Nigeria: Yar'Adua Grants Militants 'Unconditional Pardon'

Abuja — President Umaru Yar'Adua delivered on his promise on Thursday, and signed the proclamation of amnesty for Niger Delta insurgents who surrender arms and cease hostilities.

The period of grace is 60 days, ending on October 4. Yar'Adua cited the powers conferred on him by Section 175 of the Constitution.

The amnesty entails unconditional pardon for every one involved in militancy, including those on trial like Henry Okah, leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND).

The proclamation says: "Whereas the government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria acknowledges that the challenges of the Niger Delta arose mainly from the inadequacies of previous attempts at meeting the yearnings and aspirations of the people, and has set in motion machinery for the sustainable development of the Niger Delta States;

"Whereas certain elements of the Niger Delta populace have resorted to unlawful means of agitation for the development of the region, including militancy; thereby threatening peace, security, order and good governance and jeopardising the economy of the nation;

"Whereas the government realises that many of the militants are able-bodied youths whose energies could be harnessed for the development of the Niger Delta and the nation at large;

"Whereas the government desires that all persons who have directly or indirectly participated in militancy in the Niger Delta should return to respect constituted authority; and

"Whereas many persons who had so engaged in militancy now desire to apply for and obtain amnesty and pardon.

"Now therefore I, Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, after due consultation with the Council of State. and in exercise of the powers conferred upon me by Section 175 of the Constitution, make the following proclamation:

"I hereby grant amnesty and unconditional pardon to all persons who have directly or indirectly participated in the commission of offences associated with militant activities in the Niger Delta;

"The pardon shall take effect upon the surrender and handing over of all equipment, weapons, arms and ammunition, and execution of the renunciation of militancy forms specified in the schedule hereto, by the affected persons at the nearest collection centre established for the purpose of government in each of the Niger Delta States;

"The unconditional pardon granted pursuant to this proclamation shall extend to all persons presently being prosecuted for offences associated with militant activities; and

"This proclamation shall cease to have effect from Sunday, October 4, 2009."

Before signing the proclamation, Yar'Adua said his administration has demonstrated unwavering commitment to evolving a holistic solution to the problems of the Niger Delta: securing it for growth and development, and tackling the criminal dimension.

"We do recognise that the provision of infrastructure for the sorely needed socio-economic development of the area is dependent on an enduring atmosphere of peace and security.

"Constructive and frank engagements with all the stakeholders have defined our approach in the past two years."

He said this informed the setting up of the Amnesty Presidential Panel on May 5.

"The offer of amnesty is predicated on the willingness and readiness of the militants to give up all illegal arms in their possession, completely renounce militancy in all its ramifications unconditionally, and depose to an undertaking to this effect.

"It is my fervent hope that all militants in the Niger Delta will take advantage of this amnesty and come out to join in the quest for the transformation of our dear nation. The offer of amnesty is open to all militants for a period of 60 days.

"Our twin-challenge of democratic consolidation and economic regeneration calls for unbridled patriotism and single-minded, people-focused, results-oriented, resolute and courageous leadership at all levels.

"We cannot afford to fail. Let us use today's proclamation of amnesty to herald a new beginning for our fatherland."

Ikenna Enekweizu, counsel to militant leader, Ateke Tom, acknowledged the seriousness of the government, but said his client would study the terms before reacting to the proclamation.

Onongiya Erekosima, leader of the crusade for a peaceful resolution of the crisis, scoffed that Yar'Adua is merely setting a trap for the militants, saying it is wrong for Abuja to insist on them dropping their guns to get amnesty.

MEND Spokesman, Jomo Gbomo, also argued that the government is not serious about resolving the conflict, because "what will end the war is the introduction of true federalism which will eventually be beneficial to every Nigerian."

He said the reduction in oil output caused by militancy "shows that the Federal Government can have superior fire power but can still be brought to its knees by the bite of a mosquito. Our fight is not that of confrontation but detachment because we are waging a guerrilla war. There is no victor, no vanquished in this situation. All we need is justice.

"Nigeria should practice true federalism so that it can harness its entire potential instead of relying solely on oil and gas. The country has not felt sorry for the oil bearing communities for over five decades."

The view of Conference of Nigerian Political Parties (CNPP) National Publicity Secretary, Osita Okechukwu, is that the Niger Delta needs the intervention of the United Nations, not the "orchestrated" hype of an amnesty deal.

"We had thought that the (Amnesty Panel) had fashioned out a Marshal Plan or an innovative strategy to stop the insurgency, armed conflict, shutting down of oil facilities and vandalisation of oil pipelines in the region; not just that unconditional pardon has been granted to the boys in the creeks," he said.

Before Yar'Adua signed the proclamation, the National Council of State (NCS), Nigeria's highest advisory body, had on the day endorsed and commended it as the boldest step ever taken by the government to resolve the Niger Delta question.

The NCS comprises former and current Presidents and Heads of State, the Vice President, former and current Chief Justices, the leadership of the National Assembly, Inspector General of Police, and Governors.

Among former leaders present on Thursday were Yakubu Gowon, Olusegun Obasanjo, Shehu Shagari, and Ernest Shonekan.

Muhammadu Buhari, Ibrahim Babangida, and Abdulsalami Abubakar stayed away.

Yar'Adua signed the proclamation a few minutes after the endorsement, which - Governors Timipre Sylva (Bayelsa), Ikedi Ohakim (Imo), and Modu Sherriff (Borno) told reporters - followed exhaustive deliberation and commendations.

Sylva spoke of the boldness of the initiative, federal Attorney General and Justice Minister, Michael Aondoakaa, described it as evidence of the administration's commitment to respecting human rights and resolving the troubles in the Deep South.

Aondoakaa explained that although a separate body advises the President on amnesty (Section 175 of the Constitution), the seriousness of Aso Rock on this issue made it to involve the NCS.

He said Presidential pardon for convicted military officers did not feature at the meeting as it was not on the agenda.

He, however, disclosed that the NCS approved pardon for some civilian prisoners, especially those on death row for up to 20 years.

"(Yar'Adua) advised that it is not proper to allow somebody to be on death row for 20 years without the sentence being carried out. It is either you free him or you commute the sentence, but to leave somebody on death row for that long is not proper."

The NCS took note of an earlier circular issued by former Chief Justice Alfa Belgore instructing judicial officers to convert to life jail sentence any capital punishment not executed within two years.

"Again those whose sentences have been commuted to life imprisonment who have served up to 21 years should be considered to have freedom.

"That was the yardstick we used to consider people who were pardoned today."

While the NCS approved the pardon for federal prisoners, a memo will go to state Attorneys General who chair the state committees on the prerogative of mercy to pardon prisoners in their domain.

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