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OPINION: Journey to Amnesty, By Owei Lakemfa

BALTIMORE, MD (AFRICAN EXAMINER) – Nigerians are yet to comprehensively assess the implications of the  June 12, 1993 Presidential  Elections annulment. One fall-out which we have not come to terms with is the rise of armed militancy. Some came to the conclusion that if a very rich and powerful Moshood Kashimawo Abiola   could be denied his mandate, then, only through armed struggle can they assert their right in the country. Thus by 1995, armed groups  started sprouting.

Unfortunately, the rise of armed groups in the Niger Delta coincided with the Ijaw-Itsekiri conflicts. Given my knowledge, I knew  a terrible bloodbath was likely, and ran to a few persons I knew to discuss how the conflict could be nipped in the bud. An old acquaintance, Tony Engurube was at hand. He gave names of people I should see, but tragically, blood flowed, communities were razed, lives and future lost.

In 1997, I lost my father, and went to organize his funeral in Patani. One day, a young man I had not  seen in the town  for years, ran after me. I had been told he had relocated to work in a ship in Warri. I enquired  whether he was on leave. He said no, he was on duty.   I asked if the company he works for also operated in Patani. “No” He was on duty for the town. He explained that it was the turn of his set to protect the town against possible Itsekiri attacks by running to the banks of the Forcados River to shoot sporadically into the air. The understanding he said, was for youths in the town and neigbouring towns and villages to run or sail quickly towards the sound of the gun fire.

Surprised, I asked if he was armed, he raised his shirt to reveal a pistol and said the youths who genuflected towards me in recognition, were nestling AK 47  rifles. I was shocked and reflected that our towns and villages had become unsafe; when the conflict with the Itsekiris end, what will happen to the arms that flowed freely or  the youths who had learnt how to use firearms? During the burial ceremony, armed youths in two minibuses said to be on patrol on the East-West Road drove into the town; they  had come to make my acquaintance. I was further convinced that something urgent had to be done to ensure peace.

Then on December 11, 1998 Ijaw youths issued the famous Kaiama Declaration which demanded control of the natural resources including oil and the environment. Peaceful demonstrations called OGELE in support of the Declaration which  held in various towns  from December 30, led to armed confrontations and the January 2-3, 1999 military invasion of Kaiama, the home town of  the Ijaw national hero, Major Adaka Boro. Following reports of the Kaiama massacre, some Ijaw youths decided to go and confront the soldiers that had taken over the town. I went to Port Harcourt  and Yenagoa as part of a group of  leaders and elders to persuade the youths to stand down and allow  negotiations. There was a heated debate with some youths in Port Harcourt which went far into the night before a vote was taken between my position and that  of a youth leader who argued for armed retaliation. I won, and the youth leader who was later to play a prominent role in the armed conflict in the Niger Delta, happily agreed with his supporters to accept the majority position.

That incident further reinforced my position that while the injustice and gross underdevelopment of the Niger Delta needed to be addressed, an armed conflict, more so on Ijaw soil, will not be in the long term interest of the people. Tragically, a  fate, far worse than that of Kaiama was  visited on Odi Town on November 20, 1999 when armed soldiers leveled the town and carried out a horrendous massacre.

The situation steadily deteriorated; parts of the region were destroyed, death including from the air was visited on the  populace, and people became internally displaced. Possible peaceful resolution  faded into the background. Then President Musa Yar’Adua appeared on the horizon. Unlike his predecessor, he was neither  warlike nor combative. He was interested in a peaceful resolution, which would be beneficial to all including the economy which has seen oil production plummet to 700,000 bpd. But he worried that his offer of amnesty may be rejected.

Dr. Timiebi Koripamo-Agary, retired Permanent Secretary of the Ministries of Labour, and Information and Communication with whom I had maintained discussions over the years on the Niger Delta issue, raised the matter with me. Could I join a team to campaign for the Amnesty based on a fair deal for all concerned? Many including leaders , elders and the fighters in the Niger Delta had  serious reservations. First, they did not trust the Government as this may be a trap and a cunning way to let the agitators expose themselves and their arms. Secondly, would freedom fighters not be admitting criminality by accepting amnesty? Most importantly, the reason for the revolt was  the  underdevelopment of the Niger Delta, how does amnesty address that?

These were legitimate concerns and the way forward was for the Government to address them. On all the issues, President Yar’Adua  was ready to commit government and work out an agreement with all the stakeholders. So, under the supervision of Dr. Koripamo-Agary, we began a massive campaign to sell the Amnesty idea. One of my first tasks was to get the Coordinator, a serving officer, AVM  Lucky   Ararile on television networks to put a face on the programme. One of my last tasks was to organize a press conference for Ararile – today, the Ovie of Umiaghwa-Abraka Kingdom, Delta State – to announce the number of militants who took the Amnesty, and related programmes. Peace returned to the region, there were programmes for both the ex-agitators and impacted communities. When late last year I returned to the country and was approached to be Media Consultant to the Programme in its final phase under Brig General Paul Boroh (Rtd), I gave a nod. It is not a job or means of income, but a moral duty.



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