The crowd of young men gathered around as police officers unloaded a small arsenal from the bed of a truck: buckets of bullets, boxes and boxes of machine guns and rocket launchers.
The scene played out to cheers over the weekend as 1,000 militants and their commanders in the oil-rich Niger Delta region laid down their arms in exchange for a government amnesty program that promises them a pardon and a job. The program has been in place since August 6. The government held up Saturday’s public surrender of weapons — the biggest so far — as a sign that it was proceeding successfully. It hopes that, before the program runs its course on October 4, it will earn the cooperation of thousands of other armed groups that have cut Nigeria’s oil production in the region to its lowest levels since 1999. But missing from the amnesty ranks is the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), an umbrella organization for many of the armed groups. It has declared the drive a charade and accused the government of purchasing the weapons. “In the midst of such sheer deceit, MEND will be compelled to resume with ferocious attacks on the oil industry at the end of our cease-fire on September 15, 2009,” the group said Saturday. MEND had declared a 60-day truce in July following the release of its leader as part of a separate amnesty deal with the government. Before the current amnesty offer, Nigeria military had been clearing the western Niger Delta region in a major operation against armed groups, specifically MEND. The armed militant groups demand that more of Nigeria’s oil wealth be reinvested in the region instead of enriching those whom they consider corrupt politicians. They have destroyed several oil facilities, forcing Nigeria to cut its oil exports by as many as 1 million barrels of oil per day, or 40 percent.
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The recent violence — which has included attacks on pipelines and hostage-taking — has limited shipment of crude oil supplies out of Nigeria, Africa’s largest producer. “As we lay down our arms today, the struggle continues,” Ebikabowei “Boyloaf” Ben, a top militant commander, said on Saturday. “But this time, it will be constructive negotiations and dialogue, which we believe is the way forward.” Watch former rebels celebrate amnesty » The amnesty is the first step to bring peace to the region, the government says. Oil accounts for 80 percent of Nigeria’s budget revenue. The amnesty will allow oil to flow again and development to begin, officials hope. “Before now, the promises may not have been well meant. But this time we believe the promises are well meant,” said Timipre Sylva, the governor of Bayelsa state, where the weapons surrender took place. Lucky Ararile, the chief coordinator of Amnesty Implementation Committee, urged militants to take up the offer. “If they don’t accept amnesty, the law will take its course,” he said. Many of the young men at the ceremony had spent their entire lives living and fighting in the rivers and creeks of the Niger Delta. The key to stop them from picking up their guns again is work, they said. “We are jobless. That’s why we did the militant game. So all we need is jobs,” Mayus Bayolou said. The details of the rehabilitation and development programs promised for those accepting the amnesty remain unclear.
Militant leader “Boyloaf” Ben said he will now try to find a legitimate business, but warns of dire consequences if the government reneges. “I believe the next generation to come will do things more bloody than we have,” he said.