Twice in seven days during the past week, the Presidential Amnesty Programme (PAP) was the 'talking point' on the editorial commentary of a national newspaper in Nigeria. The newspaper's editorial of Wednesday, January 2, 2013, under the headline: "The never-ending amnesty programme" noted the positive impact of the PAP on the Niger Delta, the spiral in crude oil production and, by extension, its multiplier effect on the oil-reliant Nigerian economy.
"The amnesty programme, since its introduction (in 2009), has proved to be the panacea for peace in the hitherto restive oil-rich Niger Delta region of the country. This has paved the way for oil companies to resume normal business activities and provided the necessary boost to the oil-reliant Nigerian economy. Now, oil output has increased from slightly less than one million barrels per day in 2008 to between 2.4 and 2.6m bpd. To that extent, it will be safe to term the programme a success," it noted.
The newspaper's grouse, however, was the perceived absence of a timeline on when the programme will wind down just as it expressed concern that funds appropriated for the programme could be abused. To be sure, the editorial comment was not an indictment of the programme. As it is, the newspaper was just maintaining a tradition of the media being the watchdog of society and holding the government and its agencies accountable.
But it appears to miss the point in jumping to the hasty conclusion of trying to hurry the government to wind up a programme that it (the newspaper) admitted is a success. Assuming the programme is to last for five years (as it claimed), has it exceeded this timeline? The amnesty programme is barely three years and the implementation of its real mandate of training and re-integrating the former Niger Delta combatants commenced only two years ago. So, why the haste?
Besides, the federal government has not said the amnesty programme is interminable regardless of the recent approval by President Goodluck Jonathan of the inclusion of an additional 3,642 former agitators in the programme. Neither has it said it is the solution to the numerous challenges the Niger Delta is facing. The government made it clear from the onset that it is a security stabilization programme and, so far, the Hon. Kingsley Kuku-led PAP has achieved this objective and consolidating on it daily.
But not done yet, its columnist, Sabella Abidde, accentuated the contradictions a few days later in a piece under the headline: "Has the amnesty programme gone awry?", which was published on the back page on Wednesday, January 9, 2013.
Abidde's postulations were even more curious and they tended to conflict with the newspaper's position.
In one breath, he admits that the programme has been good for the region. By his own admission, he says one of the reasons the region is calm is that many of the men and women, who otherwise would have been engaged in the conflict, signed off on the amnesty programme. "In this and other regards, therefore, the programme has been good for the region."
But in another quick breath, he says nothing has changed in the region and calls for the abrogation of the programme. Rather than keep track with his argument, he makes an unusual somersault and requests the paper's editorial board to lay the blame for the decades-long problems of the region on President Jonathan. What an over-generalisation!
Abidde's 'doomsday predictions' even raised more questions and one begins to wonder what interest it would serve if the Niger Delta regresses again into conflict and armed struggle.
He wrote: "Now, because the Niger Delta has been calm for 40 months, a majority of Nigerians seem to think that all is well with the region. It is not! There are those who think of the conflict as something that belongs in the past and as something that will never happen again. They are mistaken! In essence, nothing has changed: nothing has changed in any meaningful and long-lasting ways since the amnesty programme came into effect in 2009. What we have - what we now have in the Niger Delta - is false peace, false hope and a deceitful calm. This is a region waiting to explode. Again."
Perhaps, Abidde is not happy that the Niger Delta has been calm for 40 months. So, he would prefer to remain in his cozy home in the United States of America while his own brothers, sisters and family members are killed daily in the region.
What is clear is that a few editorial writers and columnists have yet to come to terms with the broad scope of the amnesty deal in the Niger Delta. Stuck with the mindset of the past that limited the challenges of the region and the attendant militancy of its youths to a one-off strategy, they failed to link the solution to dynamic and long-haul interventions stretching far beyond our immediate age and deep into the future. The point to note is that addressing the Niger Delta issue requires far more than a concern with today's headache and the grandstanding by some.
The Niger Delta challenge is a nasty thrust from the past that has lived with us for several decades, multiplying its venomous fangs and acquiring a dynamism that nobody could tame until the Amnesty Proclamation came along. But, is it possible to rein-in this in two, three or four years? In a word, is it possible to squelch the monster overnight, even if, as we have had it, amnesty has proved it is the right antidote to it with its roaring success so far?
The programme has overcome the initial formidable stages of disarming and demobilizing the restive youths, earning Nigeria a mention in the history books as one of the few countries in the world that achieved a successful closure to those phases after experiencing the trauma of conflict.
The narrative does not end there, because the crisis comes with its own in-rolling dynamism that must be addressed stage by stage. The crucial phase is to reintegrate those you have convinced to abandon the lifestyle of violence in the society. So far, the Amnesty Office has succeeded in weaving this into the Transformation Agenda of Mr President, by kitting the ex-agitators with skills and education to make them useful to society. About 13,000 of these hitherto anti-social elements have already been trained and are being absorbed into society for useful service to their country.
Consensus about the unparalleled success and peace in the Niger Delta is both local and global. Investors are being drawn back to the region while crude output has more than tripled to pre-amnesty levels. Recently, the United States dispatched a ranking official, Cynthia Akuetteh, to Nigeria to acknowledge "the momentum of the 2009 amnesty programme in order to secure lasting peace in the Delta." She spoke of the U.S. government's desire to "help the region fulfil its potential" now that the area is stable and peaceful.
But isn't it disturbing how some critics have wearied themselves over what they consider to be the financial cost of earning and sustaining the peace in the region? Aren't they more worried that we were losing far more than what we are spending in keeping the peace? Aren't they pondering the tragic consequences of hastily winding down the programme and in effect give way to a return to the past?
In 2009, the federal government budgeted N400 billion for security because of the situation in the Niger Delta. There was a general outcry, particularly in the region, as the impression it created was that the government was going to acquire more sophisticated weaponry to quell the 'uprising' at the time and there could be collateral damage to the region. The fact is that the amnesty programme, which has engendered the peace the region now enjoys, has not gulped even half of that amount since inception.
For those who do not know, amnesty is beyond today. It is about retrieving lost citizens, putting them back into profitable use and monitoring their development and growth. Like education, it exacts investment and patience, and anyone who scorns it does so at his own peril!
*Alabrah is Head of Media and Communications, Presidential Amnesty Office, Abuja.