Nigerian President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua proposed amnesty last Thursday for Niger Delta rebels willing to lay down their arms. The move has all the trapping of an attempt to deflect international criticism of what's to come: There are reports that the Nigerian army's special Niger Delta Joint Task Force is gearing up for what looks like a new attempt -- codenamed Operation Restore Hope -- to clamp down on the militant activity which has disrupted Nigeria's oil output by about a million barrels per day. (Even taking into account recent declines in the price of oil, that's real money.)
However, with promptness and restraint, spokespeople for MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta), the largest and best-organized of the rebel groups, have suggested that it is the government that should be asking for amnesty. For their part, they would not agree to any kind of peace talks unless they were internationally managed and mediated by a respected global figure.
For an administration that has not exactly shown much imagination in terms of new directions or initiatives for Nigeria's 150 million inhabitants, the Niger Delta might be the most difficult and risky issue to tackle. The Niger Delta rebels have been gaining strength and acting with impunity for several years. As things currently stand, falling oil prices represent a greater threat to them than the Nigerian army.
Even if the army did manage to establish an operational center in the Delta, militant community leaders could easily use the thousands of disaffected youth who form a shadow army of resistance to harass it.
Until Yar-Adua's government comes up with a comprehensive program for the fair and transparent distribution of oil wealth into the communities of the Delta, MEND and MEND-wannabes are going to be taking hostages, bunkering oil and blowing things up, no matter what the army attempts to do. The rebels don't want amnesty, they want justice. But anarchy might suit them just as well.
(First published April 6, 2009 in World Politics Review)