Egbosa Gabriel, (not real names) 25, had quietly walked into the training hall of Grand Mentecito Hotel, Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital in the company of his friend, Jonathan.
Their entry into the hall was greeted with grave silence. The reason for the silence was obvious; they were repentant members of the dreaded militia group in the Niger Delta. Thanks to the earlier sensitisation by the organisers of the workshop, participants were able to face these youths.
A subtle look at them evoked feelings of regret. But they are just two out of thousands yet to see reason why they should sheathe their swords and embrace peace. "I regret my actions. My family is still suffering because of my involvement," one of them retorted.
For these two Niger Delta ex-militants, violence not only ruins a person but also afflicts the family for life.
For 40 years, the Niger Delta comprising nine out of the 36 States of Nigeria - Abia, Akwa Ibom, Bayesla, Cross River, Delta, Edo, Imo, Rivers and Ondo has been engulfed by violence.
The crisis had been between rival militia groups and against the oil companies, no thanks to factors such as poverty, political disenfranchisement, and the easy availability of firearms that have continued to fuel violence in the region. Many armed groups fought each other over the control of illegally acquired oil (bunkering) and also engaged in violent acts such as kidnapping against the oil companies.
Observers blame the violence on the long period of neglect by previous governments. The scale of this neglect has been an important factor behind the violence in the region.
Today, the future of Nigerians, particularly, the youths in the Niger Delta brings to mind the report of Mo Ibrahim Foundation which noted that the future of youths in many African countries, including Nigeria may be grim unless governments and policy makers take urgent steps to improve good governance, provide quality education, health and create employment for the youths.
To get Nigerian youths, particularly, those in the Niger Delta, on track, there is need to ensure peace in the region which will in turn bring about youth competitiveness, right skills, adequate tools and attainment of social and political responsibility.
Against this backdrop, both the government and civil society organisations have been working towards ensuring peace as well as mapping out peace building strategies aimed at ending violence in the region and empowering the youths economically.
Participants at the training
One of such organisations is Partners For Peace (P4P), a flagship peace building programme of Peace Initiative in the Niger Delta, PIND. As part of efforts to promote peace building within the Niger Delta, PIND has embarked on several research works to analyse the key issues and drivers of conflict within the region.
Findings from some of the researches illustrated the detrimental impacts conflicts have on livelihoods, and how they impede both the short and long-term economic prospects of community members. In one of its reports, a male respondent from Ondo/Edo state explained how continued violence brought the commercial sector in his community to a standstill.
"During the period of the crisis many people could not trade as expected. Some people who used to go to the market to sell had to close their shops. If they opened, the shop could be looted. As a result, companies closed down and other people that had the capacity to establish companies were afraid to do so for fear of destruction," he said.
For the Programme Officer, PIND's Peace-building, Dr. Robinson Ariyo, the strong correlation between conflict and the health of a region's economy reinforces the notion that without peace, economic growth cannot flourish. This highlights why peace building is a core component of PIND's holistic and integrated approach to promoting economic growth in the Niger Delta.
Conflict has been described as an intrinsic and inevitable aspect of social change. Although, conflict is said to have become a persistent feature of modernity and a universal phenomenon there is need to transform potentially violent conflicts into non-violent alternatives.
Building peace prevents conflicts and instability, improves governance, enhances sustainable development and strengthens the rule of law, which is necessary for cultivating a stable democracy.
Looking to the future with some hope, Dr. Ariyo regretted that over the years, unconscious to Nigerians, they have effectively communicated violence as a way of life, hence the desire of P4P to change the trend.
He regretted that a multiplicity of factors have continued to fuel violence in the areas. According to him: "You can hardly point to one factor as solely responsible for conflict but at the bottom of all these is a strong factor, that is economics. People in the Niger Delta jostle over resources.
"Over time, people have come to think that they are entitled to much more from the oil that comes from their area, rightly or wrongly. Based on that kind of mentality, they feel that their lot should be better than what it is. That is one of the major reason for conflict here."
Lamenting the situation in the region, he stated that there is persistent struggle for who represents the people in the process of accessing these resources or whom royalties should be paid to. "In most communities in the Niger Delta, it has gone deadly. People are prepared to kill. Apart from oil resources, you have the issue of land conflict and you also have the issue of lawlessness," he said.
Ariyo who noted the urgency in building peace in the Niger Delta region said he is committed to promoting interest and support development of the youths by reducing negative public perception of youths and focusing their attention on the positive role they can play in the Niger Delta.
The 2012 PIND's Youth Advocacy Campaign was designed to generate awareness and interest in the issues, needs and aspiration of youths. Identified youths and groups that are impacting positively in the communities were celebrated by PIND.
According to Ariyo, PIND is also working in the area of economic development. Already, in collaboration with other partners, it has built an economic development centre which serves as a resource and coordination hub to develop and implement projects aimed at reducing poverty in the region through the improvement of incomes and creation of jobs.
He noted that most programmes are targeted at the youth as a strategy to replace the culture of violence with that of peace.
On its small research grants programme designed to engage policymakers, civil society, think tanks, researchers, academia and students in the promotion of strategic research and publications on the Niger Delta, PIND has given US$25,000 each to two organisations - Aries Concept Nigeria Limited and the South - South office of the National Centre for Technology Management NACETEM.
He explained that P4P is a movement of the people aimed at developing a collective agenda for peace in the region. "We are trying to identify those people in the Niger Delta who are peace champions, whom we can link together and encourage to influence some other people. We are trying to design a crusade where people can assert their right to peace and a reputable livelihood in the Niger Delta region," he said.
To promote efforts aimed at building peace,P4P programme will link these efforts through an effective communication strategy. "An official P4P Facebook page has already been established to help achieve this objective."