What he was not familiar with was how to build a pipeline, which is why he was standing in a dark warehouse with a protective mask on his head and a welding torch in his hand, sending a fountain of sparks into the air. Before long the two pieces of four-inch pipe in front of him were neatly joined together.
“I am learning,” he said, unsmiling but proud. “I want to be a somebody.”
This month, Igbikis and 39 fellow former militants will graduate from their nine-month welding course in Port Harcourt, the delta’s biggest city, joining thousands of other ex-rebels who have graduated from education or training projects in Nigeria and abroad. They are all beneficiaries of a $405 million-a-year amnesty program that has become an unlikely success story for Nigeria’s government.
When it was started by the late president Umaru Yar’Adua in June 2009, the rebels’ raids on oil installations and personnel had halved oil production from more than 2 million barrels a day to as low as 800,000 a day in January 2009, according to the government’s figures. Few local activists believed the amnesty policy would work.
But within a little more than a year, more than 26,000 “armed agitators” had handed over their weapons in exchange for a $400 monthly payment and a promise of training. The attacks lessened and then stopped. Today oil output is between 2.4 million and 2.6 million barrels a day, the government says.
Although concerns remain about the cost of the amnesty, the long-term stability of the delta and the massive increase in oil theft or “bunkering” that has accompanied the drop in violence, many early critics of the program admit they were mistaken.
“I thought the amnesty was poorly planned, but I’ve had to eat humble pie,” said Inemo Samiama, executive director the Stakeholder Democracy Network, a civil society group. “Militant activities have practically ceased and normal life has returned.”
Keeping the rebel leaders happy was crucial to the program’s success. It helped that President Goodluck Jonathan, who played an important role in negotiations with the militants while he was vice president, was from the delta region. After initially fearing persecution, militant bosses such as Government Ekpumopolo, known as Tompolo, were comfortably housed in the capital, Abuja, and then controversially taking part in lucrative oil-related contracts.
For foot soldiers such as Igbikis, who said he was driven to militancy by joblessness and a sense of injustice, the amnesty terms were also generous. The $400-a-month stipend is nearly four times the minimum wage of local government workers. Together with the promise of training, it was enough to encourage most militants — and many nonmilitants, some allege — to renounce violence and join demobilization camps.