Page last updated at 11:14 GMT, Saturday, 5 September 2009 12:14 UK

Hope and rusty guns in Niger Delta

After years of fighting in the Niger Delta, some militants have begun to hand in weapons as part of a government amnesty programme. But as Caroline Duffield discovers the outbreak of peace might not be all that it seems.

Ebikabowei Victor Ben ("General Boyloaf") on taking part in the government's amnesty programme
Gen Boyloaf wants a fairer share of the region's oil wealth for local people

"My name is Ebikabowei Victor Ben. Aka 'General Boyloaf'."

From a man in a baseball cap and a polo shirt it sounded odd.

He slumped on a cream Louis XVI sofa.

"Do you want a Heineken?" he asked.

The luxury room he had been given in the grounds of Government House glittered with mirrors, marble tables and gilded chairs.

"We must give peace a chance and we will keep to our side of the bargain," he added, flicking cigarette ash into a beer can.

The self-styled General Boyloaf has commanded the loyalty of thousands of young men in the Niger Delta.

He is the guerrilla tactician behind crippling attacks on the oil companies and Nigerian army. But today, he was ordering his men to give up their weapons - or so it seemed.

Rusty weapons

I had waited hours in the heat for Boyloaf with swarms of his young supporters outside the local government headquarters, all of them pushing, dancing, yelling, and singing.

Nigerian militants handed in weapons as part of an amnesty programme

Centre stage were stacks of weapons - piled up like matchsticks - and even a gunboat.

Journalists tiptoed between rocket-propelled grenades, rifles and AK-47s.

A lot were rusty. Not quite what you would want in your hand meeting the Nigerian army, but the crowd was euphoric.

Boyloaf came out and promised the people of the Niger Delta would hold the government to its promises of development and jobs.

He threw his arms around the state governor and they cheered.

Behind me, two boys were talking.

"Are they close?" asked one. "As close as the rainbow is to the rain," said the other.

Poverty and politics

And that is the problem in the Niger Delta. The business of militancy and the business of power are linked.

Militancy is rooted in community protests over poverty and pollution from the oil industry.

And there is nothing in these towns. A village with a good road is lucky.

If you want a job, you get one selling mobile phone credit, or water, or bananas on the roadside.

OIL THEFT
Oil pipes running through a village in the Niger Delta
Oil theft costs Nigeria an estimated $5bn (£2.5bn) every year
Estimates of oil stolen range from 70,000 to 500,000 barrels per year
Nigeria has proven reserves of over 31bn barrels
Its production capacity is 3.2m barrels per day (bpd)
Its current production rate is 1.9m bpd
Source: Legaloil.com

But any political struggle here was long ago corrupted by the fat profits of kidnapping and oil theft.

Politicians are partly to blame. They hired and armed young men as paid thugs to help them rig elections - and afterwards, the guns were turned on the politicians.

Local government payrolls even include many militants. They intimidate politicians, demand jobs for friends, and attack the oil industry.

But the real money is made in kidnapping and "bunkering", tapping into pipelines to steal oil.

And everyone dips their fingers into the dirty game.

Corrupt officials, corrupt politicians, and corrupt military officers all ease the path for ships full of stolen goods out of the military zone.

Delta veterans whisper it quietly - "no such thing as a struggle exists, just criminals, politics and profits".

But those profits are a long way from the boys watching guns being dumped.

One of them introduces himself as Comrade Emmanuel.

"I don't even have money inside my pocket," he cries.

"I'm a Niger Delta son and I have no job to do. What's happening today is real. We're trusting the federal government for the last time.

"I want a job. I want a girlfriend. Do I look like someone who can't work?"

His bare feet are covered in sores and missing teeth make him look old.

But he is in his early 20s and it is clear the profits of militancy do not trickle down.

Denunciation

And so how do you address a self-styled general when he retires?

And was he really retiring?

Map of Nigeria showing the Niger Delta

Are the rusting guns and mildewed camouflage jackets the real arsenal or are the real weapons still in the hands of the militants?

As we sat on his Louis XVI sofa, phones in his various pockets began to bleat irritating tunes.

Every big man in this country carries multiple phones.

And a lot of people clearly need to speak to Boyloaf at once.

"What? They go say what? Hold on," he raised his voice and talked to another handset.

Judging from the fragments of the conversation, it was bad news.

I later heard that he had been denounced by a faction of his own group.

They had accused him publicly of mounting a fake disarmament, a charade, and they said that they would continue their struggle.

Earlier, I had asked him whether the gun dumping was real.

He looked me in the eye.

"I disarmed all my munitions," he said. "Not one bullet is left."

"And so why give up your guns first?" I asked. "You have not yet got the development, the jobs, everything you wanted."

"We have promises. The government has promised. We will hold them to that."

"And if they don't deliver?" I asked.

He looked at me and his eyes were still.

"Then the gods of the Niger Delta will come back," he said, "and they will repay them and fight for us."

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SEE ALSO
Nigeria rebels hand over weapons
22 Aug 09 |  Africa
'Blood oil' dripping from Nigeria
27 Jul 08 |  Africa
Nigeria country profile
19 Apr 11 |  Country profiles


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