Nigerians mourning the death of President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua say one of his biggest accomplishments was negotiating an amnesty for gunmen in the oil-rich Niger Delta. VOA West Africa Correspondent Scott Stearns reports on how people in the Delta are remembering the late president, who died Wednesday at the age of 58.
Fighting in the Niger Delta was one of the biggest challenges confronting President Yar'Adua when he took office in 2007. Kidnapping and sabotage in the region were contributing to record low Nigerian oil exports.
But instead of sending in more troops as previous administrations had done, President Yar'Adua negotiated an amnesty deal with thousands of gunmen who laid down their weapons in exchange for a monthly stipend and promises of job opportunities.
"This amnesty that he carried out, that he approved brought peace to the Niger Delta," said Attorney Simeon Efenudu, a former secretary to the Delta State governor.
Efenudu says the amnesty gives officials time to make good on promises to better develop the region, which local activists say the federal government has neglected - taking the Delta's oil but not reinvesting in its people.
Human rights activist Joseph Adekpe says President Yar'Adua's death is a great loss to the people of the Niger Delta.
"There has been no leader who has been able to bring such peace to that area. What we have been used to is the use of blackmail and the use of violence to bring peace," he said. "He was able to bring out the hardliners and the freedom fighters from the creeks to submit their arms. That is no small measure."
Adekpe says Mr. Yar'Adua's commitment to electoral reform has given people of the Delta more confidence that next year's vote will be fairer than the 2007 election.
"He is a man of peace and he is a man of honesty. He is man of his word. He was the first man to accept that the election that brought him to power was fraudulent," continued Adekpe. "I don't think of any leader who has come out so boldly. And he initiated these electoral reforms."
Adekpe says Nigeria will benefit from more leaders with Mr. Yar'Adua's personal integrity.
"He declared his assets before he got there. He is the first man to have done that. If other leaders could do that as well, I believe the wealth of this nation would have been used for the people," he said.
Attorney Efenudu says Mr. Yar'Adua's humility is a lesson for all Nigerians.
"He wants simplicity in government life without ostentatious living," added Efenudu. "He wants Nigerians to be free and work everywhere in Nigeria."
Gabriel Osekene, a former ruling-party ward chairman for Delta State, says President Yar'Adua's judicial reforms made Nigerian society more just.
"He has sanitized the system in such a way that a common man can easily walk in and sue for his or her right," he said. "Formerly you can not sue an incumbent governor. True. But this man came and made the judicial system an independent system."
President Yar'Adua's prolonged medical absence slowed the momentum of his Niger Delta amnesty program. Nigeria's new president Goodluck Jonathan says he is committed to reviving that plan to better develop the region and ensure that former gunmen are properly reintegrated into society.