The trouble with “amnesty”

If you’ve been following Nigeria for the past few weeks, you know that — after years of foot-dragging — the government finally pulled together an amnesty plan for fighters. You probably also heard that, just hours after the program began, rebel group Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta promised to renew attacks. What ...

By , International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.
579720_091008_mend12.jpg
579720_091008_mend12.jpg

If you've been following Nigeria for the past few weeks, you know that -- after years of foot-dragging -- the government finally pulled together an amnesty plan for fighters. You probably also heard that, just hours after the program began, rebel group Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta promised to renew attacks. What gives?

Just about everything is wrong with the amnesty deal that just took place, despite hooplah and praise to the contrary. In principle, offering fighters a way out of their violent profession is great. But context is everything.

If you’ve been following Nigeria for the past few weeks, you know that — after years of foot-dragging — the government finally pulled together an amnesty plan for fighters. You probably also heard that, just hours after the program began, rebel group Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta promised to renew attacks. What gives?

Just about everything is wrong with the amnesty deal that just took place, despite hooplah and praise to the contrary. In principle, offering fighters a way out of their violent profession is great. But context is everything.

First off, there was never a political settlement to the conflict in the Niger Delta — a conflict that is primarily about the sharing of the country’s massive oil wealth, the underdevelopment of the Niger Delta, and the environmental destruction that petrol has wraught on the communities therearound. None of those questions have disappeared. Thousands are still jobless; living standards for the masses are abominable; and no large-scale clean-up efforts have restored the environment to its past vibrance. There has been no political agreement on the rebels’ demand that the Niger Delta recieve a greater percentage of the country’s oil revenues. Nor has there been any effort to stem the local corruption that enriches local officials at the expense of pretty much everyone else. In short, if you were considering being a rebel, there are still a lot of reasons to do so.

But perhaps more alarming is the fact that the Nigerian government has just created juicy incentive to become a rebel. If this amnesty was anything like past attempts to co-opt top rebel leaders, a hefty paycheck came along with that promise of no prosecution. So what lesson has Abuja just taught MEND? If you become just frightening enough, you, too, can win a juicy deal from the government in Abuja to stop fighting.

I don’t mean to be curt, and I hope Nigeria proves me wrong. But here’s the picture I see: In a region where there is no economic opportunity for young men and women, joining a rebellion that pays well — with the promise of a handsome retirement someday in Abuja — is not just an option, it’s the obvious choice. As one rebel once told me, a hungry man will fight for anything. And since the problems of the Niger Delta aren’t getting any better, there’s plenty (right or wrong) to fight for.

Elizabeth Dickinson is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.

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