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Black gold buccaneers: Is Nigeria’s failing amnesty causing rise in oil piracy?

Marissa Hall | Shale Plays Media

For five years, there has been no direct combat between the Nigerian government and rebel militant groups in the Niger Delta. After years of conflict, the people were tired of hostility, the government was losing billions in oil revenues to attacks, and even the rebel groups were starting to get beaten down.

In 2009, the Nigerian government decided to try and put an end to the ongoing conflict that had plagued the Niger Delta for decades and had finally caused a complete collapse of the oil industry in the region. From August to October, the government offered amnesty and a full pardon to militants who agreed to lay down arms. Their weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades, guns, explosives, ammunition, and even gunboats, were confiscated.

As many as 20,000 men, including militia leaders, agreed to accept the amnesty. Along with the full pardon from persecution for their crimes, amnesty participants were required to go through a disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) process. This program also provided a monthly stipend of roughly $130 to $390 a month, and relocated individuals to government-allocated residences, such as a hotel in Port Harcourt or camps across the region.

Not all rebels partook in the amnesty program, and instead the strategy of militant groups has shifted. Rather than focusing on violence in the Niger Delta, organizations like the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) have spent the past five years kidnapping oil workers, bunkering into pipelines, and hijacking oil tankers in the Gulf of Guinea to fund their insubordinate behavior.

These activities are more covert, making it very difficult for authorities to thwart them. The men responsible for undertaking this task, the Joint Task Force (JTF), have trouble preventing the mass amounts of oil theft and piracy that occur in the delta daily. Anyakwee Nsirimovu, a member of the Peace and Collaborative Development Network and prominent human rights activist in Nigeria, calls the program a “complete failure” in an interview for Journeyman Pictures’ documentary “The Shocking Extent of Nigeria’s Oil Spills.” Preventing the crimes is a Sisyphean task in the region, because the following day more thieves and illegal refineries will take the place of those arrested or destroyed by the JTF.

The Niger Delta freedom fighters, as they call themselves, say that the state of the DDR program is abysmal. Many have threatened to return to the Niger Delta and take up arms once again, because the Nigerian government is failing to keep its side of the bargain.

Nsirimovu, during the same interview, claimed that the government is unaware of the number of ex-militants that are being retrained, an indication that it isn’t upholding its promises. Instead, Nsirimovu believes the amnesty program was a fluke, meant to decrease conflict so the oil industry could resume producing at maximum capacity.

Those who agreed to take part in the amnesty were meant to be trained in agricultural programs. However, agriculture in Nigeria is all but abandoned. The pollution of the land has gone unchecked, ruining farmlands and water used for fishing and irrigation. The emphasis on oil revenues has pushed agriculture to the wayside. So instead of being trained, men in the amnesty program are neglected and ostracized by the government.

This hasn’t stopped the government from attempting to expand the program. In 2012, moves were made to integrate nearly 3,700 more ex-militants in what was dubbed the third phase of the amnesty. At that point, the government planned to expand the operation form 20,000 individuals to 30,000. However, former militia leaders denounced the efforts, pointing out that it would exclude too many and breed resentment. As it happens, in 2013, hundreds of men from ex-militant camps were excluded from the amnesty program. For example, of the 1,300 individuals in the Beni-Obiri camp of former freedom fighters, only seven were incorporated into the monthly stipend program. For camps across the regions, the story was much the same, with a minute fraction of the individuals in each camp reaping the purported benefits of the amnesty, while the rest were left in camps, uncompensated and miserable.

As a result, some of those men who were excluded from the third phase recently sent a petition to the Nigerian House of Representatives’ Committee on Public Petitions requesting that the government include all those who surrendered arms into the program. In addition, those who submitted the petition demanded that they be paid arrears for stipends denied them through exclusion since the third phase of the amnesty took place on February 28, 2013.

It has become increasingly evident that the Nigerian government, the oil industry, and even the international community underestimated the gravity of the situation. Rather than recognize that the disparity between the communities the oil comes from and the people it ultimately benefits, they assumed it was a short-term issue.

When the Nigerian government implemented and almost immediately abandoned the amnesty program, it was similar to putting a Band-Aid on a festering wound. By failing to recognize the depth of the issue, the amnesty is crumbling. Those in the program would fall back into a militant lifestyle, the foundation of which is still thriving in the Niger Delta.

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