Ex-agitators in the Niger Delta recently organised an event to show their support and confidence in the ability of the Special Adviser to the President on Niger Delta and Coordinator of the Presidential Amnesty Programme, Professor Charles Dokubo, to reinvent the intervention programme. Ndubuisi Francis reports

To borrow a familiar African adage, dialogue is the starting point and the unifying force in all human relationships. It is the only sensible and intelligent way of resolving differences and clashes of interests between individuals or nations.

Since his emergence as Special Adviser to the President on Niger Delta and the Coordinator of the Presidential Amnesty Programme, Professor Charles Quaker Dokubo, has consistently emphasised that a key element in the administration’s bid to reinvent the Demobilisation, Disarmament and Reintegration (DDR) programme rests squarely in relentless engagement with stakeholders. The former university don has, indeed, given practical expression to this belief, and in spite of a very crowded schedule thrust on him by the demands of running the programme as well as the enormous challenges he inherited, he has continued to meet with different stakeholders.

Inclusion

In a recent media chat, Dokubo affirmed that in line with the President Muhammadu Buhari administration’s resolve to make the amnesty programme much more inclusive and impactful, he considered it expedient to interface with those who could be aptly described as the most important stakeholders. They are the ex-agitators who have also been making firm demands to meet with him out of excitement that his appointment offered a fresh impetus to right some of the perceived wrongs of the PAP.

For the ex-agitators, such meeting, among others, presents a rare opportunity to advise him on how to avoid the mistakes of his predecessors, as well as provide a platform for them to pledge their support to the presidential aide and the administration of Buhari.

The well-structured engagement between Dokubo and those seen as the most important stakeholders, which were held in Lagos and Abuja in the past three weeks, involved leaders of the 30,000 ex-agitators from the Niger Delta, enlisted in the amnesty programme at different times in three phases.

For the records, while 20,192 persons were enlisted in the first phase, 6,166 and 3, 642 ex-agitators were enlisted in the second and third phases of the programme, respectively.

Dokubo’s engagement with the ex-agitators followed a tradition in which their known leaders usually represented them at such stakeholder meetings held in segments and at separate dates with preference given to first phase leaders.

The federal government had recognised the need to give some sort of preference to five key leaders of the Niger Delta ex-agitators following the proclamation of Amnesty in 2009 and the commencement of the post-Amnesty Disarmament DDR programme in 2010. The leaders known as the “Big Five,” Chief Government Ekpomupolo (popularly known as Tompolo), King Ateke Tom, Dr. Ebikabowei Victor-Ben (also known as Boyloaf), Hon. Farah Dagogo, and Chief Bibopre Ajube (Shoot-at-Sight), led most of the ex-combatants in the region out of the creeks to accept the offer of amnesty, disarmed and subsequently enlisted them in the DDR programme in the first Phase in 2009. Also, among the persons enlisted in the first phase of the programme is a second layer of leadership, the “Commanders.”

The second and third phase leaders are generally known as “campless generals.” Unlike the ex-agitators enlisted into the amnesty programme in the first phase, they did not come into the programme through structured camps, but were largely enlisted individually.

Servant Leader

Therefore, it was fitting that Dokubo began his engagement with the ex-agitators with the ‘Big Five’ in Lagos. It was the first time in over five years that any head of the Amnesty Programme would be meeting all of them at the same time.

King Tom (now the traditional ruler of Okochiri Kingdom in Rivers State) and Tompolo were said to have been represented at the meeting by trusted allies while the three other leaders were physically present at the meeting held in Lagos on Saturday, May 26.

The coordinator of the amnesty programme followed this up with a meeting with the phase one commanders as well as phase two and three leaders on Wednesday June 6 and Friday, June 8, respectively in Abuja.

One common factor that underpinned all the meetings was that they were held in a very convivial atmosphere with the presidential aide adopting the posture of a servant leader, ready to learn and listen to his guests. Rather than sitting and ‘pontificating’ from the well set out high table, Dokubo, especially at the two meetings in Abuja, decided to sit among the ex-agitators. His remarks were devoid of any airs or hypocrisy. He spoke very openly and frankly with the leaders, seeking their support and cooperation in the on-going efforts to retool the Amnesty Programme to make it much more impactful.

He repeatedly assured the ex-agitators that the interventionist programme, including the funds budgeted for it, were theirs while his duty as special adviser was limited to giving direction to ensure that the initiative fulfils its twin mandate of ensuring peace and security as well as empowering the people of the Niger Delta.

Promise

At the Lagos engagement, Dokubo urged leaders of the ex-agitators to continue to support the amnesty initiative, while reminding them that the PAP was part of efforts by the government to redress past injustices in the Niger Delta and entrench sustainable development in the zone.

He told the representatives of the Phase One leaders of the ex-agitators in Abuja, “If we fail our people, then we have ourselves to blame. If we don’t empower our people, stabilise their lifestyles, then, I believe that we will only be playing catch-up.

