Nigeria’s main militant group declared a 60-day truce in its “oil war” with the government yesterday after the release of its leader Henry Okah in an amnesty deal.
The second militant truce in less than a year came into effect just 48 hours after the rebels blew up an oil-docking harbor in Lagos in their first attack outside the main Niger Delta oil-producing region.
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) has been attacking major oil companies and the army in the south for more than three years demanding a greater share of the oil wealth for local people. The campaign has cut Nigeria’s daily oil production by about a third.
There was no reaction from the government to the truce announcement.
“Hopefully, the ceasefire period will create an enabling environment for progressive dialogue,” MEND said, adding that the decision was driven by several factors, notably Okah’s release on Monday after nearly two years in jail.
MEND fighters staged their audacious attack on Lagos the night before, killing at least five people.
The rebels said they were ready to start negotiations with the government during the truce. But they demanded that an elite government security team be withdrawn from the Niger Delta.
In a mini-Cabinet shake-up late on Tuesday, Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua removed Defense Minister Shettima Mustapha. His place was taken by Home Affairs Minister Godwin Abbe.
Abbe, a retired major general, actively pushed the amnesty offer made to the rebels before the release of Okah. Treason charges against the MEND leader were also dropped.
Okah, 45, a marine engineer was arrested in Angola in September 2007 and was later charged with arms trafficking. The 63 charges he originally faced were reduced to three — all treason related.
MEND said Okah’s release was “a step towards genuine peace and prosperity if Nigeria is open to frank talks and deals sincerely with the root issues” of the militancy.
MEND announced a truce on Sept. 21 last year but it ended the ceasefire in January, blaming a government military offensive.
MEND has expressed hope that after Okah’s release, “hundreds of other men and women languishing in detention over the Niger Delta issue will also be set free.”
Okah was the most high-profile militant to take advantage of the amnesty announced last month by Yar’Adua for rebels in the Delta.