The Nigerian government has been insincere in its running of the Niger Delta Amnesty Programme, 90 ex-militants in South Africa have often cried out. Of this number, 28 arrived the Lagos Murtala Mohammed International Airport today at about 7p.m (Nigerian time), seemingly deported for raising the alarm over how Nigeria’s ex-agitators are being treated abroad.
On the SA60 Lagos bound flight was the Special Adviser to President Goodluck Jonathan on the Niger Delta Amnesty Programme and chair of the Amnesty Committee, Kingsley Kuku, along with other government officials including Henry Ugbolue, the spokesperson for the Amnesty Office. Days earlier, they had flown into South Africa to quell a controversy which in the past two months threatened to expose embarrassing dealings within the Amnesty Office which oversees the training of over 26,000 Niger Delta fighters who laid down their arms in response to late President Umaru Yar’Adua’s June 2009 amnesty call.
In this case, the ex-combatants had said they were deceived into believing they were coming to South Africa to be trained in Oil and Gas drilling; only to arrive South Africa on March 14, 2012 to be forced to learn carpentry and bricklaying.
Speaking from South Africa on Saturday night, Mr. Ugbolue however denied the ex-agitators were to be deported. He said they would only be returned to Nigeria pending when the Nigerian government would source a school offering oil and gas drilling for them.
“It is not true! They [ex-militants] said they want change of courses” Mr. Ugbolue said. “And they have the right to change their mind. So the SA [Mr. Kuku] said ok we will go back to Nigeria and look out for countries offering these specific courses they want before taking them there.”
Mr. Ugbolue, who could not say how long the returnees would have to wait once back in Nigeria, however blamed the ex-agitators for their predicament. He said they only declared they wanted to be trained as oil and gas technicians and not specifically stating oil and gas drilling. He also absolved Tubos International Limited, a training partner to the Amnesty Programme, of any wrongdoing in training the ex-militants. Tubos was the company contracted to ensure the ex-militants get their desired education in South Africa.
But Mr. Ugbolue’s efforts at make belief contradict the opinion of the Amnesty Office and Mr. Kuku who at a press conference, as stated in a December 8, 2011 official communiqué, categorically said “the placement of the trainees in skills acquisition/vocational programmes is based on their expressed interests in areas such as pipeline welding, underwater welding, ocean diving, crane operations, aviation, boat building, oil drilling, automobile technology, fish farming and entrepreneurship as well as formal education.” Nothing was mentioned of carpentry or bricklaying.
Furthermore, in the case of the 90 ex-combatants, they had consciously decided they wanted to study Oil and Gas drilling which they communicated to the Nigerian government while at the Amnesty rehabilitation and training camp in Obubura, Cross River State. Based on their chosen course, they individually received text messages and phone calls from officials of Tubos International Limited to attend an interview at Grand Montecito Hotel in Rivers State on January 19, 2012. There, they were told the company would facilitate their training in Oil and Gas drilling.
By March 14, the ex-agitators had arrived Cape Town, South Africa. Lodged at the Ritz Hotel, Sea Point Cape Town, which Tubos sourced for them, two officials of the company, Ms. Alexandra, a lawyer, and Mr. Robinson, the Tubos’ project manager told them their induction and orientation would begin the next day at Northlink College, a South African public Further Education and Training centre. But on March 15, they got a nasty shocker.
“The management of the college openly stated that the school has nothing to do with Oil and Gas or intention to train us to become Oil and Gas Technicians,” said several of the ex-militants. “Rather, they are equipped and prepared to train us on brick lying, carpentry, automobile mechanic, wielding and boiler making.”
The ex-militants, in a letter jointly signed on March 17, then petitioned Kingsley Kuku, the chairman of the Amnesty Committee and Special Adviser to President Goodluck Jonathan on the Niger Delta Amnesty Programme; Ibrahim Bashiru, Nigeria’s Ambassador to South Africa; and Stan Rerri with the Monitoring and Evaluation Committee of the Niger Delta Amnesty Programme, complaining how Ms. Alexandra and Mr. Robinson, supported by the staff of the Niger Delta Amnesty Office, especially one Ms. Ronke working in the Re-integration Department, threatened them with deportation if they refused what Northlink College was offering. Besides complaints of Tubos forcing them to sign a “extraordinarily stringent undertaking” putting them under conditions other lodgers at the hotel are not subjected to, they were also refused any right to create a representative committee amongst themselves.
