Hundreds of Nigerian militants from the oil rich Niger Delta are turning in their weapons nearly four weeks after a 60-day amnesty period began. But as our correspondent reports from Abuja, the plan to end militant attacks in the volatile delta appears to be in danger of falling apart.
The government says the amnesty program is on course and that several rebel commanders have chosen to disarm. The main militants group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, has criticized the offer as a sham and vowed to resume attacks when a 60-day cease-fire expires on September 15.
Governor Timipre Sylva of Bayelsa state, where hundreds of militants have accepted the amnesty, says MEND is a spent force and should be ignored.
"If Boyloaf has stepped and he says he no longer part of it [militancy], if Africa has stepped and he says he is no longer part of it," said Timipre Sylva. "And if Tom Pollo, from what I read in the [news]papers yesterday, has also given his commitment that he is also stepping aside, then who is left in MEND? I think MEND is just a faceless human being sitting on a computer in one small room somewhere. I do not believe there is anything called MEND, because the key people who propelled MEND have all said they are not it any more."
MEND says the plan does not address decades-old grievances such as pollution, economic development and a greater share of the oil wealth for the delta. The coordinator of the Amnesty Implementation Committee, Lucky Ararile, tells VOA the government is not willing to negotiate any deals aside from the official amnesty.
"To the issue of militants dictating to government conditions or terms or what they want the government to do, I do not think that that is appropriate," said Lucky Ararile. "No self-respecting government will yield to that kind of blackmail."
The authorities set up 27 rehabilitation camps in the Niger Delta, to process rebels who surrender and accept the amnesty. But most of the camps remain empty four weeks into the program. A community leader in the Niger Delta, Kiri Amagala, blames the government for not making the camp conducive enough.
"These camps are supposed to rehabilitate the militants so they can be integrated into the society," said Kiri Amagala. "But those camps are not functional because there are no facilities, no equipment, no personnel to handle the job. You go to those places ... empty rooms, no mattresses, in fact it is not habitable as one can see. I do not think in that area the government has done well."
Nigeria says oil production which fell to about 1.2 million barrels per day recently due to attacks by militants, has risen to about 1.7 million barrels as a result of relative stability since the amnesty commenced.
In the swampy, oil-rich but impoverished delta, many analysts and activists warn there is little prospect for a lasting resolution of the conflict without seeking permanent solutions to the area's underlying problems. Lawyer and activist Oghenekaro Sampson lives in the delta city of Yenegoa.
"Now if the citizens of the Niger Delta states are still hungry, there is no development in their regions, the communities are suffering from oil spillage, how will peace return," asked Oghenekaro Sampson.
The continued heavy military presence in the Niger Delta is also seen as an impediment to the peace process. Amagala insists the military should maintain a low profile during this critical phase of the amnesty program.
"There is relative peace as you can see," said Amagala. "There are no shootouts, no troubles . So the soldiers for now, their duty is not to occupy the streets. So they should go the barracks. A peace process is on and I believe without the soldiers on the streets the peace process will move to a logical conclusion."
The amnesty program is an ambitious effort by the government to ease the unrest in the Niger Delta that has cost the country billions of dollars in lost oil revenue.
President Umaru Yar'Adua had in late June offered unconditional amnesty for all militants who lay down their arms and embrace peace. The amnesty runs from August 6 until October 4.
The government estimates as many as 20,000 gunmen could participate in the 60-day program.