Part 1 of a 3-part series
WARRI, NIGERIA - Thousands of former militants from the Niger Delta are returning to their home states with job training that was a part of a 2009 peace deal. But many are finding no jobs, no use for their new skills and no more benefits from their region's oil wealth than before they became fighters. Many say if things don’t change, they will take up arms again.
A room full of young men crowd around a cell phone on the coffee table. They watch a YouTube video that shows militants training in the Niger Delta just a few years ago, wearing fatigues, masks and carrying AK-47s.
They say that was once their life, but they don’t want to go back.
One young man, Dennis, says three years after the peace deal, the original source of conflict remains. The Niger Delta produces 2.5 million barrels of crude oil a day but the people are still impoverished.
“They are taking the crude oil and they are selling it outside," he said. "They are making money but we, the landowners, are not getting anything. We are not benefiting anything from it.”
Dennis is one of more than 26,000 former militants known locally as “the boys,” who gave up their weapons in 2009 in exchange for a chance to learn jobs skills and some financial support.
Now, as they are returning to the Niger Delta trained in skills such as carpentry, crane operations and underwater welding, the boys say they aren’t finding any jobs and the amnesty program is rife with corruption. Some say they may have no choice but to go back to attacking oil companies to survive.
Jude Ferdinard Kent Omatsone, the former speaker of the Delta State Assembly, says it was lack of other opportunities that started the fighting in the first place.
“There are no resources," said Omatsone. "To get to your place is a serious problem, there’s no light. There’s no electricity. There’s no infrastructure.“
Other former militants, like Captain Mark Anthony, say the amnesty only rewarded the true aggressors - arguing it is the oil companies that are stealing from the people, not the other way round. Anthony notes his group is hiding weapons and is ready for battle - if the government doesn’t compensate his boys financially. He says he originally supported the amnesty program, brokered by former President Umaru Yar'Adua, but the government has not lived up to its promises.
“The whole amnesty program is a sham; it is a deception," said Anthony. "It does not go along with what Yar'Adua promised the Niger Delta people. Up until now our areas are still underdeveloped. The degradation is still there. The environmental pollution is still there."
Anthony does not say how many soldiers are at the ready or how many weapons are hidden. But he says he’s ready to resume attacks on oil companies and kidnapping foreign employees.
But local officials are downplaying the threat that the Niger Delta is going to sink back into war when the amnesty program ends in 2015 - or even sooner - as the boys return to find themselves jobless.
Tonye Emmanuel Isenah is the deputy leader of the state assembly in oil-rich Bayelsa State - in the core of the Delta. He says he doesn’t blame the boys for fighting, but he’s confident the conflict is over.
“Our youths have taken up arms," said Isenah. "They’ve seen the dangers and everything in it. They have sent a message and they got the attentions [of] the federal government and they are trained. I don’t think they want to go back.”
Kidnapping is still common in the Niger Delta and the government says oil companies are losing more than $1 billion a month to oil theft. Illegal refineries continue to operate along the banks of the rivers and creeks despite massive efforts to shut down operations.
Nigeria, Africa’s largest oil exporter and most populous country, is also facing an insurgency and sectarian violence in the north and security forces say they are “stretched thin” across the country.
Isenah does acknowledge that Nigerian leaders must create real opportunities for people to maintain the current level of stability in Niger Delta - which is shaky at best.