For years, the Niger Delta witnessed armed struggles, which only abated after the introduction of the Presidential Amnesty Programme (PAP). But, activists have pilloried the programme for marginalising women— an allegation refuted by the programme’s coordinator.
On a dry dusty road in Agarha-otor, Delta State, a frail woman pushes a rickety bicycle loaded with firewood. Not far away, a middle-aged woman balances a tray of plantain chips on her head. She calls out to prospective buyers on the deserted road.
A further walk down the street, some teenage girls are cleaning dishes in a shanty food stall. In Agbara-otor as well as other places in the Niger Delta, poverty wears a woman’s face. In a region where life has been described as “short, brutish and nasty”, women are often victims of clashes and violence.
10 years ago, in a bid to quell unrest in the region, the Federal Government initiated the Presidential Amnesty Programme (PAP). The proclamation of amnesty for Niger Delta militants, who had engaged in armed struggle, opened a 60-day window for agitators to lay down their arms in exchange for amnesty. The PAP adopted the United Nations prescribed disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) interventional programme, using a home-grown approach. According to the website of the PAP, the process documented and reintegrated close to 30,000 men and only 822 women.
However, many activists and scholars have argued that the implementation of the DDR process which complements the amnesty programme has been skewed towards men.
The roles played by women in the post-conflict era has not been given due recognition. Although not many women brandish weapons in the creeks, many others took part in demonstrations, strikes, campaigns and lobbies. For those who were in the creeks, they had their time cut out as caterers, nurses and cooks, bush wives and spies.
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Seated in the sitting room of her Port Harcourt home, Ibiba Don Pedro looks simple in an Ankara blouse and jean trouser. Pedro, a journalist and publisher, has covered the Niger Delta extensively, with many international recognition and awards to her name. She told The Nation that the core of females who were active in the creeks were associated with Ateke Tom and the Icelanders militants team in Okrika, Rivers State. However, she added that many of the many in the region are victims because the majority of them lost their livelihoods and family members in the unrest that engulfed the region whilst the agitation lasted.
“We cannot have a society where men get the majority of the benefit and throw crumbs at women. Women are an integral part of any sane society, and women have to come to the fore,” she said.
Pedro, who is passionate about women visibility in the region, leads a nonprofit aimed at grooming young educated women to have a greater voice in the affairs of their community.
She suggests that the amnesty programme ought to provide support for women and girls who though are not arm carriers are victims of violence and rape.
“If we speak in terms of the compensation, we don’t speak of rape openly. More of such women should be brought in quietly under a programme where they will get some sort of protection and anonymity,” she admonished.
Commenting further, Pedro affirmed that 10 years is enough for the amnesty programme to have focused on ex-militants and warlords. She wants to see more done in the impacted communities so that the lives of women and girls can be better.
“The amnesty programme now has to return unfailingly to the community impacted by the violence perpetrated by both the militants themselves and the Nigerian state and the oil companies. The focus has to shift to community members including women and youth and education and the environment as well.
“If we claim to be the biggest democracy in Africa, we want that to reflect on the gender balance,” she said with a tone of finality.
Forgotten voices of post-conflict Niger Delta
“In the heat of the conflict in the Niger Delta, women were involved in campaigns and demonstrations against the multi-national oil companies and the Federal Government Military Task Force. Between 1990 and 2007, about sixty-seven protests were organised by women in the Niger Delta to fight environmental and human rights abuses,” Michael Olakunle wrote in a paper exploring women’s exclusion from the Niger Delta reintegration processes.
Some of these protests, which also involved a nude procession, saw women taking over oil companies’ airstrips, airflow stations and company premises in the region. Sometimes, the protests turned violent as militants’ groups often hijack the peaceful demonstrations to attack the multinational oil companies in the region. In the process, some of the women are attacked and sexually abused by men of the Joint Military Taskforce, leaving them with both physical and emotional injuries.
Sophia Sonime, the director of admin for the Joy Young Entrepreneurs Network, a support group for entrepreneurs in the Niger Delta, condemned the exclusion of women in PAP’s DDR process. The conflict manager and chartered mediator also picked holes in the execution of the amnesty programme. Speaking with The Nation in Port Harcourt, she said nepotism and lack of proper execution affected the programme.
“I think the amnesty programme is a charade because it is not addressing the main issues. I see it as a damage control strategy and the root cause has not been addressed. It’s all about the men. What about the young girls that are at risk? Would they still want to sit back and be given a piece of fabrics or a set of a sewing machine or hairdresser? No!”
Sonime said most of the ex-militants, who were empowered with education abroad, have since returned to the creeks getting involved in illegal refinery activities.
“They are the ones killing us with soot,” she declared.
“It’s a pity million have been spent sending them to South Africa. When you bring them back and they are idle, they go back to what they do and even worse,” Sonime added.
The executive director, Youth and Environmental Advocacy Centre (YEAC), Fyneface Dumnamene, said women are left out of the amnesty programme because they were not part of the negotiation process.
“I have not heard of any woman that has been taken abroad for training or given alternative means of livelihood as a result of the militancy operation for which people are being considered for amnesty today. So, I think it’s important that they give room for women who can come forward to say this is how I was affected, and this is how I should be carried along.
“Women were impacted and affected so I think they should also be allowed to benefit from whatever those who are shooting the gun also benefited from. There is no theory to say that all militants in the Niger delta were all men, women were also involved, and women should also be allowed to benefit,” he added.
For him, it’s an oversight on the designers of the amnesty programme and the coordinators for women not to have been duly considered during the design process.
‘Marginalisation does not arise’
Mr Murphy Ganagana, the Special Assistant (Media) to the coordinator, Presidential Amnesty Programme, Prof Charles Dokubo, told The Nation in a telephone chat that the issue of marginalisation does not arise since amnesty is for those who lay down their arms to accept the offer. He said roughly about 800 women were involved when the programme started.
Ganagana added that the mandate of the programme at the beginning was to manage the 30, 000 beneficiaries who were captured in the database, adding that the programme for the impacted communities was an addendum that was initiated during the era of Goodluck Jonathan.
He said: “The impacted community is not a fixed thing, unlike the 30,000 beneficiaries where every month you pay them a stipend. We do things for the impacted communities based on available funds.”
When the reporter inquired about data on the gender distribution of beneficiaries of empowerment programmes, the spokesman said such data is not available, adding that most times, it is the women who benefit more as the empowerment materials are mostly female-oriented.
“Whatever amnesty is doing for you as somebody who is not part of those enlisted is just a privilege. Apart from the 30,000 captured in the database of the amnesty programme, nobody has a right to say they have been short-changed or marginalised.”
This story was developed with support by the African Women in the Media through the AWiM Award 2018.