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Nigeria's Militant Amnesty Program Begins

A Nigerian government program that offers cash, job training and pardons to militants who turn in their weapons begins Thursday. The government hopes this will bring stability to the troubled, oil-producing Niger Delta.

The government expects to disarm as many as 10,000 militants in the 60-day program. According to the initiative's chief coordinator, Air Vice Marshall Lucky Ararile, the reintegration of the militants into mainstream society will be preceded by disarmament and demobilization.

"It is basically a DDR program, that is [a] disarmament, demobilization and reintegration program. The first two phases ... [are] essentially military because we are dealing with arms: retrieval of arms, transportation of arms, destruction of arms," Ararile said. "After [that] we get to the real reintegration phase where integration centers are being prepared to receive the ex-militants. Whilst there, they will be classified, sorted, and given the choice to select what they want to do to sustain themselves after leaving the camp. Arrangements are being made to provide some skills for those who want to acquire [them]," he continued.

Hundreds of militants had expressed interest in taking the clemency, including a few rebel commanders. But many key issues, such as what happens after the two-month amnesty window expires, are yet to be resolved.

Delta's Grievances Long-standing and Deep

One of the region's prominent leaders, Chief Edwin Clark, says the amnesty can only be the first step in addressing the Delta's long-standing grievances.

"The amnesty is not an end in itself. It should be a means to an end. That is, once there is amnesty and there is peace, the federal government should move in to develop the area physically ... a neglected area. Unless this is done, the amnesty will fail. The amnesty cannot exist on its own," Clark said.

Tensions have flared in the oil-producing region in recent weeks, following reports that the government was planning to relocate a petroleum training institute from the Niger Delta to the northern city of Kaduna. The government has since denied the statement credited to the oil minister. A group of Niger Delta students staged a mass protest in Warri Wednesday, where student leader Chris Onodjacha sharply denounced the government for its neglect of the region.

"This same institution has given us the presidency. The only federal presence in Delta state is the Federal University of Petroleum Resources, Effurum. And, for the federal government to have thought of reversing this same institution that has given us the presence of the federal government and by replicating same in Kaduna, it is insensitive. It is madness. We produce the milk and honey with which Nigerians are being fed, but as I speak to you, we don't have the presence of the federal government in this region," Onodjacha said.

Oil Sector Reform Key to Reconciliation

There is also widespread disenchantment in the region because of Nigerian efforts to reform the slumping oil sector. A bill which seeks to give ownership of oil to the federal government is before parliament and has provoked stiff opposition from leaders in the Niger Delta who complain it would leave them without funds.

A constitutional lawyer in the Delta, Akpo Mudiaga Odje, says stability would only return to the oil region, whose residents have enjoyed few of the riches from 50 years of oil production, when local people derive substantial benefit from the oil industry.

"The time has come for government to revitalize that aspect of the suffering of the people, and restructure the oil industry in such a way to make the people benefit from their resources," said Odje.

Main Delta Rebel Group Still Mute on Amnesty Program

In late June, President Umaru Yar'Adua offered unconditional amnesty for all militants who lay down their arms and renounce violence. The amnesty runs until October 4.

Militants have waged a violent campaign in the Niger Delta since early 2006 to protest what they see as years of neglect of the oil-rich region.

The main militant group has yet to take a position, but chief amnesty coordinator Ararile says the offer is a sincere peace effort and should be supported by all.

"What happens after October 4? Well, my advice to all the militants is that they should seize this window of opportunity that the president has magnanimously provided. Subsequently, the course of action that the government takes is up to it. So I think it is in the interest of everybody," Ararile said. "Most Niger Deltans are tired. They are the victims of this whole struggle. It is virtually impossible for development to take place in the Niger Delta, today, with the level of violence we have. So it is important for all of us to embrace this process and bring peace to the delta," he continued.

Nigeria derives more than 90 percent of its foreign exchange earnings from oil.