November 19, 2009 / 5:49 PM / 10 years ago

Crime wave raises questions about Nigeria amnesty

PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria (Reuters) - A crime wave in Nigeria’s main oil city of Port Harcourt blamed on former militants has shut the university and forced residents to flee, raising questions about the sustainability of an amnesty deal.

Militants brandish weapons during armed combat training in the Niger Delta, March 6, 2008. REUTERS/Austin Ekeinde

Lecturers and students at the University of Port Harcourt, one of Nigeria’s top universities, say it has become too dangerous to continue work since a rehabilitation facility for former rebel fighters was established near to the campus.

“Businesses and social activities in and around the location of the camp have been paralysed. Shops are shut, tenants have fled their homes,” said Emmanuel Worga, head of a community development committee in Ogbakor-Aluu where the camp is sited.

Leading militant commanders and thousands of their fighters, so-called “boys”, from the creeks of the Niger Delta handed over weapons in an amnesty offer that ended at the start of October.

The amnesty is the most serious attempt yet to end years of unrest in the Niger Delta, where armed gangs have blown up pipelines and kidnapped foreign oil workers to push what they say are demands for a fairer share of the natural wealth.

The unrest has prevented the OPEC member from pumping much above two thirds of its oil capacity in recent years, costing it an estimated $1 billion a month in lost revenues.

But there have been delays to the promised monthly stipends and retraining programmes for those who agreed to disarm, many of them young men who spent years in rebel camps deep in the creeks drinking gin and whisky and living by the gun.

Sceptics had warned that unless they were quickly found work and a source of income, many would return to a life of crime.

Many of the delta’s armed groups originally enjoyed strong backing from politicians who used them to help rig elections. With federal, state and local polls due in 2011, analysts fear election contenders could again exploit the instability.

CAMPUS ATTACKED

Hundreds of former gunmen took to the streets earlier this week in protest against the government, which they said had yet to pay them their monthly allowance. They looted shops, firebombed a police vehicle and assaulted dozens of civilians.

University lecturers are refusing to work until the rehabilitation centre is moved. “The threat is real. On Monday they raided our homes, stole our laptops, phones, raped our girls, beat up lecturers and students,” said Andrew Efemeni, head of the local academic staff union.

“Recently, we lost the chief security officer of the school. He was shot dead by gunmen on the campus as he rushed to the rescue of one of our colleagues whose home was being attacked. We’ve had enough. The government should move these boys away.”

Timiebi Koripamo-Agary, spokeswoman for the presidential panel on amnesty, said on Monday that the amnesty centres were supposed to start orientation programmes last week for the first batch of former gunmen but that they were still waiting for feedback from former militant leaders on how to proceed.

Peace talks began last weekend between the main militant group, the Movement of the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), and the government but a MEND spokesman later described the meeting as “more like a sparring match”.

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