Nigerian amnesty plan for oil militants falls flat

Nigeria’s latest plan to end militant attacks in the volatile Niger River delta that have cut oil production to a 20-year low appears to have collapsed.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton endorsed the plan during a visit to Nigeria earlier this month, in hopes of bringing some semblance of peace to a region that is a major U.S. source of foreign oil.

But the delta’s main militant group over the weekend dismissed the three-week-old plan as “a charade” and vowed to resume attacks after a ceasefire expires Sept. 15.

The plan, which offered amnesty to any militant who laid down his arms during a 60-day period, began with fanfare three weeks ago, but it now seems unlikely to achieve anything more than a brief respite from the violence.

Experts and activists say the plan doesn’t address any of the rebels’ key demands: jobs, economic development and a greater share of oil wealth for the delta, where millions live in extreme poverty while Western energy giants and Nigerian politicians pocket billions of dollars annually in oil revenues.

Critics call it a half-hearted measure by a government desperate to shore up a listing industry that’s contributed to instability in world energy markets. Nigerian crude exports have fallen by nearly 40 percent from 2006 amid an escalating militant campaign of sabotage, oil siphoning, kidnappings of foreign oil workers and confrontations with security forces.

“It looks like the bottom line is to rein in the violence to allow the oil production and export to continue, and then get back to business as usual,” said Nnamdi K. Obasi, a Nigeria-based analyst for the International Crisis Group research agency. “People in the delta say this doesn’t respond to their demands.”

Nigerian officials insist the program is off to “a good start,” and media reports over the weekend said militants turned over hundreds of automatic rifles and rocket-launchers. Several high-profile militia leaders have accepted the pardon, even meeting Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua in a ceremony here in the capital.

Two weeks ago, however, gunmen reportedly tied to the main militant group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, bombed a major oil pipeline belonging to Royal Dutch Shell. The attack signaled the vast, decentralized militias ? with thousands of fighters and countless weapons scattered throughout the delta’s mazelike creeks ? were unconvinced by the peace plan.

In a statement Saturday, MEND denounced the militants who accepted amnesty and said it had already replaced at least one key commander.

“Things are actually getting worse,” said Sebastian Spio-Garbrah, an analyst with the Eurasia Group, a New York-based risk consultancy. “(The pipeline attack) may indicate that with the deepening organizational disarray of the militias, more random attacks on all classes of energy facilities throughout the delta may be coming.”

The Obama administration has a major stake in what happens in turbulent Nigeria, the fifth-largest U.S. oil supplier. Besides the two-decade-long insurgency in the southern delta, where millions live without steady power and clean water despite the staggering oil wealth, Yar’Adua’s government is also facing growing dissatisfaction in the Muslim-dominated north ahead of elections scheduled for 2011.

On her recent visit, Clinton urged Nigerian officials to direct more funds toward jobs and development. But she generally backed the government’s amnesty plan and said the U.S. was considering offering military assistance.

“I think that the government, under the president’s leadership, has the right idea of having a multi-pronged approach to dealing with the Niger Delta,” Clinton told an audience in Abuja.

The last amnesty offer, in 2004, fell apart after militants squabbled over disarmament payments and found no jobs waiting for them. Last year, government forces launched a major land, sea and air offensive that badly destabilized the militants’ camps, but security didn’t improve much. In the first nine months of 2008, 1,000 people were killed in the delta and Nigeria lost nearly $24 billion to oil theft and sabotage, according to the International Crisis Group.

After security forces and MEND announced a ceasefire last month, officials introduced the amnesty, which grants immunity from prosecution to any militant who renounces violence before Oct. 4. It also offers ex-fighters up to $430 in food and housing allowances and the chance for education or job training, officials said.

“Nothing can happen in an atmosphere of insecurity and crisis,” said the spokeswoman for the amnesty committee, Timiebi Koripamo-Agary. “The amnesty is to start the process of building peace in the region.”

The government also freed Henry Okah, a purported MEND leader, in what appeared to be a show of good faith. But Okah, who suffers from kidney ailments and is seeking medical treatment overseas, likely had his own reasons for wanting out.

“The government is trying to deal with individual militant leaders, maybe bribe them to come out,” said Anyakwee Nsirimovu, a leading human rights activist in the delta. “If I just pack some weapons, go to one of the centers and say I’m a militant, they accept me and I get my hands on the (disarmament) money. It’s not an organized approach.”

In December, an expert panel recommended amnesty as part of a comprehensive peace process that included raising the delta’s share of oil and gas revenues from 13 percent to 25 percent. Many believe that Nigerian officials, who’ve reportedly pocketed untold billions of dollars in illegal oil money, are unwilling to pledge more money to the region.

“It shows that this government isn’t serious about resolving the real issues,” said Youpele Banigo, a member of the panel. “The government is suffering from (the drop in) oil production. So all this is directed to ensure that oil production will flow.”

(c) 2009, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.