…As Amnesty Programme, North East Intervention Fund get N100 billion
By Onyedika Agbedo
in spite of the gaping challenge of infrastructure deficit in virtually all sectors of the Nigerian economy, a great chunk of the 2018 budget will go into the Federal Government’s efforts at sustaining peace across the country, especially in the Niger Delta region. The Federal Government will spend no less than N65 billion in the Presidential Amnesty Programme (PAP) next year with a view to sustaining the existing peace in the region. The PAP, which was listed under Regional Spending Priorities for Peace, Security and Development, also received the same budgetary allocation in the 2017 budget, which is still running. Meanwhile, capital expenditure in the Ministry of Education was pegged at N61.73 billion. The ministries of Health, Interior and Niger Delta got N71.1 billion, N63.26 billion and N53.89 billion, respectively. Also, key capital projects like the Mambilla hydropower project got N9.8 billion, including N8.5 billion counterpart funding; counterpart funding for earmarked transmission lines and substations was pegged at N12 billion; National Housing Programme got N35.41 billion; and Second Niger Bridge N10 billion. Thus, the PAP has become a key priority of President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration the cost of sustaining it notwithstanding.
As the President clearly pointed out while presenting the budget before the National Assembly last Tuesday, the government is committed to ensuring peace in the Niger Delta region. “This Administration will continue to honour our commitments to them. We cannot afford to go back to those dark days of insecurity and vandalism. We all want a country that is safe, stable and secure for our families and communities. This means we must all come together to address any grievances through dialogue and peaceful engagement. Threats, intimidation or violence are never the answer,” he noted.
It could be recalled that the PAP, which mandate included the disarmament, demobilisation and rehabilitation of ex-militants in the Niger Delta region, was unveiled on June 25, 2009, by the late President Umaru Yara’Adua, allowing a grace period of 60 days (August 6 to October 4 2009), to enable the militants in the region to give up all illegal arms in their possession, renounce militancy in all its ramifications unconditionally and depose to an undertaking to that effect. The programme followed an earlier recommendation of a 45-member Committee, inaugurated on September 8, 2008, to collate and review all past reports on the Niger Delta, appraise their recommendations and make other proposals that would help the government to achieve sustainable development, peace, human and environmental security in the Niger Delta region. Between August 6, 2009 when the disarmament (the first phase of the amnesty programme) commenced and October 4, 2009, when it ended, 20,192 militants, comprising 20,049 males and 133 females, respectively, across the nine states of the Niger Delta, denounced militancy and registered for the amnesty programme. The programme, which was originally designed to run for five years, has enjoyed many extensions because of the need to achieve its original objective of ending the res-tiveness in the region and re-integrating the militants into the society.
On assumption office on May 29, 2015, President Buhari had approved a two-year extension of the programme till 2017. An attempt to stick with the date cost the administration dearly as the militants soon resumed hostilities, and thereby forced the government to rescind the decision. Although the Special Adviser to the President on Niger Delta and Coordinator of the PAP, Brig. Gen. Paul Boroh (Retd), gave an indication sometime last year that the government had an exit strategy for the programme, nobody knows exactly when the programme would end as of today. And until it ends, the funding must continue.
Public affairs analyst, Mr. Jide Ojo, however, believes that sustaining the PAP is not a price too dear for the country to pay to keep the region peaceful. Ojo, who spoke with Sunday Sun in an interview, said the country needed peace in order to develop, stressing that it would be suicidal for government to toy with any peace initiative it has for the Niger Delta region.
“There is no so much price we can pay for peace and development. Now, this is my own conspiracy theory — arising from the passage of the North-East Development Commission (NEDC) bill and the President’s assent, the Niger Delta Avengers are threatening to resume hostilities in their region. According to them, this administration has not done enough to ameliorate their sufferings. Part of the Federal Government’s initiative for the restoration of peace and cessation of hostilities in the Niger Delta is to sustain the Amnesty Programme and to also build the proposed Maritime University in Okerenkoko, Delta State. Recall that the Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, was sent to placate the people sometime last year in company with the Minister of State for Petroleum, Ibe Kachikwu, and some other Federal Government officials. Subsequently, the government had meetings with the Pan-Niger Delta Forum (PANDEF) where some agreements were reached, resulting in the cessation of hostilities from September last year. The sustenance of the Amnesty programme was part of the agreement,” Ojo said.
He urged Nigerians to be more concerned about the release of the fund meant for the programme and how it would be expended instead of looking at the figure. He noted: “It is one thing to budget a particular amount for an activity and another thing for the fund to be released and judiciously used. A lot of processes are involved; you don’t look at the figure alone. You never can tell whether the supposed N65 billion would be released. And even if every kobo is released as budgeted, I stress that it’s not too much of a price to pay to ensure peace. We need peace for development; if that will ensure peace in Niger Delta, I think it should be diligently pursued.”