“Mr. Robinson stated that we shall be deported to Nigeria, handed over to the Nigerian law enforcement agencies, our names blacklisted and all our rights as amnesty trainees shall be withdrawn,” the trainees said. “All 90 students were taken to Northlink College under duress and compelled against our wish to register for the above mentioned courses.”
By March 19, eleven of them boycotted their training classes in peaceful protest. By March 20, their number had increased to 40 and then 65, forcing a general meeting between the Nigerian government, Tubos, and the aggrieved trainees. By this time the crisis had already begun being reported in the South African media. Having identified those trainees determined on being trained in oil and gas drilling during the meeting, the Nigerian authorities promised the trainees a quick resolution was at hand. In an internal memo from Mr. Kuku’s office, urgent action was mandated.
“We quietly and quickly deport those trainees adamant on studying Oil & Gas related courses back to Nigeria immediately,” read a portion of the memo. “This way, these trainees can wait in Nigeria until they are called for a course that is to their liking, and the other trainees attending classes will not be influenced to join this growing group.”
But this action was stalled following observations that, “deporting our own trainees (over issues not related to violence or serious misconduct) back to Nigeria in less than one-week of their arrival to Cape Town could signal some operational lapses on the path of the Amnesty Office’s service provider [Tubos International Nigerian Ltd], or even worse – the Amnesty Office in Abuja.” They then decided to buy time.
It was not until March 27 those identified trainees were invited by Mr. Robinson and one Mr. Jones Emeka, the head of Nigeria’s Amnesty Monitoring and Evaluation Committee in Cape Town for a meeting ostensibly between them and the new school sourced to train them in oil and gas drilling. But to their shock, the ex-militants said they were informed by Derby Thompson, a South African and Welfare Officer of Tubos International Limited that they had been expelled from Northlink College.
“Mrs. Derby Thompson made it clear to us that she has gone ahead to hold meeting(s) with the school authority to facilitate our expulsion,” said the ex-agitators. “... that she and Northlink College have started the process to get our visas cancelled, and she promise that she will ensure that we are arrested as illegal immigrants.”
But speaking on behalf of staff of Tubos International Limited, Joseph Penawou, who sits on the board of the company, in a telephone interview defended Mrs. Thompson as being an elderly woman not capable of committing any wrong. He said all the allegations against his people are aimed at discrediting the Amnesty Program.
“All these are lies,” Mr. Penawou said. “There is no way the Amnesty Programme would deploy students to Cape Town without having gone to inspect the facilities and certified it fit enough to train on skills acquisition programme. People are just trying to discredit the Amnesty programme, so just ignore it.”
Not wanting to be portrayed negatively to the world in order to justify a forceful deportation, as has been the case of deported ex-militants worldwide, the ex-militants, in a signed letter dated March 28, again appealed to Mr. Kuku; Nigerian Ambassador Bashiru; and Mr. Rerri for fair treatment in their non-violent demand for their right to be given training in oil and gas drilling.
Further apprehensive of the Nigerian government’s next step considering their passports had being confiscated, and they were not given any certified copies of their passport’s info page, they also addressed their letter to Professor Kimse Okoko and Bristol Alagbariya of the Ijaw Youth Congress; Ledum Mitee of the Movement of the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP); Joy Imeli, the Public Affairs and programmes director with the Foundation for Ethnic Harmony in Nigeria (FEHN); and Remmy John, the Head of Re-integration under the Niger Delta Amnesty Committee; also copying Derby Thompson.
Fearing a trap, 62 of the ex-militants decided against following Mr Kuku back to Nigeria, instead accepting to undertake any training forced on them; leaving the 28 others resolute enough in their pursuit to expect Nigeria will maintain its promise to train them in oil and gas drilling.
Time will tell even as the clock ticks towards an end to the Amnesty programme which Mr Kuku has hinted could finish in 2013.
Report written by Peter NKANGA -2011 African Investigative Journalist of the Year (FAIR); and two-time Wole Soyinka Investigative Journalist of the Year (2011, 2010))