New Internationalist

We are sorry!

The Niger Delta has been in the headlines again this week. In a spoof by the Yes Men aimed at shaming Shell, a mock-up of an apology from the transnational together with a press conference were staged on Saturday in The Hague. Under a 'We Are Sorry' banner emblazoned with Shell's logo, a member of Shell's 'Ethical Affairs Committee' announced a new dawn for the company:

A programme which leverages the power of truth and reconciliation about our past to build a sustainable future.
We are sorry for the oil and gas spills which made your rivers toxic. We are sorry for the gas flares that stink up your villages. We are sorry for the fact that you cannot eat your fish. That you cannot grow on your land, that you cannot drink your water.

The 'apology' goes on to lay out the plans for reconciliation. Based on the Truth and Reconciliation hearings in post-apartheid South Africa, Shell will hold a series of hearings in The Hague where people from the Niger Delta, Shell Oil and other witnesses will testify.

The 'We Are Sorry' campaign coincided with an article in this week's Independent which reports on the failed amnesty project and continued neglect of the region. The amnesty has been a sham from the beginning. With the escalating militancy in the region, which had seriously disrupted Nigeria's oil production, the Government offered to give the militants amnesty in return for laying down their arms. Rather than tackle the cause of the militancy and criminal activities such as the huge environmental damage and lack of development by the transnational oil corporations and federal and state governments, the Government simply made a financial deal with a group of militants in exchange for their silence. The cost of doing so could well have been put towards building health centres, schools and other infrastructure for the communities and begin to erode the reasons behind the militancy in the first place. The deal included a $500-a-month payment to an undisclosed number of militants that could run into thousands of dollars a month (the fact that no-one seems to know the exact number is of great concern). Rehabilitation through training and job creation for the militants would immediately address the underdevelopment in the region.  

Only the first commitment has been met, and even then there are discrepancies and disputes on the numbers. For example, one report recently claimed that some 400 militants belonging to Felix Oduo's group had received nothing. A recent meeting to review the amnesty deal summed up a series of failures. Firstly, the review panel including human rights activists said the numbers of militants were exaggerated; secondly, that over 80 per cent of the funds allocated where going to the contractors with only 20 per cent to the ex-militants; thirdly, the training was sub-standard.    Together, these points raise serious questions of mismanagement or corruption. Most importantly, one critical factor that has been left out of the whole amnesty debate are the voices of women.   Although the negotiator between the militants and the federal government was a woman, AnnKio Briggs, women were not consulted in the negotiation. Nor where women consulted or included in the amnesty agreement and post-amnesty planning. 

The panel, which also had Nollywood star and actress, Hilda Dokubo as secretary, claimed that the plan has not taken into consideration those who have been directly affected and traumatized by the crisis; especially those women and children who have lost their sources of livelihood through the death of militant husbands and fathers.

In May 2009, the Kingdom of Gbaramatu in South West Warri was bombed by federal helicopter gunships and thousands of women were injured and fled the area, running with their children through the creeks and mangrove swamps. The number of dead is still not known, as the federal government refused to allow any humanitarian agencies into the area to assess the damage. Many of the women fled to the state capital at Warri and were subsequently housed in an IDP (Internally Displaced Person) camp with their children. It was only because of activists from the Gender Action Project that the camp was eventually organized and training provided for the women and children.

This speaks to two of the issues of concern with the Nigerian Government. Firstly, the bombing and invasion by troops of rural areas where the majority population are women, the elderly and children.  Secondly, the failure of the Government to provide medical and general care as well as compensation to those who are injured or displaced or whose land is destroyed by military actions.  Another factor which directly affects women is the targeting and summary execution of young men between the ages of 15 and 30 by the military [JTF]. Many of the women in the Warri IDP camp had not seen their husbands, sons or brothers who had remained in hiding or had been captured by the JTF. Youths are still missing 11 years after the Odi and Kaiama invasions in Bayelsa State.

The assessment of the amnesty agreement six months after its implementation is one of substantial failure. For some it has been profitable - contractors and some militants - but for the majority nothing has improved. The training and job opportunities for ex-militants is practically non-existent - at least in terms of quality. And the promised changes towards development of the region have not materialized. The oil companies continue to pump out oil, flare gas and leave the environment covered in oil sludge. Recently, acting President Goodluck Jonathan met with ex-militant leaders. However, talk is cheap and unless there is some tangible improvement to people's lives the militancy will return. Next time they will not so easily give up their arms.

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