MR Allen Onyema, a lawyer, chairman of the Foundation for Ethnic Harmony in Nigeria, FEHN and amnesty facilitator was recently conferred with the Pan-Nigerian Nationalist award by the Eminent Friends Group International, EFGI, in Lagos.
How he got militants to lay down their arms and how he ensured peace at Obubra camp, Cross River State
At the height of the militancy, I felt disturbed that if only these boys will know that there is strength in non-violence, they would have adopted it but they did not know.
I met with the government of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. I told them I could arrest the incidence of violence through non-violence education and programmes. They laughed because they did not believe me. I looked at history, which is replete with so many places where non-violence showed its power.
So, I decided that I will do the same thing and started looking for credible institutions and partners and that led me to Dr Bernard Lafayette (jnr). He worked with Dr King in the civil rights days. In fact, he was the last person King told to go to Washington to prepare the poor people for the campaign in Washington.
That was actually why they killed King because involving the poor people meant he was going to assemble the poor white and poor black. And the government of the day could not take it. It was a state murder. I decided to get Lafayette to partner me in doing the programme.
What I wanted to do in the first place was to train people who will be able to train other Nigerians. I got Lafayette to train me and my 19 staff.
But before then, I had started moving militants out of the creeks -from Delta to Lagos doing Level I programme. Then Shell came in to support. I was taking them to South Africa to train them. It was the training of the initial 10 militants given to us by Shell that opened the eyes of the world to what I was doing.
In the second part, they sent 23; we trained, transformed and employed them. They sent 60, I trained and transformed them and the American Embassy talked to us and we started taking them to America.
We trained a whole lot of them. Many parents were now coming to me to say: 'look, I have somebody in the militancy, I would like you to help my son; I want to get my son out of it.'
Chevron decided to come in when they saw what was happening on the Shell side. In Afam, for several years, Shell could not operate. I went into Afam and reconciled the 17 communities with the oil companies. Today, there is no more problem in Afam. Non-violence is very powerful.
Yar'Adua's yeoman's job
It was along the line that late President Umar Musa Yar'Adua decided to call on Timi Alaibe: 'we have a security report about an organisation, the FEHN training these boys why don't we do it on a larger scale?'
They now decided to train 600 commanders first. He told Timi to meet with the militant leaders: 'is there a way we can make them bring down their tools of war and take to this programme?'
At first, the commanders refused but later said, 'okay, we will send our boys first to test the waters.' What they did first was to send the bad ones who were disturbing them so that they could go and get killed because they though it was a set up.
Timi brought 600 boys. The Federal Government financed it through the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC. We trained and transformed them. That was when President Yar' Adua said something big should happen and the issue of amnesty came up.
Before then, Dr Lafayette asked me: 'if you want to dismantle militancy, you have to dismantle any organisation that is handling their affairs. Which is the most powerful organisation in Niger Delta?'
I said the Ijaw Youth Council, IYC, which like the political wing. The militants are the military wing. He said, 'how do they get to their positions of power?' I said 'through elections.' He said in that case, we have to train people and sponsor them to take over IYC. So we had to train people to be non-violent and put them on the saddle to take over the exco of the IYC.
Power changes hand in IYC
I started sourcing for credible persons to use and that search took me to Chris Ekiyor, Jonathan Lokpobiri and a whole lot of them. We took them out, trained them in Nigeria, South Africa and United States of America and came back and supported their election. We made sure that all the chairmen were proponents of non-violence. When they won election, the IYC the following day started talking about non-violence. Their motto used to be 'by all means necessary.'
The IYC started telling the militant wing, 'we have to down the tools of war, we have to pursue it intellectually.' At first, Chris Ekiyor did not receive any support. He was shot twice but he persevered. We were giving our support from behind. All of a sudden, some of the leaders started buying into it and seeing something good in it.
We proved to them that we were not against the struggle but we were against the method and proved to them that there is a more powerful method to be used and if you use that you stand to gain. If you do violence, you ostracise men of goodwill who would have participated in your cause.