“That is why in as much as we are very keen on development, there is need to reorient the minds of our people. Amnesty programme should not only be about paying stipends to ex-agitators, but the programme must also help address the overall quality of life of the people of the Niger Delta through training and capacity building,

“Let the amnesty programme drive development in our area; let us do things that will enhance the capacity of the Niger Delta people.”

His message was not different when he met with the leaders of the third phase ex-agitators. He emphasised that funds budgeted for the programme were meant for the training of its beneficiaries, and not to be diverted into private pockets.

“Today, I am meeting with you one-on-one. I will speak with every one of you and if you feel agitated by any step I have taken, please tell me. We are going to rectify things; we are going to have all the collective views of those who have gathered here,” he said.

The special adviser also did not fail to solicit the support of the ex-agitators for the re-election of Buhari in the 2019 general elections. “Mr. President wants to win in our region and the entire country. I need your support in this regard. It was the All Progressives Congress that gave me this position and whatever I can do to support the party and make it win, I will do,’’ he said.

Commitment

Buoyed by Dokubo’s encouragement, the leaders of the ex-agitators did not hold back in voicing out their various misgivings and complaints as well as issues they wanted him to address for the programme to fully achieve its intended goals. Except for one or two instances, the leaders of the ex-agitators, on behalf of their ‘boys’ laid similar complaints on the table for the Special Adviser’s attention at the three meetings.

The leaders complained about being paid the same amount of stipend as the delegates in their camps despite the fact that many of them are shouldering the responsibilities of catering for the families of associates who died in the struggle and are also regularly called upon to meet monetary needs by other ex-agitators. They also complained of lack of patronage by the amnesty office and other governmental institutions, although some of them already own companies viable enough to get jobs from oil multinationals, private organisations and state governments in the Niger Delta. Also prominent among the complaints were the delay or non– payment of monthly stipends to ex-agitators, disparity in the placement of delegates for vocational and educational programmes by contractors, failure to capture the leaders as well as members of their camps in the DDR programme. Controversies over sponsorship, payment of tuition and scholarship for ex-agitators were some of the other issues tabled at the meetings.

The leadership of the ex-agitators also requested a meeting with Buhari, noting that they had not met with him since he assumed office.

Dokubo took time to address all the complaints while assuring them that under his leadership the amnesty programme will be transparently ran and policies would be tailored towards making a positive impact on the people of the region, particularly the ex-agitators, who are the primary beneficiaries of the initiative. He however noted that for this to happen, the ex-agitators must ‘organise’, rather than ‘agonise,’ to get what they wanted. He said this should be done by collaborating to form companies and coming up with viable proposals to take advantage of contract opportunities in the Amnesty Office and elsewhere.

The PAP coordinator also informed the leaders that he had been receiving series of complaints over unpaid stipends since he assumed office, with some of the alleged beneficiaries calling him in the dead of the night and at weekends when he cannot lay his hands on documents necessary to help them. He, however, noted that he would not deliberately withhold the stipend of any delegate while urging those with such complaints to liaise with the Amnesty Office to know the source of the problem.

Dokubo also appealed to leaders of the ex-agitators to ensure that delegates in their camps get their dues when they receive bulk payment for the stipends.

He noted: “I will continue to operate an open-door policy; I will give listening ear to leaders of ex-agitators. Let us run the amnesty programme in such a way that the bona fide beneficiaries get the benefit.

“On the issue of paying stipends as at when due, you will remember that the last time, I paid stipends for two months. The one of last month, you will get it next week.”

The coordinator promised to look into complaints against the method previous administrations at the Amnesty Office adopted in the placement of delegates for vocational and educational programmes as well as to fashion out modalities for the leaders of the ex-agitators to meet with the president.

Overall, the amnesty programme’s boss used the opportunity of the meetings to establish personal contacts with the leaders of the ex-agitators. He was also able to cultivate their trust, thereby further engendering confidence building, which indeed is a critical element in the management of DDR programmes globally. This was reflected in the comments by the leaders of the agitators as well as other stakeholders at the end of the engagements.

Satisfaction

Their satisfaction with the outcome of the engagements with Dokubo was not hidden. For instance, Mr. Richard Akinaka, who represented King Ateke Tom at the meeting, said the people of Rivers State identify with Dokubo’s vision and had resolved to align with the amnesty programme in its original mandate through his commendable initiatives.

While commending Dokubo for his uncommon demonstration of humility and cooperation during the meeting, Mr. Reuben Wilson, the chairman of the forum of phase one leaders of ex-agitators said that the coordinator succeeded in convincing him and the other leaders that the amnesty programme is now in safe hands. “We have channelled our challenges to him to look into. We know that he will do well and we are ready to support him,” he said, urging him to remain focused, firm and fair in the discharge of his duties and not to allow “frivolous” petitions distract him.

Quotes

1) Amnesty programme should not only be about paying stipends to ex-agitators, but the programme must also help address the overall quality of life of the people of the Niger Delta through training and capacity building

2) The funds budgeted for the programme are meant for the training of its beneficiaries, and not to be diverted into private pockets