ABUJA — As Nigerians debate the possibility of granting amnesty to militants in Nigeria’s north, the country marks the fourth anniversary of its amnesty program for militants in the South. Some former militants in the Niger Delta region are opening small businesses while others are bitterly disappointed, saying without change, renewed violence is inevitable.
On some Nigerian newspaper websites, there are polls asking users if they believe the government should offer amnesty to Boko Haram militants, a group blamed for thousands of deaths in the past four years. On one such website, the largest voter block was for this option: “No, they have killed innocents and should be brought to book.”
For many Nigerians, though, the idea of peace through amnesty has been tested at least somewhat successfully in the oil-rich southern Niger Delta, where militants waged war against the government and oil companies for several years.
Niger Delta program
Analysts are quick to point out that the conflict in the Niger Delta was very different from the current Boko Haram conflict. Boko Haram is a shadowy militant group that says it’s fighting for Islamic law and to free its imprisoned members. The Niger Delta militancy was an offshoot of a popular movement calling for the equitable distribution of oil wealth.
In the Niger Delta, however, some former militants say the amnesty program is preventing another uprising.
Epipade Kemepade, 30, used to be in charge of dispatching weapons among his fellow militants, or “freedom fighters” as they called themselves. In 2009, along with tens of thousands of other young men, he turned in his gun in exchange for the promise of job training and slightly more than $400 a month.
Now, he’s a trained welder and has his own shop. He also is among 300 former militants who were promised new equipment a month ago to grow their businesses, but it hasn’t yet arrived.
On the other hand, other former militants say Kemepade is the exception and most of the “boys” - as they are known locally - are returning from training to find no jobs and no capital to start a business.
Charles Efenudu said that after he turned in his weapons he was trained in business and was told he could open a small grocery store when he completed the course. That was two years ago, and he continues to trudge out to the cassava fields, making barely enough money to survive.
“I’m trying to work on a farm to succeed by myself because the federal government is not doing any good about our training. So we just sit at home doing nothing,” said Efenudu.
Perye Williams is a lawyer and an activist in Warri, an oil town that is technically at peace, but tensions and crime levels are noticeably high. He said the amnesty program by nature doesn’t address the underlying causes of the conflict, which echo what some say are the underlying causes of the Boko Haram conflict in the north: extreme poverty, underdevelopment, lack of jobs and schools, and the general feeling that the government doesn’t care to fix any of it.
He said the amnesty program plays favorites and ultimately won’t maintain the peace.
“It still boils down to the Nigerian system of nepotism and favoritism. Provide good roads. Provide electricity. Provide viable water. Provide hospitals in these communities and every other thing will be taken care of by the people,” said Williams.
In the north, Boko Haram members have flatly rejected the idea of accepting amnesty, saying the government should be asking for amnesty from them.
Hilary Uguru contributed to this report from the Niger Delta.