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After Six Years, Little Change for Niger Delta's Former Militants

FILE - Militants with Kalashnikov assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers patrol creeks of the Niger Delta, southern Nigeria, Feb. 24, 2006.

Goddy Kaduna used to lead armed men, but those days are behind him.

He and his followers now get cash from the Nigerian government to keep them from bombing oil installations and kidnapping workers in the Niger Delta, which, despite being the center of Nigeria’s lucrative crude oil industry, is still desperately poor.

Launched in 2009, the amnesty program, which gives 30,000 militants cash stipends of about $325 per month and puts some of them in training programs, has succeeded in reducing violence throughout the region. But with March 28 elections on the horizon, many ex-militants are worried the program will end — possibly if incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan is re-elected, and definitely if his challenger Muhammadu Buhari, who is seen as less friendly to the Delta, wins.

A spokesman for the amnesty program’s top official says no decision has yet been made to end the program, but Kaduna fears ending the program will only lead to violence.

“Most of our people have [not] been trained," he said. "No job opportunities. So if you want to stop these stipends without employing them, definitely things will still go bad.”

Prominent Niger Delta activist Ann-Kio Briggs, who is associated with the Ijaw Republican Assembly and the United Niger Delta Energy Development Security Strategy, says the amnesty was never intended as a cure-all for the region’s woes.

“We are now six years into the amnesty and this 2015 will be a good time to round it up," she said. "It is not an agency for development; it is an agency to contain 30,000 youths that supposedly carried arms.”

But Briggs also acknowledges there has been little improvement in employment prospects for Delta youths, echoing Kaduna's observation that even those who received training still struggle to find work. Briggs says the six years of relative peace have not been used to improve the region's economy.

“The amnesty is not, can never be, the solution of the problems that is in the Niger Delta," she said. "And it will not stop the problem that will emerge in the Niger Delta in the future, because nothing has changed in the Niger Delta.”

Behind a welding shop in the Delta town of Ughelli, former militants gather to sip palm wine mixed with marijuana. Though they all receive stipends, some say they have not received the training they were promised.

Former militant Odens Ode says he will not go back to militancy if the amnesty ends, but others might.

“We do not tap oil anymore again, because they asked us to leave the creek," he said. "So we do not want to tap oil, but you know an angry man. An angry man is a hungry man. Sometimes some people might be patient enough, [but] some of them might not be patient enough. They might go back to the creek and bust the pipe.”

Others in Ode’s group were more blunt, saying that there would be war if the amnesty ended, or if Buhari wins the election.