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Will amnesty bring peace to Niger Delta?

Decommissioned weapons in Niger Delta
Militants have led thousands of followers in handing over their weaponry

By Caroline Duffield
BBC News, Niger Delta

Talk to taxi-drivers and hotel clerks in Nigeria's Delta region, and you hear the same words again and again: "We must give peace a chance."

Shopkeepers smile with delight, chattering with customers about decommissioning and peace talks in the country's oil-producing area.

For the past three months, people have watched militant warlords hold disarmament ceremonies, bringing out thousands of their followers, and stacking guns high in public.

Rocket-propelled grenades, guns, explosives, ammunition and even gunboats have all been dumped.

map

The big militants led the way - Victor Ebikabowei Ben, the self-styled "General Boyloaf", Government Tompolo, Farah Dagogo, and Ateke Tom, to name a few.

They certainly have not given up their entire arsenals - but the quantities of weapons dumped are significant, raising hopes of an end to the unrest which has severely curtailed oil output for one of the world's biggest exporters.

And yet there are many questions about the Niger Delta's "peace process".

The lack of independent monitors verifying what happens to those weapons is provoking concern.

There are no neutral observers collating the serial numbers of guns, for example, or formally witnessing weapons being put beyond use.

Instead, that job is being done by officials in local government.

Hinged on trust

The Nigerian government says it does not need to stick to the internationally recognised standards for decommissioning seen in other peace processes.

Bonny Gaeei
Let them do as they say. If they don't? Then, I will bust pipelines again
Bonny Gaeei

"We have our own way of doing things here," Timi Alaibe, the presidential adviser on the amnesty, told me.

"As to whether we have the international standards for collection for those arms, we don't do them here. We don't know about them."

That failure to observe international standards for decommissioning worries the government's critics.

In the past, other amnesties have been abused. Corrupt officials have sold weapons on and guns have found their way back into the hands of criminal gangs.

Mr Alaibe insists it will not end like that this time around.

"Those weapons will not find their way back. The Nigerian military have the structures in place to destroy them," he said.

"The military are taking them back. You saw them, that's transparency."

But for the people of the Niger Delta, it is a lot to take on trust.

And trust is what everything hinges on at present.

There are now thousands of young men, accustomed to life as guerrilla fighters, effectively unemployed.

There are still thousands of people willing to continue fighting in the creeks
Farah Dagogo

Until now, they have lived in militant camps, carrying out kidnappings, blowing up oil pipelines and stealing massive amounts of crude oil.

What happens to these men now is crucial to the future of the Delta.

Already there have been street protests in Yenagoa, in Bayelsa State, by youths angry at not receiving money they had been promised in return for dumping guns.

The government says it will take these young men and re-train them - sponsoring them through education to learn new skills or trades.

But if the promises of a better future are broken, it is likely they will return to violence.

Willing fighters

It will be difficult. The process of interviewing young men at holding centres and finding out what each person wants to do is only just beginning.

A militant in the Niger Delta, Nigeria
Many of the fighters have grown accustomed to life as guerrillas

"I trust them, I must trust them," the young militant, Bonny Gaeei, told me inside his camp, Obotobo 1, deep in the swamps of the Delta.

He had just led 260 youths under his command to dump their guns, one by one.

"They, the government, they have every power. Let them do as they say. If they don't? Then, I will bust pipelines again. That is the truth."

Bonny Gaeei - and others like him - can easily walk away from the murky deals struck between militant leaders and the government.

This weekend, there was a warning of that from one man dumping his guns.

"There are still thousands of people willing to continue fighting in the creeks and only the actions of the government can win over our brothers still bent on fighting," militant leader Farah Dagogo said in a statement.

It is clear that promises of a better future will not alone be enough to bring long term change to the Niger Delta.



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