NIGERIA

Last prominent militant commander surrenders his weapons

The last significant militant commander in the oil-rich Niger Delta region has surrendered his weapons in return for an unconditional pardon. Defence Minister Godwin Abbe said it was, “the beginning of the development of the Niger Delta.”

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Reuters - Nigeria’s last prominent militant leader agreed to halt fighting in the oil-producing Niger Delta and surrendered his weapons on Sunday in return for an unconditional pardon.

Tompolo, whose gunmen were behind many attacks on the oil industry in the western Niger Delta, handed over rocket launchers, machine guns and explosives to Defence Minister Godwin Abbe at his camp in Oporoza in the creeks of Delta state.

"It is an act of patriotism that Tompolo and his group surrendered their arms," Abbe said at the ceremony.

"The time has come for us to settle down and find solutions to what led to the crisis in the region. Today marks the beginning of the development of the Niger Delta."

Despite being home to Africa’s biggest oil and gas industry, the Delta is one of Nigeria’s poorest regions.

Tompolo late on Saturday accepted President Umaru Yar’Adua’s amnesty offer, which was due to expire at midnight on Sunday.  Two commanders in the eastern delta laid down their weapons on Saturday.

Local residents, politicians and security experts hope the weapons surrender by the best-known militant commanders in the  Delta will bring a period of stability, although pockets of hardliners could still launch attacks.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), the umbrella militant group, warned on Saturday that "unknown commanders" had replaced those who had accepted amnesty and said a next phase of its campaign would begin soon.

But the group has been severely weakened by the amnesty offer—Tompolo was arguably its most important commander in the western delta and Farah Dagogo a key leader in the east.

Emotional surrender

 

Thousands of people gathered in Oporoza and Delta state’s capital Warri to witness the disarmament ceremony.

Tompolo was short of words during most of the handover, able to say only "all is well, all is well" to the crowd before bursting into tears.

"We came because we want peace," said Chief Andrew Anegba, who was among the thousands gathered in Warri to greet Tompolo before the ceremony.

"The last militant groups are giving up arms, and that means peace is coming back," said Anegba, a traditional Ijaw ethnic community leader from Ogbe-Ijoh, close to where security forces used helicopters and gunboats to attack Tompolo’s camps in May.

Yar’Adua’s amnesty offer is the most concerted effort so far to bring peace to the Delta.

Unrest in the region has prevented Nigeria, which vies with Angola as Africa’s biggest oil producer, from pumping much above two-thirds of its production capacity.

It also costs the country $1 billion a month in lost revenues, according to the central bank, and has helped to push up global energy prices.

Tompolo, whose full name is Government Ekpemupolo, was one of the leaders of the Federated Niger Delta Ijaw Communities (FNDIC) based in Warri, and responsible for shutting down a large chunk of oil output from the western delta in 2003.

He is believed to have been important in drawing together the factions that formed MEND.

Despite Nigeria’s oil riches, the vast majority of its 140 million people live on $2 a day or less, and some of the most acute poverty is in the villages of the delta. The militants say they are fighting for a fairer share of the oil wealth.

But the line between militancy and crime is blurred. Some militants have grown rich from a trade in stolen crude oil and extortion, with hundreds of expatriates and wealthy Nigerians kidnapped for ransom over the past three years.

Sceptics say that, even if commanders disarm, there is little to stop fighters from finding new leaders and resuming attacks. Some residents fear they will return to the creeks unless those who hand over their weapons can quickly find work.

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