FEATURE-Ex-militants pose latent threat to Nigerian oil

* Jobs a scarce commodity in high-tech oil industry

* Ex-militants could quickly regroup, return to creeks

* First head of state from Niger Delta favourite in polls

By Joe Brock

PORT HARCOURT, Nigeria, April 6 (Reuters) – Sat at the bar
in a dingy former hotel on the edge of Nigeria’s oil hub Port
Harcourt, Silas Pyale lifts a muscular arm and points to a deep
gash in his head.

“A bullet did that,” says the 31-year old, staring into the
middle distance. “We all hope those days are over but if there
are no jobs, no money, it will be back to the old ways … But
even worse than before.”

Pyale is one of thousands of militants to have emerged from
the creeks of the Niger Delta, home to Arica’s biggest oil and
gas industry, under an amnesty deal brokered 18 months ago by
then Vice President Goodluck Jonathan.

It was a bold strategy to try to end years of attacks which,
at their height in 2006, cut more than a quarter of the OPEC
member’s crude oil output, cost it as much as $1 billion a month
in lost revenues, and triggered spikes in world oil prices.

So far it has paid off. There have been virtually no
significant attacks on oil facilities, allowing energy firms to
ramp up production and Nigeria to boost government coffers.

But if Jonathan, who inherited the presidency last year
after his predecessor died, wins elections as expected in 10
days time he will need to ensure the retraining programmes set
up under the amnesty translate into jobs for the likes of Pyale.

“An idle man thinks of evil deeds,” said the ex-fighter, who
used to command dozens of men in gun battles with the army but
is now midway through a 12-month course in oil well drilling.

“They shouldn’t train us and drop us,” he said.

JOBS FOR THE BOYS

Pyale is one of around 70 former kidnappers, gunmen and oil
thieves living in this crumbling ex-hotel on a shallow and
polluted creek in Port Harcourt. The retraining programme he is
involved in is one of hundreds of its kind in the Niger Delta.

The government is paying for similar housing for
ex-militants across the region, as well as giving them a 65,000
naira ($420) monthly stipend and footing the training bill. Not
a bad deal in a country where many people live on $2 a day.

Support for Jonathan, the first head of state from the Niger
Delta, in the upcoming elections is unsurprisingly strong. But
his heritage alone will not guarantee him long-term loyalty and
the goodwill could quickly run out if the amnesty is neglected.

The dozen former militants congregated around plastic tables
and chairs in what was once the hotel bar are old acquaintances.
Gangs have remained together and could quickly mobilise again
even if it meant abandoning their training projects.

There are complaints that allowances aren’t being paid
directly to the “boys” but are controlled by former militant
field commanders, like Ateke Tom and Farah Dagogo, who
accumulated huge wealth before accepting the amnesty.

The government, not their former leaders, get the blame.

“This is the government’s fault,” said Favour Charles, 27,
who says he used to drive a speedboat in Farah’s gang.

“We were given accounts but the bank won’t let me take the
money and our commander comes and gives me much less. Pay us
direct,” he said, emphasising his displeasure by throwing off
the sunglasses he wears even in the dimly-lit bar.

RESENTMENT

Militancy was born of resentment in the Niger Delta, where
multi-billion dollar oil installations sit among villages of
shacks perched on stilts over viscous, blackened water.

Foreign oil firms like Royal Dutch Shell (RDSa.L: Quote, Profile, Research), Exxon
Mobil (XOM.N: Quote, Profile, Research) and Chevron (CVX.N: Quote, Profile, Research) have suffered significant
revenue and production losses due to attacks by the same militia
who are now seeking their employment. But they have also made
huge profits while polluting subsistence fishing communities.

The oil firms point out they pay billions of dollars in
royalties to Nigeria each year and that, in a country of 150
million people, they can never be massive employers.

A deepwater oil rig, exactly where Pyale and Charles hope to
work, employs less than a dozen entry-level labourers and jobs
are even scarcer for higher-skilled staff in a high-tech
industry with decreasing demand for boots on the ground.

Ministers have repeatedly said the solution to unemployment
lies in non-oil sectors, and energy firms are unlikely to be
able to absorb the thousands of newly-trained former militants
who could come into the job market in the coming years.

Nigeria’s budget proposes spending of over 90 billion naira
on the amnesty this year. Unless Pyale and his fellow residents
in this run-down hotel find work, it is a level of subsidy the
government could be forced to maintain for years to come.

Jonathan is the favourite to win when Nigeria’s 73 million
people head out to chose their next president on April 16, and
the Niger Delta is likely to be the bedrock of his support.

His biggest challenge will come once he is back in office.

“We will support him, why not? He is a son of the Niger
Delta and he won’t let his own people down,” one gang member
said, asking not to be named. “At least we hope so.”
(Additional reporting by Austin Ekeinde; Editing by Nick
Tattersall)

FEATURE-Ex-militants pose latent threat to Nigerian oil