Asked when the amnesty programme should be called off in his opinion, Ojo said it would be suicidal for the government to back out from any agreement it reached with the people of the Niger Delta now. “It’s premature to call it off now because there is still a lot of restiveness in the region. As part of the Amnesty Programme, the government is supposed to train some of the militants and as you know, some courses last up to seven years. So, if you stop the programme now, those people who are already admitted to some universities abroad will have to suspend their education because they won’t be able to sustain themselves. That might cause a slide to anarchy in the Niger Delta. So, for me, N65 billion is not too much of a price to pay to maintain peace in the Niger Delta,” he said.
He added: “The Amnesty Programme is a kind of affirmative action to redress certain injustices within the system. And in as much as Nigeria is still largely a monoculture economy, in which case we depend on oil, which comes from Niger Delta for the bulk of our revenue, we will still continue to pay that price to maintain peace in the region. But the most important thing is for the desired development in the region to take place because even with the plethora of agencies and programmes meant for the development of the region, it is still grossly underdeveloped. It could be that the resources are not being well utilised. But being an intervention programme, it’s not going to last forever; but you need to sustain the programme pending the time the youths of the region would be able to get proper rehabilitation, which will pave the way for proper cessation of hostilities. Even the people who are being given free education and other trainings, how do we ensure that when they finish their studies abroad and return home, they will get good jobs that will make them not to use the same knowledge they have acquired negatively? So, gainful engagement will be the solution ultimately.”
Also speaking in the same vein, the Executive Director, Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), Ibuchukwu Ezike, said sustaining the Amnesty Programme would remain a temporary solution until the root cause of the restiveness in the Niger Delta region is addressed.
“The issue of amnesty arose as a result of the agitation by Niger Delta youths due to the gross neglect of the area by successive governments in the country not minding that majority of the revenue of the country comes from there. There are no roads, institutions of higher learning are lacking. They travel to Lagos and other parts of the country and look at the bridges. But in their area, the government would say the terrain is bad. Their only reward is the pollution of the environment through oil spillage and gas flaring. So, this was what gave birth to the militancy in the Niger Delta.
“The Yar’Adua administration came up of the amnesty programme in its bid to calm frayed nerves and restore normalcy. The administration did very well with the programme before Dr Goodluck Jonathan came in and continued with it. But the issue is that addressing the concerns of the youths through the Amnesty Programme does not address the issue of the neglect of the Niger Delta region. In other parts of the world, the practice is that where the bulk of the resources come from, you do things that will make the people happy. So, I do not believe, and nobody will convince me to believe, that the numerous challenges of the Niger Delta people can be addressed through the Amnesty Programme,” he opined.
Ezike, who expressed doubts about the application of funds allocated for the prgramme, added: “There is a report that this present government spent about $10 billion to launder its image. If the allegation is true, the question is why did they not use that money to develop the country? The government flagged off the Ogoni clean up project since last year, but what has happened since then? They think they are deceiving the people of the region but they are deceiving themselves. So, the money being voted for Amnesty Programme may not necessarily be for that purpose. It might be for the pockets of political office holders in the country and their associates. I see the budget for the Amnesty Programme as a conduit to siphon public funds. The Niger Delta Avengers have been threatening to resume hostilities of late. If government has been meeting their needs and addressing the real issues affecting the region, why would the militant groups still be agitating? So, it means that they are not addressing the issues that are affecting the lives of the youths in the Niger Delta neither are they addressing the problems of the region, especially the problem of infrastructure deficit.”
Ezike warned against ending the programme anytime soon saying: “If you don’t address those issues and you say that you are going to stop the amnesty programme, you are simply inviting more agitations and restiveness. The youths will definitely go back to the creeks and begin to attack oil installations and the whole nation will suffer. The government said they are going to diversify the economy, but we are still waiting to see the other sources of revenue they have created outside oil. So, the issue is that the government must be very honest to the citizenry; the best thing for it to do is to address those issues that gave rise to the amnesty programme. It’s then that anyone can think of stopping the programme.”
Meanwhile, the Federal Government also plans to spend N45 billion in the war-torn North-east region through the North East Intervention Fund in 2018, while the Ministry of Defence has a capital budget of N145 billion. By implication, the country would spend not less than N245 billion on security and peace building matters in the coming year; the budget of all the paramilitary organisations attached to the Ministry of Interior non-inclusive. Against this backdrop, it is high time Nigerians eschewed bitterness, armed conflicts and crime to pave way for the channelling of scarce resources to real developmental needs of the country. The President underscored this while presenting the budget when he urged Nigerians “to exercise restraint, tolerance and mutual respect in airing any grievances and frustrations.” He then added: “Whilst the ongoing national discourse on various political issues is healthy and welcome, we must not forget the lessons of our past. I trust that the vast majority of our people would rather tread the path of peace and prosperity, as we continue to uphold and cherish our unity in diversity.”