Minister Godwin Abbe told about a dozen major ex-rebel leaders and the region's influential groups that a recently-announced $1.3 billion development package for the Niger Delta was part of a bigger government agenda to transform the region and improve lives.
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Abbe, who also chairs the presidential committee on amnesty in the Niger Delta, appealed for patience during the post-amnesty period, declaring President Umaru Yar'Adua's commitment to addressing the region's long-standing grievances. "It is true that the Niger Delta region has not been developed. You are correct. And you now have a president who has also listened attentively, blow-by-blow. He has read all the relevant reports and he understands the reason for anger. And that was why he insisted from the onset that anger, violence, murder, arson and lawlessness is not the solution. And that if we embrace peace, he is going to do what must be done, to restore justice upon men," he said.
In June, the Nigerian government granted amnesty to militants in the Niger Delta in a bid to end unrest which has cost Africa's top oil exporter billions of dollars in lost revenue. The government says more than 8,000 gunmen, including prominent militant commanders, accepted the unconditional amnesty.
But skeptics fear they will return to the creeks and take up arms again if the government fails to deliver on its pledge to develop the region. Despite Nigeria's oil riches, the vast majority of its 140 million people live on less than $2 a day and some of the most acute poverty is in the villages of the delta.
Tuesday's meeting also provided an avenue for some of the region's leaders to voice their frustration over the government's handling of the post-amnesty period.
Chris Ekiyor, president of the Ijaw Youth Council, representing the delta's largest ethnic group, was very critical of delay in moving from planning to implement projects in the Niger Delta. "As a people, we are tired of having these meetings. The way and manner we've been attending meetings, I am aware from 2007 till date we have probably exhausted whatever needs to be said. We think those of you at the helm of affairs already know the problems and shouldn't be in the planning phase at this time. We should be implementing agendas that have been proffered since 1947 till date," he said.
His skepticism highlights the local people's lack of trust in the central government.
Nigeria is Africa's largest crude oil producer and its petroleum sector remains the mainstay of the economy, accounting for about 20 percent of annual GDP, 80 percent of government revenue; and at least 90 percent of all foreign exchange earnings.